Last week, the last of the living Special Operations Executive (SOE) female agents, Phyllis “Pippa” Latour turned 100 years old.
Phyllis Latour accepted the dangerous position of a female operative as a means to get revenge over the shooting of her godfather and her godmother. The two had been arrested by the Nazis and committed suicide while in custody.
She parachuted into France, worked as a wireless operator, and was awarded the honor of being made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).
Latour was born in South Africa in 1921 to a French father and an English mother. She was bilingual at an early age, something that would aid in her career later in life. Her father died when she was just three months old. Her mother remarried a race car driver, something her mother took up as well. After her mother died in a race car crash, Latour went to live with her father’s relatives in French Equatorial Africa (Congo). Yet, her stepmother would also soon die.
At the age of 18, Latour left for Europe to complete her education. But then World War II broke out. Wanting to serve, she enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in November 1941 as a flight mechanic for airframes.
SOE’s Unorthodox Instructors
Due to her fluency in French, Phyllis Latour got the attention of the brass of SOE in 1942. They offered her the chance to become an operative in France. Due to the aforementioned deaths of her godparents, she accepted immediately. Yet, it wasn’t a decision to be taken lightly. Of SOE’s 40 female agents to be deployed to France 13 of them would die either by execution or in a concentration camp.
She completed a short commando course that required her to make 14 parachute jumps, move stealthily across muddy fields, and much more.
In a 2009 interview with a New Zealand military magazine, Latour explained how a convicted cat burglar was enlisted to be one of the SOE’s trainers: “A cat burglar (‘Killer’ Green) [had been] taken out of prison to train us… we learned how to get in a high window and down drainpipes, how to climb over roofs without being caught.”
Also, she and the other recruits were taught by underworld figures how to pick locks and use putty to make copies of keys.
They were trained in the use of pistols and Sten guns. Similarly, to the OSS operatives, they learned silent killing techniques by the officers of the British Far East Police.
Additionally, as a wireless radio operator, she had to learn Morse code and be able to transmit and copy 24 groups per minute.
Phyllis Latour Pretends to Be a Schoolgirl
In 1942, she was sent to Aquitaine in Vichy France. During that time Latour used many different code names — including Genevieve, Plus Fours, and Lampooner as part of the Scientist Circuit.
In 1944, Latour parachuted into the Calvados area of Normandy to lay the groundwork for the upcoming Allied invasion on D-Day. She worked as a wireless operator with Resistance member Claude de Baissac, or “Denis,” and his sister Lisé de Baissac.
The dark-haired and diminutive Latour operated under the cover story of a 14-year old schoolgirl living in the countryside with her extended family to escape the Allied bombing. With just one blue cotton dress to her name, she pedaled around the countryside selling soap to mostly German soldiers, crossing fields on foot to where she had hidden six different bicycles.
“I’d talk so much about anything and everything, trying to be ‘helpful’ and they’d get sick of me,” she recalled. She constantly moving through the countryside transmitting 135 messages with the information so urgently needed by the Allied Command.
“I always carried knitting because my codes were on a piece of silk. I had about 2,000 I could use. 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.” Coded messages took up to half an hour to send. Since the Germans could identify the location of a signal in an hour and a half, Doyle moved constantly to avoid detection.
The Inevitable Tragedies of War
During one sweep, the SS and Gestapo rounded her and several other French civilians up for questioning. “I can remember being taken to the station and a female soldier made us take our clothes off to see if we were hiding anything.”
“She was looking suspiciously at my hair so I just pulled my lace off and shook my head. That seemed to satisfy her. I tied my hair back up with the lace… it was a nerve-wracking moment.”
Once, she called in a bombing run on a German radio direction finding station (RDF) that had a bead on her signal. Although the station was destroyed, a German grandmother and her two grandchildren were killed in the bombing.
“I later attended the funeral of the grandmother, her daughter, and her two grandchildren, knowing I had indirectly caused their deaths.”
“I can imagine the bomber pilots patting each other on the back and offering congratulations after a strike. But they never saw the carnage that was left. I always saw it, and I don’t think I will ever forget it.”
After the Americans moved across France, U.S. troops briefly held her before she was identified as an SOE operative.
Even Her Family Didn’t Know of Her Past
When the war ended, Phyllis Latour was eager to leave its horrors behind. She married Patrick Doyle an Australian engineer. The couple raised a family while living in Fiji, Kenya, and Australia. She never mentioned anything about her SOE experiences until one of her sons, reading an account of women and SOE, was shocked to find out his mother was one of them.
Her family insisted that she send-off for her medals. And although she did so, she didn’t ask for a public display.
Nevertheless, on November 25, 2014, Latour was awarded the Legion of Honor, France’s highest military honor. The French ambassador to New Zealand, Laurent Contini, who presented her with the award described the now-old woman as a “formidable example for younger and older generations alike.”
“Pippa stands out as a formidable example for younger and older generations alike. As part of its commemorations of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, France is recognizing military veterans and civilians who fought in the Second World War. I have deep admiration for her bravery and it will be with great honor that I will present her with the award of Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration,” the ambassador added.
Happy (belated) 100-year birthday to Ms. Latour-Doyle. She and so many other women who served with SOE and OSS are finally and deservingly getting their due.