She parachuted behind Nazi lines and risked her life gathering vital information on enemy positions ahead of the D-Day landings. British spy Phyllis Latour Doyle, then 23, toured occupied Normandy by bicycle disguised as a 14-year-old French girl selling soap to German soldiers.
But hidden on pieces of silk among the brave young woman’s knitting were the secret codes used by the slightly-built agent – codename Paulette – to send back her messages to Allied Command. For decades after the war Mrs Doyle, known as Pippa, kept her extraordinary past hidden too, only telling her children 15 years ago.
But yesterday the modest heroine, now 93 and living in a rest home in New Zealand, made a rare foray into the spotlight of public acclaim as she was presented in Auckland with the Legion of Honour, France’s highest award for bravery.
With a Parachute Regiment wings badge and honours including the MBE she was awarded after the war and France’s Croix de Guerre pinned to her cardigan, Mrs Doyle received the award from the French ambassador to New Zealand, Laurent Contini.
‘Pippa stands out as a formidable example for younger and older generations alike,’ he said. As part of its commemorations of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, France is recognising military veterans and civilians who fought in the Second World War.
Mr Contini said that when mother-of-four Mrs Doyle, who moved to Auckland in the 1970s, was told of her award she was ‘surprised that we have found her and said ‘‘but what did I do to merit that?’’.
What she did began when she joined the RAF to train as a flight mechanic in 1941 and the secret services spotted her potential. With an English mother and a French father, a doctor, she was fluent in French and was whisked away to be trained as one of the few women agents working for the Special Operations Executive.
‘I did it for revenge,’ she told New Zealand’s Army News magazine in 2009, explaining that she joined SOE because her godmother’s father was shot by the Germans and her godmother committed suicide after being imprisoned by them. As well as extensive physical fitness training, Mrs Doyle told in the rare interview how one of their instructors was ‘a cat burglar who had been taken out of prison to train us’.
She said: ‘We learned how to get in a high window and down drainpipes, how to climb over roofs without being caught.’ She first deployed in Aquitaine in Vichy France from 1942, then dropped into the Calvados area of Normandy on May 1, 1944, sleeping rough in forests or staying with Allied sympathisers.
In total, she transmitted 135 secret messages to Britain via radio sets after linking up with the French Resistance. If she encountered the enemy she would ‘talk so much about anything and everything trying to be ‘‘helpful’’, and they’d get sick of me’. Mrs Doyle also told Army News how she once sent a message requesting a German listening post be taken out by bombers, but a German woman and two children died.
‘I heard I was responsible for their deaths. It was a horrible feeling,’ she said. ‘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 war Mrs Doyle, who was born in South Africa, married an Australian engineer and lived for spells in Fiji and Australia before settling in New Zealand. Yesterday Mr Contini said Mrs Doyle ‘held dangerous positions and undertook perilous missions to prepare the grounds for the Allied troops to march on’ and told of his ‘deep admiration for her bravery and her unshakeable commitment to ending the war’.
Mrs Doyle, who was helped by two of her sons, said nothing publicly beyond remarking that it was a ‘privilege and honour’ to receive the medal... (see more at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/)