A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II Info

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A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Chosen as a
BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR by NPR, the New York Public Library,
Amazon, the Seattle Times, the Washington Independent Review
of Books
, PopSugar, the Minneapolis Star Tribune,
BookBrowse, the Spectator, and the Times of
London

“Excellent…This book is as riveting as
any thriller, and as hard to put down
.” -- The New York
Times Book Review

"A compelling biography of a masterful spy,
and a reminder of what can be done with a few brave people -- and a
little resistance." - NPR
A never-before-told story of
Virginia Hall, the American spy who changed the course of World War II,
from the author of Clementine.

In 1942, the
Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission: "She is the most dangerous of
all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her."
The target in
their sights was Virginia Hall, a Baltimore socialite who talked her way
into Special Operations Executive, the spy organization dubbed Winston
Churchill's "Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare." She became the first
Allied woman deployed behind enemy lines and--despite her prosthetic
leg--helped to light the flame of the French Resistance, revolutionizing
secret warfare as we know it.
Virginia established vast spy
networks throughout France, called weapons and explosives down from the
skies, and became a linchpin for the Resistance. Even as her face
covered wanted posters and a bounty was placed on her head, Virginia
refused order after order to evacuate. She finally escaped through a
death-defying hike over the Pyrenees into Spain, her cover blown. But
she plunged back in, adamant that she had more lives to save, and led a
victorious guerilla campaign, liberating swathes of France from the
Nazis after D-Day.
Based on new and extensive research, Sonia
Purnell has for the first time uncovered the full secret life of
Virginia Hall--an astounding and inspiring story of heroism, spycraft,
resistance, and personal triumph over shocking adversity. A Woman of
No Importance
is the breathtaking story of how one woman's fierce
persistence helped win the war.

Average Ratings and Reviews
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Reviews for A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II:

4

Jan 04, 2020

I love the fact that in recent years, more and more formidable women are being brought out of shadows of obscurity, by wonderful authors. That their rightful place in history is being applauded and restored, at last recognized for their talents and bravery.

Virginia Hall is one such woman, an American who was the first woman sent by the allies to set up cells and send back information, as part of the French Resistance. She worked with a major handicap, one prosthetic leg, which gave her a very I love the fact that in recent years, more and more formidable women are being brought out of shadows of obscurity, by wonderful authors. That their rightful place in history is being applauded and restored, at last recognized for their talents and bravery.

Virginia Hall is one such woman, an American who was the first woman sent by the allies to set up cells and send back information, as part of the French Resistance. She worked with a major handicap, one prosthetic leg, which gave her a very recognizable walk. She ended the war being one of the most wanted women by the Germans, but this did not stop her. She changed her walk, her looks and set up operations that were integral to the allied forces in retaking France. At one time she has 400 Resistance volunteers, running missions which she herself planned.

At wars end she was not treated fairly, her talents not used to their full capacity, her work little recognized. She would be confined to a desk in the newly formed CIA. She is, however, now recognized, new agents are taught about her, her methods in France in recruiting are ones we used in the middle East, and a hall at Langley bears her name. It's a shame this wasn't done in her lifetime. ...more
3

May 17, 2019

3.5*

The content is 5 stars. This was an absolutely fascinating story, and I would love to go back in time and have dinner with Virginia Hall and just pump her for stories because damn. She would have some good stories.

However, the reason I took off stars was the writing. While I finished the book in just a few days (this is a great subway read!) and it's very engaging while you're reading, it feels very surface level. I would have appreciated more time developing side characters besides two or 3.5*

The content is 5 stars. This was an absolutely fascinating story, and I would love to go back in time and have dinner with Virginia Hall and just pump her for stories because damn. She would have some good stories.

However, the reason I took off stars was the writing. While I finished the book in just a few days (this is a great subway read!) and it's very engaging while you're reading, it feels very surface level. I would have appreciated more time developing side characters besides two or three who get particular attention. Towards the end, a lot of names were thrown around that the reader has already seen, and I had to really, really search my memory to remember how they had helped or hindered Virginia. I also would have appreciated more tactics, how did all of Virginia's mission fit into the larger scheme of the war. A lot of the time, the writing felt like it was skimming her story because it moved so quickly. A month would pass, and we would be told that Virginia had done a lot of work, but there was no real discussion of what that work was.

But I really, really wish the author and editor would have chosen to integrate sources differently into the narrative. They're used as footnotes, and there's no reference in the text as to how the author acquired the information. For details such as numbers and troop movements, it doesn't matter as much, I don't think, because I assumed she took it from a report or other piece of information (though it would have been nice if the author integrated those in as well, with dates and places; I believe that would have made the narrative feel even more grounded).

Where it really mattered was when the author attributed thoughts and feelings to Virginia. This didn't work for me because, as the author said, Virginia almost NEVER talked about her work as a spy. She was very private and she didn't like revisiting those parts of her life, either because it was bad memories or she didn't want to take glory for something that wasn't all that glorious. All of the author's information about her was secondhand, which makes sense because Virginia didn't leave much of a paper trail and she's also dead, so she couldn't be interviewed. When you read the acknowledgements, you're led to assume that a lot of the more personal details came from the author's extensive interviews with Virginia's niece. That's totally fine, she's an excellent source of information. I just wish that in the narrative there would have been a little distancing, even something like: "It's likely, based on discussions with her niece, who knew her well, that Virginia [felt/thought/etc.]..." The narrative is currently written as if the author knows, for sure, this is how Virginia was thinking and feeling at that exact moment, as if she had written it in a diary. But she didn't, and in the later chapters, when the niece is specifically mentioned, she says that Virginia almost never talked to her about her work. So why does the author phrase it like that?

