A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell [Book Summary]

“Wanted” posters started showing in Lyon, France’s third-biggest city in the year 1942. France had been conquered by Nazi Germany two years before. Reluctant to inhabit the whole country, Hitler had fixed a puppet regime in the south. However, the new government had an issue to solve. 

That issue had a name called Virginia Hall. Who was Virginia Hall? An American socialite that has one wooden leg she referred to as Cuthbert, a Francophile who had driven military ambulances and the first Allied woman positioned behind enemy lines during the Second World War. 

Provided half an opportunity to prove herself, Virginia outshined. Virginia was a natural spy, creating a huge network of operatives across southern France and she was one of the top effective organizers of the Resistance. A small number of people identified her name by the end of the war; however, those people that did had no hesitation that she had been a tool in conquering Hitler’s Germany and redeeming France. 

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Chapter 1 – Virginia Hall was really independent to follow her mother’s request to settle down and marry.

The fight against Nazi Germany in France in World War II was as heroic as it was bloody. Average people were at the core of the Resistance, a rearguard insurgent campaign against Hitler’s strong army, the Wehrmacht. Outnumbered and poorly armed, members of the Resistance depended on their bravery in the face of frightening probabilities. The majority of them paid the crucial price. 

However, our story doesn’t start in Europe, and its hero, Virginia Hall, wasn’t French either. Virginia was born in the year 1906 in Maryland and she was the daughter of a determined social climber, Barbara, who got married to her boss, the banker Edwin Lee Hall. It was a boost to the social ladder; however, that didn’t take Barbara as far as she had expected. Edwin had wasted his inherited riches and could just feed his family with the trappings of wealth. 

The Halls’ large Maryland country house seemed wealthy; however, it was very different from the houses of their more wealthy neighbors. It lacked heating and there was no water, it was anything except modern. However, Barbara, woman relatives labeled as “snooty,” had an idea –looking for a rich suitor for Virginia. 

Barbara chose a school for Virginia, an elegant institution known as Roland Park Country, with an eye to getting her ready for such a marriage. It wasn’t a usual character for Virginia. Tall and slim with glittering brown eyes, she was a determined and independent teenager given to wearing tomboy trousers and checked shirts. During her free time, she hunted with a rifle, rode horses bareback, skinned rabbits and she made bracelets from live snakes. 

She valued her freedom; however, she also loved her mother. Virginia got engaged at the age of 18 years after she graduated in 1924. It was a brave effort to please Barbara; however, that didn’t last. The change was looming. Eventually been given the vote in 1920, women were running from their old servile roles. This was the era of flappers meaning fashionable young women who had short hair, smoked, drank and danced to jazz. In a period of one year, Virginia had abandoned her fiancé. 

If she wasn’t going to marry and accept a quiet domestic life, what would Virginia do with her future? If you were a young East Coast socialite who had displayed a talent for languages in school and had a desire for adventure, there was really just a place you required to go in 1925 – and that is Paris.

Chapter 2 – Virginia chose a diplomatic profession after studying in Europe regardless of a terrible accident.

Paris was a place for an exciting artistic and literary scene when Virginia got there in1926 at the age of 20. It was worlds far from Prohibition-period America’s racial segregation. Writers such as Hemingway and Getrude Stein spent time at bohemian cafés, and prostitutes, philosophers, and painters mingled in smoky jazz clubs. 

Virginia registered for a language course at the École libre des sciences politiques. She was immediately eloquent in French, however, she still had her typical Maryland intonation. It was an untroubled time, and it had a long-lasting impression. Virginia would forever respect France, a country she connected with freedom, and also as her second home. 

Two years after her degree, Virginia relocated to Vienna to study languages and economics at the Konsular Akademie, in 1928. When she graduated and went back to the United States a year after, she was fluent in five foreign languages – French, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian – and was immersed in European culture and politics. 

That enabled her to be the perfect contender for the diplomatic service; however, Virginia immediately found out that, there were restrictions on what women could do regardless of the improvements of the former decade. The US Foreign Service as at then accepted 1,500 diplomatic officers; with only six of them being women. As you would have thought, Virginia’s application was declined. The highest she could do was to get a secretarial duty at the American embassy in Warsaw, Poland.

