The Lady was a Spy!
Phyllis "Pippa" Latour was born on April 8th, 1921in South Africa. Her father was a physician married to Louise, who was a British citizen living in South Africa. When she was only three months old, her father died in the rebellion in the Congo. Three years later, her mother remarried. Her stepfather was a race car driver and her mother shared his passion for automobiles and racing. Her mother raced his cars and during one such race, there was a mechanical problem with the car and her mother was killed immediately when it crashed into a barrier. Phyllis went to live in French Equatorial Africa with a relative and later returned to South Africa.
In November of 1941 she had moved to England where she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). She served as a flight mechanic and because she was fluent in French, she was quickly recruited as an agent going through rigorous physical as well as mental training. As a Special Operations Executive (SOE) her main purpose was to conduct sabotage, espionage and reconnaissance in those countries that were occupied by the Nazi’s. They were supported by resistance groups who supplied them with weapons and equipment.
The recruits were taught unarmed combat by two former Far East police officers. In particular, they learned “Silent Killing,” a martial arts technique devised to deal with Shanghai’s underground where murder and gang warfare thrived. In addition to this, the recruits were also taught how to use the Sten gun. Prospective agents were also taught how to encrypt messages and to repair broken wireless sets. The recruits were forced to memorize Morse code and tap out at least 24 words a minute- telegraphists at the time only had to achieve half that speed.
Her godmother’s father was shot by the Nazis and her godmother was Imprisoned. While in prison, her godmother committed suicide. She always said her reason for joining the cause and becoming an SOE agent was revenge. “It wasn’t until after my first round of training that they told me they wanted me to become a member of the SOE. They said I could have three days to think about it. I told them I didn’t need three days to make a decision; I’d take the job now.”
On May 1st, 1944, she parachuted into One, Normandy to operate as part of resistance, using the codename Genevieve and worked as a wireless operator. She made contact with a doctor, a dentist, and a veterinarian working with the French Resistance. Small details could be the difference between life and death. Milk for coffee wasn’t an option, thus ordering a cafe au lait would raise suspicion. Those who used bicycles for transportation had to remember how traffic moved along the right side of the road.
She was small in stature and was able to pose as a teenage girl whose family had moved to the area to escape bombings. She looked the part, rode bicycles as her main mode of transportation, sold soap and chatted frequently with German soldiers. This was her method of obtaining intelligence. She encoded that information for transmitting it but knitting and using a one time code, hiding it on a piece of silk that she used to tie up her hair. She then translated the information using Morse code equipment that she had in a satchel for her knitting. “I always carried knitting because my codes were on a piece of silk — I had about 2000 I could use,” she said in 2009. “When I used a code I would just pinprick it to indicate it had gone. I wrapped the piece of silk around a knitting needle and put it in a flat shoe lace which I used to tie my hair up.”
Pippa recalls that at times, she would live as one of an ordinary French provincial family, and at other times she worked on farms or at other apparently normal occupations. In all these cases, the key was to blend in and remain undercover- a daunting task n itself. The local population was subject to frequent searches and inspection of documents by the Vichy authorities to prevent any spies such as Pippa.
At one point she was captured by the Germans and brought in for questioning. She played the innocent young girl perfectly. The German authorities never though to check her silk hair tie, and she was released. She would sleep in forests, forced to forage for food, or stay with Allied sympathizers. “One family I stayed with told me we were eating squirrel,” she told the Army News, “I found out later it was rat. I was half starved so I didn’t care.”
When the war ended she married an engineer and lived in Kenya and then Australia. She is the last living female SOE agent of the forty or so who worked in France during World War II.
She never discussed her wartime activities with her family. It was in 2000, and on the internet that her children discovered what she had done during the war. “I didn’t have good memories of the war, so I didn’t bother telling anyone what I did,” Latour said in a 2009 interview with New Zealand Army News magazine. “I knew I would have been owed medals but I wasn’t interested in any if the people who had helped me in France did not receive them too. My eldest son found out by reading something on the Internet, and my children insisted I send off for my medals. I was asked if I wanted them to be formally presented to me, and I said no, I didn’t. It was my family who really wanted them.”
Pippa was awarded the Croix de Guerre on January 16, 1946 and the Member of the British Empire (MBE Military) on September 4, 1954. Seventy years after parachuting behind enemy lines, Phyllis Latour Doyle was presented with France’s highest decoration. “I have deep admiration for her bravery and it will be with great honour that I will present her with the award of Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur”–French ambassador to New Zealand, Laurent Contini.
Latour turned 100 in April of 2021 and lives in Auckland, New Zealand.