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Agent's Secrets

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Gestapo wanted the limping woman found and destroyed.

Her name was Virginia Hall. She grew up at Box Horn Farm near Parkton when Baltimore County was bucolic farmland. She graduated from Roland Park Country School in 1924 and went on to Radcliffe and Barnard colleges. She had a knack for languages - and, as it turned out, espionage.

"She was considered the most dangerous Allied agent in all of Occupied France, by none other than the Gestapo," says Linda McCarthy, herself a veteran of 24 years in the CIA.

"Her likeness, a sketch, was pinned to just about every tree and telegraph pole in town, saying if you find this woman, turn her in. She had a price on her head. And she's operating right under their noses."

McCarthy, who helped launch the CIA Museum, is curator of the exhibit Clandestine Women: The Untold Stories of Women in Espionage, now at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Virginia Hall is one of her stars.

It was the maquis, the underground resistance movement in France during World War II, that dubbed Hall "la dame qui boite," the limping woman. In 1933, she had lost her left leg below the knee after a hunting accident in Turkey.

Her injury forestalled the career she wanted in the Foreign Service, but it doesn't seem to have slowed her down one bit in the intelligence services.

When a British torpedo boat put her ashore on the Cotentin Peninsula, adjacent to the Normandy beaches, three months before D-Day, she was an agent for the Office of Strategic Services. But she already had been made a Member of the British Empire for her work with the maquis two years earlier.

She had been the first woman in Britain's Special Operations Executive intelligence agency to establish resistance networks in Vichy, France, according to Elizabeth McIntosh, another OSS-CIA veteran, who devotes a chapter to Hall in her book, Sisterhood of Spies: the Women of the OSS.

Hall was tall and slender, McIntosh says, "with high cheekbones and a warm smile that belied her toughness and leadership ability."

The actress Glenn Close looks startlingly like her, says Hall's niece, Lorna Hall Catling, who lives in Guilford. Catling is the steward of many of the artifacts in McCarthy's Washington exhibit.

"I was sort of awe-struck by her," Catling says.

Hall had worked around Europe in minor jobs at U.S. consulates until World War II broke out. She volunteered for the French Ambulance Service and served until the fall of France in June 1940. She fled to England through Spain and volunteered for the SOE.

"That's where she got her heady training in operational stuff, compliments of the Brits," says McCarthy. "SOE trained her in weaponry, communications, sabotage and security."

Basic tradecraft, as George Smiley might put it. It wasn't something a lot of Roland Park grads were doing in 1940.

Her code name was Marie Monin, and she worked about 14 months out of Lyons, in Vichy, France. Gerald K. Haines, the chief historian of the CIA, writing in the National Archives quarterly Prologue, says Hall played a major part in organizing an agent network, helping escaped prisoners of war and downed airmen to get out of France, locating drop zones for weapons and money and recruiting French men and women to provide safes houses and store weapons.

She barely managed to escape when the Nazis seized unoccupied France in November 1942, after the U.S. landings in North Africa. She had to cross into Spain on difficult trails over the Pyrenees, a trip made doubly arduous by her wooden leg. She called the leg "Cuthbert" in her clandestine dispatches.

"Cuthbert is giving me trouble," she radioed London. "But I can cope."

A clueless contact replied: "If Cuthbert is giving you trouble, have him eliminated."

The Gestapo pretty much rolled up her Lyons network after she left. A German double agent posing as a priest, Abbe Alesh, betrayed the network. Haines, the CIA historian, says Hall had been deeply suspicious of him from the start. And she helped run him down at the war's end.

In Spain, Hall immediately was jailed for six weeks in the infamous Figueras prison. But a friendly Spanish prostitute helped spring her. The woman carried a letter to the American consul in Barcelona.

Hall remained in Madrid for a year in an SOE section known as escape organizers, McIntosh says. But she found the work less than stimulating. She wrote to London asking to return to France.

