True Leadership

Virginia Hall with sheep in her lap in the doorway of a barn in France

The university I graduated from started an online book club earlier this year. I thought it might be enjoyable to read books and discuss them with others and joined. I just finished reading our second book, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell. It is the story of perhaps the most successful Allied spy of World War II, Virginia Hall. On top of being a woman in the male dominated world of espionage, she was an amputee. She lost her left leg at the knee in a hunting accident. And the work she accomplished is simply incredible.

She grew up always wanting to do something more than marrying well, her mother’s dream for her. She visited France in the 1920s and fell in love with the freedom she felt there as a woman as well as the people. After her time in France, she attempted to find work at the State Department as a diplomat. They never saw her in that role, resigning her to support roles that “fit her better.”

In early 1940 she became an ambulance driver in France for the French army. When France fell to the Nazis, she found herself in London where she sought to join the newly created Special Operations Executive (SOE). They were looking to place spies in Vichy France to build up resistance fighters. They struggled to do so. They were so desperate that they decided they had nothing to lose by giving Virginia a chance, never expecting her to last very long.

She outperformed every man in the SOE (and later the US’s Office of Strategic Services or OSS) over and over again. The things she accomplished were simply incredible: jail breaks, multiple disguises and names, escaping over the Pyrenees (with one leg!). Despite her performance, she was never given a command until near the end of the war. But she never let that stop her. She was always a leader, whether recognized for it or not. People looked to her and relied upon her to get things done. The result: she and her resistance fighters liberated the Loire valley without regular troops following the Normandy invasion, the first resistance group to do this in France.

Unfortunately after the war, the good old boys’ club kicked in again. She served in the CIA until she retired (mandatory) at sixty. Unlike the men, she was never invited back in a consulting role. After she died, the leadership at the CIA finally gave her the recognition she deserved. Interestingly, Virginia herself was never much interested in recognition. She just wanted to be allowed to do her work. When she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945, she refused a public ceremony as she feared it would compromise her continued work as a spy. She was the only civilian woman in World War II to receive this award.

Virginia’s story is astounding for anyone, man or woman. The fact that she did it as a woman who was often overlooked or looked down on makes it all the more impressive. Add to that the disability of a prosthetic leg and you have the story of one of the most incredible leaders of the twentieth century.