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tv   Sonia Purnell A Woman of No Importance  CSPAN  May 6, 2019 2:16am-3:01am EDT

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page. >> good afternoon and thank you for coming. were doing a bookseller here at politics and prose. on behalf of the owners and staff i like to welcome you to your favorite bookstore for this afternoons event. as you may know politics and prose host hundreds of events throughout the year. one event is the one that we are doing on april 26 with jericho and, for his new book, accidental presidents, eight men who changed america. a little bit of housekeeping before we start, c-span is here, so if you could silence your
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cell phones, we would appreciate it. for the q&a, please step up to the microphone that we have before asking your question. so we could not only here and enjoy the conversation but to ensure that it will be recorded. for those who want to buy copies of the book, we are selling them out front by the registers. we'll be doing a signing after the q&a. if you would like to get your book signed please line up next to the podium. please keep your chairs where they are after the event as we will have another event after this. for the reason why we are here, i'm honored to introduce sonja to all of you. sonja is a reporter and biographer who has appeared in many publications including the sunday times and the economist. she has previously written two other books before this one including clementine, the life of mrs. winston churchill. this afternoon she's going to talk about her new book the
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untold story of the american spy who helped win world war ii. it tells the untold story of virginia hall and american who once referred to as the most dangerous of all allied spies. from being rejected to work for the foreign service to be in the first woman to be occupied in france to her great escape, a woman sheds light on one of the forgotten figures of the second world war. mpr calls it a compelling biography of a masterful spy and a reminder of what can be done with the free few brave people everyone, let us all welcome sonja. [applause] >> thank you, very much for you y'all hear me? excellent. >> i'm not quite as tall. >> thank you all for coming, such a beautiful day outside and it's good of you to surrender
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that income into the bookshop. virginia is now my inspiration. a lot of my friends know say to ourselves and for in a little bit of a sticky situation, well, virginia would not complain. or, what would virginia do. so, she really is someone once you get to know has a big impact in your life. she was unfathomably courageous woman. i am astonished that more people do not want to know more about her of course, i intend to change that. and i possibly can with your help. d.c. is my favorite u.s. city, but it's lovely. it did have a mixed time for virginia, she fought many battles in her life, the one she fought in france, she tended to
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win, the one she fought in d.c., not so much. she had a hard time here the reason why the book is called a woman of no impulsiveness because that's way she was treated right here in this city. and it is obviously an ironic title because the gestapo as you just heard thought very differently. they thought of her as the most dangerous daylight spy of all. there is a lot of competition for that title. they issued an instruction, in order to all offices across france, everybody who is occupying france, we must find and destroy her, what she did in the world met she was decorated by the french republic, by a british king, and an american president. yet, all of that was done in secret. she has remained in the shadows and i would like to change that. who was she?
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how could she be so brave because she really was. she was born in a quite well-to-do family. her grandfather was a banker and had a big house in downtown baltimore. they say was wide enough to turn a coach and horses in it, whether anyone tried, i cannot tell you. when virginia came along the fortune dissipated somewhat. her father, ned who she was very close to was a well-to-do guy. he married his secretary, barb or about the family fortunes were not quite what they were. the expectation was that virginia would very well virginia though had other ideas. and you'll see from the pictures in the book, she was a tomboy. what she liked was horse riding and hunting in the woods with her father who gave her the shot gun to shoot animals and birds
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with. despite that, she did really like animals. she used to make a hat out of line birds on one or two occasions when into school, the country school with an unusual bracelet made of live snakes. she was in an ordinary teenage girl. she was voted class president, sports captain, editor of the school yearbook and unusual title, class profit. not quite sure what she had to do to be the class profit. but she described herself as cantankerous and capricious, her words, not mine. she was a character, you couldn't really guess what virginia was going to do next and that's exactly how she wanted it. what she did do next was go to university first at radcliffe which he kinda liked and then
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she said only kind of liked she got engaged at that.under pressure but discovered that he had been cheating on him and she wasn't going to be put up with that. she wanted a career. careers would be more faithful. but, she went to paris because that's where she really wanted to study. she wanted to see the world. her big plan was to be an ambassador. she went to paris and learn languages. she went to what we now call -- in the 1920s. were talking 1926, when you could not get on the flight and be going on the other end in a few hours time, this was a big thing at the age of 20 to go to paris on your own to study. but, that's what she did. she loved it. in paris it was an exceptional
