Good spies are hard to find, particularly in dangerous times. They are only rarely discovered over sherry in an Oxbridge common room and they pretty much never look like James Bond.
Indeed, MI6 is now casting its net on YouTube and Google Play, hoping to recruit from the further reaches of young multicultural Britain. GCHQ, the government’s listening station, actively seeks the “neuro-diverse” in the belief that those with autism or Asperger’s can provide all-important lateral thinking and “phenomenal logic”.
Last year, MI5 was rated the most gay-friendly employer in Britain and nearly half of its staff are women. Today’s spymasters have learned that those who have had to fight to get on in life often do best against a ruthless and determined enemy. Diversity has become their friend.
It has not always been that way. In 1940, the national threat was even more acute but the mindset distinctly less open. British intelligence back then drew from a shallow gene pool of posh white boys reared on imperial adventure stories, but the old regard for breeding over intellect proved no match for the ruthless barbarism of the Third Reich. A new secret service called Special Operations Executive was struggling to recruit at all for its near-suicidal missions into Occupied France. Britain’s spy system was failing just as it faced the prospect of imminent Nazi invasion from across the Channel. It was fear and frustration that forced WWII spy chiefs to look outside the old box.
Some of the bravest SOE agents duly turned out to be music hall artistes, shop assistants and hotel receptionists who all looked no different from anyone else. But arguably the greatest was the most unlikely spy of all. Virginia Hall should by rights have been barred from serving SOE on several grounds – she was American (the US had not yet joined the war), she was female (Winston Churchill’s Cabinet had forbidden women from the front line) and she was disabled (when attitudes were considerably more hostile than today). Yet, these very qualities were what made her in her commanders’ own words “almost embarrassingly successful”. She almost single-handedly changed attitudes to women in warfare on both sides of the Atlantic.
A striking 34-year-old heiress from Baltimore, Virginia had lost her left leg after a hunting accident in Turkey seven years earlier, in which she had literally shot herself in the foot. Her life since that day had been a gruelling struggle, at first, just to survive, and later, to prove that her life was worth living. Her dreams of becoming an American diplomat had been dashed, despite her evident qualifications, when the State Department used an obscure ruling against amputees to reject her application.
Virginia had found herself confined to a dead-end job in the typing pool and what she viewed as the prospect of a narrow, humdrum life. When the chance came to drive ambulances on the front line for the French Army instead during the Nazi invasion, she seized it. Braving intense enemy bombardment and the agony of continually using her rudimentary prosthetic leg (which she called Cuthbert) to press down on the clutch, she had nevertheless never felt so thrillingly alive since the day of her accident. For her own sake as much as for the casualties she was picking up from the battlefields and ferrying to hospital she could not fail even when others, including the regular soldiers around her, abandoned their posts and fled. She had simply so much more to prove, especially to herself.
Demobilised after France capitulated, Virginia set out for Britain via Spain in the hope of making herself useful again. It was one of those extraordinary chance encounters – a passing conversation with an undercover British agent called George Bellows in a railway station in the Spanish town of Irun – that led to her being signed up as a British spy. Otherwise unknown to history, the unusually prescient Bellows recognised that the impressive woman he had spotted in the ticket hall embodied just the combination of piratical daring and anti-fascist fervour that the SOE was looking for. He gave her the number of a “friend” to contact in London, who just happened to work for the SOE F Section.
Back in Britain, SOE rapidly became equally convinced that Virginia was such a catch that all the rules, such as they were, should be ignored to deploy her. It is striking how her personnel files record no mention of her disability – merely a focus on what she could do rather than what she could not. War was her liberation.
Working undercover as an American journalist meant she could operate without flawless French and as an ostensible neutral could travel freely in and out of France; being a woman (and a disabled one at that) meant for a long time that no-one suspected her capable of spying. Yet she was actually setting up vast secret networks, rescuing dozens of other agents from capture and later went on to train, arm and direct guerrilla units who liberated whole swathes of France. She even supplied vital intelligence that helped the Americans to drive the Nazis out of Paris.
By any standards, Virginia’s successes in the field were exceptional. Not only did she create networks that became the nucleus of future Resistance armies but she became a master of jail breaks, rescuing scores of Allied agents from captivity in some of the most spectacular organised escapes of the war. In one case, she sprung a dozen men at once, using a combination of cunning, bribes, a priest with no legs, and a smuggled-in collection of tools, sleeping potions and even a wireless set. Later she trained, armed and often directed guerrilla operations including blowing up bridges and railways that led to the entrapment of hundreds of German troops, followed by their surrender and the liberation of vast areas of France.
At first, no-one could conceive that SOE’s first female Allied agent would go on to become so effective, yet her successes in spying, subversion and later sabotage duly made her the Gestapo’s most wanted Allied agent in France. Hauptsturmführer Klaus Barbie, the notorious butcher of Lyon, was once overhead screaming with rage that he would give “anything” to get his hands on “that bitch”. He failed and she survived, her exceptional heroism eventually recognised by a British king and an American president (although she insisted on keeping her actions and her honours secret).
In all the three years she spent behind enemy lines eluding her pursuers – possibly the longest stint of any Allied SOE agent in France – she faced the very real and constant threat of capture leading to barbaric torture and a grisly death. And yet although she could scale mountains, cycle and ride horses, she could not run and her enemies soon learned about Cuthbert and her tendency to limp. (It was just as well that she had been issued with a licence to kill: in her case, she favoured administering death by lethal pills.) She still dodged several recalls to London, only finally deciding to pull out at one point in a death-defying hike over the snowy Pyrenees into Spain (Cuthbert notwithstanding) when she was betrayed by a double agent priest.
It was not only her drive to prove herself useful despite her disability that explains Virginia’s courage and resolve. And her suitability for a mission, despite being an espionage novice. There had to be – just as there does now – another wider, more universal motive for volunteering for such perilous and unsung work. For her, it lay in the thrilling freedoms of her time in Paris as a student in the late 1920s among the freewheeling garçonnes, intellectuals and party-goers of the Années Folles.
She never forgot the taste of those heady days away from Prohibition and racial segregation back home in the US – and the expectation of a dutiful marriage – but then saw how that lifestyle was crushed by the dark forces then unleashed all across Europe. Virginia had watched at close quarters the fascist groups on the rampage in Vienna, Hitler’s paramilitary rallies putting Germany first and Mussolini’s abolition of democracy in Italy. At a time of mass unemployment and grinding poverty in the years following the Wall Street crash of 1929, she saw with dismay how extremism thrived on the back of propaganda, sloganeering and ruthless media manipulation.
Eventually, she came to the conclusion that only by working in a secret world of deception and intrigue could she do her bit to help restore truth and trust. Dozens of similarly minded if unexpected people are making that same call today.
The writer is author of A Woman of No Importance and Clementine: The Life of Mrs Winston Churchill
- Pit your wits against today’s top codebreaker brains in the GCHQ Puzzle Book
- The eccentric pioneer Leo Marks makes codemaking a riveting read in Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s Story 1941-1945
- For an account from the German side, read Colonel Henri’s Story by Hugo Bleicher
- There are more amazing women WW2 agents in Marc Vargo’s ‘Women of the Resistance: Eight who Defied the Third Reich’