It is, admittedly, a very small thing, but I came away with the distinct impression that the author was putting words and feelings into Virginia's mouth. That, combined with the fact that when I closed the book I thought, "Well, that felt very surface-level", made me dock a few stars.

tl;dr: The content is 5 stars, hands down; Virginia Hall is a badass and is one of the reasons why the Allies won WWII. The writing is closer to a 3, because sources weren't integrated, thoughts and feelings were attributed to Hall when we cannot say for certain she felt/thought those things, and it wanted to cover so much information that it never dug deep into certain topics (tactics, how Virginia's set up her contacts besides "talking"). ...more
4

May 14, 2019

Virginia Hall (April 6, 1906 July 8, 1982) was an American spy, working first with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and then later with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, primarily in France. After the war she was honored with awards in the US, France and Britain receiving the American Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), the French Croix de Guerre and made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). The DSC was the only one awarded Virginia Hall (April 6, 1906 – July 8, 1982) was an American spy, working first with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and then later with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, primarily in France. After the war she was honored with awards in the US, France and Britain receiving the American Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), the French Croix de Guerre and made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). The DSC was the only one awarded to a civilian woman in World War Two. After the war Virginia worked at the Special Activities Division of the newly established CIA. The book covers in great detail her involvement in war efforts in France.

The book starts with Virginia’s youth, telling of how she came to study in Paris and in so doing fell in love with France. Hunting in Turkey she accidentally shot her own leg and in so doing was thus forced to wear a prosthesis. This never stopped her from fulfilling her goals.

After the German invasion of France in 1940, she became determined to return France to the French. That she was a woman, that she had only one fully functional leg didn’t matter. On one occasion, escaping from France, she crossed the Pyrenees in winter, a difficult feat for a healthy person.

We learn in great detail of all her missions, working first with the SOE and then later the OSS. Working closely with French partisans, she organized guerrilla units and missions. Nuns, prostitutes and a wide array of individuals from different social classes were those she had contact with. She saw that her compatriots were freed from prisons. Safe houses needed to be established. Radio messages had to be transmitted. All aspects of each mission were planned in detail by her. Bridges were to be blown up, rail lines destroyed and telephone lines cut. All communications were to be severed. German convoys were targeted. Delivery of ammunition, supplies and food to the Germans was to be stopped and the Germans’ subsequent retreat made impossible. German intelligence was sabotaged. Escape of prisoners had to be meticulously organized. All involved were risking their lives. There is suspense in the telling and gruesome details are related. Each mission is detailed with exactitude.

The missions give the reader a very clear picture of Virginia’s personality. Determined, intelligent, independent, self-controlled, courageous, illusive, frank, outspoken, caring, but not cuddly.

Posthumously it has been acknowledged that Virginia was discriminated against. That de Gaulle sought to downplay the importance of Allied Forces and of women in general has played in too. That Virginia’s achievements and valor have now been brought to public attention is just and proper.

I usually avoid books of espionage. I worry that I will not understand. For the most part, I did understand. There are numerous people involved but the reader is brought back time and time again to central figures. In this way events are tied together as a whole.

While the book’s prime focus is Virginia’s actions during the war, her life after the war is summarized too. The book follows her life through to her death.

Juliet Stevenson narrates the audiobook. She uses different accents, juggling a fake French accent, a British and an American accent. This made listening a disjointed experience and not to my taste. I have generously given the narration performance three stars. Higher than that I cannot go.

*****************************

First Lady 4 stars
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II 4 stars ...more
5

Jun 07, 2019

I recently read a novel about a couple who had worked with the French Resistance and it made me want to read a nonfiction account. A Woman of No Importance gave me more than I had hoped for. I am almost completely ignorant about the French Resistance but still its kind of shocking that I had never heard of the accomplishments of Virginia Hall. Virginia was an American woman who wanted to be a diplomat, rather than marrying well as her mother preferred, at a time when that wasnt really done. Her I recently read a novel about a couple who had worked with the French Resistance and it made me want to read a nonfiction account. “A Woman of No Importance” gave me more than I had hoped for. I am almost completely ignorant about the French Resistance but still it’s kind of shocking that I had never heard of the accomplishments of Virginia Hall. Virginia was an American woman who wanted to be a diplomat, rather than marrying well as her mother preferred, at a time when that wasn’t really done. Her hopes were thwarted when she accidentally shot her leg while hunting in Turkey and lost her leg. However, her intelligence and drive led her to join the British Special Operations Unit, and her persistence made them send her to France.