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time, artistic, culture, josephine baker was there, ernest hemingway but he's always there in every story. gertrude stein, all sorts of people. she went to jazz clubs, there is no racial segregation, there is no propos prohibition. she was a live, she was learning things then she went to vienna, again, she loved vienna. she met a young polish guy about her parents did not approve of him so amazingly this woman who was got rid of her boyfriend because her parents didn't like him. we'll come back to that. the other thing that happened was she started noticing what was happening in europe, what was happening, there's fascist in the street, hitler was becoming more popular of the border in germany. there were rallies there. selena was in power in italy, abolishing democracy. she saw how extreme is a fascism
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was happening and growing as a growing threat. nevermore did she want to be an ambassador and try to save the world from what she saw as a global problem. it wasn't just european problem. she wanted to alert america to these dangers. she came back to the u.s. a complete her studies. by this.she had five languages but always with a strong american accent. but very good. she came back to finish her studies. i'm afraid ned died at this.he died right there and then on the sidewalk. it was a bitter, bitter blow for virginia. even more now she want to concentrate on her career. she applied to the state department for diplomatic service. she had great grades she had
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politics and would be a shoe in. no. she should have had a look at how many women were in the diplomatic service at that. there were six out of 1500 and, i'm afraid her rejection was brutal and she was not going to be one of them. never mind she told her friend, she can go through the front door she would enter through the back door so she became a desk clerk in the american in poland funny enough where a meal had been thrown. poland was under threat. if you look at the map you can see russia on one side and germany on another. this was poland long problem and it was a big problem. again, she was very aware of what was happening. she applied again to the diplomatic service, strangely they loved her exam papers. funny that, so she moves to turkey, at least there she could go hunting with that lovely gun
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her dad had given. one day in december, mild day she went to the marshes, there were flamingos there but they were there to shoot snipes. it has a very erratic path and quite difficult to hit. virginia was a very competitive person. she probably realized by now. she wanted to be one of the first if not the first to hit a snipe and baguette and taken home as a trophy. perhaps she was not quite watching what she was doing. she tripped over a wire fence that was running through the weeds. as she fell she grabbed her gun. unfortunately she had not engage the safety and she literally shot herself in the foot. well she lost consciousness but her friends were there and took her to the local hospital. she seemed to be as fine as she can be. she seemed to be rallying but
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then her leg started to change color. her temperature soared, her organs seem to be on closing down. and american doctors and nurses were called in from istanbul but that was 24 hours away, by the time they got there her leg was gangrene us. there was no choice she was about to die, they had to cut it off below the knee, her left leg. she was 27. when she woke up she felt that her life was over, this adventurous soul who wanted to do all these exciting things, travel the world, make a difference, had one leg. she came back to the state and had several more operations. she had a flesh bug that was eating away. it had to be consistently cut away. she got sepsis and all sorts of things. she managed to pull through and they fitted her with a very primitive wooden leg with a
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metal foot. well, she couldn't bear just to stay at home which is what everyone expected her to do. she was going to go back to the state department poor. i don't think the state department was quite soaking they posted her to venice and think about that, if you just got a prostatic leg which cannot flex, the ankle or lock it the way we can was the problem with venice, it has over 400 little bridges up and down, you have to walk. there is no choice. this was absolutely appalling for her. but, this is where we start to see the virginia that we grow to love and admire because she was not going to be held back, she had a plan. she bought a gondola. and she persuaded an italian john called angelo to teach her how to row it. i got a wonderful picture from her niece who has let us
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reproduce in the book with her on the back of the gondola trying to row. angelo ready to catch her. the canals can get pretty choppy. i would not want to stand on the back of a gondola never think nor would anyone with a new wooden leg. she was fantastic at her job. she went to the weekend and she stood in front of the diplomats, they were so impressed with her they wrote glowing references. no one really mentioned her leg because it didn't seem to be an issue. she was basically in horse writing two. so i'm going to have another crack at the diplomatic service, sows she did and she got through and received the letter from -- who is secretary of state. no he said citing the obscure
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rule that nobody seemed to have known about it, amputees are not allowed to join the diplomatic service. two nights ago, i was in boston and someone came up to me and told me that his grandfather had lost a leg in the first world war and had no problems joining the diplomatic service afterwards. i think i'll allow you to make up your own mind as to what was going on. but he had powerful friends, thanks goodness. the couple wrote to president roosevelt himself. think of the irony of this. he, too had a certain prop as he relies on a wheelchair. they said, here is virginia -- a gentlewoman of great intelligence. serving her country well, knows what she's doing, has been terrifically good at her job, what could be the problem. i found the memo he sent, what
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about virginia he asked. he wrote back, i don't think he liked the special -- at all. she would make a fine career girl in the clerical grades he did not like this. she was punished and sent to estonia, and was constant motion. all she was doing there was filing papers and answering the phone. it was spinning. she couldn't stand it, she wanted to get involved to help so she resigned. she come back to the usa for a quiet life, no. instead, she volunteered to drive ambulances for the french army on the front line when the germans invaded, may 1940, that was an unbelievably dangerous thing to do. under intense bombardment, she kept driving those ambulances. the same time, 10 million people
