William J. Donovan, the head of the US government office known as the Coordinator of Information, was attending a professional football game on the afternoon of December 7, 1941 when his name was called on the public address system. Within hours he was faced with the fact that using the intelligence provided by the Army and Navy his office had not been able to identify Pearl Harbor as a potential target for a Japanese attack. The glaring deficiencies of American intelligence, foreign and domestic, was unacceptable to his boss President Roosevelt. Donovan was tasked to establish an intelligence gathering and special operations agency.
Established by executive order in June 1942 and modeled after the British Special Operations Executive, the OSS encountered hostility from its inception by the intelligence operations of the armed services and from the FBI. It reported directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and provided some information to Congress, mostly in the form of estimates and facts related to its budgets, but not its activities. Its activities were in the areas of intelligence gathering, sabotage, supporting the underground resistance in Europe, and providing military training for guerrilla warfare groups in the Chinese and European – North African theaters.
Here are ten activities of the OSS and its agents during the Second World War.
Virginia Hall evading the Nazis in France
Before Virginia Hall joined the OSS she worked for the British SOE in France. An American educated at Radcliffe, Hall used false credentials as a correspondent for the New York Post to establish an espionage network in Vichy France, providing information about German manufacturing production, troop movements, and naval activity. By early 1942 she recruited a network of ninety-plus agents throughout Vichy and occupied France, called Heckler, which was used by the SOE to parachute men into France in support of the resistance activities against the Germans. Hall also developed a system of helping captured resistance agents break out of German custody.
In November 1942 the United States executed Operation Torch – the invasion of North Africa – and in response the Germans occupied all of France. Virginia Hall, wanted by the Germans and pursued by the Gestapo, fled across the Pyrenees into Spain, a harrowing journey under any circumstances made more difficult by the fact that she was encumbered with a wooden leg. As the Gestapo rounded up many of the clandestine networks she had created they marked her as one of the most dangerous enemies of the Reich in Europe. Klaus Barbie was in charge of capturing her. She escaped to Spain, where the US Embassy secured her release from Spanish custody, and she returned to England.
When the SOE refused to allow her to return to the continent, being too recognizable to the Gestapo, she joined the OSS. Deposited surreptitiously on the shores of France via a British motor torpedo boat (her wooden leg preventing her from performing a parachute drop) Virginia managed to work her way across France, using the remnants of the networks she had created in 1942, staying at always changing safe houses. She alerted and prepared underground units for the upcoming Normandy invasion, preparing them for their roles in the assault; disrupting German communications, rail connections, and transportation efforts.
As the American’s and British began their assault across France, Virginia Hall, despite being well known by the Germans and desperately sought by the Gestapo and other German security units, remained deep behind the German lines. She organized maquis fighters, saboteurs, and assassins in attacks on the German infrastructure, military leadership, and civil bureaucracy. The Germans called her the limping lady, but despite all their efforts she eluded their pursuit. She called her wooden leg Cuthbert, and in a radio transmission she once informed her superiors that Cuthbert was giving her trouble. Not realizing what she meant by Cuthbert, she was ordered to eliminate him.
One can search for a more dedicated and courageous agent than Virginia Hall, but the likelihood of finding one is slim. After the war she remained in the service of the United States, working with the CIA formed from the remnants of the OSS. She was considered by the Gestapo as the most dangerous of all the Allied spies working in Europe, but they never managed to track her down, despite the handicap of her wooden leg. She refused a public award of the Distinguished Service Cross from President Truman, but accepted the award in a private ceremony from William Donovan. She was the only civilian woman so honored for her service in the Second World War.