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Spies in History: Virginia Hall, The Most Dangerous Allied Agent in France

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Figure 1. Virginia Hall being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by Bill Donovan, chief of the Office of Strategic Services on September 23rd, 1945 (CIA Museum)

Virginia Hall’s tale of heroism was forged out of her great deeds during World War II, and her story is one of a lifelong determined adherence to the pursuit of her ambitions. Her robust educational background had brought her to Europe in the 1920s to study at the Ecole des Sciences Politiques in Paris, the Konsularakademie in Vienna, including other stints at universities in Strasbourg, Grenoble, and Toulouse.

She had dreams of working for the U.S. Foreign Service, and after initial setbacks of failing to pass the U.S. Foreign Service exam in 1929 and 1930, she decided to get some hands-on experience and joined the staff at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, Poland to work as a consular clerk. Her work as a consular clerk took her across Europe, from Poland to Turkey, Italy, and eventually Estonia. While in Turkey, Hall was in a hunting accident where her shotgun misfired and resulted in her left leg needing to be amputated from below the knee. She went back to the United States in February 1933 to recover from the injury and ended up being fitted with a wooden prosthetic, which she named “Cuthbert.”

However, this would not set her back in her goals. Just over a year later, after having learned to walk all over again, she wrote to the U.S. Department of State asking to be reinstated and ended up being offered a position at the American consulate in Venice, Italy at the end of 1934. Hall asked to complete the U.S. Foreign Service exam again in 1937, but she received a letter from the U.S. Department of State rejecting her on the grounds of her amputation – they required that all applicants be “able-bodied.” Her gender was also against her, as only six out of the 1500 commissioned U.S. Foreign Service officers at the time were women. Still, Hall continued her consular work and moved to Tallinn, Estonia where she worked at the U.S. Legation. From Tallinn, she made one last appeal to the Assistant Secretary of State requesting a waiver to take the Foreign Service exam. When her appeal was turned down, she decided that it was time to re-evaluate and so she went to Paris in May 1939.

Just thirty-three years old, Hall was living in Paris when World War II broke out on September 1st, 1939. Rather than flee the incoming onslaught, she enlisted in the French ambulance corps (Services Sanitaires de l’Armee) as a private, and ended up driving ambulances during the so-named “Phony War”, which lasted from September 1939 to May 1940. With French defeat impending, she evacuated to London and ultimately found her true calling.

Hall was recruited into the Special Operations Executive (SOE) by Vera Atkins, who was the special assistant to the head of Section “F” in the SOE. Atkins talked to Hall at a dinner party and found her to be a good fit because of her language proficiency with French and German as well as her ability to work under pressure. Furthermore, the things that had obstructed her from a career in the U.S. Foreign Service – her gender and disability – were generally regarded as assets to the SOE. As an American woman before the United States entered the war, Hill could move freely about France relatively inconspicuously.

After completing the SOE’s agent training program, Hill formally became a SOE special agent in April 1941. She arrived in France on August 23rd, 1941 as an undercover agent using the identity of Brigitte LeContre, a reporter for the New York Post. Hall went beyond the standard six month long SOE field tenure to serve a full fifteen months in Lyon, France.

While in Lyon, Hall organized, funded, supplied, and armed the French resistance. Furthermore, she rescued downed Allied airmen and ensured their safe return to England, oversaw an SOE parachute drop, provided courier service for other agents, and obtained supplies for clandestine presses. She also orchestrated escapes for POW from German and Vichy French prisons.

Halls extraordinary efforts did ultimately lead her to the attention of the Gestapo and the French Vichy Police, but they were never able to find out exactly who she was – they had enough information to know that they were looking for a woman with a limping gait, but they thought she was French Canadian.

The illusion of the Vichy French government collapsed when U.S. and British forces invaded North Africa in 1942 and German troops took complete control of France. The Gestapo there was under the command of a man named Klaus Barbie, who uttered the famous quote: “The woman who limps is one of the most dangerous Allied agents in France. We must find her and destroy her.”

Hall’s position had the stakes raised, and she had no choice but to escape France. In November 1942, Hall arranged a Spanish guide to take her and a few other SOE agents through the Pyrenees Mountains to Spain. This journey would have been difficult for anyone to make in the winter and Hall did it with a prosthetic leg.

However, Hall’s group was arrested at the Spanish border because they did not have the right paperwork to enter the country. She was imprisoned for a few weeks and managed to get out after she had a freed inmate smuggle a letter to the U.S. Embassy. Hall was released shortly thereafter and entered into service at the SOE office in Spain, where she was responsible for setting up a new network of agents and safe houses. When she returned to London in July 1943, she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. The British government had wanted to honor her contributions with greater ceremony, but she declined on the basis that too much pomp and circumstance would compromise her work as an operative.

