19/04/2024
Norwich, GB 7 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

PIPPA LATOUR, aged 102

‘GENEVIEVE’

Born Phyllis Latour, she was always known as ‘Pippa’. She was born on a boat in Durban harbour. Her father, Phillipe, was a French Doctor who was on his way to work in Equatorial French Africa (now the Gabon).

Phillipe was killed in a tribal conflict when Pippa was just 3 months old.

Her mother quickly remarried. Her second husband was a racing driver. He encouraged his new wife to drive his cars. One malfunctioned, crashed – and killed her. Pippa was 3 years old at the time.

She was adopted by her father’s cousin – her uncle. She grew up in Jabotville in the Belgian Congo. Her uncle (who she adored) was a tireless campaigner against the ivory trade and travelled far and wide, often taking Pippa with him. She later joked that she was the most ‘safariied’ (sic) girl in the world.

She also became fluent in French, Flemish, Arabic, Swahili and Kikuyu (as well as English).

Pippa was then sent to boarding school in Kenya.

When she left school, the Second World War was underway. Pippa had reason to be angry. The Nazis had swept through Europe. Pippa’s godmother had been arrested and imprisoned (she was to die shortly afterwards) and her godmother’s father (who Pippa considered her own grandfather), had been shot dead. She wanted revenge.

So, Pippa came to London (late in 1941) and enlisted in the WAAF as a flight engineer, specializing in balloons. But soon her linguistic ability was noticed.

She was asked if she wanted to join the SOE (Special Operations Executive), an espionage operation that worked behind enemy lines. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had told them to “Set Europe ablaze.”

She was told she had three days to decide. She accepted on the spot, despite being warned that she would only have a 50/50 chance of survival.

She joined a group of 20 agents for ‘specialised’ training. It was extremely tough and initially Pippa struggled.

She was taught how to operate a radio (and how to fix it if it was broken), Morse Code –  to encipher messages, how to pick locks, make keys, fire a Sten gun, unarmed combat (including how to kill with your bare hands) and the art of escape. Her first tutor had just been brought back from Shanghai where he had been fighting the Chinese triads. He was a master of the ‘dark arts’.

Pippa was also taught how to do parachute jumps. Her first effort was a disaster. She landed on the back of another trainee who was doing his first jump. It took her 14 attempts before she learned this skill.

They were also taught the skill of breaking and entering. To do this, “A cat burglar was taken out of prison to train us…We learned how to get in a high window, down drainpipes and how to climb over roofs without being caught.”  The cat burglar was called ‘Killer Green’.

Her initial reports from her supervisors were not very promising. The first one stated she was, “Unsuitable for work in the field. She is scatterbrained and unreliable emotionally. She would make an excellent wife for an unimaginative man.”

Nevertheless, the bosses at SOE soon realised that all the female agents were being given similar reports from their all-male training team. The authorities ignored the reports, recognizing Pippa’s linguistic ability was invaluable. She was assigned to ‘F’ Section (France).

Her initial drop was into Aquitaine in 1942, where she operated under the codenames ‘Plus Fours’ and ‘Lampooner’. However, she was soon recalled to the UK to prepare for a far more important mission.

In May 1944, she was parachuted into Orne in Normandy, to lay the groundwork for D-Day. Her new code name was ‘Genevieve’.

She joined the Scientist 2 network of the Maquis (French Resistance). It was run by Claude de Baissas (codename ‘Scientist’) and his sister Lisle (codename ‘Odile’), and also comprised Jean-Renaud Dandicolle (codename ‘Verger’) and Maurice Larcher (codename ‘Vladimir’). The de Baissas siblings were, like Pippa, from Africa (Mauritius), but had lived in South Africa.

When Pippa landed, she was told the previous SOE agents sent in (both male) had been  captured and immediately executed by the Nazis. “I was told I was chosen for that area because I would arouse less suspicion.”

Pippa only realised later, that the Germans knew she was being dropped in. She escaped capture by the skin of her teeth. In making her way to a safe house she came across an empty German military vehicle. They were out looking for her. In the back of the truck were many British parachutes that they had found. She destroyed them all.

She immediately contacted the local doctor, dentist and vet, all of whom supported the Maquis, and soon she linked up with Scientist 2.

They worked in the Caen – Cotentin peninsula, preparing for D-Day. She reported on German troop movements.

Although she was 23, she was small and thin with wide, appealing eyes. Therefore, she was able to portray herself as Paulette Latour, a 14-year-old whose family had moved to the countryside to escape Allied bombing, and who were sympathetic to the Nazis. She had forged papers. She pretended to be selling soap to German soldiers – who, unsuspecting, were willing to chat to this ‘young’ girl. Pippa cycled the area, having 6 bikes stashed away in hiding. She also had 17 radios hidden in various places.

Pippa was constantly on the move. Each encrypted radio report to Britain took her half an hour to complete. It was fairly obvious she was sending information as her aerial was so large. It took the Germans one and a half hours to locate a message – time to finish her report and be gone.

