A Woman of No Importance

by Sonia Purnell

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Many books have been written about the heroes of World War II, and most of these books are about men. Author Sonia Purnell sets out to illuminate the dangerous and sacrificial acts of a female hero during the war in her book A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. An independent, determined woman of true grit, Virginia Hall became one of the least-known—yet most effective—spies for the Allies during World War II. Decades after Hall’s death, Purnell recounts her bravery and enormous contributions as a spy, despite constant threats of death by the Nazis.

To call Virginia Hall determined is an understatement. She lived her life with a sense of calling and purpose: to make a difference in the war. Hall was nicknamed “the Madonna of the Mountains” for her fearless evasion of enemies over “one of the cruelest mountain passes in the Pyrenees.” She was also called “the limping lady of Lyon,” due to the gait of her walk: she wore a prosthetic leg after losing part of her leg in a hunting accident. Revealing her unique and feisty character, Hall chose to name her prosthetic Cuthbert. Once, when speaking with a colleague, she said, “Cuthbert is being tiresome, but I can cope.” She did not let physical challenges limit her service in the war.

Like many Allied troops and civilians, Hall learned of Germany’s relentless pursuit of France and wanted to fight the Nazi regime:

France was falling. Burned out cars once stacked high with treasured possessions were nosed crazily in ditches . . . their owners, young and old sprawled in the hot dust, were groaning . . . a never-ending line of hunger and exhaustion too fearful to stop for days on end. Ten million women, children, and old men were on the move, all fleeing Hitler’s tanks . . .

Unlike many young women born into wealth and privilege, Hill departed the expected path of education and marriage to serve during the war as a spy for Britain and America. Determined to help, she applied to be an ambassador several times.

Not a likely choice for a spy, Hall nevertheless had strengths, discernment, and abilities which were very different than those of many male colleagues. Purnell writes,

Traditionally, British secret services had drawn from a shallow gene of posh boys raised on imperial adventure stories.

As a spy, Hall kept many tools of the trade, such as cyanide pills and poisonous ink pens. However, she showed her deep commitment to her work and resolve as a spy when she agreed to have her beautiful teeth filed down to appear as a French country woman.

She was resilient in the fight, committed to bring intelligence, help, and relief where she could. She began her courageous adventure in 1940.

Private Virginia Hill often ran low on fuel and medicines but still pressed on in her French Army ambulance towards the advancing enemy. She persevered . . . even when fighter planes swept over the tree tops . . . even though French soldiers were deserting their units, abandoning their weapons . . .

. . . she had so little to lose . . . Virginia, though, intended to go on to the end, wherever the battle took her. She was prepared to take whatever risks, face down any dangers . . .

Hall fought against Germany for four years, becoming one of the most sought-after enemies of the Third Reich. As Purnell's title for her, A Woman of No Importance, cleverly suggests, Hall clearly became a woman of great importance during the war.

Virginia Hall's service in the summer of 1940 was merely an apprenticeship for what soon became a near suicide mission against the tyranny of the Nazis and their puppets in France. She pioneered a daredevil role of espionage, sabotage, and subversion in an era when women barely featured in the prism of heroism . . .

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