She went undercover as an American journalist and she managed to go everywhere and meet everyone and recruit people to the Resistance as she went. Her prosthetic leg made her stand out, but even so she was capable of assuming multiple identities in a single day. She was given a license to kill by her British handlers and she became extremely adept at organizing and carrying out clandestine operations and training participants. When her cover was blown she escaped over snow covered mountains. The British refused to send her back to France so she switched to America’s Office of Strategic Services (the OSS and precursor to the CIA) who sent her back to France before D-Day to lead a guerrilla campaign against the Nazis. After the war she worked for the CIA, which failed to utilize her unique skills. What can you expect from an institution that made its female employees wear white gloves to work, even if they had spent time disguised as a French peasant while they fought Nazis. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

There weren’t any dull parts to this book and parts of it were quite cinematic. It really should be made into a movie and everyone should know about Virginia Hall. ...more
5

Jan 02, 2019

Purnell has penned another spectacular history of another outstanding woman. I was enamored with the first history of Clementine Churchill. I loved that one!! And this tale of the exploits of Virginia Hall just blew me out of the water!!! This woman was unstoppable, unflappable and fearless in her desire to serve in WWII. She was the primary developer of the French Resistance and worked for the British Secret Service as well the American OSS. She struggled for 6 years in France working to defeat Purnell has penned another spectacular history of another outstanding woman. I was enamored with the first history of Clementine Churchill. I loved that one!! And this tale of the exploits of Virginia Hall just blew me out of the water!!! This woman was unstoppable, unflappable and fearless in her desire to serve in WWII. She was the primary developer of the French Resistance and worked for the British Secret Service as well the American OSS. She struggled for 6 years in France working to defeat the Germans and to say she was marvelous is an understatement. She displayed such leadership that French citizens were easily enlisted to help her and willing to suffer to save their country. Purnell has done exquisite research to bring to life the work of Virginia in great detail! I can’t say enough about this book! It will be my history pick for the year! Loved it ...more
5

Jan 16, 2020

This is the biography of one of the first women to become a front line secret agent, who left America during the Great Depression, suffered her leg being partially amputated and ended up helping to found what became known as the French resistance.

What a bloody woman.
5

Aug 26, 2019

How are we not all aware of this incredible woman?! This needs to be required reading for everyone.
4

Dec 27, 2019

I had never heard of Virginia Hall before the release of Sonia Purnells biography A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. Virginia Hall would be okay with her anonymity since she never sought fame or recompense. In spite of her heroics and brilliant tactics as a spy for the British SOE, and later for the American OSS, Virginia Hall was pigeonholed as a disabled woman of no importance. She was often under-utilized and always under-estimated I had never heard of Virginia Hall before the release of Sonia Purnell’s biography A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. Virginia Hall would be okay with her anonymity since she never sought fame or recompense. In spite of her heroics and brilliant tactics as a spy for the British SOE, and later for the American OSS, Virginia Hall “was pigeonholed as a disabled woman of no importance.” She was often under-utilized and always under-estimated simply because she was a woman in a man’s war. Yet, she had a fierce drive to exceed in helping the Allies build up the French Resistance and overcome Nazism. In this compelling biography, Sonia Purnell shows the reader why Virginia Hall’s life exemplifies: “How adversity and rejection and suffering can sometimes turn, in the end, into resolve and ultimately triumph, even against the backdrop of a horrifying conflict that casts its long shadow over the way we live today.”

Virginia Hall was a real-life, kick-ass, wonder woman!

In spite of being an amputee, Virginia Hall was responsible for prodigious activities that had a great impact on the Allies’ success in France. She organized, trained, and armed resistance groups in spite of their internal feuding and machoism; she set up safe-houses; planned ambushes, blowing up bridges, and a prison break of twelve British agents from Mauzac prison camp. Even though she was disabled, she was able to walk across a mountain pass to escape the Nazis. Her organizational abilities were beyond compare. Klaus Barbie was intent on finding and destroying her, calling her “the enemy’s most dangerous spy.” She is remembered by the males who worked under her for teaching “tolerance, friendship without calculation and a true notion of service to one’s country.”

After the war, Virginia went to work for the newly formed CIA. However, she was the subject of workplace unfairness because she was a woman with strong opinions. She was often unhappy with her assignments that would relegate her to a boring desk job. Her better ideas were given to male counterparts to carry-out. There are six facets to today’s CIA ethos with Service being the first. Virginia was chosen to represent Service, but the CIA failed to identify her as a “trailblazer” officer who shaped the agency’s history. Her shoddy treatment was later cited within the CIA itself as “a textbook case of discrimination.”

The author has done an excellent job of detailing Virginia’s numerous activities. There was a cast of many characters that made it hard to keep up with at times. Even Virginia’s artificial leg had its own name. Fortunately, there is a list at the beginning of the book that gives the main player’s names and code names.

4.5-Stars. Bookclub recommended. This is the December 2019 – January 2020 non-fiction group selection for the Goodreads Reading For Pleasure Book Club of which I am a member.

