A Woman of No Importance? I Think Not!

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell review — Virginia Hall, the  one-legged female spy who beat the Gestapo | Saturday Review | The Times

SB Jerry of the Quaker SBs contributed this review:

A Woman Of No Importance by Sonia Purnell is a true story about a life that is so remarkable that it reads like fiction. And, despite the title, it’s about a woman of great importance.

Virginia Hall was born to a well-to-do family and was groomed to become a Baltimore socialite. She loved the outdoors and was somewhat of a tomboy, who enjoyed hunting, riding horses, and other physical activity. She had an ear for languages (She could speak six), and a wanderlust to see the world, living and working in Paris and Istanbul following her education.

You would think her experience would have interested our State Department as World War II loomed on the horizon, but prevailing attitudes were that women belonged in the home. The only jobs available to women at the time were as secretaries. It was in that capacity that Virginia was working in Istanbul when, while hunting, her shotgun discharged,resulting in the amputation of her left leg.

For most women this would be an event that would propel them to seek comfort and safety, but Virginia continued her work in in foreign service. She finally resigned when she was repeatedly passed over for positions for which she was well-qualified. She found her way to France and joined their army as an ambulance driver. She was not someone to let the absence of a leg get in the way of her ambitions.

Eventually, she became and the first female agent of the British SOE (Special Operations Executive, our equivalent of the CIA). She was sent undercover to France, under German occupation to train, to recruit, and to attack whenever possible. Posing as a journalist for an American publication, she was challenged as much by her own colleagues and superiors who felt women just couldn’t do the “man’s” job of espionage.

The long-story-short is that Virginia became the most successful, and eventually the she most hunted spy of the French Resistance. The Gestapo, suffering the same chauvinistic prejudices of men everywhere, were repeatedly outmaneuvered by a woman. Once they realized that their leading adversary was a woman, a bounty was placed on her head with her picture posted throughout France.

Virginia was ordered to leave the country which she finally did just one short step ahead of the Nazis. Her escape route was on foot through the Pyrenees at altitudes of more than 8,000 feet through deep snow in the dead of winter. (You haven’t forgotten that she’s doing this on a prosthetic leg, have you?)

Eventually, she returns to London, but her commitment to the cause of defeating the enemy is so great that despite the danger, she she returns to continue her mission in France. She trains 3 battalions of French Freedom fighters to blow-up railroad bridges, attacks convoys, kills and captures German soldiers. She also organized one of the most daring prison breaks of the war to free a dozen SOE agents.

Virginia Hall became a legend in France, known as the Madonna of the Mountains. Wild Bill Donovan of the OSS (later CIA) hand-picked her to carry out an ultra secret mission that played a significant part in the D-Day invasion. Britain awarded her its second-highest civilian honor and “the only F Section field agent to be considered eligible as a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or CBE.” France awarded her the Croix de Guerre with Palm for heroism in combat. Unimportant, indeed!

Author Sonia Purnell, photo by Charlie Hopkinson ©

She is the only woman civilian of the war to be awarded the American Distinguished Service Cross, although she declined to accept in the White House Oval Office, because the resulting publicity would make it impossible for her to continue undercover work. She is also in our Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame. All CIA recruits are trained in the Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center.

Wow!

We see the world though the lens of our own experiences, and my experience includes serving in Vietnam. After Basic and Advanced Infantry Training I was in great shape and weighed 205. After 3 months in the jungles West of Da Nang, I had lost 70 pounds, down to 135, but felt fine. Since then, I have done some very tough mountain backpacking hunts in Alaska and Canada, but have to wonder if I could have kept up with Virginia Hall going over the Pyrenees, let along operate in the open with no support behind enemy lines. Certainly not with the success she had. View through your own lens and see what you think. I think you’ll be mightily impressed with this “unimportant woman.”

Silverbelle Sandy (Parsonage Silverbelles) rates this book a Double-Thump and five Oo-oos (a perfect rating).

Silverback Stephen rates this book a Double-Thump and four Oo-oos. He says “Virginia’s story certainly deserves five Oo-oos, but I found it difficult to keep straight all the names and allegiances of the secondary characters. Plus the saga of the daring prison escapes reminded me of Hogan’s Heroes, and I kept thinking Sergeant Schultz would butt in saying “I SEE NOTHING-G-G … I KNOW NOTHING-G-G-G!”

Very deservedly, this will soon be a major motion picture, available near you.

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