After a time in Poland, Virginia was moved to Izmir, Turkey. Upset and bored by her basic job, she dedicated herself to hunting wild birds in the lagoons that were outside the city. It was during one of those shooting outings that she would experience a life-changing accident. 

On the 8th of December, 1933 which was on a Friday, Virginia got on top of a fence with a loaded shotgun. Keen to get her first kill of the day, she tripped and released the weapon into her left foot. She was quickly rushed to a hospital in Istanbul; however, there was a bit anyone could do to help her. On the day of Christmas, surgeons cut off Virginia’s leg underneath the knee. From that point, she would have to use an 80-pound wooden prosthetic leg she named “Cuthbert.” 

It was difficult; however, Virginia was strong-minded to continue her career. In a year, she had been transferred to Tallinn, Estonia. That was where she experienced the occurrence of the Second World War in 1939.

Chapter 3 – After the fall of France, Virginia went to Spain where she came across a British secret agent.

On the 1st of September 1939, German troops attacked Poland. Two days after, France and Britain confirmed war on Germany. With a bit of actual help from its Western allies, Poland didn’t have a chance of success against the Wehrmacht’s overwhelming firepower; it fell during early October. That was Hitler’s first defeat in World War II. 

Virginia was seeing the incidences happen from Estonia, a small Baltic country experiencing a different threat – annexation by the Soviet Union. It was high time to leave, and Virginia fled to England. She was eager to join the war struggle and she volunteered at the women’s branch of the British Army. After she was declined, she went back to France and registered as a military ambulance driver in Metz, northeastern France. 

The German violent against France started on the 10th of May 1940. Expecting an attack from the east, France had built a lot of defensive barricades called the Maginot Line along the German border. But, the Wehrmacht fired its attack through the Ardennes which is a forested region in the north and caught the French off guard. It was a defeat. Paris was evacuated on the 10th of June 1940; Hitler’s troops got to the city four days after. 

France surrendered, and Germany separated the country into two regions – an occupation region in the north and west and a so-called “free zone” in the south. The free zone was to be controlled by a puppet regime directed by Marshall Pétain, an 84-year-old general who supervised the creation of an authoritarian state closely related to Nazi Germany. 

Virginia went after withdrawing French troops from the Maginot Line to central France. In August 1940, she escaped. She got across the “free zone” and then to Spain, and she ended up in a dusty border town known as Irun. That was where she started talking to George Bellows, a British who professed to be a salesman able to create her passage back to England through Lisbon, Portugal.

She informed Bellows about her adventures in the ambulance corps and her desire to assist France. She wasn’t aware that it was a job interview or that she had succeeded. 

Bellows was no salesman,  he was a part of the Special Operations Executive or SOE, a secret service department newly created by Britain to battle in a clandestine war against Hitler. It badly lacked staff, and Bellows was in Spain finding likely SOE agents. He had just discovered one.

Chapter 4 – During the summer of 1941, Virginia went back to France as an SOE agent.

When the SOE was formed in July of 1940, Britain was poorly outgunned. This doesn’t just signify that it couldn’t be selective about employing women; however, that it would need to look for a different method of fighting the war. With the absence of conventional forces skilled of going one on one with the Wehrmacht, Britain used “ungentlemanly” strategies., The SOE’s France taskforce, F Section basically had only one duty: sabotage. 

That needed people who understood the affairs land. More essentially, it needed people with the braveries and guile to guide an underground existence and dodge Nazi Germany’s frightening secret police, the Gestapo, and its military colleague, the Abwehr. Bellows supposed he had seen someone who passed everything. 

In late 1940, Virginia came across the head of F Section, Nicolas Bodington. He was just as fascinated by her as Bellows was and quickly wrote a letter to his bosses saying she will be used for a mission. They accepted. She was examined for German sympathies and February 1941, she was F Section’s first female agent. She was just 35 when she started her crash course in the art of espionage. 

Her mission was code-named Geologist 5. What was its purpose? The purpose was to form a network of resistance fighters in southern France. Five months after training, she was prepared. On the 23rd of August, 1941, she sailed on a ship to Lisbon and got towards the French “free region.” 