For my review that also has a recipe for Chicken Divan to go with it, check out my ad-free blog www.kerrinsbookreviews.com. ...more
4

Jan 24, 2020

I love these books about important people in history who youve never heard of. This was my introduction to Virginia Hall, an American intelligence official who helped fight Nazis on the ground in France during the WWII occupation. Despite gender discrimination and the loss of a leg during an earlier hunting accident, she was able to organize vast networks of spies and resistance fighters, all while constantly eluding capture by Nazi forces. She was brave, strategic, intelligent, determined, and I love these books about important people in history who you’ve never heard of. This was my introduction to Virginia Hall, an American intelligence official who helped fight Nazis on the ground in France during the WWII occupation. Despite gender discrimination and the loss of a leg during an earlier hunting accident, she was able to organize vast networks of spies and resistance fighters, all while constantly eluding capture by Nazi forces. She was brave, strategic, intelligent, determined, and often very lucky. Her treatment by her male colleagues and lack of general recognition by France, Britain, and the US immediately after the war was infuriating to read about. Her treatment by the CIA later was grossly unfair. Fortunately, her contributions are more recognized today and there is a building named after her that’s used for CIA training. 3.5⭐️ ...more
5

Jun 18, 2019

I loved this story! To read/listen to the book is to have an immersive experience in the emergence of the French Resistance and the life of the eccentric American woman who worked for the UK and was at the center of the Resistance in Europe. The spycraft stories are gripping and the human lives lost are heartbreaking. Also heartbreaking and simply maddening is the disdain and apathy and sexist treatment given to Virginia Hall in the OSS and postwar CIA. The audiobook is read by the award-winning I loved this story! To read/listen to the book is to have an immersive experience in the emergence of the French Resistance and the life of the eccentric American woman who worked for the UK and was at the center of the Resistance in Europe. The spycraft stories are gripping and the human lives lost are heartbreaking. Also heartbreaking and simply maddening is the disdain and apathy and sexist treatment given to Virginia Hall in the OSS and postwar CIA. The audiobook is read by the award-winning British actress Juliet Stevenson, one of the BEST narrators today, in my opinion. ...more
5

Apr 27, 2019

This book tells the important story of an unrecognized hero of World War II--Virginia Hall, one of the few female spies who helped build the French Resistance and assure the success of the Allied invasion of France. Purnell's stunningly detailed research and writing puts us in the action with Virginia, building up tension, emotion and joy as events unfold. Purnell also includes the perfect amount of historical context, to ensure that the reader isn't left drowning.

While the many code names and This book tells the important story of an unrecognized hero of World War II--Virginia Hall, one of the few female spies who helped build the French Resistance and assure the success of the Allied invasion of France. Purnell's stunningly detailed research and writing puts us in the action with Virginia, building up tension, emotion and joy as events unfold. Purnell also includes the perfect amount of historical context, to ensure that the reader isn't left drowning.

While the many code names and people referenced may be confusing, the story remains focused on Virginia, and all that she has done for France, freedom and representation, of both women and those with disabilities. Virginia's story inspired and awed me in every page, and I can only look up to her as a role model. I am so glad Purnell took the time to research Virginia and give her the attention and respect that she deserved. Virginia's story is one of perseverance, determination, and love of freedom, country, and people that should not be forgotten. We still have much to learn and improve upon from her experience. Women—our capabilities, emotions, and drive—should not be overlooked or ignored, and Virginia Hall's story is a shining example of the consequences, both positive and negative, of this.

Thank you to Edelweiss and Penguin for providing me with an advanced readers copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
--
I'll write a more detailed account later, but this book is an amazingly detailed account of the story of Virginia Hall, a formidable and trailblazing spy during World War II. Great representation of disability as well! ...more
5

Dec 18, 2019

I had never heard of Virginia Hall before, but wow...she was an incredible woman and such a force for freedom while behind the lines in France during WW2. I highly recommend this detailed history of all the incredible things she endured and accomplished and how many great things she did to defeat the Nazis in their own territories, and without backup.

Content: while the story is very matter of fact, theres no denying that the Nazis are guilty of incredible atrocities, and even just a sentence I had never heard of Virginia Hall before, but wow...she was an incredible woman and such a force for freedom while behind the lines in France during WW2. I highly recommend this detailed history of all the incredible things she endured and accomplished and how many great things she did to defeat the Nazis in their own territories, and without backup.

Content: while the story is very matter of fact, there’s no denying that the Nazis are guilty of incredible atrocities, and even just a sentence about something they did can have an incredible impact.

Thanks to the publisher for a free reading copy. A favorable review was not required. ...more
3

Oct 24, 2019

Virginia Hall was an amazing person and is a fascinating subject for a biography. She was an incredible agent who worked for the SOE and the OSS during WWII, a key figure in espionage and resistance in occupied France. She deserved better than this book.

A big part of my problem with this book was the writing style; the prose is dull and plodding, and I suspect it would be confusing in places for readers not already familiar with the SOE and its wartime operations. Purnell fails to define key Virginia Hall was an amazing person and is a fascinating subject for a biography. She was an incredible agent who worked for the SOE and the OSS during WWII, a key figure in espionage and resistance in occupied France. She deserved better than this book.

A big part of my problem with this book was the writing style; the prose is dull and plodding, and I suspect it would be confusing in places for readers not already familiar with the SOE and its wartime operations. Purnell fails to define key terms or explain the background of major elements in the book.

Purnell also handles names astonishingly badly; she refers to most men mentioned by their last names. She calls women either by their first names (Virginia Hall, Germaine Guerin), their full names (Vera Atkins, though honestly I’d be wary of calling her anything else, too), or their titles (many of the Frenchwomen Hall encountered or worked with during the war are called Madame [Lastname]). And she calls most, but not all, SOE agents by their code names, a truly inexplicable choice. (Ben Cowburn remains Ben Cowburn, maybe because of the way he operated, but Brian Stonehouse is referred to as Celestin, Peter Harratt is called Aramis, etc.) I’m not sure how Purnell expects anyone to remember who is who, especially with the vague descriptions and references she provides for most of the people mentioned. I came into this already knowing the names and aliases of most of the major SOE operatives, and I still had to look things up from time to time.

