This book was recommended to me last year, when I raved about Code Name Helene, a fictionalized story about a real-life World War II hero, Nancy Wake. A Woman of No Importance is a biography of Virginia Hall, one of the first and most recognized female undercover agents in France during World War II. Her story is amazing and I’m glad I read it.
Virginia Hall was born in Maryland in 1906. She studied abroad as a diplomat and served as an embassy clerk for the Department of State. In 1933, she accidentally shot her foot on a hunting trip, and her leg had to be amputated below the knee. Her disability kept her out of most occupations available to women at that time, including the Foreign Service, which she tried repeatedly to get into. She served as an ambulance driver in France when the county was taken by the Germans. She impressed an intelligence officer, and in 1941 she was recruited by Britain to join their newly-created Special Operations Executive (SOE) unit and went into Lyon, posing as a journalist.
The prospect of SOE service in the field was undoubtedly terrifying. So many backed out that SOE would later set up a “cooler,” a remote country house in the wilds of Scotland where quitters would be forcibly confined until what knowledge they had gleaned of SOE was of no use. As of July 1941, F Section had just ten people still in training—of whom Virginia was the only woman. And the only one with a disability.A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell
In Lyon, she worked with the locals to organize and support resistance efforts, provide escape routes to those fleeing the Nazis, and send information back to Britain about the Nazis and the Vichy regime. I was particularly struck by her organization of the jailbreak of 12 agents from a German prison, and the way she recruited locals, including a brothel owner who used her prostitutes to collect information. She was only supposed to be there for about six months, after which point they generally bring undercover agents back to safety. But she was so good at her work, she stayed there for much longer, even though the Germans were searching for her, and if she was caught she’d be horribly tortured. She had to flee in November 1942, escaping by foot over a 50 mile stretch of the Pyrenees.
In addition to being a fascinating story about Hall, this book was a great look at resistance and espionage efforts in World War II, including the development of the Maquis in France and the creation of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which would later become the CIA. Purnell describes in detail how the French worked with British and U.S. intelligence. I liked that she wrote about both the successes and failures of these efforts. For example, while Hall achieved amazing results, she was also nearly exposed by a brilliant double agent. Purnell frequently mentions the great brutality of the Nazis and the Vichy regime, describing torture in greater detail than I would have preferred, though it was the reality that Hall and her colleagues faced.
This was a perfect companion to Code Name Helene — while that book tells more of a story, and it goes deep into the world of the Maquis, this book shows you the bigger picture: how intelligence officers were brought into France as undercover agents, how Britain and France mobilized and supported on-the-ground resistance efforts in France, and how those efforts impacted the course of the war. Having visited Normandy, I was particularly interested (in both books) in how French resistance and intelligence efforts supported the Allies following D-Day. It’s easy to think that the war ended once those beaches were stormed, but this book gives you a different look at the months that followed.
At times the author didn’t seem entirely objective about Hall; earlier in the book she regales her as a sort of superhero, while all the men around her seem weak and fallible. She notes that SOE tended to recruit a certain type of “posh boys raised on imperial adventure stories” and that “this regard for breeding over intellect was scarcely a match for the ruthless barbarism of the Third Reich.” As the book goes on, however, it became more balanced. And everything in this book is documented, so there is no question about Hall’s incredible accomplishments.
Biographies aren’t a genre I typically like to read, because they rely on factual events and dates. I prefer more issue-driven nonfiction, or memoirs which are usually written in a more personal tone. As a biography, this could be a “dry” read at times, despite its fascinating subject matter. So it won’t be for everyone, and for those looking for more drama, I certainly recommend Code Name Helene (which at times went a little overboard in that direction).
Virginia Hall was truly inspiring, and I recommend this book to anyone interested in reading nonfiction about World War II, and particularly about the role women played in the war. Even though she received several medals of honor, and has a CIA facility named after her, it’s a shame that her accomplishments aren’t more widely known.
I read this book for the Read Nonfiction Challenge, and it fits two categories: biography and wartime experiences.