After she crossed the Spanish border, Virginia went to Vichy, a spa town that had been used for a different purpose as the capital of Pétain’s state. Acting as a journalist for the New York Post, she originally worked under her real name. But, the articles she wrote weren’t just intended to maintain an impression – they were also a form of being in touch with SOE in London. 

In her first article for the Post, Virginia talked about full details of rationing, observing the number of ounces of bread and meat citizens got per week. These were little information; however, the lives of future F Section agents rest on getting them correctly. 

One of the British spies had already gotten into trouble after a slight blunder. Ignorant that alcohol was only given on alternate days, he requested for a beer in a café on the “wrong” day – something a native would have never done. The owner of the café instantly informed the police of this doubtful foreigner. The agent escaped; however, it had been a narrow escape. 

Virginia’s work was now having a difference; however, that was only the beginning.

Chapter 5 – Lyon was the ideal location for Virginia’s mission.

Virginia was a usual spy. Classy and charming, French officials immediately started eating out of her hand. But, Vichy was really claustrophobic. The capital of the new French state was rolling with Gestapo agents as well as members of the French secret police, the Sûreté. It was time to relocate–however, where? 

Lyon is a city 70 miles southeast of Vichy famous for its secret societies and unruly craft associations, gave the answer. These were the types of networks the SOE wished to get. Also, It was near neutral Switzerland – a suitable bolthole if things got bad– and surrounded by grasslands suitable for parachute drops. 

Also, resistance was already developing. Food supplies were hard, and a million French soldiers still suffered in POW camps scattered across the country. Locals had begun assembling in Lyon’s well-known bistros to conspire against their new government. To this point, little attended meetings. There was a shortage of Guns, radios, bombs, and expertise.  

Giving these things was Virginia’s duty. SOE had told her to begin gradually. As headquarters said, it was one thing if a German truck abruptly stopped working because somebody put sugar in the petrol tank; however, things “mustn’t explode in the night.” Nothing would promise failure like an untimely rebellion. That was the time to patiently set the bases for future operations. 

The first associates Virginia formed happened by chance. When she got to the city, it was crowded with 200,000 refugees, and its guesthouses, as well as hotels, were entirely taken. Without any friend to talk to, she knocked on the door of a hillside convent. The nuns pitied her and offered her a room. They were her first recruits and offered F Section with one of the top safehouses in Vichy France. 

After she eventually got a hotel room of her own, Virginia increased her network. It comprised a previous socialist parliamentarian and his wife, the owner of Greek restaurant owner with access to black market cigarettes and macaroni, the owner of a brothel whose customers comprised high-ranking German officers, and a lot of porters, shop assistants, and workers. 

In September of 1941, Virginia had formed a frontline into southern France. SOE was not reluctant to use it. Within weeks, an additional ten agents expert in radio communication and sabotage had been released into the country and established in and around Lyon. Provisions of counterfeit money, explosives, and weapons followed. The SOE was in operation.

Chapter 6 – 12 of the top SOE agents were lost in France for more than two weeks; however, Virginia planned a brave escape.

The SOE had been quickly gathered by Hugh Dalton, an aggressive Labour minister who rejected traditional military types and accepted unconventional tools in the battle against Nazi Germany. Virginia was part of them. Her entrance in France was unexpected and the authorities hadn’t anticipated. However, it was just a temporary edge. 

On the 10th of October 1941, a British agent parachuting into Bergerac in southwestern France was hit unconscious while he was landing. Virginia’s men in the region couldn’t find him; the Sûreté had a better chance. When they checked the unlucky jumper they saw a hint in his pocket that would disclose the network the SOE had carefully built over the former months. 

It was the location of a safe house known as Villa des Bois that was just outside the southern port city of Marseille. The Sûreté had found a ready-made souricière or “mousetrap.” At the end of October, 12 operatives had fallen into it. That left the SOE with only one operative in the field – Virginia. 

She quickly devised a plan to release the imprisoned agents. Clan Cameron, the men’s code name in SOE radio communications, was being imprisoned in a camp in Bergerac. She appointed one of her agents a wheelchair-bound 70-year-old priest, to sneak in a radio to the camp under his robes. 