After all of this, Hall still wanted to return to France to continue helping the resistance. The SOE was not enthusiastic about sending her back to occupied France, so Hall sought out something more. On March 10th, 1944, Hall joined the U.S. Office of Strategic Services and by the end of the month was back in France (codenamed Diane) under the guise of an old lady. To facilitate her disguise, her hair was dyed grey, she wore extra clothing to give the illusion of heavier bodyweight, and walked with an extra swing in her step to hide her usual gait.

Because she could not be part of a parachute drop due to her prosthetic leg, she was taken into Brittany by speedboat at night. She and one other agent landed on shore in a dinghy at night. It was there that Hall began her second stint of operations in war-torn France. She eluded the Gestapo by moving from village to village in rural France, organizing the French Resistance network all the way.  Between July 14th, 1944 and August 14th, 1944, Hall sent 37 radio messages to London, ranging in topics from where the German army was located to arranging airdrops of food, money, radio equipment, medical supplies, etc. (Payment, p. 21)

By the time the Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy in Operation D-Day, Hall and her network – more than 1500 men strong – was ready. (Elder, DIA) Highlighted in the Memorandum for the President (created May 12, 1945) is Hall’s joint effort with two American officers in successfully organizing, arming and training three FFI battalions that took part in a number of engagements with the Nazis as well as acts of sabotage resulting in the destruction of bridges, supply trains, and enemy communications. Furthermore, Hall provided radio communication between London and Haute Loire resistance forces, transmitting and receiving operational and intelligence information. The memorandum calls this “…the most dangerous type of work…” (Archives) and yet Hall completed it unyieldingly.

Virginia Hall was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by the chief of the OSS on September 23rd, 1945 for her efforts in aiding the liberation of France. Not only was this important for the prestige of the award but also because she made history in becoming the first civilian woman to earn it. After the war, Hall got married in 1950 to a man named Paul Goillot, whom she met in France as a result of a parachute drop that she organized, and went on to continue her career in intelligence with the CIA until mandatory retirement in 1966. She passed away sixteen years later on July 12th, with a legacy of determination, bravery, and service.

Sources:

Review of The Wolves at the Door (Judith L. Pearson) by Hayden B. Peake

American Women Spies of World War II by Simone Payment

WANTED: The Limping Lady, Smithsonian Magazine

Virginia Hall, National Women’s History Museum

Faces of Defense Intelligence: Virginia Hall – The “Limping Lady” by Greg Elder

Not Bad for a Girl from Baltimore: The Story of Virginia Hall

This article was written by Kristina Weber, Content Supervisor of Centry. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in History from the University of Calgary.

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Spies in History: The Story of Elizabeth Bentley

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Figure 1. Elizabeth Bentley testifying before the House Committee

In 1945, American-born Elizabeth Bentley defected from her role as a Soviet spy and ousted more than eighty associates in her network, many of whom held positions in the government of the United States. She had contacts in the Office of Strategic Services, War Production Board, Board of Economic Warfare, U.S. Senate, Foreign Economic Administration, U.S. Army and Army Air Force, Treasury Department, State Department, Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, and the White House itself.

A Self-Made Spy

Bentley’s career in espionage began of her own volition in 1935, when she took a job at the Italian Library of Information in New York City, which was colloquially known as fascist Italy’s propaganda bureau. During her time working there, she expressed interest to the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) in spying on fascists. An NKVD officer named Jacob Golos was assigned as her primary contact.

When Golos was forced to register as an agent of the USSR, he was not able to manage the bulk of his work and so he gave Bentley some responsibility of the network. She was primarily in charge of the day-to-day business of a front organization – the United States Service and Shipping Corporation. Most of her contacts were part of what was known as the Silvermaster Group, which was a network of agents centered around Nathan Gregory Silvermaster.

After Golos died in 1943, Bentley continued her work in espionage and ultimately took his place. Her new point of contact was the leading NKGB undercover spy chief, Iskhak Akhmerov. Her network expanded when CPUSA General Secretary Earl Browder gave her responsibility of the Perlo Group, which had contacts in the War Production Board, United States Senate, and the Treasury Department

She resisted the order to have her contacts report directly to Akhmerov rather than a chain that went through her to him. Eventually she was forced to give up her sources and quit her position at U.S. Service and Shipping.

A year later, she met with her newest NKGB contact, Anatoly Gorsky, and threatened to become an informant – after which, Gorsky recommended that the next course of action be to eliminate her as a threat. The real impetus came when Louis Bedenz, one of her sources at CPUSA newspaper, had made the decision to defect. Thus, Bentley likely feeling that she was stuck between a rock and a hard place, ultimately made her choice to defect on November 6, 1945.

FBI Response

When Bentley defected, she exposed her former networks to the FBI, including more than thirty individuals who worked in the government. The FBI briefly contemplated using Bentley as a double agent, but they discovered within the year that it would not work. News of her defection had reached leaders in Moscow through Kim Philby, a high-ranking member in MI:6 – later known as a double agent. It was timed just so that the FBI could not gather any direct evidence of the espionage. So, the FBI moved to their next choice – urge the accused to confess. That failed as well, because Moscow ordered that Bentley’s sources had to cease espionage activity, destroy incriminating material, and to prepare for FBI scrutiny. Bentley’s sources were under strict orders to not confess.