I’m also concerned about accuracy. I am by no means an expert in the SOE, WWII, espionage, or anything else, and I caught several minor factual errors — wrong names, mostly. I have to assume there are other errors that I didn’t catch.

But mostly I’m just sad that this book didn’t make Virginia Hall live, or give any real sense of what her life was like. The most riveting and well-written chapter is the Mauzac prison break, which Hall orchestrated but wasn’t involved in. In other chapters, there’s almost no information on day to day activities, or rich description of Hall’s actions. I realize that’s in part because of the limited information available about Hall; she didn’t write a book about her experiences, or even talk about them, and was notably unwilling to have them commemorated or celebrated. But it’s still sad.

Virginia Hall’s story would make an amazing book, but this book is not the one. (I do hope it inspires someone to make a movie about her, though.) ...more
0

Feb 26, 2020

Reads like great fiction and is all the more incredible because it's true. I had no idea of all that Virginia Hall did -- of all that the Resistance did, really. My WWII knowledge is woefully inadequate, but getting better everyday.
3

May 07, 2019

3.5 STARS.

This is nonfiction about an American woman who made the French resistance her passion. She fought her way to the center and did so much to assist and direct. She was daring and constantly pushed for results. I enjoyed her story. But I'm not sure I was all that crazy about the audio narration. So 3 stars.
5

May 21, 2019

I have never been a big history buff. Perhaps it is something that happens as one collects decades in ones life, but if I had read more books like Sonia Purnells A Woman of No Importance , I would have known that history is a fascinating subject. This non-fiction saga covers the incredibly successful, albeit unlikely, career of Virginia Hall, a woman who defied the odds by becoming a very reliable British Special Operation Executive agent in France in World War II.

Virginia, called Dindy by her I have never been a big history buff. Perhaps it is something that happens as one collects decades in one’s life, but if I had read more books like Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of No Importance , I would have known that history is a fascinating subject. This non-fiction saga covers the incredibly successful, albeit unlikely, career of Virginia Hall, a woman who defied the odds by becoming a very reliable British Special Operation Executive agent in France in World War II.

Virginia, called “Dindy” by her family, was born in Maryland in 1906 into a well-to-do family. Although she was highly intelligent, she found school boring. She craved adventure and travel. When she finished school, her dream was to become a diplomat. She applied but was rejected. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself would not intervene on her behalf. This was ironic because like Roosevelt, Dindy had a disability. She was an amputee, having lost her leg after it became severely infected following a hunting accident. She didn’t let that deter her, however, from pursuing her higher aspirations. At the time, there were only six women of 1500 foreign service workers. Rejection because of her gender became a common occurrence in Virginia’s career. Instead of pouting, she dug in her heels and made herself an even stronger candidate.

Since the American government had rejected her, she signed on with the British. She was trained as a spy and became an expert at disguising herself, recruiting supporters and resistance fighters, and providing food, concealment, and safe transport to those fleeing the Nazis and the Abwehr. She formed incredible networks of defenders among the police, townsfolk, other agents, and even a madam and prostitutes in brothels. What she didn’t have, often, was cooperation or well-disciplined agents among her ranks. Some men, unfortunately, were resistant to taking orders from a woman, and she had no real authority to command them, for this was not her title. It was, however, her expertise and her calling.


Ms. Purnell documents in great detail many of the missions and exploits undertaken by Virginia and the men with whom she worked. There were many successes as well as many failures. This does not read like any of the history books I grew up with in school. It almost reads like a novel. There are plots that were complex undertakings, and I found myself totally engrossed. Most were fraught with hunger, cold, sleep-deprivation, and ever-present danger. Virginia (and Cuthbert, her wooden prosthesis) endured it all and pulled herself together to keep on going. Amazing! Many of those who were her partners in the Resistance, sadly, did not survive. The descriptions of their fate are not pleasant to read. I marvel at the courage and determination of these men and women who gave so much for France. There are too many events to mention, but I do have one that impressed me the most: the jailbreak of the twelve SOE agents from Mauzac prison, a feat that was planned by Virginia and was thought to be impossible. Over time, she became a most-wanted person by the Germans, who first thought they were looking for a man.

I am in awe of the research that went into the writing of this book. I took my time in reading it. I looked up French words and their pronunciations. I went back and forth and looked up code names in the List of Characters, as I got confused at times. What struck me most was how this one woman accomplished so much and wanted no credit. She only wanted to do more. She was “a woman of no importance...in concealing her identity from others, she had at last found what she really was and what she really could do. And how, in fighting for the liberty of another nation, she had found freedom for herself.”(page 308)

Today, Virginia Hall is recognized as a pioneer who represents Service, one of the CIA’s six ethos. France and the Allies owe a great debt to Virginia Hall and those who struggled and fought with her.

