by Piper Bayard
of Bayard & Holmes
This week on June 8 was Women’s Fiction Day, celebrating strong female protagonists. More and more stories these days are bringing us great female characters. In thrillers and military fiction, one challenge is to write those strong women as authentic, well-rounded female personalities rather than alpha males with lady parts.
One good way to address this challenge is to study the real-life heroines of the past, who used wits, wiles, cunning, determination, and subterfuge to stay alive and conquer their foes. Today, we’ll take a look at the life of a real-life heroine who was feared by the Nazis as “the most dangerous spy in all of France,” Virginia Hall Goillot.
I've shared seven precious writing tips from Virginia's life are at the bottom of this post.
Say the name “Virginia Hall” to anyone in the Clandestine Services, and they may well get choked up with reverence. Being a woman with no special physical ability and lacking one leg, no recruiter then or now would entertain thoughts of Virginia being capable of military service, especially behind enemy lines.
Nevertheless, she was determined to serve an active role in the battle against Nazi Germany, and serve she did, becoming one of the most revered 20th-century icons in the Intelligence Community. Altogether remarkable, she is a breathtaking example of selflessness, courage, and commitment and a true role model for both the Intelligence Community, and for fiction writers.
Virginia Hall was born on April 6, 1906, to a wealthy family in Baltimore, Maryland. Having a gift for languages, she studied French, German, and Italian at Radcliffe College and Barnard College. She then traveled to Europe to continue her education in Austria, France, and Germany. Her goal was to enter the US Foreign Service.
After finishing her studies in 1931, she worked as a Consular Service clerk at the US Embassy in Warsaw. From there, she was assigned to a consulate office in Izmir, Turkey, where a hunting accident forced her to have her lower left leg amputated. She obtained a wooden prosthetic leg, which she named “Cuthbert.” She was then assigned to the US consulate in Venice.
When Virginia requested permission to take the US Foreign Service Exam, she was informed that, due to her injury, she could not apply for a position as a diplomat. She returned to the United States and attended graduate school at American University in Washington, DC.
Virginia was visiting Paris when Germany invaded France in 1940. She immediately volunteered with the French Ambulance Corps and drove ambulances to evacuate wounded French soldiers from the front. When France surrendered to Germany, Virginia escaped to Spain and then on to England.
In London, Virginia applied for service in the British Special Operations Executive (“SOE”) and was accepted. With the SOE, Virginia trained in weapons, communications, and as a resistance organizer for occupied France, and in August of 1941, she infiltrated Vichy in France. Some sources state that she was the first female SOE agent to do so.
The United States was not yet directly involved in the war, so Virginia posed as a news correspondent for the New York Post. Once the United States did enter the war in December of 1941, the sensible thing for her to do would have been to hustle back to England. Fortunately for the Allied effort, she declined to escape and went underground.
At the time Virginia infiltrated Vichy in 1941, operating there under the Pétain government was more dangerous for an SOE agent than operating in the Nazi-occupied region of France. The Vichy government had command of the French police departments, and with so many reliable local assets, it could more easily discover infiltrators and resistors. Most SOE agents sent into Vichy in 1941 and 1942 were killed or captured within days. (For more on life under the Pétain regime and German occupation, watch the excellent French series, Un Village Français on Prime video.)
Virginia quickly earned a reputation as a great recruiter and resistance organizer in France. She was instrumental in the rescue of hundreds of downed Allied aviators, and she arranged their safe return to England. She also organized a network of safe houses and coordinated numerous air drops of weapons and supplies to the French Resistance at a time when most drops were being intercepted by the Vichy police and the Gestapo.
Virginia’s successes did not go completely unnoticed by the Vichy government and the Nazis. The Gestapo branded her as the most dangerous spy in all of France, and they made her capture a priority. When the Germans took over Vichy in November of 1942, infamous Gestapo leader Klaus Barbie demanded that “the woman with the limp,” as Virginia was known, be captured and brought directly to him so that he could personally strangle her.
Virginia used her one good leg to stay one step ahead of the Gestapo, and that November, she escaped on foot over the Pyrenees to Spain. Some convincing sources say she was alone on this trip. Some other convincing sources say she was not alone on this trip. It is possible that she made more than one trip over the Pyrenees.
This is only one of many uncertainties about Virginia Hall’s career. She knew all too well that spies who don’t take their secrets to the grave can end up in the grave all too soon.
Once in Spain, Virginia had no identification papers at a time when such documents were crucial. The Spanish arrested her and incarcerated her for several weeks. When the US consulate in Barcelona learned of this, they claimed Virginia as a legitimate US citizen and demanded her release.
After four months working undercover in Spain, Virginia returned to England in 1943 in the hope of doing more “useful” work. Once there, Virginia left the SOE to join the fledgling American OSS and volunteered to return to occupied France.
Virginia dyed her hair gray and disguised herself as an elderly farmer. Since her wooden leg made a nighttime parachute drop too dangerous for her, she was infiltrated back to Bretagne, France, on a British torpedo boat. Using the alias “Marcelle Montagne” and the code name “Diane,” she made her way to central France, where she set up radio communications with London.
In addition to transmitting intelligence back to London, Virginia again organized successful supply drops for the French Resistance, established safe houses, helped train three battalions of Free French guerrilla forces, and linked up with a Jedburgh team after the Allied invasion. In spite of Klaus Barbie’s personal vendetta against her, Virginia avoided capture and continued operating until the Allies liberated central France in 1944.
