The Spy Who Lost Her Head

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British intelligence back then drew from a shallow gene pool of posh white boys reared on imperial adventure stories, but the old regard for breeding over intellect proved no match for the ruthless barbarism of the Third Reich. A new secret service called Special Operations Executive was struggling to recruit at all for its near-suicidal missions into Occupied France. It was fear and frustration that forced WWII spy chiefs to look outside the old box.

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Some of the bravest SOE agents duly turned out to be music hall artistes, shop assistants and hotel receptionists who all looked no different from anyone else. But arguably the greatest was the most unlikely spy of all. She almost single-handedly changed attitudes to women in warfare on both sides of the Atlantic.

A striking year-old heiress from Baltimore, Virginia had lost her left leg after a hunting accident in Turkey seven years earlier, in which she had literally shot herself in the foot. Her life since that day had been a gruelling struggle, at first, just to survive, and later, to prove that her life was worth living. Her dreams of becoming an American diplomat had been dashed, despite her evident qualifications, when the State Department used an obscure ruling against amputees to reject her application. Virginia had found herself confined to a dead-end job in the typing pool and what she viewed as the prospect of a narrow, humdrum life.

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When the chance came to drive ambulances on the front line for the French Army instead during the Nazi invasion, she seized it. Braving intense enemy bombardment and the agony of continually using her rudimentary prosthetic leg which she called Cuthbert to press down on the clutch, she had nevertheless never felt so thrillingly alive since the day of her accident.

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For her own sake as much as for the casualties she was picking up from the battlefields and ferrying to hospital she could not fail even when others, including the regular soldiers around her, abandoned their posts and fled. She had simply so much more to prove, especially to herself. Demobilised after France capitulated, Virginia set out for Britain via Spain in the hope of making herself useful again.

It was one of those extraordinary chance encounters — a passing conversation with an undercover British agent called George Bellows in a railway station in the Spanish town of Irun — that led to her being signed up as a British spy. Otherwise unknown to history, the unusually prescient Bellows recognised that the impressive woman he had spotted in the ticket hall embodied just the combination of piratical daring and anti-fascist fervour that the SOE was looking for.

Back in Britain, SOE rapidly became equally convinced that Virginia was such a catch that all the rules, such as they were, should be ignored to deploy her.

It is striking how her personnel files record no mention of her disability — merely a focus on what she could do rather than what she could not. War was her liberation.

The Spy Who Lost Her Head

Working undercover as an American journalist meant she could operate without flawless French and as an ostensible neutral could travel freely in and out of France; being a woman and a disabled one at that meant for a long time that no-one suspected her capable of spying. Yet she was actually setting up vast secret networks, rescuing dozens of other agents from capture and later went on to train, arm and direct guerrilla units who liberated whole swathes of France. Choose your subscription. Not sure which package to choose?

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