The Last Surviving Woman To Have Served as a World War II British Spy Turns 100

April 13, 2021Matt Fratus
Pippa Latour SOE coffee or die

Phyllis “Pippa” Latour is the only surviving female Special Operations Executive from WWII. She parachuted into Normandy on May 1, 1944, to operate as part of the Scientist circuit. Photo courtesy of the Veterans’ Foundation/Facebook

Phyllis “Pippa” Latour Doyle celebrated her 100th birthday Thursday, but for the majority of her life, the reluctant hero kept a secret from everyone. Not even her children were aware of her experiences in World War II until her son read about them on the internet. In the 1990s, the British government declassified a treasure trove of information about the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the team of agents that Winston Churchill famously charged to “set Europe ablaze” as spies and saboteurs. The documents revealed how women volunteered to serve within this clandestine unit, many working as spies against the Nazis.

Latour, born April 8, 1921, is the last survivor of 39 women who parachuted into France to organize resistance forces in preparation for the Normandy invasion. Though for decades she kept an oath of silence, her family has encouraged her to come forward and share her story.

“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 Latore SOE WWII coffee or die
In 2014, Phyllis “Pippa” Latour Doyle was presented with the Legion of Honor, France’s highest military honor. She was also awarded an MBE, the French Resistance Medal, and the Croix de Guerre. Photo courtesy of the New Zealand Herald.

Her father was a French doctor killed in the tribal wars of the Congo when she was 3 months old. Her English mother died several years later in a car accident, and Latour moved to the Congo to live with a relative. In 1939, she left for Europe to complete her education. When the war kicked off, Latour joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force at 20, serving as a flight mechanic until she was offered a position in a new secretive unit looking for volunteers who were fluent in French. 

Latour had good reason to join the fight against the Nazis: Latour’s godmother had committed suicide while in a German prison after her father had been killed. The SOE brought in world-class instructors to teach unconventional tactics. Lt. Col. William Ewart “Dan” Fairbairn, who had established the world’s first SWAT team in China, taught a “silent killing” course, while a cat burglar was brought in to give a crash course on lock-picking. “We learned how to get in a high window and down drainpipes,” Latour remembered. “How to climb over roofs without being caught.”

The training was serious because the job was serious. “The men who had been sent just before me were caught and executed,” she told the New Zealand Army News. “I was told I was chosen for that area [of France] because I would arouse less suspicion.”

On May 1, 1944, she was dropped by parachute into the Mayenne-Calvados region. 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.

Pippa Latore SOE WWII coffee or die
Phyllis “Pippa” Latour Doyle kept her wartime heroism a secret for decades. Only after her children discovered her service during World War II did she receive her medals. Photo courtesy of the New Zealand Herald.

Latour, 23, assumed the disguise of a 14-year-old girl, selling soap to the Germans and peddling the French countryside on her bicycle. She stashed six bicycles at various rural locations and used a wireless radio under the code name Genevieve to transmit 135 coded messages to the Allies. These messages were then used to guide Allied bombing missions.

“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.”

The SOE’s F Section and the underground “Scientist” network of which she was a part laid the groundwork for the Allied invasion on D-Day. She watched as the Allies liberated France. Following the war, she married Patrick Doyle, an Australian engineer, and together they moved to Kenya, Fiji, Australia, and eventually to New Zealand. 

On Nov. 25, 2014, she was awarded the Legion d’honneur, France’s highest military honor.

Read Next: Josephine Baker: Roaring ’20s Symbol of the Jazz Age, World War II Spy, Civil Rights Activist

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
navy seal training
Navy SEALS Training Plagued by Massive Problems, According To Investigation

Medical oversight and care were “poorly organized, poorly integrated and poorly led and put candidat...

memorial day arlington
Memorial Day Is a Day of Remembrance, Not Celebration

Memorial Day was created as a remembrance to honor the fallen by decorating graves — a holiday meant...

air force joint chiefs
Air Force Fighter Pilot Tapped As Next Joint Chiefs Chairman Has History of Firsts

The Air Force fighter pilot about to be nominated as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ...

sowf special operations warrior foundation
BRCC Donates $500K to Special Operations Warrior Foundation

In an effort to continue Black Rifle Coffee Company’s mission of supporting the veteran community, B...

Coca Cola 600
BRCC to Honor Fallen Marine During NASCAR’s Legendary Coca-Cola 600

Black Rifle Coffee Company will honor Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa during NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 this Memorial Day. Menusa was killed in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq.

uss gerald r. ford oslo
US Aircraft Carrier Arrives In NATO Member Norway, To Take Part In Drills

The nuclear-powered ship USS Gerald R. Ford entered the Oslo fjord escorted by a rapid dinghy-type boat with armed personnel on board.

adam driver indy 500
Marine Vet, Actor Adam Driver Named Honorary Starter for Indianapolis 500

Two-time Academy Award nominee Adam Driver, who will soon be starring as Enzo Ferrari in a biopic of...

  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
  • Request a Correction
  • Write for Us
  • General Inquiries
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved