/ Published March 08, 2021
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell. Penguin Publishing Group, 2019, 368 pp.
The author, Sonia Purnell, is a biographer and journalist with stints at The Economist, The Telegraph, and The Sunday Times. Purnell wonders how “a female guerrilla leader of her stature remains so little known to this day. . .” (p. 3). With this book, the author turns to researching files long lost, forgotten, and ignored to bring the story of Virginia Hall in grand fashion to right this wrong.
Purnell attempts to answer many questions to reveal the truly amazing character of Virginia Hall. Why does it take 73 years to hear her story? How did Hall, coping with a disability, conquer the hearts and minds of the local population? How did Hall escape the cries of gratitude from a grateful nation, the acceptance of awards for bravery, or the need to tell her story? Who was this noteworthy woman slighted by those supposedly leading the charge against Nazi Germany and Vichy France? Finally, does the author believe that Virginia Hall was a victim of gender bias?
Using a historically biographical narrative approach, Purnell scours the lost files, papers, and evidence to bring to life the brave, confident, intelligent Virginia Hall. The book has a List of Characters, Prologue, 12 chapters, Epilogue, Notes, Selected Bibliography, and Index. It also includes eight pages of photos.
The first and last chapters chronicle the beginning of Virginia Hall’s life to its conclusion. First, the daughter of society is thoroughly examined in a manner that explains how her early formative years lent themselves to adventure and exploration. Not willing to spend much time following convention, Hall persevered and found other avenues not often attempted by women of her age. Virginia Hall had an unfortunate mishap and that resulted in a near death experience. Hall rebounded, with a prosthetic leg, and continued to seek opportunities to serve. When the summer of 1940 arrives, she volunteered to drive ambulances for the French (p. 22). The last chapter deals with her years in the Central Intelligence Agency. Here, Virginia Hall encountered further diminution of her abilities until she once again proved her worth. She was admitted to Headquarters, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia, and ultimately became the first woman operative in the covert action arm (p. 297). She carried on in a somewhat roller coaster career in the CIA, loved by some and neglected by others. Hall finally retired in 1966, a figure with so much know-how in the covert business of clandestine service, let go unacknowledged by her most of her peers.
Chapters 2-11 are, of course, the heart of the War Years of Hall’s service and the focus of the book. Each of the War Year chapters is a remarkable description of the trials and tribulations Hall endured in her clandestine career. In August 1940, Hall began her path from neophyte to the admired guerilla leader commanding hundreds of resistance fighters in France and even Switzerland and Spain until the end of 1945.
The quite narrow wartime window from the summer of 1940 to the end of the war commands our interest in this astonishing woman. Purnell discovered Hall, an American woman served in three clandestine services: England, France, and the United States. Continually throughout these chapters, the author frequently illustrates Virginia Hall’s intelligence, initiative, and abilities to prepare, organize, and lead groups of people to achieve whatever objective she is given. Her intelligence sets her above her peers and is made clear throughout the book. By taking the initiative in preparing “her” groups, Virginia gained the respect of the groups and local populace. She did not shrink from leading multiple resistance fighters and the locals to vehemently oppose the occupying German Army and Vichy French. She continually found avenues of escape for “her” resistance members captured by the pursuing German and Vichy French forces. She became such a notorious malcontent; the dreaded Gestapo placed a large bounty on her capture. When D-Day arrived, her groups of resistance fighters assisted in preventing a German army from repulsing the advancing Allied Forces. By the end of 1945, she was hailed as the “Madonna of the Mountain” for her skills in preparing her “troops.”
These qualities and leadership skills set her apart from many of the men in these groups. Casual remarks by the author, however, also surmise the lack of confidence that her clandestine service leaders in all three nations continually append to her. From the provided research, it is obvious that these leaders demonstrated their own gender bias.
Reasons for Virginia Hall remaining obscure for 73 years revolved around her own penchant to deflect any praise for her work. Her disdain of “medals” for work any patriot would justifiably perform is indicated throughout these chapters as well. It was immediately apparent from the beginning that Hall could not measure up in the thoughts of men leading the services. Hall was often asked to stand aside when a “Leader” was sent into the field. But often due to the failure of those “Leaders,” Hall was often the one that delivered and executed the expected results. Furthermore, Hall’s record was more than exemplary, so that may have been an obstacle to her being acknowledged for her service. It appears that gender bias played a huge part in the dilution of her service record. Purnell often comments from written communications that women were often left out of leadership position simply because of their gender.
The only notable award that Virginia Hall receives for her service in France is the Distinguished Service Cross. She was cited by Gen “Wild Bill” Donovan, US Army’s Office of Strategic Services. She was the only civilian woman given this award after World War II. But even then, she was reluctant to accept it.
In conclusion, this book is well-written, documented, and annotated. The author, Sonia Purnell, does her utmost in answering the questions from the beginning of this review. It took 73 years to hear her story because: (1) Virginia Hall was reticent to be acknowledged for her bravery during horrible occupational years in France; (2) Apparent gender bias placed on her as a woman. The story of Virginia Hall explicitly points out that women can and are able to lead, organize, and execute. Given their rightful place in any situation, women will respond.
We see that today in our military services and both public and private enterprises. Women can lead, perform admirably, and accomplish any and all tasks assigned.
Anyone who reads this book will be enthralled with Virginia Hall.
Maj James A. Boyless, USAF (Ret.), PhD
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."