As soon as communication with the Clan had been made, she sent another agent called Gaby to a café that is regularly visited by the camp’s guards. There, she spoke aloud about the rumors she heard that anybody who assisted the Allies would be greatly rewarded. One guard named Jose Sevilla accepted the bait and accepted to assist. His rewarding price? Entrance to England to become part of France Libre or “Free France,” the government-in-exile directed by Charles de Gaulle.

On the 15th of July 1942, everything was set.  During that night, Sevilla took wine to the guard room and gave his colleagues alcohol. Meanwhile, the Camerons were ready to work, they used a sardine-can lockpick to open the door to their barracks and sneaked in wire cutters to make a way through the fence. The intoxicated guards first observed their absence the following morning. 

Two weeks after, the men were taken to inaccessible safehouses around Lyon. Virginia reinforced London: “Every Clan Cameron transferred without harm.” It was a bold escape, and Virginia had been the master planner of everything. MRD Foot who is the SOE’s official historian later labeled it as “one of the war’s most beneficial operations.”

Chapter 7 – An Abwehr agent infiltrated Virginia’s inner circle and deceived the Allies with deadly repercussions.

Virginia was really careful to avoid exposure. She didn’t trust people immediately, she evaded compromising romantic relationships and she picked hotels with numerous exits as her base. Just like every other agent, she feared to be brûlée – which is the French word for “burnt” or exposed. In spite of that, Germany’s secret forces were getting closer to attack. 

Prison break was the last straw for the German high command. Hitler was already frustrated by rising resistance in the “free zone,” she requested for a clampdown. Thankfully to recent radio intercepts, the Abwehr had detected that a woman was planning the Resistance in Lyon; however, they still didn’t know her name. Now they sent out 500 agents to find the person they identified as “the limping lady.” 

Arrests and raids mounted; detector vans surrounded the city trying to position radio signals, and the black Citroen which is the vehicle preferred by Nazi officials turned into a feared representation of forthcoming arrest and torture. Virginia was aware that they were coming closer get her. She recognized a lot of familiar faces regularly to consider that she wasn’t being followed. 

That has barely startling. In spite of her safety precautions, an Abwehr agent had infiltrated her Lyon network. 

In August, a youngish priest named Robert Alesch got into the rooms of Dr. Jean Rousset, one of Virginia’s most reliable confidants. Alesch did his role well, depicting himself as a patriotic man of the cloth whose father was murdered by the hated Nazis. He gave the correct names and followed the rules used by Virginia’s operatives. Virginia was doubtful; however, he finally accepted to allow Rousset to work with Alesch while refraining her own location from the priest. 

What made her take such a risk? Alesch possessed something SOE was desperate to have, intelligence on the Atlantic Wall, German defensive fortifications with Europe’s western coast intended to repel an Allied invasion. Agent Axel, Abwehr code number GV7162, had discovered his in. 

Virginia’s doubtful nature intended that Alesch didn’t ever succeed in tracking her down; however, that was still a coup for the Germans. Their agent directed them to precious secondary targets and offered them an effective method of deceiving the Allies. That would have fatal repercussions. 

Knowing that Virginia’s operatives were specifically concerned about Dieppe, the Abwehr predicted that the Allies were organizing a raid on the northern French port. Mid-August of 1942, when an expeditionary force got it in, it was encountered by suddenly fierce counterfire from gun positions it hadn’t been aware of. Some 4,000 soldiers were murdered, taken or wounded.

Chapter 8 – A treacherous mountain climb was just the only means to escape German occupation forces.

The Wehrmacht had appeared unbeatable for three years. That was changed in 1942 during the fall of that year. The Soviet Red Army surrounded German forces in Stalingrad and started to change the situation on the Eastern Front. Britain freed Egypt and Libya in October and got hold of the Germans in Tunisia. After a month, US soldiers got to Vichy-controlled Algeria and Morocco. 

The German reaction to the loss of North Africa, a likely base for an Allied attack of France, was instant. Pétain’s government was ignored, and Nazi shock troops occupied the “free zone.” It was a turning point for Virginia. Working in Vichy France had been really risky; doing that under military occupation was suicidal. 

Fortunately, the American consulate had warned Virginia about Germany’s aims in France. She took her money and documents and went to the station fast. At 11 p.m. on the 8th of October, three days before the Wehrmacht’s entrance, she took the last train out of Lyon. 

