Earlier this year I read Max Hastings’s Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 (2004), an account of the war in Europe between Operation Market Garden in the west and the Warsaw Uprising in the east, and V-E Day. An American’s natural inclination is to glorify World War II, given that we forced an unconditional surrender on an enemy that turned out to be monstrously evil, but on the ground it was a sordid mess, and the main thing that I took away from the book is that I’m glad I wasn’t there. Nonetheless, there are plenty of stories of individual heroism to be told about various actors in World War II, including one Virginia Hall, whose new biography A Woman of No Importance was recently reviewed in the Daily Mail:
Miss Hall, was fluent in French, Italian and German when she went to work for the US foreign service before World War II but was invalided out of the service after a hunting accident in Turkey.
Her shotgun slipped from her grasp and as she grabbed it, it fired, blasting away her foot.
By the time she got to a hospital, gangrene had set in. To save her life, the surgeon had to amputate her left leg below the knee.
Always able to see the funny side of things, Miss Hall immediately named her wooden leg Cuthbert.
She was in Paris when war broke out in 1939 and joined the ambulance service.
When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, she fled to London, and with her language skills, was soon recruited by the SOE.
After training in the clandestine arts of killing, communications and security, she went to Vichy France to set up resistance networks under the cover of being a reporter for the New York Post.
After the November, 1942, North Africa invasion, German troops flooded into her area and things became too hot even for her.
She hiked on her artificial leg across the Pyrenees in the dead of winter to Spain.
During the journey she radioed London saying she was okay but Cuthbert was giving her trouble.
Forgetting this was her artificial leg, and knowing her value to the Allied cause, her commanders radioed back: ‘If Cuthbert troublesome eliminate him.’
Although I wonder if her attempt at infecting German officers with venereal disease (from the prostitutes she organized) didn’t violate the Geneva Protocol against biological warfare…
Read the whole thing.