News & Information

Rss Feed

Virginia Hall: The Courage and Daring of "The Limping Lady"

The Central Intelligence Agency, in celebration of both the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and National Disability Employment Awareness Month, honored historical Agency figures who served with distinction and a disability, leaving a lasting impact on the Agency and in American history.

A native of Baltimore, Virginia Hall Goillot is perhaps best known for her heroic service in the British Special Operations Executive and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, but she actually spent more time in CIA.

One of a handful of relatively senior women in the clandestine service, she worked in various elements of CIA until her mandatory retirement in 1966 at the age of 60.

And she did it all despite having a prosthetic leg, which she named Cuthbert.

A Sense of Adventure

Hall, who had a gift for languages and a sense of adventure, wanted to join the foreign service.

After attending Radcliffe and Barnard and pursuing additional studies in Europe, she signed on as a clerk at the US Embassy in Warsaw.

Her next assignment took her to Izmir, Turkey. There she suffered a serious hunting accident and lost her left leg below the knee.

The 27-year-old didn’t let that slow her down, however.

Fitted with a wooden leg, she went back to work—this time at the consulate in Venice.

While there, she asked to take the oral exam for the foreign service only to be informed that the loss of her leg was cause for rejection and that her dream of becoming a diplomat was over.

The outbreak of World War II found Hall in France. She quickly joined the ambulance corps.

After the fall of France, she made her way through Spain and then to England, where she eventually volunteered to serve with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). SOE trained her in weapons, communications, security, and resistance activities.

During the next few years, she would become legendary for her exploits, first with SOE and then with the OSS.

A Legendary Intelligence Officer

Virginia organized agent networks, assisted escaped prisoners of war, and recruited French men and women to run safe houses—staying one step ahead of the Gestapo, who wanted desperately to apprehend “The Limping Lady.”

For her courage and ingenuity, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross—the only civilian woman to be so honored.

After the war, the 40-year-old Hall was eager to remain in the intelligence business.

Virginia being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Because she spoke Italian fluently, she was dispatched to Venice, where for several years she collected and transmitted economic, financial, and political intelligence with special emphasis on the Communist movement and its leaders.

She then worked for the National Committee for a Free Europe (NCFE), a CIA front organization associated with Radio Free Europe.

She officially began her CIA career on December 3, 1951.

For the next 15 years, she used her covert action expertise in a wide range of Agency activities, chiefly in support of resistance groups in Iron Curtain countries.

It’s been seventy years since the OSS closed its doors, and twenty five years since the passage of the ADA, and the spirit of diversity and inclusion that fueled OSS’s success is alive and well within CIA.

Although CIA is a unique employer with a special set of security requirements, the Agency is proud of its officers with disabilities and continues to strive to make the Agency an employer of choice for people with disabilities.

If you want to read more about Virginia Hall, see:

  • A Climb to Freedom: A Personal Journey in the Footsteps of Virginia Hall by Craig R. Gralley in the March 2017 issue of Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 61 No. 1.
  • L’espionne: Virginia Hall, une Americaine dans la guerre by Vincent Nouzille in French; Paris: Fayard, 2007.
  • The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy by Judith L. Pearson, Guilford, CT: The Lyon Press, 2005.

For related stories, please see:

To learn more about career opportunities for people with disabilities at CIA, please click here.

Posted: Oct 08, 2015 03:34 PM
Last Updated: Jun 29, 2017 11:15 PM