In September of 1945, on behalf of a grateful nation, OSS General William “Wild Bill” Donovan presented Virginia Hall with a Distinguished Service Cross. That was the highest honor received by any female civilian during WWII. President Truman had intended to present her the award in a public ceremony at the White House, but Virginia insisted that the ceremony be kept from public view because she was “anxious to get back to work” and still needed her cover. She wasn’t finished yet.
Virginia went to work undercover in Italy operating against Soviet efforts to cultivate Italian communist groups. Afterward, she worked with a CIA front group, the National Committee for a Free Europe, which was associated with Radio Free Europe.
In 1950, Virginia married OSS Agent Paul Goillot, and in the following year, both Virginia and her husband joined the newly-established CIA. Virginia became an expert on resistance groups in Soviet-occupied Europe, remaining in the shadows and working on a variety of projects until her retirement in 1966.
Virginia Hall Goillot passed away of natural causes in Rockville, Maryland, on July 8, 1982. To this day, her remarkable history of selfless service in the cause of freedom remains a brilliant example for the intrepid few who might dare to follow in her footsteps, as well as an outstanding model for strong female protagonists in fiction.
Thanks for joining me on that walk through history. Now what lessons can we use from Hall's life to ramp up our fictional heroines or spies?
Being dismissed by society can be a great asset in the field, and many parts of the world still dismiss women out of hand. If a woman can refrain from smacking those people and has the strengths of stealth and deception, she can use that bias to her advantage.
A disability often contributes to being dismissed by society, making it an asset under the right circumstances. If a disabled person has the strength of character to use her wit and wisdom to turn her opponent’s bias against them, that disability can become a strength. While having two working legs would have no doubt helped Virginia in many ways, having only one leg likely contributed heavily to her success at hiding from the Germans.
Virginia Hall showed herself to be the epitome of will, crossing the Pyrenees on foot (literally "foot") in November. More than one field operative has held herself together with nothing but the will to do anything to survive.
When most people would have changed career course after shooting off their leg, for Virginia Hall, the word “no,” was where negotiations began. Rather than talking about serving, wanting to serve, dreaming of serving, she used her strength of determination to grab every opportunity she had to serve and used it to kick down the door.
Virginia’s life shows us just how able a “disabled” protagonist can be. A character who focuses on what she can do rather than what she can't do has the strong mindset of a heroine.
Choosing silence over glory is a great strength in an espionage character. Because Virginia remained silent about her life and her work in spite of the honors she received, she was able to serve long after her time in Nazi-occupied France.
The greatest strength a character can have is her self-perception. The only “crippled” people in Virginia’s world were the ones who wrote her off. If she had seen herself the way the rest of the world saw her, she would have quit before she ever started.
Do you write female protagonists? What are their greatest strengths and weaknesses? What characteristics do your strong female protagonists have that differentiate them from their male peers? Did you think of other lessons, or tips for characters as you read through Virginia's life? Please share them with us down in the comments!
Piper Bayard is an author and recovering attorney who has been working daily with 45-year veteran field operative "Jay Holmes," learning espionage tradecraft and history for the purpose of writing espionage fiction and nonfiction. For more brief biographies of the espionage greats, see their recent release, Key Figures in Espionage: The Good, the Bad & the Booty, available from your preferred bookseller at Bayard & Holmes Nonfiction.
Bayard & Holmes are also the authors of the bestselling SPYCRAFT: Essentials, which is designed to take the fiction out of spy fiction, covering the functions and jurisdictions of the main US intelligence organizations, the espionage personality and character, recruitment, tradecraft techniques, surveillancex, firearms, the most common foibles of spy fiction, and much more.
Please visit Piper and Jay at their site, BayardandHolmes.com. For notices of their upcoming releases, subscribe to the Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing. You can also contact Bayard & Holmes at their Contact page, on Twitter at @piperbayard, or at BayardandHolmes(at)protonmail.com.
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I am so very fascinated by all the World War II heroines - both abroad and at home. Especially since it was a time when women played more traditional roles, to see the impact they had keeping the American economy going and serving in the war (often amid protest) is so inspiring. And this Virginia Hall is a badass. Her indomitable will offers lessons to us all.
p.s. If you've never read Elizabeth Wein's WWII series that starts with CODE NAME: VERITY, I highly recommend it. The whole series is amazing, but Verity will stay with you for a long time.
So glad you enjoyed it. Virginia was, indeed, an amazing person.
I will definitely check out Elizabeth Wein's series. Thank you for the recommendation.
I am in the early stages of writing a female protagonist who is recruited to spy, but this is WWI and before the U.S. was officially involved.
Piper, your article is fantastic and will help me a great deal in fleshing out my own character and her motivation.
Virginia must have been a real force of nature. Wow!
Thank you, Ellen. So glad you found this helpful.
Love the history and Virginia's grit and spunk.
Thank you, Tracy. Virginia was certainly larger than life. Glad you enjoyed it.
I always write female protagonists.
I found Virginia to be fascinating.
So glad you enjoyed the article. Thank you for your comment.
What a great story! What a great woman! Thanks to you both for sharing it, and the important lessons it delivers. Across the mountains with a wooden leg, wow. There's a movie in there for sure.
There are two recent movies about Virginia Hall. They are "A Woman of No Importance," and "A Call to Spy."
Thank you, Piper. I'll look for them.
Erika Robuck's newest novel _The Invisible Woman_, released earlier this year, tells Virginia's story. She was, indeed, brave and ferocious about not letting anyone hold her back. Thanks for the article!
Most welcome. Glad you enjoyed it.
This reminds me of other formidable female characters Amelia Earhart, Malala Yousafzai, Madame Currie.
There is a resemblance in spirit, for sure.