Book Reviews

Sonia Purnell

Penguin Books

Dubbed the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” the Special Operations Executive “found the search for a new type of rule-breaking recruit capable of ‘absolute secrecy’ and ‘fanatical enthusiasm’ rough going. Dyed-in-the-wool military types, with their concern for what they termed ‘ethics’ had to be kept away, as indeed did most of His Majesty’s ministers. A Cabinet colleague excluded the devout Anglo-Catholic foreign secretary Lord Halifax from SOE meetings, for instance, because he did not have what it took to ‘make a gangster.’”

 from A Woman of No Importance


  

Espionage, sabotage, and other “woman’s work”

It seems a time-honored axiom that if you have a dirty job to do and want it done right, get a woman. But espionage? Organizing the French resistance? Messing with the Gestapo? This is “woman’s work”?

Virginia Hall was a Baltimore socialite who worked as an undercover agent for the Special Operations Executive, Churchill’s spy service. Highly intelligent and unconventional, she had been lively and feisty as a girl, preferring boy’s clothes and resisting the (then) traditional role for young women.

Before the U.S. entered the war, she volunteered to serve in Vichy France. Her role called for her to be invisible and blend in, a challenge since she was tall with striking looks. Also, her French had too strong of an American accent for her to pass as a citizen. So, she posed as an American journalist while gathering intelligence and organizing cells of resistance.

She consistently out-performed her male counterparts, a number of whom were incompetent and self-aggrandizing, exaggerating their accomplishments and taking credit for her work. Yet, she continued to be assigned a lower rank, paid less, and given less authority. (Pretend like you’re surprised.)

But her gender was also an advantage: the Germans were searching for a male agent, never occurring to them that it could be a woman who was organizing the resistance. Back in the U.S., her mother “heard nothing from Virginia for months, but knew her younger child well enough to suspect she was in danger somewhere.”

Charismatic, Hall was able to recruit people from all walks of life, including the women who serviced German officers in the high-class brothels. (“Virginia already had the nuns at La Mulatiére as her devoted helpers but now she found herself recruiting from the other end of the morality spectrum.”)

Her followers were devoted to her, paying the ultimate price when falling into the hands of the Gestapo, who had no qualms about using the most barbaric torture, and discovered there are fates worse than death.

Of greater danger to her were French informers. Challenging times bring out the best and worst in people, depending upon the person. There were incredible acts of bravery performed by everyday French citizens, hiding downed British pilots or secreting away Jewish families; and there were the opportunists, the sycophants and collaborators willing to sell their souls for money or power and advantage. Souls are a hot commodity if the price is right, and for some, the price is always right.

Purnell’s book reads like a thriller, with dangers, suspense, double-agents, and those iconic villains, the Gestapo. Amid harrowing experiences, Hall still found time for love and romance, making James Bond look like a dandified playboy.

 

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (June 15-July 15, 2020.) Reprinted with permission.


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