Phyllis “Pippa” Latour


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Phyllis “Pippa” Latour

Issue 1461

The Week




Phyllis “Pippa” Latour

Latour: a thirst for adventure

The last female agent from the SOE’s F section


On 2 May 1944, a 23-year-old agent codenamed Genevieve was parachuted into France, to gather information about German troop movements in Normandy in advance of D-Day. The men who’d preceded her in that role had been caught and executed. Her handlers, in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), hoped the Germans would be less suspicious of a young woman cycling around the countryside, selling soap to soldiers. In just a few weeks, she relayed 135 encrypted messages back to London, using codes that she concealed on a piece of silk, which she inserted into a shoelace, and used to tie her hair. Once, she was arrested by the Nazis and ordered to strip. Having removed her clothes, she undid the tie, and tossed it aside. The officers were thus satisfied that she had nothing hidden in her hair – and took no notice of the lace. In total, 39 female agents were sent into the field in France with the SOE. “Genevieve”, who has died in New Zealand aged 102, was the last of their number.

Phyllis (Pippa) Latour was born in South Africa to a French father and an English mother. Orphaned aged four, she was brought up by an uncle in what was then the Belgian Congo, whose job was to pursue ivory smugglers. The experience left her with knowledge of several languages, including Swahili, and a thirst for adventure. Having been sent to Europe to go to school, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in 1941, but was soon recruited to the SOE’s F (French) section, owing to her fluent French. An early report dismissed her as a “simple-minded” girl with a reckless “love of excitement”. However, she proved fearless during training, said The Daily Telegraph, where she learnt to use weapons, pick locks, and (from a cat burglar) shin up drainpipes and climb over roofs. Her first deployment was to Vichy France. She spent a year spying there before being assigned to the more perilous mission to work as a wireless operator with the Maquis in Normandy. Her arrival was preceded by a message broadcast by the BBC – “Le vin rouge est meilleur.” Within two days of landing, she had relayed her first message; before long, she had 17 wireless sets hidden across an area that was thick with German troops. As the enemy could pick up their signals, she and her comrades were always on the move, sleeping in a different place each night, sometimes in the open. She was pulled out in August 1944.

At the end of the War, she was awarded the MBE, and the Croix de Guerre. She then married an Australian engineer, with whom she lived in Kenya, Fiji and Australia. After their divorce, she moved to New Zealand. Mentally scarred by her wartime experience, she never spoke about it, even to her children, until one of them discovered her history online – and insisted she finally send off for her campaign medals. In 2014, as part of commemorations to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the French ambassador visited her care home, to present her with France’s highest award, the Légion d’honneur.