FROM THE ARMY NEWS ARCHIVES (2009)
Sixty-five years ago, Pippa Latour watched as allied troops stormed Normandy in the D-Day landings.
Aged 21 and posing as a schoolgirl, Pippa was a radio operator and member of the Special Operations Executive; in effect, a spy whose job it was to supply intelligence that would lead to the bombers being brought in.
Her work made a significant impact on the Allied victory, and she was awarded the Croix de Geurre for bravery, and made a Member of the British Empire.
On the recent 65th anniversary of the Normandy landings Pippa, who is 86, and now lives in Auckland, talked with friends, drank tea and recalled in sharp detail her time in northern France.
She told Army News editor Judith Martin about her war, why she joined the SOE, and how she feels about it now.
"I did it for revenge," the snowy-haired, clear-eyed woman states without hesitation. She speaks clearly and with a hint of the South African accent that is a key to her background.
Pippa Doyle, maiden name Latour, is explaining what motivated her to parachute behind enemy lines and put her life constantly at risk gathering intelligence in the months before the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944.
There is no hint, however, of vitriol; the daughter of a French doctor, Pippa's godmother's father (who she looked on as her own grandfather) was shot by the Germans, and her godmother committed suicide after being imprisoned by the enemy. The young woman's mind was made up.
"I hated what I was doing. At first I was proud of myself because I was doing something for the war effort. But when you see what the bombers do..."
Her membership of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was not originally intentional.
Section Officer Pippa Latour had joined the RAF to train as a flight mechanic.
Fluent in French, she had visions of working on an airfield and interviewing French air crews returning from sorties. But British Intelligence had other ideas.
"They took a group of about 20 of us away for training. It was unusual training – not what I expected, and very hard. 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."
The training members of the SOE were given was tough, and women were given no quarter, says Pippa. "The men who had been sent just before me were caught and executed. I was told I was chosen for that area (of France) because I would arouse less suspicion."
As well as extensive physical fitness training, the operatives were given other training to suit their work. "We climbed ropes, and learned to climb trees and up the side of buildings. Our instructor was a cat burglar who had been taken out of prison to train us. We learned how to get in a high window, and down drain pipes, how to climb over roofs without being caught."
With three codenames (Genevieve, Plus Fours and Lampooner) she was assigned a section of northern France and was part of the agent circuit codenamed "Scientist".
Pippa made her first parachute jump into the Mayenne-Calvados area on 1 May 1944.
"I was scared. I didn't like jumping, no matter what part of the aircraft it was from."
She made pre-arranged contact with three members of the Resistance – a doctor, a dentist and a veterinarian. All three had knowledge of most of the inhabitants of the nearby area, and they were able to hide Pippa's radio sets in various rural locations.
Dark-haired and diminutive, Pippa had six bicycles hidden around the countryside. She was in the area under the guise of being a 14 year old schoolgirl living in the countryside with extended family to escape the Allied bombing. With just one blue cotton dress to her name she pedalled around the countryside selling soap to mostly German soldiers, crossing fields on foot to where she had hidden another bicycle.
The Gestapo and SS were everywhere. And to add to the confusion and danger a double agent was working in the area. The SOE operative was friendly and talkative whenever she met German soldiers – "I'd talk so much about anything and everything, trying to be 'helpful' and they'd get sick of me" - and was constantly moving through the countryside where she was transmitting the information so urgently needed by the Allied Command.
It was crucial the information she transmitted was accurate – the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers relied on it.
"I always carried knitting because my codes were on a piece of silk – I had about 2000 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."
Once she was loaded into a truck along with other locals and taken to the police station 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."
Pippa had no real base, sleeping rough in the countryside and in the forest. She had a courier, and a local married couple who she could contact should things go horribly wrong.
She was constantly hungry. "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."
While she had a Sten gun and a 7mm pistol with a silencer, she couldn't carry a weapon routinely as it would give her ruse away should she be stopped. She used the training she had been given but lived largely on her wits.
"Germany was far more advanced with their DF (direction finding or radio detecting apparatus) than the Allies. They were about an hour and a half behind me each time I transmitted. Each message might take me about half an hour so I didn't have much time. It was an awful problem for me so I had to ask for one of the three DF near me to be taken out. They threw a grenade at it.
A German woman and two small children died. I knew I was responsible for their deaths. It was a horrible feeling.
"I later attended the funeral of a 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."
Pippa Doyle has what she calls a "complicated" background. It does, however, go some way to explaining her character.
The only child of a French father and an English mother, she was born on a Belgium ship tied up in Durban. Her father went to work in the Congo and sent her and her mother back to South Africa when tribal wars erupted. He was killed in those wars when she was three months old. When she was three her mother remarried.
"My stepfather was well-off, and a racing driver. The men would do circuits and they would often let their wives race against each other. When my mother drove the choke stuck and she couldn't control the car. She hit a barrier, the car burst into flames, and she died."
Her father's cousin became her guardian, and she went to live with him, his wife and his sons in the Congo. "They were really the only parents I knew. When I was seven my "new" mother went riding as she always did. The horse came back without her, and a lot of time elapsed before they found her as they didn't know where she had been riding. Apparently the horse had stepped on a puff adder. She was thrown, and then bitten in the face by the adder. When they found her she was dead."
Despite the amount of tragedy crammed into such a young life, Pippa says she had a very happy childhood.
"I was brought up with a lot of affection as my "brothers" were all much older than me – it was as though I had four fathers. They played with me, hugged me a lot, and taught me to shoot. I was very happy."
After the war Pippa Doyle married, and moved with her husband, an engineer, to live in Australia. They had four children and moved to Fiji for a while so her husband could follow his career.
Pippa eventually decided to move back to Australia with the children and boarded an aircraft which she thought was bound for Brisbane.
Mid-flight she was shocked to find she was in fact heading for Whenuapai. With thirty-five pounds in her purse she decided to stay, and brought up her children on her own in the Auckland region.
She had no interest in discussing her wartime exploits, and it wasn't until 2000 that she told her by-then adult children what she had done. "I didn't have good memories of the war, so I didn't bother telling anyone what I did. 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."
WOMEN IN SOE
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was instigated by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1940 to carry out sabotage and espionage throughout occupied Europe. Its aim, according to Churchill, was to "set Europe ablaze". Operatives were both military and civilian, and they were trained in Britain. The SOE organisation was based in London, and as the war progressed its offices spread to Egypt, Algiers, Australia and India.
Recruit training consisted of radio skills, surveillance, sabotage, map-reading and self defence, and all operatives were given a false identity. SOE couriers carried messages and money to and from
Resistance groups, and radio operators relayed intelligence using ciphers and code.
Women played an important role in the SOE, with about 40 out of a total of 470 being sent to France. The SOE operated throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It was closed down after the war.