"I am living pleasantly and wasting time," she wrote. "It isn't worthwhile and after all my neck is my own. If I am willing to get a crick in it, I think that's my prerogative."

But when she returned to France, she went as an agent of the American OSS. She had transferred to the OSS when she returned to London from Madrid in November 1943.

The limping lady went back to France as a middle-aged milkmaid.

She needed a disguise because the Gestapo had a pretty good idea of what she looked like.

"Her soft brown hair was dyed a dirty gray-black, pulled back tightly up from her neck and anchored with a wooden hairpin," McIntosh says. Full skirts and overskirts, woolen blouses and oversized sweaters hid her slim figure. "She learned to walk with a swinging motion that modified her gait."

This time, she carried ID papers that identified her as Marcelle Montagne, which was a pun on her height. "Montagne" is French for mountain. And she actually worked as a milkmaid. She had learned her "tradecraft" for this mission at Box Horn Farm, where she milked cows and goats.

"She would milk the goats during the day," McCarthy says. "Make goat cheese and then pedal the stuff into town, occupied by the Germans, selling the stuff. And as she's doing so she's got her ear tuned into what they're saying. Because she spoke German.

"She's listening and taking all this in. But as soon as she's finished selling her goat cheese, she makes her way back to wherever her field headquarters is at the time.

"And at night, she takes her wireless radio up to a loft, some place high where the signal carries better and she keys this to headquarters in London.

"She was the agent in place and she had a network of spies and saboteurs working for here, usually French resistance, but some Brits and some Americans as well."

Her code name was now "Diane." So if you got a message from Diane you knew it was hot. In spite of intensive German efforts to locate her and her transmitter she reported to London daily, sometimes more often, during the summer of 1942. She was the first to report that the German General Staff was moving from Lyons to Le Puy, an ancient cathedral town about 60 miles north of Marseilles.

She moved constantly, establishing links with resistance people she had known when she was with the SOE.

"She's working with several hundred maquis," McCarthy says. "They knew her as a woman of dedication, determination, honor and integrity. She had a following."

With the help of an OSS team that included the man who would become her husband, Paul Gaston Goillot, she organized, armed and trained three battalions of Forces Francaises d'Interieur. They harassed the Germans as they retreated toward their homeland. She reported to London that they had destroyed bridges, severed rail lines, derailed freight trains and cut telephone and telegraph lines.

"As the Germans withdrew from Le Puy," McIntosh writes, "The FFIs killed some 150 Germans and took 500 prisoners."

She and a small FFI group were on the way to the Swiss border when they were overtaken by the Free French First Army and her war was over.

"She and Goillot moved on for a spree in liberated Paris." McIntosh reports. They returned to London in September 1944.

In May 1945, the director of the OSS, Maj. Gen. William "Wild Bill" Donovan, wanted to bring her home for a ceremony at which President Truman would award her the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army's second highest medal after the Medal of Honor. She would be the first woman and the first civilian to receive it. Hall demurred.

"She cabled back: 'No, I'm sorry. I still have work to do here,'" McCarthy says. "She stiffed the president of the United States."

Donovan pinned it on her in a modest ceremony in his Washington office in September 1945, just before Truman dissolved the OSS.

She then went to work for the Central Intelligence Group, which became the CIA in 1947. Haines, the CIA historian, says that except for temporary duty abroad, Hall spent her entire career at CIA headquarters in Washington.

She prepared political action plans, interviewed exiles and planned "stay-behind resistance and sabotage nets to be used in the event the Soviet Union overran Western Europe." She was commended for her liaison work as an operations officer on the South American-Caribbean Desk. Much of what she did remains classified even today.

At the mandatory age of 60 in 1966, she retired with her husband to a farm at Barnesville, in Montgomery County. She raised French poodles, tended her garden, made the occasional cheese as she did in France and read spy novels.

She died July 12, 1982, and she's buried in Druid Ridge Cemetery, in Pikesville, not very far from Box Horn Farm where she spent much of her childhood.

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