5 stars ...more
4

Jan 24, 2020

This is a fascinating book about a little known WWII war hero, Virginia Hall. An American woman with a prosthetic leg, she managed to become British undercover operative in France during the Nazi occupation. She was able to recruit hundred of patriotic French men and women into the resistance, sabotaging and undermining the German war efforts in France. She became the most wanted and hated spy in France, and the Nazis hunted her unmercifully. Somehow she always managed to stay one limping step This is a fascinating book about a little known WWII war hero, Virginia Hall. An American woman with a prosthetic leg, she managed to become British undercover operative in France during the Nazi occupation. She was able to recruit hundred of patriotic French men and women into the resistance, sabotaging and undermining the German war efforts in France. She became the most wanted and hated spy in France, and the Nazis hunted her unmercifully. Somehow she always managed to stay one limping step ahead of them.

After the war, despite her brave and heralded efforts during the war, she was given unsatisfying and demeaning assignments by the CIA, which was an incredibly misogynistic organization.

Virginia Hall was an exceptional woman, totally ahead of her time. She was very conscientious and exacting about everything she undertook. She understood the need for discretion and secrecy in her work, more than many of her male “superiors.” She planned every maneuver to the last detail, and was even able to help some of her captured colleagues break out of prison. People grew to trust her and pledge fealty to her. She was modest to a fault, not wanting any honors after the war.

This book is carefully and impeccably researched and well written. Although Virginia’s exploits seem fantastical, they are all carefully documented. I contrast this with the book Beneath a Scarlet Sky, which was primarily based in the recollections of an elderly man, who seemed to exaggerate and embellish his deeds during WWII, some of which seemed far fetched. I would recommend A Woman of No Importance over Beneath A Scarlet Sky any day. ...more
3

May 31, 2019

Slightly embarrassed, but didnt finish. I really wanted to know this story but the writing is so dry and moves so slow. Dont judge me; I put forth a good effort. And I love to read and love books! (But make a movie in this case...?) Slightly embarrassed, but didn’t finish. I really wanted to know this story but the writing is so dry and moves so slow. Don’t judge me; I put forth a good effort. And I love to read and love books! (But make a movie in this case...?) ...more
5

Feb 23, 2020

What an absolutely fascinating history! What a remarkable woman! I researched the Resistance before writing one of my novels, but that was long ago and I don't recall coming across information about Virginia Hall. Now I understand why. Students of WWII history and fans of WWII fiction should take the time to read this book. It is well worth it.

I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator, Juliet Stevenson, was wonderful.
5

Aug 28, 2019

Popular fiction abounds with superheroes. But it's not often at all that you'll come across a true-to-life story of a person who comes even close to the sort of over-the-top heroism that so many popular writers favor. However, the story of WWII American woman spy Virginia Hall (1906-82) fits that bill. In A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell relates the woman's experience in World War II in compelling and often jaw-dropping detail. It's the best study I've ever read about the British Special Popular fiction abounds with superheroes. But it's not often at all that you'll come across a true-to-life story of a person who comes even close to the sort of over-the-top heroism that so many popular writers favor. However, the story of WWII American woman spy Virginia Hall (1906-82) fits that bill. In A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell relates the woman's experience in World War II in compelling and often jaw-dropping detail. It's the best study I've ever read about the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and the French Resistance. I found it nearly impossible to put the book down.

"An unqualified heroine of the war"
"Today Virginia is officially recognized by the CIA as an unqualified heroine of the war," Purnell notes in an Epilogue. And in 2016 the CIA named its training center the Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center. But during the six years she worked for the SOE and the OSS during the war, and during her fifteen-year postwar career in the CIA, she was confronted again and again by misogyny. Incompetent and jealous men were placed in command of her work. Male agents and partisans often refused to accept orders from her even when confirmed by her superiors in London. She was denied promotions, even nickel-and-dimed about pay. And she was refused decorations for her heroism that had been supported by nearly all those who worked with her.

This WWII American woman spy almost single-handedly kept the Resistance alive
During the nearly four years when she operated massive special operations forces behind Nazi lines in France, Virginia Hall was never awarded an equivalent rank higher than that of lieutenant. Yet the extraordinary skill and bravery with which she recruited, trained, and supplied thousands of guerrilla fighters in the French Resistance surely merited a rank of at least major general. For a time early in the war, she almost single-handedly kept the Resistance alive when the Gestapo was rounding up other networks of spies and partisans. In Western armies, a major general typically commands a division of 10-20,000 soldiers; the forces she amassed were ultimately even larger. It was only in the CIA long after the war that she was promoted to any meaningful extent, finally receiving the equivalent rank of lieutenant colonel shortly before her retirement.

"A Homeric tale of adventure, action, and seemingly unfathomable courage"
Purnell describes her book as "a Homeric tale of adventure, action, and seemingly unfathomable courage." And that is not hyperbole. Virginia Hall, child of a prosperous Baltimore banking family, showed leadership early in life. In high school, she became "class president, editor in chief, captain of sports, and even 'Class Prophet.'" She often dressed and acted like a tomboy but lost a leg in a hunting accident at age 26. That tragedy might have sidelined her, but it did nothing of the sort. She lived for the rest of her life with a wooden prosthetic leg, somehow managing feats of endurance that confounded fully-abled young men.