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were going that way, the biggest refugee exodus ever. i don't blame them. they were jolly scary a lot of soldiers felt the same way and were running away, too. meanwhile, virginia was driving her ambulance with her wooden leg which he called custard. it would gearshift, european-style we do things differently. there is a lot of changing gears you can imagine all the time with her left foot. having to put down the clutch, it was agony, great shooting pains. they would hold onto her bright red leather straps around her waist that chased first her skin and hot weather or are under stress. in her stomach would lead as well. she went on doing this until they were demobilized in france capitulated. but did she come back to the usa. she did not tell her mom that she joined the french ambulance
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corps, not till it was too late and her mom couldn't stop her. did she go back to baltimore and have a quiet life? no. she decided to go to britain and offer her services. you can just cross the channel like you could now, so she went all the way through france which was occupied by the nazis. a lawless state. into spain, down to portugal and then catch a ship all the way back. she did this on her own, with custard got into spain and then in a tiny moment of history met a guy who was a british businessman but he was actually a secret agent. this was his one little glimpse of fame in the entire history. george was an even in his real name. we will never know. but he noticed the american coming in. he was there because he was there with refugees coming to
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the border but all british agents had been cleared out in france. at that time, and britain had no idea what was going on under the third yet, it faced imminent invasion itself. he was interviewing a refugee, he saw virginia, he heard about the ambulances. he heard how committed she was in that fight for freedom and truth and he did what any really important thing, he gave her phone number. he said it was a friend that she should call him for some company when she got back to london. it wasn't her friend, it was a senior agent in a british service with the special operations. and when she got to london she called him but they had a rule against women going into enemy territory. they also had a rule against foreigners at that.because they thought they didn't need them.
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that rule was torn up and abandon. the problem was, how many people do you think were actually willing to going to france under nazi rule? no real training, no idea what it was going to be like. no back up when things go wrong, and no direct communication with london, either. well, after six months of trying, they hadn't put a single person into france. not one, two had tried and got so scared they had banded and came back. then virginia walked in. she changed everything. she would go in undercover as an american journalist and that's what she did after some cursory training, a burglar came in to teach her how to pick locks, someone showed her how to put dust back onto a surface. she was taught how to creep up
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on the house noiselessly and shown how to hide secret documents that would be microfilmed with a tiny slot in her metal heel and she shared two things with james bond. she also locked martinis by the way, she did not wear dinner jackets and she wanted to be unobtrusive. but one thing she shared with james bond as she had a license to kill. she would have to seek authority but she was given cyanide pills. soluble ones that if you break them and put it in their food they would taste it but they would kill them within 45 minutes. you can also put them in your mouth. if you chewed them then you would be dead in 45 seconds if you're being tortured and didn't want to give anything away. but, if you swallow them you would be okay because they had a coating. the other pills she took was --
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because sleep is going to be a large tree. so she arrives in france, and she pretty much help kickstart the french resistance. it wasn't always there. a world power which france was had descended into this country in six weeks. people were deflated. they did not think you there was any reason to fight back. no help there. so, they didn't really want to get into trouble by doing things. could they actually survive and for kind enough to eat is what most people thought all day. she had to recruit networks that will form the nucleus of the future with distant armies. but that wouldn't happen until the allied troops were ready, however many years way that might be to come back and
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sustain that. a long way from pearl harbor. she's an american in her country is not at work, but she is. she was an early recruit. she recruited some nuns in the comments and that was her first safe house. they didn't normally let people in. she then re- uprooted we have a picture of her wonderfully sexy, very voluptuous jewels, furs, silks, lovely black and an exquisite face, she was the local -- and a very successful one. they were encouraged to go to brussels and thought there and make brother she also had a special dr. who looked after her
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she get them involved as well. what did the swedish do they spike the germans drink they got the documents outside but the other things that these girls were doing, was with the connivance of the dr., doctor russo they were giving little white cards, only like cards it said this is free of infection. she was in of the sort. while she was infected, she would sleep with as many german officers as she possibly could
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until the.where she would have to go and seek treatment her cell. one of them later boasted that she put 28 officers called affection. we will never know their names. a lot of them were caught and executed. this was biological warfare of a certain -- they were really brave and effective and they were working with virginian doctor russo. soon, she also recruited the local chief of police. >> they were making false documents. she also had a sideline a spectacular one of jailbreaking. she got 12 agents out in one go from a prison camp and all sorts of ingenious things. metal files and jars of jam, players and hammers in a
