Reviewed by Ian Lipke
It was refreshing to read of a hero of the Second World War whose name has remained unheralded until now. I had thought that there were no stories of the French Resistance movement still to be told. Certainly nothing of the calibre of Virginia Hall whose exploits have been documented in Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of No Importance. Many readers will know about Violette Szabo and Odette but I very much doubt that the number of readers who have heard of Virginia Hall will be many.
So who was Virginia Hall? Purnell writes the answer to that very question in a comprehensive account that required research skills of a momentous level of capability. I am in awe of the amount of research needed to unearth the life of the remarkable American and her wooden companion Cuthbert. It would seem that we have known little of Virginia Hall because she did not want us to know her. How successful she has been at that is made clear when we read that the Gestapo rated the mysterious ‘Limping Lady’ as the most dangerous of all Allied spies. Yet her name and exploits disappeared from history until the present publication.
Picture the scene. The greatest flow of humanity on the roads attempting to escape the forces of Nazi Germany. A young woman ambulance driver ignores the danger day after day, dodging Stukas intent on destroying her own life and that of the refugees, in order to ferry the badly injured to hospital. On another level imagine the difficulties placed in the way of a young woman with a wooden leg who comes from a lower middle class background, has nothing to recommend her except her urge to fight the enemy and a searing intelligence, who runs up against the calcified brains of officialdom that knows only Queensbury rules in taking the fight to the aggressor.
Virginia Hall overrode that sort of attitude. When she is raising resistance to the Nazi cause and constructing teams of trained men who will fight on her command, when she is seeking radio operators to transmit messages back to England, and when she is travelling the length of the country to build a mighty resistance movement, she finds other men with less effectiveness than herself given credit for her work. These were men who were lazy and inefficient whose lack of suitability for the job caused the deaths of hundreds of resistance fighters.
Virginia Hall was not a person that people were inclined to like. She was tall, imperious, and iron-willed. Fools she was forced to suffer, yet she triumphed. Her gallantry in official circles was muted. She became a nuisance who had outlived her usefulness. Having acquitted herself in wartime as an unstoppable warrior, and regarded as a bore by a new generation after the war, her response in the long term was to just walk away, out of people’s lives and out of history. Except for Sonia Purnell.
This story is told only because of the tenacity of Purnell. Hall made research very difficult. “Constantly changing in looks and demeanour, surfacing without notice across whole swathes of France only to disappear again as suddenly- she remained an enigma…tracing her story has involved three solid years of detective work” (3). Purnell sums up this remarkable, elusive woman in this way:
The pitiless universe of deception and intrigue that she inhabited might have inspired Ian Fleming to create James Bond, yet she came closer to being the ultimate spy. Every bit as ruthless and wily as the fictional 007, she also understood the need to blend in and keep her distance from friend and foe alike….Virginia had to battle for every inch of recognition. Her struggle made her the great figure she became, one who survived, even thrived, in a clandestine life that broke many..” (5).
She did not seek fame or glory – she was not given either.
By Sonia Purnell