Misogyny and a disability held her back
As a young woman, Hall was determined to join the Foreign Service. She spoke five languages as well as English. (Her French was "atrocious," as one person said, but she made herself fully understood nonetheless.) But misogyny and her disability prevented her receiving the appointments she sought in the 1930s—even with the personal support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, at one point. She was never able to secure a Foreign Service job except as a secretary. "Virginia's shoddy treatment was later cited within the CIA itself as a textbook case of discrimination."

"No one gave her more than a fifty-fifty chance of surviving"
When at last early in the war Hall was recruited to the fledgling SOE and sent behind the lines in France, "no one in London gave [her] more than a fifty-fifty chance of surviving even the first few days. For all Virginia's qualities, dispatching a one-legged thirty-five-year-old desk clerk on a blind mission into wartime France was on paper an almost insane gamble. Yet Hall operated successfully behind German lines in France for more than three years for the SOE (and many months more for the OSS) without ever being caught by the Abwehr and the Gestapo.

She was the Nazis's #1 most wanted Allied agent
Hall even became the number one target of the notorious SS war criminal Klaus Barbie for more than a year. "The Limping Lady of Lyon was becoming the Nazis' most wanted Allied agent in the whole of France," Purnell reports. "[B]y the end of 1943, . . . Virginia's name, description, and role were universally known across German intelligence and beyond." Yet she continued to direct operations for a huge and growing army of spies and saboteurs for months, and to travel, often by foot, all across the land to refuge in neutral Spain without detection.

She engineered a spectacular prison break
Perhaps the most spectacular episode in A Woman of No Importanceis the astonishing prison break Hall engineered under the noses of the Nazis in 1942. Working with a courageous Frenchwoman whose husband was one of twelve prisoners held in a Vichy French prison, she arranged to smuggle in tools, food, and other supplies and manage the safe houses and exit strategy to get the man safely to London. There is no film, even The Great Escape (1963), that recounts a story any more dramatic than Hall's exfiltration of a dozen Allied agents from the Nazis's collaborators. Several books have been written about this amazing WWII American woman spy, but this must be the best. ...more
5

May 13, 2019

Summary: An incredible, exciting story about an inspiring, dedicated spy.

This is the story of one of the most impressive people I've ever heard of. Despite being an American woman with a disability, Virgnia Hall was one of the first spies of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE aka "the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare"). By surviving a devastating early round-up of SOE agents, she was largely responsible for establishing an SOE presence in occupied France. She recruited agents from Summary: An incredible, exciting story about an inspiring, dedicated spy.

This is the story of one of the most impressive people I've ever heard of. Despite being an American woman with a disability, Virgnia Hall was one of the first spies of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE aka "the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare"). By surviving a devastating early round-up of SOE agents, she was largely responsible for establishing an SOE presence in occupied France. She recruited agents from all walks of life. She executed some of the most daring rescue operations of the war. She risked her own life time and again for others. And through all of this, she fought for the ability to keep doing her job as various superiors doubted her abilities. I don't know that I've heard of anyone else I've admired as much for their determination and daring.

As you can probably tell from my summary, I thought this was a pretty incredible story. Truly a case of fact being more unbelievable than fiction and at least as entertaining! The writing was descriptive and engaging. It reminded me of Eric Larson, except author Sonia Purnell did a better job not making things up and noting where the facts were unclear. Her judicious use of direct quotes made this story feel immediate and true. There seem to be some delightful quotes available about the SOE and Virginia. Several made me laugh out loud! Unfortunately, in my review copy, the selection of quotes which had citations seemed random. I'd have liked for every direct quote to be paired with a reference. This didn't detract from my enjoyment of the story though!

I loved that this was the story of a woman who was one of the first and most impressive spies of any gender during WWII. I did sometimes wonder if the author was leaning a little too hard into the lone genius myth though. I'm sure Virginia's incredible successes did help convince the SOE to keep recruiting women and to look for other spies with her level of professionalism and lack of ego. Direct quotes make it clear many of her colleagues held her in the highest regard. However, I think the author's emphasis on Virginia's exceptionalism occasionally does a disservice to the women on both sides who served in every military capacity you might think of. I love books like this that shine a light on women who have been left out of many previous histories, but at this point I've read enough histories like this that it's clear exceptional woman are not such an exception.

That's a small complaint though and one that is common to many biographies which like to emphasize the importance of their subject. Overall, I loved this story and will definitely be keeping my copy to lend out to anyone I can convince to read it.This review was originally posted on Doing Dewey ...more
4

Jan 07, 2020

Very few people have ever heard of Virginia Hall, yet she is hailed by those who know as the most valuable secret agent for the Allies in WWII. She spent virtually the entire war behind enemy lines, creating, organizing, training, and commanding members of the French Resistance. Despite the Nazis desperately trying to capture her, she accomplished remarkable things during the war against impossible odds. And no surprise, she did it despite being hampered, disrespected, and blocked at every turn Very few people have ever heard of Virginia Hall, yet she is hailed by those who know as the most valuable secret agent for the Allies in WWII. She spent virtually the entire war behind enemy lines, creating, organizing, training, and commanding members of the French Resistance. Despite the Nazis desperately trying to capture her, she accomplished remarkable things during the war against impossible odds. And no surprise, she did it despite being hampered, disrespected, and blocked at every turn by men who felt threatened by a woman of her integrity, experience, and success. Stupid, stupid men from every country (USA, England, and France). This is a terrific account of a remarkable story no one knows. ...more
5

