America's most decorated female civilian spy during World War II was not only a woman but also a below-the-knee amputee. The French and British both recognized her valuable contributions in private, and President Harry Truman wanted to honor her at a public White House ceremony, but she chose to remain undercover. Now, Virginia Hall is having a moment—70 years after her wartime feats and 40 years after her death. Three books have already been released, and two movies are currently in the works.
Hall initially wanted to be an ambassador, but the State Department denied her. At that time, out of the 1,500 US diplomats, only six were women. She eventually landed a clerical job at a US consulate in Turkey, but a hunting incident led to her amputation.
As Hall learned how to use a wooden prosthetic leg, her recovery was a painful and lengthy process. However, she didn't let her circumstances slow her down. When the Second World War began, Hall volunteered to be an ambulance driver in France. But when Nazi Germany gained control of the country, she fled to Britain, where a chance meeting with a spy, put her in contact with British intelligence.
Although fate played a huge role in leading her towards her life's work, the road to becoming one of the best undercover agents at the time wasn't easy. With Hall being a woman and an amputee, many people underestimated her. Britain's Strategic Operations Executive (SOE) also repeatedly passed her over for leadership positions. However, she used the lowered expectations to her advantage—Hall developed a greater sphere of authority for herself in the shadows than she might have with a more formal scope.
One of the books about Hall, A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell, offers incredible insights into her life, including which qualities allowed her to excel as an undercover agent. We take a closer look at four of these qualities below:
Crucial to the success of an undercover agent is their ability to build a trustworthy and sustainable network of operatives. Unlike her peers, Hall avoided quick transactions, which usually proved dangerous. Successfully building a reliable network requires self-control, of which Hall had in abundance, especially after her amputation.
According to Purnell, many believed that Hall further developed self-control after her amputation, in part because she had to spend many years in mundane posts that were considered suitable for a "one-legged" person. As she spent most of her time observing those around her, Hall was able to sharpen her ability to judge a person's character—a vital quality for undercover agents.
Most important, as she was repeatedly passed over for select assignments, Hall developed the mettle to outlast challenges instead of trying to beat them.
After her amputation, Hall spent a lot of time being isolated from other people, which made her self-sufficient. She learned to solve her own problems and adapt—both essential qualities for undercover agents.
3. She was used to hardships
As an amputee during the Second World War, Hall had to live with deprivation and a lot of pain. According to Purnell, Hall regularly dealt with various challenges since losing her leg, which made her better prepared to withstand hardships than other field agents. For example, when she ran out of prosthetic socks for her residual limb, Hall carried on without them and endured the unimaginable pain.