–by Michael Pierce
A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE AMERICAN SPY WHO HELPED WIN WORLD WAR II by Sonia Purnell. Published April 9 2019 by Viking.
Virginia Hall is one of the most important figures in the history of American intelligence operations that you’ve most likely never heard of.
Born in Maryland, Virginia went to work overseas for the U.S. government in the early 1930s. After losing part of one leg in a hunting accident she resigned her position and came back to attend graduate school in the states.
At the outbreak of the war she was in Paris, joining the French Ambulance Service, and eventually finding herself in Vichy. She soon traveled to London, where she volunteered for the Special Operations Executive (SOE). In the summer of 1941 the SOE sent her back to Vichy. Her cover story was that she was an American journalist.
Virginia became one of the best assets in France, essentially setting up the French Resistance. She became famous for her coolness under pressure and for being a master of disguise. She was of enough importance that the Gestapo placed a huge price on her head.
At the end of the war she came back to America, eventually landing her first of several positions with the Central Intelligence Agency. She had been highly decorated by the French, the British, and the United States. Unfortunately this seems to have had no influence on her career with The Agency. Highly regarded by many of her peers, she was passed over for promotion, given poor performance reviews by superiors, and generally discriminated against by supervisors. Although she was, eventually, given important jobs within the CIA, Virginia was never utilized to her fullest potential by her employer.
The master spy never spoke of her past work in France in detail. She was probably still haunted by the demons of war, and she reminded those who asked questions that she had seen too many people killed for saying too much.
Sonia Purnell has given us a very well-written biography of Virginia Hill and the world in which she operated. Readers can visualize Virginia setting up the French Resistance, transmitting vital information to her superiors in London, escaping Gestapo and Vichy French raids by the skin of her teeth, and disappearing over the mountains into Spain under the worst possible conditions. We can sense the spymaster’s frustration with some of the men she served under and with, and also her frustration at not being given what she felt were more essential duties to help free her beloved France from the brutal hand of Nazi occupation.
General Wild Bill Donovan took great pride in awarding her the Distinguished Service Cross, the only DSC awarded to a civilian woman for service during the war. France awarded her the Croix de Guerre with Palme. Great Britain made her a Member of the British Empire (MBE). Ironically, the citation for that award languished unnoticed in a desk in London for sixty years, when it was discovered and presented to her niece.
The CIA, eventually, recognized Virginia’s greatness. A training facility was named after her, and a painting depicting Virginia transmitting intelligence during the war was commissioned.
It was much too little, much too late.