My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In 1942, the Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission: “She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.”
This spy was Virginia Hall, a young American woman–rejected from the foreign service because of her gender and her prosthetic leg–who talked her way into the spy organization deemed Churchill’s “ministry of ungentlemanly warfare,” and, before the United States had even entered the war, became the first woman to deploy to occupied France.
Virginia Hall was one of the greatest spies in American history, yet her story remains untold. Just as she did in Clementine, Sonia Purnell uncovers the captivating story of a powerful, influential, yet shockingly overlooked heroine of the Second World War. At a time when sending female secret agents into enemy territory was still strictly forbidden, Virginia Hall came to be known as the “Madonna of the Resistance,” coordinating a network of spies to blow up bridges, report on German troop movements, arrange equipment drops for Resistance agents, and recruit and train guerilla fighters. Even as her face covered WANTED posters throughout Europe, Virginia refused order after order to evacuate. She finally escaped with her life in a grueling hike over the Pyrenees into Spain, her cover blown, and her associates all imprisoned or executed. But, adamant that she had “more lives to save,” she dove back in as soon as she could, organizing forces to sabotage enemy lines and back up Allied forces landing on Normandy beaches. Told with Purnell’s signature insight and novelistic flare, A Woman of No Importance is the breathtaking story of how one woman’s fierce persistence helped win the war.
This is a book about a disabled woman who does a better job as an undercover agent behind enemy lines than most of her male colleagues and gets snubbed for it. While this will rub some contemporary readers the wrong way, you have to keep the historical context in mind. Only after France and the UK bestowed honors upon her, her own country (the USA) reluctantly recognized her contribution to the war effort. Despite her experience gathered during five years as a successful clandestine operator, she was never offered any senior position into the CIA and only years after her death they gave her the recognition she deserved. After the war she had to watch how her superiors were fishing up rank and file fascists in their effort to fight communist sympathizers. No wonder that her performances during that time of her career were judged to be “poor” by her superiors who preferred a colonel´s regime in Greece and sponsored some fascist freemason loge in Italy than risking that duly elected communist politicians would gain on influence. In other words: she was to hunt down those who helped her to fight Nazism, while her superiors facilitated the escape of her archenemy, Claus Barbie, the leader of the French Gestapo to Bolivia.
The book sets also down what kind of personality traits are needed to be an undercover operator: smart, paranoid, discrete, unassuming, courageous, resourceful and also points out some traits that are unwanted; recklessness, boisterous, trusting, loudmouthed, substance abuser, in search of glory, table jumpers …
It´s a pity that the main protagonist was unwilling to give her own account of her exploits during the war and its aftermath, but it fits the profile of a good operator; they´re not into the business of memoirs.
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