Much of the doubt surrounding Bentley’s testimony had to do with the fact that she had no ‘smoking gun’ evidence, as it was only private corroboration and classified documents that substantiated her claims – as such, it came down to her word vs. the accused in court. Her testimony did, however, launch a lot of investigation into the names, and it was found that her story corroborated many of the FBI’s suspicions. One FBI agent later recalled that “We had files here, there, and everywhere … and she kind of sewed it all together.” (Red Spy Queen, p. 100) This was in conjunction with the project conducted by the FBI called Venona. Ultimately, Venona absolutely corroborated the information that Bentley gave, however it was not until the USSR collapsed that Venona became declassified and – by then, Bentley’s case was a distant memory.

The Public Response

Something else to consider was simply that Americans were struck with disbelief by the magnitude of her testimony. The people that Bentley named as associates were so deeply entrenched in all avenues of American politics and management, that it was difficult for the public to suddenly consider that these people were feeding information to a foreign power. Bentley appealed to the public fear of Communism, suggesting that communist spies had a plan to overthrow the government and they represented a threat as real as Fascists. This is particularly important in the context of the period, as the United States had just come out World War II, so whether it was Bentley’s intent to scare her listeners, that would have been a simple way to get the message across.

The wave of fear that washed over the American public led to serious doubt in the Truman administration. Historians Haynes and Klehr suggest that the testimony made Americans believe that the government had been complacent about Soviet espionage, and that the CPUSA in their home was an instrument of a hostile power. This has depth when considering the historical context. While there were anti-communist sentiments rising in Europe over the division of post-war Germany, the memory of the alliance with the Soviet Union only a few years prior was still fresh in the minds of the American public. So, finding out that the USSR was conducting espionage in their home would invite a sense of betrayal.

Both sides of American politics took the opportunity presented by Bentley’s defection to criticize their opposition.  Because Venona was unable to be used as evidence for her claims, many Americans saw the accusations as a symbol available to be interpreted and used for the benefit of any party, even if they were in opposition. Some saw it as part of a conspiracy by the conservatives to uproot the Truman administration’s New Deal programs, which were topics of much contention at the time. Conversely, the proponents of the New Deal saw Bentley as a threat to the reputation of the men who had supported these reforms, because many of the people she accused were in the government. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) leaped on the opportunity to criticize the Truman administration when it called a congress into session over inflation and not Soviet infiltration. Ultimately, the public response to her testimony propelled HUAC into the McCarthy era. Bentley’s accusations and the fear they elicited served as a stage for Senator Joseph McCarthy to stand upon while preaching the danger of Soviet infiltration.

Why is this important?

Her testimony is important in history as it was one of the first of accusations of the Cold War to shed light on espionage conducted by another world power. Her defection alone named a vast number of spies and put a hold on Soviet espionage in the U.S.A. In her testimony, Haynes and Klehr mention how professionally she described her role and listed the names of her former associates, many of whom had been federal officials that “handed over government military and diplomatic secrets to the USSR.” (Haynes & Klehr, pp. 72-73) The hold on espionage came from a Soviet desire to protect its intelligence by shutting down its active contacts in the United States. They withdrew their officers and many others, even outside of Bentley’s network. Knowledge of the magnitude of this shutdown was only available after the collapse of the Soviet Union and declassification of documents, so Olmsted suggests that scholars before that time under-appreciated the extent of how Bentley affected Soviet espionage in America. Now that documents have become declassified, we know with certainty that Elizabeth Bentley’s testimony was accurate, and can now truly assess the impact she had on the Cold War.

Sources

Fried, Richard M. “The “Red Spy Queen” in a Male World”. Diplomatic History Journal, Vol. 7, Issue 5: Blackwell Publishing LTD. (pp. 741-745)

Haynes, John Earl and Harvey Klehr. Early Cold War Spies. 1st ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Print. (pp. 60-89)

Kessler, Lauren (2003). “Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era”. Harper Perennial. (pp. 144-147)

Olmsted, Kathryn S. “Blond Queens, Red Spiders, and Neurotic Old Maids: Gender and Espionage in the Early Cold War.” Published online: 25 May 2006 (pp. 78-91)

Olmsted, Kathryn S. Red Spy Queen. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.  (pp. 7-204)

Weinstein, Allen; Vassiliev, Alexander (2000). The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America–The Stalin Era. Modern Library. (p. 102)

Wilson, Veronica A. “Elizabeth Bentley and cold war representation: Some masks not dropped”. Intelligence and National Security 14, no. 2, 1999. (pp. 49-63)

This article was written by Kristina Weber, Content Supervisor of Centry. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in History from the University of Calgary.