7 Character Lessons from a Real Life Heroine

From Writers in the Storm:

This week on June 8 was Women’s Fiction Day, celebrating strong female protagonists. More and more stories these days are bringing us great female characters. In thrillers and military fiction, one challenge is to write those strong women as authentic, well-rounded female personalities rather than alpha males with lady parts.

One good way to address this challenge is to study the real-life heroines of the past, who used wits, wiles, cunning, determination, and subterfuge to stay alive and conquer their foes. Today, we’ll take a look at the life of a real-life heroine who was feared by the Nazis as “the most dangerous spy in all of France,” Virginia Hall Goillot.

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Say the name “Virginia Hall” to anyone in the Clandestine Services, and they may well get choked up with reverence. Being a woman with no special physical ability and lacking one leg, no recruiter then or now would entertain thoughts of Virginia being capable of military service, especially behind enemy lines.

Nevertheless, she was determined to serve an active role in the battle against Nazi Germany, and serve she did, becoming one of the most revered 20th-century icons in the Intelligence Community. Altogether remarkable, she is a breathtaking example of selflessness, courage, and commitment and a true role model for both the Intelligence Community, and for fiction writers.

Virginia Hall was born on April 6, 1906, to a wealthy family in Baltimore, Maryland. Having a gift for languages, she studied French, German, and Italian at Radcliffe College and Barnard College. She then traveled to Europe to continue her education in Austria, France, and Germany. Her goal was to enter the US Foreign Service.

After finishing her studies in 1931, she worked as a Consular Service clerk at the US Embassy in Warsaw. From there, she was assigned to a consulate office in Izmir, Turkey, where a hunting accident forced her to have her lower left leg amputated. She obtained a wooden prosthetic leg, which she named “Cuthbert.” She was then assigned to the US consulate in Venice.

When Virginia requested permission to take the US Foreign Service Exam, she was informed that, due to her injury, she could not apply for a position as a diplomat. She returned to the United States and attended graduate school at American University in Washington, DC.

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Virginia was visiting Paris when Germany invaded France in 1940. She immediately volunteered with the French Ambulance Corps and drove ambulances to evacuate wounded French soldiers from the front. When France surrendered to Germany, Virginia escaped to Spain and then on to England.

In London, Virginia applied for service in the British Special Operations Executive (“SOE”) and was accepted. With the SOE, Virginia trained in weapons, communications, and as a resistance organizer for occupied France, and in August of 1941, she infiltrated Vichy in France. Some sources state that she was the first female SOE agent to do so.

The United States was not yet directly involved in the war, so Virginia posed as a news correspondent for the New York Post. Once the United States did enter the war in December of 1941, the sensible thing for her to do would have been to hustle back to England. Fortunately for the Allied effort, she declined to escape and went underground.

At the time Virginia infiltrated Vichy in 1941, operating there under the Pétain government was more dangerous for an SOE agent than operating in the Nazi-occupied region of France. The Vichy government had command of the French police departments, and with so many reliable local assets, it could more easily discover infiltrators and resistors. Most SOE agents sent into Vichy in 1941 and 1942 were killed or captured within days.

. . . .

Virginia quickly earned a reputation as a great recruiter and resistance organizer in France. She was instrumental in the rescue of hundreds of downed Allied aviators, and she arranged their safe return to England. She also organized a network of safe houses and coordinated numerous air drops of weapons and supplies to the French Resistance at a time when most drops were being intercepted by the Vichy police and the Gestapo.

Virginia’s successes did not go completely unnoticed by the Vichy government and the Nazis. The Gestapo branded her as the most dangerous spy in all of France, and they made her capture a priority. When the Germans took over Vichy in November of 1942, infamous Gestapo leader Klaus Barbie demanded that “the woman with the limp,” as Virginia was known, be captured and brought directly to him so that he could personally strangle her.

Virginia used her one good leg to stay one step ahead of the Gestapo, and that November, she escaped on foot over the Pyrenees to Spain. Some convincing sources say she was alone on this trip. Some other convincing sources say she was not alone on this trip. It is possible that she made more than one trip over the Pyrenees.

. . . .

Once in Spain, Virginia had no identification papers at a time when such documents were crucial. The Spanish arrested her and incarcerated her for several weeks. When the US consulate in Barcelona learned of this, they claimed Virginia as a legitimate US citizen and demanded her release.

After four months working undercover in Spain, Virginia returned to England in 1943 in the hope of doing more “useful” work. Once there, Virginia left the SOE to join the fledgling American OSS and volunteered to return to occupied France.

Virginia dyed her hair gray and disguised herself as an elderly farmer. Since her wooden leg made a nighttime parachute drop too dangerous for her, she was infiltrated back to Bretagne, France, on a British torpedo boat. Using the alias “Marcelle Montagne” and the code name “Diane,” she made her way to central France, where she set up radio communications with London.

In addition to transmitting intelligence back to London, Virginia again organized successful supply drops for the French Resistance, established safe houses, helped train three battalions of Free French guerrilla forces, and linked up with a Jedburgh team after the Allied invasion. In spite of Klaus Barbie’s personal vendetta against her, Virginia avoided capture and continued operating until the Allies liberated central France in 1944.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Les Marguerites Fleuriront ce Soir (the daisies will bloom at night) by Jeffrey W. Bass via Wikipedia. This image is a work of a Central Intelligence Agency employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a Work of the United States Government, this image or media is in the public domain in the United States.
French identification certificate for “Marcelle Montagne” forged by OSS

The OP draws from the following book, Key Figures in Espionage: