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In November 1943 Baltimore-born Virginia Hall had a wooden leg and a price on her head. One of the bravest and ablest Allied secret agents during World War II, she entered German-occupied France twice to organize, train and supply French Resistance efforts while simultaneously running an “underground railroad” to help downed Allied fliers escape to neutral or friendly countries. Hall’s story is one of several told by Elizabeth P. McIntosh in Sisterhood of Spies (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 1998, $29.95).

Shunning the Baltimore social whirl in favor of diplomatic service abroad, Hall was working as a code clerk at the U.S. Embassy in London in late 1940 when she was recruited by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) organization. After training in weaponry, communications and security, she went to work in Vichy France with Captain Maurice Buckmaster’s F (French) Section of the SOE. Her cover was that of a stringer for the New York Post.

Starting in August 1941, she became the first woman in the SOE to establish resistance networks out of Vichy France. Code-named “Diane,” she set up many valuable contacts in France, and her courage and resourcefulness earned her the highest respect of her comrades in the Maquis. They called her La Dame Qui Boite (“the Limping Lady”) because of her wooden leg. Hall had her left leg amputated in Turkey after a hunting accident. She jokingly referred to her artificial leg as “Cuthbert.”

When German troops started pouring into Vichy France in November 1941, Hall was ordered to leave the country. She tried to cross the snow-clad Pyrenees to neutral Spain but was jailed in a border town because she did not have entry papers. She managed to smuggle out a letter explaining her plight to the American consul in Barcelona by way of a Spanish prostitute. After she was released six weeks later, Hall reported to her SOE contacts in Madrid. With a new cover as a correspondent for the Chicago Times, she scouted safe houses and agents and acted as a courier for the SOE network. But she decided she was not being usefully employed and later requested a transfer back to F Section.

Returning to England in November 1943, Hall trained as a wireless operator and was transferred to the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS). In March 1944, she was on her way back to France as radio operator for the Heckler agent network. Crossing the English Channel in a Royal Navy motor torpedo boat, Hall went ashore by dinghy on the Cotentin Peninsula. She could not parachute in because of her wooden leg.

Hall was disguised during that mission as a French peasant woman, wearing full skirts and woolen blouses, because, as Agent Diane, she was by now well-known to the Gestapo. “The woman who limps is one of the most dangerous Allied agents in France,” read the Gestapo orders. “We must find her and destroy her.”

Hall was awarded the MBE (Member of the British Empire) by King George VI and the Distinguished Service Cross by American President Harry S. Truman for “extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against the enemy.” She was the first woman and civilian to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Four thousand women made up one-fifth of the OSS staff during World War II. All over the world, from London to Kandy and from New Delhi to Kunming, they worked as spies, saboteurs, cryptographers, cartographers, analysts, propagandists, forgers, parachute packers, communications specialists, clerks, drivers and secretaries. Yet their contribution to the Allied victory has been largely unheralded. Author McIntosh sets the record straight in crackling fashion with an authentic narrative that does full justice to the women of the OSS. She weaves engaging portraits of dozens of intrepid women into a revealing account of Maj. Gen. William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan’s OSS in the 1940s.

While many of the OSS women spent their time toiling at important but unexciting duties in a variety of settings, a number of them were assigned the kinds of dangerous missions given to Hall, and some of these women suffered great hardships. The author has made the most of their real-life adventures, creating a work that outranks the best spy fiction.

For example, Amy Elizabeth Thorpe of Minneapolis, code-named “Cynthia,” seduced a Vichy official and helped to steal naval code books from a guarded safe in the Vichy French Embassy in Washington, D.C., in June 1942. Then there was jovial Julia McWilliams from Smith College, who was decorated for her service in India and China and later became Julia Child, the celebrated chef. Beautiful Aline Griffith, a Hattie Carnegie model from Pearl River, N.Y. (code-named “Butch”), enciphered messages, ran a spy network, and led an extensive social life in Madrid. She later married the Count of Quintilla (Romanones). McIntosh also includes the legendary Canadian-born Betty Lussier, a woman with a powerful memory and extraordinary discipline who flew for the British Air Transport Auxiliary and transferred to the OSS in 1943. She served in North Africa and Italy before setting up an extensive double-agent network in southern France. Actress Marlene Dietrich, who broadcast radio programs in German for the OSS, was awarded the Medal of Freedom. Maria Gulovich, a Czechoslovak partisan guide to the OSS Dawes Team behind German lines in her homeland in 1944-45, was awarded the Bronze Star in 1946. Gulovich, at the time just 24 years old, was the first woman ever to be honored by a review of the Corps of Cadets.

Factual, gripping and dramatic, Sisterhood of Spies opens a window on a hitherto overlooked aspect of World War II intelligence operations. It is a rewarding tribute to a group of heroic and dedicated women who unstintingly put their lives on the line in the cause of freedom.