In the spring of 1944, behind enemy lines in occupied France, members of the French Resistance stayed close to their wireless devices, awaiting their call to action. Broadcasting from London, announcers at Radio Londres sent coded instructions to various Resistance factions, disguised as “Personal Messages.” The messages were specifically designed to sound silly but familiar, and as they weren’t a cipher, they drove the Axis powers mad trying to break their code.
Allied forces inundated the broadcasters with codes to send out, knowing that the invasion was in the planning stages, but coming soon. The Allies were depending on the Resistance to choke the German supply lines on the French railroad, and clear the way for their entry into France.
On June 5, as the allies prepared to launch Operation Overlord, a poem familiar to every French man and woman crackled over the airwaves, “Chanson d’automne.” The Resistance had been waiting for months to hear the prose of Paul Verlaine’s 1860 poem.
“Les sanglots longs
The first three lines served as a warning that the invasion would begin within 2 weeks
“Blessent mon cœur
The final part of the message indicated that the invasion would reach France in 48 hours. It was time. This was their official call to action. Plans to sabotage the German supply lines were to be enacted at once.
Outside of the Resistance, there were already members of the Allied Forces behind enemy lines, assisting the Resistance and paving the way for victory in France. Among them, Virginia Hall, a young American woman. Hall had already spent years living in occupied France, gathering information for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Early in her assignment, she lived openly as an American, though with a code name, masquerading as a journalist, while actually wreaking havoc on the Germans as an Allied spy. When The United States entered the war in 1942, and Germany officially seized the remainder of France, Hall was forced to flee the country — but she wouldn’t stay away for long.
Hall had a rather unorthodox origin for a spy. She was a socialite from Baltimore, who had a penchant for writing, and the means to live any life she wanted. For Virginia, the only life she could envision was one working for the U.S. Foreign Service. Early in her career, she lived abroad and worked for the State Department, but couldn’t find success applying for the Foreign Service. When she was in her early twenties, she lost her leg in a hunting accident, further diminishing her chances. Frustrated, Hall left the State Department, and was soon introduced to some people in England who were part of a new and very secretive outfit.
Officially recruited by the SOE, Hall was rigorously trained, both physically & mentally, to prepare her for life in Nazi-occupied Paris. In France, she gathered information, reported on living conditions, and helped coordinate supply drops. She became somewhat of a guide for incoming members of the SOE, and of course carefully avoided capture. It wasn’t long before the Germans became aware of her existence, as they looked tirelessly for the “limping woman” they considered to be among the most threatening allied spies.
After leaving France in 1942, Hall worked for the SOE in Spain, before returning to London, where she was quietly accommodated for her invaluable contribution to the Allied effort. In early 1944, the war far from over, Virginia ached to return to France, where she knew she’d be of invaluable assistance. Hall hardly had to talk her way into the newly formed U.S. Office of Strategic Services — it was obvious that her skill could be integral to success, especially with a pending invasion.
Hall returned to France by submarine, unable to parachute in because of her artificial leg, and donned a costume as an old, plump French woman. She found a much different and desperate France than she’d left just two years before, and knew how important the work ahead of her would be. She quickly connected with the French Resistance, and assisted in laying out plans for supply line sabotage in preparation for the Allied invasion. She brushed against the Gestapo on more than one occasion, but she did whatever she could do keep herself and her contacts out of harm’s way. Constantly in pain due to the strain she put on her artificial leg, which she had nicknamed “Cuthbert,” Hall forced herself to keep the mission in mind, despite the grave danger.
She listened along with the French Resistance as the words of the Paul Verlaine poem were broadcast at last. It was a day of joy, to be sure, but the invasion did not signal the end of duty for Virginia Hall. She stayed in France, training the Resistance in reconnaissance and guerilla warfare, only leaving the country once victory had been declared in France.
Hall never was admitted to The Foreign Service, but returned to The United States as a hero and an asset to the Allied victory in World War II. In 1951, Virginia Hall became the first female to join the Central Intelligence Agency, where she worked as an intelligence analyst. She died in her home state of Maryland in 1982, having bravely served her country for her entire life.
D-Day, the day we earmark as the beginning of the end for the evil plight of the Axis powers in Europe, was a day in which hundreds of thousands of brave men and women gladly exchanged their own lives for the liberation of others. It is a day of heroics beyond comprehension. We honor their memory by continuing to share their stories of bravery in the face of peril.