It was extremely cold when she got to Perpignan which is a French Catalan town 20 miles north of the Spanish border and the air smelled of snow. That was a warning indication. The local authorities were very vigilant; there was just one method to cross into Spain – on foot. 

That entailed attempting the treacherous icy tracks of the Massif du Canigou mountain range. Virginia got a passeur, a tough local smuggler, as an instructor. She was cautious not to make Cuthbert, her wooden prosthetic known. Passeurs were extremely ruthless and had been famous to shoot laggards or basically leave them to freeze to death. If Virginia’s man knew, the 20,000 francs she was offering in payment wouldn’t have even influenced him to take her. 

The 50-mile trek began the next day. Virginia took her bags on her right side to hide her limp; however, her leg was shortly on fire. When she got to 6,000 feet, she was in unbearable pain and her sock was full of blood. Radioing London to tell SOE about her movement, she said that “Cuthbert is being tedious; however, I can manage.” The operator didn’t know what she was talking about and told her to “have him removed.” 

Surprisingly, Virginia made it and landed three days later. She had got to her safety.

Chapter 9 – After changing to an American intelligence unit, Virginia directed one last mission in France.

The months after Virginia’s mountain survival were tiring. Her SOE bosses declined to let her go back to active service and offered her a basic job sorting out safe houses in Spain. Her salary was cut off to the range of an embassy typist. Virginia had risked all; the payments were worthless. 

However, she had another break. In 1942, the United States had created a counterpart to the SOE named the Office of Strategic Services or OSS. Ever since then, it had worked in the shadows of its British big brother. The London-based director of OSS, William Donovan, wanted to adjust that. While the Allies got ready to attack France in 1944, he used a chance to enhance his agency’s credibility.

What was their plan? Penetrate France and sabotage Germany’s defensive plans. Who was the first person on Donovan’s list of potential operatives? Virginia Hall. 

It didn’t need a lot to persuade her to change her employer. On the 21st of March, 1944, she arrived in Brittany and, pretended like a simple peasant woman, got to the Nièvre – an area in central France halfway between Lyon and Paris. 

The region was strategically important. Expecting an Allied arriving in the north, Germany was taking its troops out of the former “free zone” to Normandy. The OSS estimated that Nièvre was the ideal place to damage the Wehrmacht as it went through. 

France was in riot already when Virginia got there. A lot of young men desperate to flee from recruitment as forced laborers in Germany vanished into the maquis, a Corsican word for dense undergrowth. These ostensible maquisards were the support of the Resistance. All they required was a strategy. 

Virginia used the following months martially the maquisards of Nièvre, putting them into greatly mobile units of 25. They burnt vehicles, collapsed telegraph poles, ruined trains, redirected signposts to direct convoys into ravines and put explosives disguised as horse dung on the roads. 

This whole thing was to get ready for the actual day, the arrival of Allied troops in Normandy. On the 5th of June, 1944, the signal eventually came: the attack would start the following day. 

Virginia radioed her signal. On the evening of that day, a lot of resistance fighters went to their basements, lofts, and gardens to retrieve stored weapons. Uniforms were ironed and buttons polished. France was prepared to assist in her own freedom. 

It was the start of the end for Nazi Germany. With British and American forces arriving in the west and the Red Army reduces the Wehrmacht in the east, there was no way out. The Allies were only months from their win.

And Virginia, a strange woman to the entire world save for a few spies in London and Washington, had played a vital role in Hit.

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell Book Review

Virginia Hall was given birth into a Maryland family that had lost its previous wealth. After a short engagement with a rich suitor, she went to Paris and Vienna to study and established a long-lasting connection with France. Virginia chased a diplomatic profession in spite of losing her left leg below the knee after an accident. Involved in fighting in France in 1940, she escaped to Spain and became part of a British intelligence agency. She had a huge role she played in establishing the French resistance to Nazi rule for the next four years and just barely escaped capture by Germany’s secret services. Her last mission saw her getting France ready to get rid of its restraints in preparation for the Allied landings in Normandy. 

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Savaş Ateş

I'm a software engineer. I like reading books and writing summaries. I like to play soccer too :) Good Reads Profile: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/106467014-sava-ate

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