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Belatedly, a top spy of WWII is honored

Published December 11, 2006


BALTIMORE - In 1942, the German Gestapo circulated posters 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 dangerous woman was Virginia Hall, a Baltimore native working in France for British intelligence, and the limp was the result of an artificial leg. Her left leg 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 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 plan to honor Hall, who died in 1982 at age 78, at a ceremony at the home of French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte in Washington.

British Ambassador Sir David Manning plans to present a certificate signed by King George VI to Hall's niece, Lorna Catling. Hall should have received the document in 1943, when she was made a member of the Order of the British Empire, but the British government was unable to locate her.

"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 Catling, who lives in Baltimore. Catling said she didn't learn many of the details of her aunt's espionage career until after her death.

Hall, who was fluent in French, was living in Paris when the Nazis invaded in 1940, and she decamped for London, where she was recruited by the secret British paramilitary service, the Special Operations Executive, becoming its first female field operative.

Hall was sent to Lyon, becoming "the heartbeat" of the local French Resistance, said Judith L. Pearson, whose biography of Hall, Wolves At the Door: The True Story of America's First Female Spy, was published last year.

After the Gestapo wanted posters made her situation untenable, Hall fled through the Pyrenees mountains into Spain.

Back in London, she joined the American Office of Strategic Services - the precursor to the CIA - and returned to France in 1944 to work with the Resistance.

"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 in Washington, which has an exhibit devoted to Hall.

In 1950 she married French-born OSS agent Paul Goillot. She took a job with the CIA in 1951 and retired in 1966, living out her days with her husband on a farm in Barnesville.

[Last modified December 11, 2006, 00:45:23]

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