She had over 2,000 codes. She put them on a piece of silk which she wrapped around a knitting needle and then used it to put up her hair. Knitting was one of the devices she used to avoid suspicion. When she had used a code once, she put a pin prick next to it, so as to ensure it was not used again.

She was put up by various farming families – for one night only. “One family I stayed with told me we were eating squirrel…I found out later it was rat. I was half-starved so I didn’t care.”

There were times when there was no accommodation so she slept in hedges, ditches and fields – and had to forage as best as she could.

It was not without dangers. On one occasion she was staying at a farmhouse when German soldiers turned up. They hung their wet washing on a clothes line, not realizing it was actually the aerial to Pippa’s portable radio.

Another time she was actually sending a message to London when two Germans walked into the room, looking for food. She calmly shut her radio and told them it was a suitcase she was packing. She then informed them that she had been diagnosed with scarlet fever (which was sweeping the area) and had been ordered to leave the village. The German soldiers fled.

One of Pippa’s field reports – an extract (courtesy National Archives)

On a third occasion, she was arrested. In a police cell, a female Gestapo officer ordered her to strip. She did – but then the woman paid close attention to Pippa’s hair. Pippa took out her ‘silk ribbon’ and shook her hair. The ribbon was put on top of the pile of her clothes – and ignored by the officer, who was satisfied and let her go.

Just prior to D-Day, she reported the location of a German Panzer division. Allied aircraft wiped it out totally.

She also reported the location of a German listening post. It too was obliterated. It was only afterwards she learned the post sheltered a German grandmother with 2 young children – and they had all been killed. Pippa was devastated that she had caused their deaths. She attended the funerals – but the guilt never left her for the rest of her life.

Pippa accepted the need for Allied bombing but also recognized the carnage and devastation it caused, and the loss of innocent lives.

On D-Day (6th June 1944), her Maquis group, Scientist 2, destroyed the Caen to Vere railway line, vital for German supplies, and also ambushed a group of German officers.

In the following days, they also destroyed the Paris to Grenville railway line (East to West) and managed to cut into a telegraph line between Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and Adolf Hitler – the secret messages went straight to Bletchley Park.

These actions had their costs. In July, Scientist 2 members Renaud – Dandicolle and Larcher were killed in a shoot-out with German troops.

The following month, August 1944, Pippa (Genevieve), was pulled out of France by the SOE and was returned to London. It was deemed too dangerous for her to continue. She had relayed 135 messages successfully from France. Every single one had been coded perfectly.

Back in London, she was assigned a desk job, but she made it clear she didn’t want it – she hated the “disciplined existence”. She argued constantly with her superiors who treated her with no respect at all. One of them wrote that she, “was no more than a child.”

Pippa was unhappy with what she called, “the gross ingratitude of the SOE.”

She asked to be sent into Germany in 1945. Her immediate boss reported, “She is extremely keen on her job and will put her heart and soul into it”.  She loved the role in Germany. After a few months, she was recalled for a briefing update but asked to go back. However, the war ended whilst she was in London – and she never got to return.

Pippa struggled with peace time. Her superior said, “Since the collapse of Germany, Miss Latour has suffered from severe nervous strain.”

He recommended she be sent back to South Africa, but she refused to go. She admitted that she had struggled to adjust to the “horrors of peace”, but said she, and her female companions, had been offered absolutely no support or counselling. Pippa never used her field skills again.

She was initially awarded a Civil Honour, as women were not allowed to be awarded military medals. Her immediate superior kicked up a real fuss – “There was nothing civil about what she did.”

It was upgraded to the MBE, but she refused to collect it (or any other medals awarded to her) , angered by the British reluctance to recognize the role of women in winning the war.

The French awarded her the Croix de Guerre avec Palme.

Shortly after the war, Pippa married Australian engineer Patrick Doyle. They lived in Kenya, Fiji and then Australia, and had two sons and two daughters.

Phyllis (courtesy Threads)

In 1975, they divorced. She took her 4 children and caught a plane to Brisbane. Except she got on the wrong plane and found herself heading to Whenuapai, in New Zealand. Consequently, Pippa settled in New Zealand – by accident.

She never told her children what she had done in the war. “I didn’t have good memories of the war so I didn’t bother telling anyone what I did”.

But in 2000, her eldest son was trawling the Internet and found her story. All her children insisted she finally collect her medals. She did – and realised how proud she was.

In 2014, France awarded her the highest grade of the Legion d’Honneur and she was thrilled.

Pippa was asked what was the hardest thing about being a secret agent in occupied France.  She replied, “Learning to cycle on the right.”

Pippa the spy (courtesy Facebook)

New Zealand Bomber Command awarded Pippa her ‘Wings’. She said, “I finally felt I had arrived.”

Adelaide, where she lived her last few years, named a street after her – Genevieve Street.

One of her daughters predeceased her.

At her death, New Zealand Bomber Command said, “Pippa was intensely proud but never boasted. She knew no fear.”

Then and now (courtesy A Mighty Girl)

She was the last surviving female SOE operative (out of 39), who had served in France.

RIP = Resistance Inspired Pippa

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