- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2006

BALTIMORE — In 1942, the Gestapo started circulating wanted posters throughout Vichy France, offering a reward for the capture of “the woman with a limp. She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies and we must find and destroy her.”

The woman was Virginia Hall, a Baltimore native working for the British intelligence agency, and the limp was the result of a wooden left leg. The limb had been amputated below the knee about a decade earlier after she stumbled and blasted her foot with a shotgun while hunting in Turkey.

The injury derailed Mrs. Hall’s dream of becoming a Foreign Service officer because the State Department wouldn’t hire amputees. But it didn’t prevent her from becoming one of the most celebrated spies of World War II.

On Tuesday, the French and British ambassadors honored Mrs. Hall, who died in 1982 at age 78, at a ceremony in Washington where a privately commissioned painting of Mrs. Hall in action will be put on display.

British Ambassador David Manning planned to present a certificate signed by King George VI to Mrs. Hall’s niece, Lorna Catling. Mrs. Hall should have received the document in 1943, when she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

“I think it was ironic that the State Department turned her down because she was an amputee, and here she went on and did all this other stuff,” said Mrs. Catling, who lives in Baltimore.

Mrs. Hall was living in Paris when the Nazis invaded in 1940, and she decamped for London, where she was recruited by the British paramilitary service known as the Special Operations Executive. Fluent in French, she became the SOE’s first female field operative.

Mrs. Hall was “the heartbeat” of the French Resistance in Lyon, where she was based during her first undercover stint, said Judith L. Pearson, whose biography of Mrs. Hall, “Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s First Female Spy,” was published last year.

“Any agent from London came through her flat. She coordinated them with Resistance members,” Miss Pearson said. “Most agents only stayed about three months in the field. She stayed 15 months.”

But those wanted posters made her situation untenable, and she was forced to flee, on foot, through the snowy Pyrenees into Spain. During the journey, she sent a lighthearted radio message to London, reporting that “Cuthbert” — her nickname for her prosthetic leg — was giving her trouble.

Her commanders didn’t understand the reference, and their reply suggested the gravity of Mrs. Hall’s circumstances and her value to the Allied cause: “If Cuthbert troublesome eliminate him.”

Back in London, she joined the American Office of Strategic Services — the precursor to the CIA — and returned to France in 1944, disguised as an elderly peasant. She located drop zones where money and weapons could be passed on to Resistance fighters, and later, as the Germans began to retreat, she coordinated guerrilla warfare. Her teams destroyed bridges, derailed freight trains and killed scores of German soldiers.

“I would certainly put her name in the pantheon of people who distinguished themselves in intelligence,” said Peter Earnest, executive director of the International Spy Museum, which has an exhibit devoted to Mrs. Hall.

The painting of Mrs. Hall, by Jeffrey Bass, shows her in radio contact with the Allies from a barn, with one of her captains, Edmund Lebrat, using a modified bicycle to power the radio. It’s titled “Les marguerites fleurenont ce soir” (“The Daisies Will Bloom Tonight”) after a code phrase for parachute drops.

Erik Kirzinger of Madison, N.C., an advocate for greater recognition of the heroics of covert operatives, spearheaded the ceremony, held at the home of French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte.

Mr. Kirzinger previously commissioned a painting of CIA pilots flying provisions into a French post in Vietnam in 1954. He secures donors to finance the paintings and donates them to the CIA’s fine arts collection.

“If these folks were in the active military, there would be marching bands and mayors making speeches and stuff, but because they’re in the clandestine service, their stories don’t generally get told,” Mr. Kirzinger said.

Plus, spies are by nature secretive, and Mrs. Hall was no exception. The certificate that went with her OBE medal sat in a vault for more than 50 years after the British government tried and failed to track her down.

Gen. William Donovan, head of the OSS, presented Mrs. Hall with a Distinguished Service Medal in September 1945 during a private ceremony in his office, witnessed only by Mrs. Hall’s mother, after Mrs. Hall asked not to be honored in public. She was the only civilian woman to win the medal for service in World War II.

Mrs. Hall found time for romance during her service overseas, and in 1950 she married French-born OSS agent Paul Goillot — after they had lived together for several years.

“Her mother’s comment was, ‘Well, it’s about time,’ ” Miss Pearson said. “It was a very quiet ceremony.”

Mrs. Hall took a job with the CIA in 1951 and retired in 1966, living out her days with her husband on a farm in Barnesville, where they raised French poodles. Mrs. Catling said she didn’t learn many of the details of her aunt’s espionage career until after she died.

“She would talk about books and she was very into animals and things like that. But work, no. There was a big wall about anything like that,” Mrs. Catling said. “She always seemed kind of glamorous and mysterious.”

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