Tuesday 17 September 2019

A Woman of No Importance - a review

I first came across this book last year, and the subtitle, “The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II”, caught my eye. It took a while but I finally got to read it last week. And what a story!

Born in 1906, Virginia Hall was a Baltimore socialite who travelled the world extensively and looked forward to a career in the Foreign Service. An unfortunate hunting accident in Turkey in 1932 resulted in her losing part of her left leg and dashed her prospects with the Foreign Service. Undeterred, she continued to travel and found herself in Paris at the start of the Second World War.

During the early months of the war she volunteered as an ambulance driver in France and then in 1940 she made her way back to England. Her love of France, however, made her want to return to be part of the fight. And so, after many roadblocks and rejections because she was a woman – and a handicapped one at that – she finally accomplished her objective, to join the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and return to Vichy France to assist in the war effort.

For the next 15 months she gathered intelligence and recruited and coordinated resistance efforts in Vichy France. When Germany seized all of France in 1942 she narrowly escaped by walking (wooden leg and all) across the Pyrenees to Spain, where she was promptly arrested. Eventually released, she returned to London in 1943 and then back to the USA.

Once in the States, she joined the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and requested to be sent back to France. From March 1944 until Allied forces arrived in September, she identified drop zones for weapons and allied commandos, trained Resistance forces in tactics and guerrilla warfare, found safe houses, and maintained radio links with the UK, providing valuable intelligence to assist in the Normandy landings.

This is the story of those harrowing years, the constant fear and expectation of being caught and tortured, the challenges she faced as a woman in a man’s world (France, 1940s), and her incredible bravery throughout. Virginia Hall was a true hero and her contribution to the allied war effort can never be fully appreciated.

It’s an excellent read and highly recommended for anyone with an interest in WW II.