Agent's Secrets

An exhibit shows how Virginia Hall went from Roland Park to `the most dangerous Allied agent in all of Occupied France.'

April 29, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The Gestapo wanted the limping woman found and destroyed.

Her name was Virginia Hall. She grew up at Box Horn Farm near Parkton when Baltimore County was bucolic farmland. She graduated from Roland Park Country School in 1924 and went on to Radcliffe and Barnard colleges. She had a knack for languages - and, as it turned out, espionage.

"She was considered the most dangerous Allied agent in all of Occupied France, by none other than the Gestapo," says Linda McCarthy, herself a veteran of 24 years in the CIA.

"Her likeness, a sketch, was pinned to just about every tree and telegraph pole in town, saying if you find this woman, turn her in. She had a price on her head. And she's operating right under their noses."

McCarthy, who helped launch the CIA Museum, is curator of the exhibit Clandestine Women: The Untold Stories of Women in Espionage, now at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Virginia Hall is one of her stars.

It was the maquis, the underground resistance movement in France during World War II, that dubbed Hall "la dame qui boite," the limping woman. In 1933, she had lost her left leg below the knee after a hunting accident in Turkey.

Her injury forestalled the career she wanted in the Foreign Service, but it doesn't seem to have slowed her down one bit in the intelligence services.

When a British torpedo boat put her ashore on the Cotentin Peninsula, adjacent to the Normandy beaches, three months before D-Day, she was an agent for the Office of Strategic Services. But she already had been made a Member of the British Empire for her work with the maquis two years earlier.

She had been the first woman in Britain's Special Operations Executive intelligence agency to establish resistance networks in Vichy, France, according to Elizabeth McIntosh, another OSS-CIA veteran, who devotes a chapter to Hall in her book, Sisterhood of Spies: the Women of the OSS.

Hall was tall and slender, McIntosh says, "with high cheekbones and a warm smile that belied her toughness and leadership ability."

The actress Glenn Close looks startlingly like her, says Hall's niece, Lorna Hall Catling, who lives in Guilford. Catling is the steward of many of the artifacts in McCarthy's Washington exhibit.

"I was sort of awe-struck by her," Catling says.

Hall had worked around Europe in minor jobs at U.S. consulates until World War II broke out. She volunteered for the French Ambulance Service and served until the fall of France in June 1940. She fled to England through Spain and volunteered for the SOE.

"That's where she got her heady training in operational stuff, compliments of the Brits," says McCarthy. "SOE trained her in weaponry, communications, sabotage and security."

Basic tradecraft, as George Smiley might put it. It wasn't something a lot of Roland Park grads were doing in 1940.

Her code name was Marie Monin, and she worked about 14 months out of Lyons, in Vichy, France. Gerald K. Haines, the chief historian of the CIA, writing in the National Archives quarterly Prologue, says Hall played a major part in organizing an agent network, helping escaped prisoners of war and downed airmen to get out of France, locating drop zones for weapons and money and recruiting French men and women to provide safes houses and store weapons.

She barely managed to escape when the Nazis seized unoccupied France in November 1942, after the U.S. landings in North Africa. She had to cross into Spain on difficult trails over the Pyrenees, a trip made doubly arduous by her wooden leg. She called the leg "Cuthbert" in her clandestine dispatches.

"Cuthbert is giving me trouble," she radioed London. "But I can cope."

A clueless contact replied: "If Cuthbert is giving you trouble, have him eliminated."

The Gestapo pretty much rolled up her Lyons network after she left. A German double agent posing as a priest, Abbe Alesh, betrayed the network. Haines, the CIA historian, says Hall had been deeply suspicious of him from the start. And she helped run him down at the war's end.

In Spain, Hall immediately was jailed for six weeks in the infamous Figueras prison. But a friendly Spanish prostitute helped spring her. The woman carried a letter to the American consul in Barcelona.

Hall remained in Madrid for a year in an SOE section known as escape organizers, McIntosh says. But she found the work less than stimulating. She wrote to London asking to return to France.

"I am living pleasantly and wasting time," she wrote. "It isn't worthwhile and after all my neck is my own. If I am willing to get a crick in it, I think that's my prerogative."

But when she returned to France, she went as an agent of the American OSS. She had transferred to the OSS when she returned to London from Madrid in November 1943.

The limping lady went back to France as a middle-aged milkmaid.

She needed a disguise because the Gestapo had a pretty good idea of what she looked like.

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