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hollowed out book. also she got those guys out safely, they got home safely. have you ever heard of mosaic? you've heard of the great escape, you haven't heard of this, she never got glory for it. the brits to be fair tried to give her -- a pretty groovy honor just below a dame. because she was in the field they could just say she was very brave slowly, the germans were closing in. not least because of a double agent with one of the most evil person you can imagine. he went shopping his parishioners making huge amounts of money. some of them have confided in him, he was a man and gradually he was working out who this person was, who was stowing up the resistance and fanning those flames. who is already embarking on a
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small-scale sabotage campaign, she had to become berlin's number one target in france. obviously they're going to deploy their most effective double agents. he was closing in, he had her code name. he knew where her headquarters were. he was closing in. at this.she knew she put it off and she would have to escape. there are so many elements of the story. one of the most amazing is this, she escape comments november and one of the worst winters and 200 years. how did she escape? over the peer news. one of the highest -- and 3 feet of snow with custard falling apart. the rivets were coming loose. she couldn't flex or lock her ankle going up. she had to go sideways. coming down she had to lean forward with one side and then the other. the official document says which sum amounted to be declassify,
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some were so close, the secret documents that it was a record all by itself. many, many able-bodied men never made it. occasionally you come across a frozen corpse. sometimes standing upright and staring forward. people would also just give up and lie down and fight. so, she got back to britain, did you come back to the states at this time and give up? she was completely compromised and the gestapo had her name, her picture, everything. the brits said no way. what does she do? she went to work for you guys. so she switch. they did not know, but she wasn't stupid. she had to have a disguised comeback. going back to her farm days and working with animals and things, the family farm outside of baltimore she decided to go back
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as a milkmaid. so she hired hollywood makeup artist to draw in wrinkles and teacher how to drive wrinkles on her face so she would look 30 years older. she were probably six skirts and thick bloomers to make her look quite stout. she went to the ferocious much feared london dentist to grind down her beautiful white american teeth to look like french peasant teeth. yep, she wouldn't stop for anything, pretty much. so she got back into france and then a very long story and exciting story short, she became a guerrilla leader. soon she stopped being a milkmaid but she had already gleaned a great deal of vital information undercover as a milkmaid because she could speak german. non...
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>> she organized 22 parachute drops of arms, explosives, chocolate, very important, and vitamins because a lot of them was starving, shoes. a lot of them hadn't had shoes in months because nothing like that existed. with those people, she blew up
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bridges. she ambushed german convoys. she surrounded their garrisons and in the end they surrendered. it was said extremely brave woman doing fine work. well, you bet she was. anyway, all sorts of adventures she got into. towards the end of the fighting, really at the end of the fighting, she had been asking for backup again and again. it never came. one woman with all those men, no backup until the fighting in the area pretty much finished. but then two american officers parachuted in. i'm not going to spoil the story, but one of them became very significant indeed. i'm pleased to say that because she deserved it.
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okay. at the end of the war, she comes home with said american officer who really lightened her life as her nieces put it to me. she went to work for the cia. eventually, it took a long time for her to get a job there. i'm afraid to say that her career there was difficult, very difficult. it was saddened to see her reduced, this sacred presence, reduced, undermined and ignored. a lot of college kids couldn't get their heads around this woman who blown up bridges, done all this stuff during the war, and had this distinguished stuff. mr. truman wanted to award her, but she said i want to be a secret agent. the only person who saw her
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getting the medal was her mom, barbara, because she wanted it to be given to her in secret. it's amazing, isn't it, how -- it's amazing, isn't it? she was at the cia. it didn't go that well. there were some high points but quite a few low points. in the end, she retired. her husband had a pretty happy retirement together until their health gives out. she died in 1982. a lot of people ignored her, forgot about her. how many of you knew about her? yeah, okay, but she really did make a huge difference. the secret documents again say
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she saved the intelligence in france from quote extinction. one said she was almost embarrassingly successful. i spent a day at langley, they told me a lot of the techniques that she pioneered in forming a resistance are still use today including in afghanistan before and after 9/11. they named one of their training buildings after her, but she is still not known by the rest of us. it is interesting, when the first female director of the cia recently said she had stood on the shoulders of heroins who had gone before her in cia. i think a lot of us thought she was pretty much talking about virginia hall. she was an amazing woman. she was really an inspiration. she never complained. she never gave up. she had such resolve and ingenuity. i think about her every single day. it's been a pleasure to find out about her. it took me three years of very long weeks and long hours.
