Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Wolves at the Door

The Wolves at the Door by Judith L. Pearson is subtitled 'The story of America's greatest female spy', and I don't think that is an exaggeration. Virginia Hall was born into a well-off American family and could have had a quiet life tending a Victory garden during the war. But she was an intelligent and ambitious woman, so she chose a different life.


Before the start of WWII, Hall worked at several US consulates in Europe, trying to gain entrance to become a Foreign Sevice Officer. Her gender stood in her way, but so did something else: she lost part of her left leg below the knee in a hunting accident in Turkey. Her career hopes dashed just before the start of the war, she volunteered as an ambulance driver in France. Then came the Nazi occupation, and the establishment of the Vichy regime.

Hall's disgust for the invasion of a country she loved made her the perfect candidate for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British government shadow body whose mission was warfare by subversion. America had not entered the war, so Hall joined the British. They trained her and posted her in Vichy France, where she recruited Resistance members, aided stranded airmen, and supplied intelligence back to the SOE. Oh, and wrote articles for an American newspaper as part of her cover.

Her work drew the attention of the sadistic Klaus Barbie, a Gestapo intelligence officer known as "The Butcher of Lyon". Posters went up with the nickname 'La Dame qui Boite' (the Limping Lady), describing her as 'the most dangerous of Allied spies. We must find her and destroy her'.

After America entered the war and later the Germans eradicated the zone libre, Hall fled across the Pyrenees into Spain. She didn't tell the men she escaped with about her wooden leg, and kept up a brutal pace. The escape was not flawless, but eventually she made it back to London.

Not content to stay in safety in spite of her new notoriety and the Gestapo hunt, Hall learned how to operate a radio and transferred to the American intelligence service, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). And went back to Paris in disguised as a frail old lady to hide her limp.

There she continued her activity, reporting troop movements, coordinating nighttime supply drops, and recruiting and directing saboteurs. Her command of French and German helped her along the way, as did her good instincts and discretion. She was recognized with high honors by the British, American, and French governments, but didn't see why doing her job was so special.

The biography is capably written, and Hall's exploits are rarely a slog. There is a brief bibliography - though I am the type of reader who wishes for much more detailed endnotes. I want to know what sources Pearson used to learn Hall's thoughts and feelings, since she was never able to interview Hall directly. In the acknowledgements, Pearson writes that 'Virginia Hall was once asked why she never told her story. Her reply was that she was never asked.' I think it's an example of Hall's innate modesty and perhaps some leftover habits from years of covert operations.

If you are looking for the story of courage, superb judgment and incredible danger, Hall's story has it all. What a person! During the chaos and moral darkness of WWII, people like her were the reason for hope that the world could recover. It is an important story, and I'm glad that it has been told.

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