May 13, 2019

A well written and researched book-Sonia Purnell brings to light the life of a mostly neglected American heroine of WWII who was dissatisfied with and eschewed the upper class life that her mother envisioned for her. Defying the convention of a "woman's place," Virginia Hall sought a life that made her feel "alive" and after overcoming discrimination, prejudice, and her disability (a prosthetic leg) found that life working for the British SOE as an agent to thwart the Nazi insurgency in France, A well written and researched book-Sonia Purnell brings to light the life of a mostly neglected American heroine of WWII who was dissatisfied with and eschewed the upper class life that her mother envisioned for her. Defying the convention of a "woman's place," Virginia Hall sought a life that made her feel "alive" and after overcoming discrimination, prejudice, and her disability (a prosthetic leg) found that life working for the British SOE as an agent to thwart the Nazi insurgency in France, helping promote and encourage the French Resistance against the Nazis, and conducting surveillance, espionage, and guerrilla warfare which played no small role in bringing about Allied victory. The author writes about Hall's disguises and code names as well as those of her compatriots as they conduct their covert activities and about the trust and endurance needed among her followers, and also the deception of counter spies that threatened the lives of freedom fighters.

Ms. Purnell exposes the grim atrocities of war on a people and the determination of this one woman not to give up despite her hardships and suffering. The author follows Hall's life after the war and the continued discrimination toward her as a woman whose accomplishments were ignored by some in her later career in the American CIA.

A worthy read of a woman with determination, selflessness and a worthy cause. ...more
5

May 03, 2019

Firstly, I won this amazing book in a Goodreads Giveaway for the chance to leave an honest review of this book and what a stunner it is. This book reveals the way women were regarded in the 1930's and 1940's. We have come a long way since then but still have a good way to go yet. Virginia Hall had the skills and leadership abilities that were unrecognized by her so-called superiors. I never knew that these operations had been going on years before D-Day and how much they contributed to the Firstly, I won this amazing book in a Goodreads Giveaway for the chance to leave an honest review of this book and what a stunner it is. This book reveals the way women were regarded in the 1930's and 1940's. We have come a long way since then but still have a good way to go yet. Virginia Hall had the skills and leadership abilities that were unrecognized by her so-called superiors. I never knew that these operations had been going on years before D-Day and how much they contributed to the eventual allied victory. I enjoyed this book very much. ...more
5

Aug 18, 2019

This is one of the most incredible stories I have ever read. It is the gripping, terrifying and inspiring biography of a disabled American socialite whose passionate love of France and refusal to except the limitations of being a woman and having only one full leg motivated her to become one of the most successful spies of the second world war.

Virginia Hall fell in love with France as an expat. Despite her mother's expectations that she marry well for the benefit of the family, Virginia had her This is one of the most incredible stories I have ever read. It is the gripping, terrifying and inspiring biography of a disabled American socialite whose passionate love of France and refusal to except the limitations of being a woman and having only one full leg motivated her to become one of the most successful spies of the second world war.

Virginia Hall fell in love with France as an expat. Despite her mother's expectations that she marry well for the benefit of the family, Virginia had her sights set on a career in the diplomatic corps. She did not see why being a woman should stand in the way of that, and after losing the lower half of one leg in a hunting accident, she only redoubled her efforts to overcome the bias against women as diplomats. She remained stymied in her efforts, however, until France's abrupt capitulation to the Nazis, when she caught the eye of a leader in Britain's newly formed spy agency, the SOE.

Because America was at that point still neutral in the war, Virginia was able to return to France and operate under the cover of being a war correspondent for the New York Post while she began the dangerous work of knitting together the first pockets of the French resistance. At this point her sex and her disability worked in her favor, since no one could imagine she was actually a spy for the British. But what made her so successful was not simply her unlikliness. Virginia possessed a compelling combination of charisma, compassion, intelligence, discretion and extreme caution that allowed her to continue operating long after many of her male counterparts had been captured or killed.

I found it nearly impossible to put this book down. As I read about her numerous incredible feats, I repeatedly found myself thinking that no one would believe these stories if they had been written as fiction. From breaking 12 of her SOE colleagues out of a Nazi jail to escaping to Spain by walking over the Pyrenees in miserable weather while half starved with her leg stump bleeding to returning to France even after her cover had been blown to build and lead her own guerilla resistance unit that did devastating damage to the Germans, I couldn't begin to understand how the story of such an incredible person was only just now being told.

Some of her anonymity had to do with the nature of her work, which remained classified for decades after her exploits. Her lack of interest in being celebrated also played a part, since she rejected some honors and cared little for others that were bestowed upon her. But the greatest cruelty of Virginia Hall's story is that, once the war was over, the American CIA forerunner which she had eventually gone to work for expected she, like all the other women who had supported the war effort, would return to more traditional "womanly" roles and leave the real work to far less experienced men. Her supervisors who had lived through the war from the comfort of an ocean away simply failed to understand how Virginia's extensive field experience could translate in any useful way to the new cold war unfolding across Europe, and left her underutilized and frustrated for the majority of her post war career due to blatant sexism that they eventually acknowledged cost them dearly.

Now that this book is out, I hope that Virginia's story will become much more widely known and inspire a new generation of people who have been overlooked to refuse to let limitations imposed on them by others stand in their way. ...more

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