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it was worth every single moment of it. the cast of characters around her were astonishing too. these people did not seek glory, but they deserve it. that's why i wrote the book. i really hope you enjoy it. thank you very much. [applause] >> if anyone has any questions, i'm very happy to answer them. maybe not, but if you do, then there's a microphone somewhere. does anyone have any questions? yes? >> [inaudible]. >> was she beautiful, this lady asked. what is really interesting is that looking at all of the first-hand accounts of people meeting her, they describe her when she was in the war, in combat as radiant and beautiful. there was something that made her feel alive. she was always striking.
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i think that was when she was at her most beautiful. i imagine finding the letters that the men who fought with her for two months, that's all it was, but who fought with her and wrote about her after the war, and they used different phrases, but the same thing comes up again and again. it was worth being born just to have met virginia hall and fought alongside her. and they talked about her as the mountains because she rescued them and somehow she was able to have these big bombers come from nowhere but instead of bombs they dropped parachutes full of things that helped them and rescued them. she is a complete legend in that department of france. so she may have been forgotten elsewhere, but they talk about her now. there's this phrase they use the whole time. i spent some time there, talked to people. unfortunately, the very last guy who fought alongside her died in 2017. but his widow many other used
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the same phrase, stars in their eyes. to them virginia was an absolute savior and they thought that she was really beautiful too. >> since she's not known well, how did you become aware of her? >> my last book was about clementine churchill. and i became very interested in second world war stories and particularly women who had been overlooked. i had always been interested in spies. my dad was in british counterintelligence at one point. it was something i grew up with. there would be odd mentions here and there about this amazing agent with a wooden leg called virginia hall. really no one had ever really pulled all the elements of the story together. i thought how can i not try at least to find out about her. it wasn't always easy. a lot of the documents i wanted were lost, destroyed, but in the end, i managed to do it. it was really just -- it was
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that, a wooden legged agent in france? wow. it was a lucky accident. i couldn't imagine the story would turn out as well as it did. but it did. so thank you. >> [inaudible]. >> if you could ask your question -- we have a microphone right over here. >> i've been asked how long it took me. three years solid. as my husband will tell you, i wasn't at home very much. i did lots of hundred hour weeks. i didn't really take a vacation. it was a real labor of love. i did a lot of research, across france and paris and in the national archives, which i fortunately live very close to. it was a bit like cat and mouse. i had to be a detective. virginia was always slightly hiding from me. but then i would track her down, sources, little nuggets which i would string together so in the end it worked.
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>> can you tell us more about virginia's trek over the pyrannies, how long did that take? food and shelter, that kind of thing? >> they couldn't take that much food with them because they couldn't take too much weight. apparently sugar cubes is normally what you would take with you to keep you going. it took two and a half days. it was about 50 mile trek all together. as i say, it was over 8,000 feet. she went with a guide. they tended to be the spanish army from the civil war in spain. these are hard guys. they did not want to get caught for obvious reasons. so she had to disguise. the reason for that, if he did find out, he might think they would more likely to get caught. she would slow them down. he would have pushed her in the
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ravine and hit her in the back of the head, that's what happened quite often. she could only climb sideways. she probably blamed the fact that she had a heavy bag with her. it really was difficult. it is an absolute miracle she survived that. she was with two other able-bodied men who frequently said they wanted to give up, and it was she who was pushing them forward. so, you know, one hell of a hero really. >> two questions, wasn't it -- [inaudible] -- who was most intent on getting her? two, were you able to consult any german sources who referred to her at all >> the first question was about leon, the headquarters. they knew there was an allied
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agent that particularly was successful. he was obsessed with her. someone he captured and tortured -- he captured and tortured many of them to find out about her. he said i would do anything to get my hands on -- the word bezbining with b. -- beginning with b. he was obsessed with her to the end of the war in france. when she came back, the germans gave her the code name the goddess of hunting. to them it was a constant hunt to find virginia hall. the fact she alluded them, her spy craft was superb. she was brilliant at disguises. the other question was? >> were you able to -- do you know of german sources that referred to her that could be consu consulted? were you able to do that? >> i speak french. a lot of my sources were french. i don't speak german. i was able to look at a lot of
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secondary sources. someone in the military intelligence wrote a book after the war and that also was very helpful. some were sent to the concentration camp for women. they were caught too. virginia never got over how many of her supporters were captured and died. i spoke to a lot of the germans about exactly what happened. i also looked at secondary sources. are there any other questions? okay. thank you very much indeed for coming in.
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[applause] >> i'm very happy to sign any books if you want to -- if your curiosity has been sparked, thank you.

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