Women secretly served as couriers, code breakers, intelligence analysts and spies behind enemy lines for America’s Office of Strategic Services.
According to the National Women’s History Museum, about 4,500 women worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. Baltimore’s Virginia Hall, Minnesota’s Amy Elizabeth Thorpe, Slovakia’s Maria Gulovich and television chef Julia Child were among the most active in the espionage work.
The OSS Society, which conducts a running history of the World War II intelligence agency, said women “served effectively in the shadowy world of espionage as couriers, guides, code breakers, intelligence analysts and as spies.”
Though few Americans were even aware of their roles, the 4,500 women represented almost one fifth of the nearly 24,000 people who worked for the OSS during the war.
Child Served in Ceylon
Some of them, like Hall, Thorpe and Child, came from prominent and/or affluent families and had traveled extensively in Europe before the war. Thorpe was perhaps the most controversial, reportedly using her beauty and seductive charms to win valuable enemy information from admiring men. After joining OSS shortly after the U.S. entered WWII, Child served in Ceylon and was later decorated for the leadership she provided to the OSS Secretariat in China.
Gulovich, on the other hand, was a young Slovakian teacher who moved to the United States after helping Allied agents trapped in German-occupied Slovakia.
Hall became the most honored of all female OSS agents. Although she had an artificial leg, she worked behind enemy lines in German-occupied France, first for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) and later for the OSS.
She was credited with providing the Allies with crucial enemy information, with disrupting German operations, with training resistance groups in guerrilla warfare and with finding suitable areas for Allied paratroopers to land in France.
Presented Distinguished Service Cross
She was was awarded the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme, the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross and Britian’s Order of the British Empire. French President Jacques Chirac later said she “contributed greatly to the liberation of France.” Hall was the first civilian female to receive the Distinguished Service Cross.
Her leg was amputated following a hunting accident that occurred prior to WWII. She named her artificial leg “Cuthbert.” According to Dr. Dennis Casey of the U.S. Air Force Air Intelligence Agency at Kelly Air Force, the French nicknamed her “la dame qui boite” and the Germans put “the limping lady’ on their most wanted list.
Casey said when Hall was planning to flee across the Pyrenees Mountains to escape German troops, she radioed SOE that she hoped ‘Cuthbert’ would not impede her escape. Casey said London replied: “If Cuthbert troublesome eliminate him.” SOE had forgotten “Cuthbert” was the codename for her artificial leg.
Attended Radcliffe and Bernard College
As a young woman, Hall enjoyed an affluent life in Baltimore and attended both Radcliffe and Bernard College, studying French, Italian and German. She worked for the U.S. State Department briefly, but was visiting Paris when war started in 1939. She served in the French Ambulance Service until France fell and fled to London. There, she went to work for SOE, which Winston Churchill said was organized “to set Europe ablaze.”
After serving SOE in Madrid, she joined OSS and was sent back to occupied France. There, she mapped areas for the Allies to drop both commandos and supplies, all the while dodging the Gestapo. After D-Day, she helped train resistance forces to wage guerrilla warfare against the Germans.
After the war she married OSS agent Paul Goillot and went to work for the Central Intelligence Agency as an intelligence analyst. She retired in 1966 to a Maryland farm and died, at age 76, in a Washington hospital on July 14, 1982, Bastille Day.
- National Women’s History Museum website
- Baker Street.Org (Women of the Special Operations Executive, London)
- Article by Dr. Dennis Casey, U.S. Air Force Air Intelligence Agency at Kelly Air Force
- Office of Strategic Services Society website