When we think about hero stories, they’ll often contain an element of tragedy; something that propels our hero forward and guides them onto a path they may not have gone down otherwise. Most of the time, their stories focus more on what happens to them while they’re on that path, and less on what comes before or after. Heroes like Pippa Latour have seen tragedy in many forms, and her time as a spy during World War II is flanked by experiences and personal perspectives that make her someone to admire.
Celebrating her 100th birthday on April 8th, Phyllis “Pippa” Latour has cultivated quite a life story. Born in South Africa in 1921, she was the only child of Louise and Phillippe Latour. Just three months after her birth, her father, who was a doctor, was killed during a tribal conflict in the Congo (then French Equatorial Africa). After three years, her mother remarried. Pippa’s stepfather was a racecar driver, and from time to time would let Louise drive his cars. One of these times there was an accident, and Louise was killed, leaving Pippa an orphan. She was adopted by her father’s cousin and, years later, traveled to Europe for schooling.
She arrived in Europe at the beginning of 1939, months before the start of the war, and within two years, had joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as a flight mechanic. Her initial motive for joining, shared in a rare 2009 interview, went beyond a call to duty.
“I did it for revenge,” she told New Zealand Army News Magazine.
She sought revenge for the loss of two people very dear to her. First was her godmother’s father, whom she regarded as a grandfather, who had been shot and killed by Nazis at the beginning of the war. Then there was her godmother, who had been arrested and held by the Germans and, fearing death in a concentration camp, took her own life. Pippa felt a sense of obligation to fight for those who no longer could.
After some time with the WAAF, she was chosen to become part of the SOE, Britain’s Special Operations Executive. The SOE was a largely secret organization, and exceptionally dangerous due to its purpose of reconnaissance, counterintelligence, and espionage. Of the 55 female agents that belonged to the SOE during the war, at least one-quarter of them were killed or captured and placed into concentration camps. Agents in the organization required extensive training that, due to urgency, was compounded into just a few short months.
Her training was both physically and mentally draining. From over a dozen parachute jumps, to learning to pick locks and replicate keys, agents were required to hone a multitude of different specialties. They were taught stealth skills by burglars who were taken out of prison specifically to share their techniques. To prepare them for various scenarios, two former Far East police officers taught unarmed combat tactics, in the event they needed to survive without a weapon. When it came to firearm training, Sten guns were popular with the SOE, despite their questionable accuracy and tendency to jam. What the submachine guns lacked in efficacy, they made up for in ease of assembly and low cost, making Sten’s one of the most highly produced guns during WWII.
One of the most important aspects of Pippa’s training was in codes and communications. Agents were required to memorize morse code and encrypt messages, as well as be able to transmit at least 24 words per minute when sending codes, which was double that of highly trained telegraphists. They would be dropped off in undisclosed areas, where they would be required to reassemble radios and transmit messages back to their points of contact within a certain amount of time. Candidates for F Section (working within France) needed to be convincingly “French,” in the event that they were stopped, questioned, or captured. Pippa had developed quite a command of the French language, and very easily slipped into the role.
She would parachute in and out of France several times, each time being given a new name, backstory, and objective. Her two most well-known codenames were Paulette and Genevieve, and throughout her time she posed as a French citizen, working odd jobs, staying with French families, and at other times surviving in the woods or abandoned barns. With authorities constantly patrolling communities looking for spies just like her, she had to be constantly aware of her surroundings and how she presented herself.
In 1944 she dropped into Normandy, where she would become part of the “Scientist” network within the SOE. An estimated 475 SOE agents were part of 56 networks throughout the duration of the war. These networks existed to aid other resistance groups, and help combat German occupation from an intelligence standpoint. Pippa worked with the Scientist network as a wireless operator, coding and decoding messages to and from London headquarters. She was responsible for sending 135 coded messages to London, some of which proved to be invaluable, even aiding major moments like D-Day.
It was in Normandy where she assumed her most dangerous identity, as a poor, 14-year-old French girl named Paulette, whose family was said to have fled to the region. Despite being 23, her petite size and proficiency in French made her story believable and, barring a few close calls, she was never found out. As Paulette, she would travel around on a bicycle, selling soap to Germans and obtaining any information she could. She carried codes with her, written on a piece of silk, that she had to keep hidden, especially when spending so much time interacting with the enemy.
“I always carried knitting because my codes were on a piece of silk – I had about 2,000 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.”
This proved to be an ingenious and effective solution when, on more than one occasion, she was questioned and even asked to take her hair down, and the codes were never found. Pippa had a handful of close calls, even one involving her being detained by U.S. troops for a few hours, before she was recognized and released.
She served until the liberation of France in August of 1944, and like many veterans of World War II, her time with the SOE would be something that would leave her with a lot of internal conflict. Not only was her time as a spy the source of a lot of loneliness and anxiety for her, but it forced a shift in her perspective.
“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…”
Pippa would be greatly impacted by the mental tolls of war. Despite her earnest nature and legitimate reasoning for fighting, the gravity of her role was something that stayed with her. Once, when in Normandy, she had identified three German listening posts, equipped with technology more advanced than her own that could be used to quickly intercept and decode important messages. She had sent correspondence requesting at least one of the posts be destroyed, and when it was, a German woman and two German children were killed as a result of the bombing. She talked about reconciling with this in her 2009 interview.
“It was an awful problem for me so I had to ask for one… 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.”
Her humanity, humility, and sense of realism about the war may be one of the reasons she never really talked about her service. She went on to marry and have four children, spending time in Kenya, Fiji, and Australia, before finally settling down in New Zealand after she and her husband divorced in the ’70s. It wasn’t until the late ’90s, more than 50 years after VE Day, that her oldest son stumbled across an article about her online, and learned about his mother’s impressive past. When she finally shared her story with her children, they insisted she reach out to someone with the Royal Air Force regarding any outstanding medals or honors.
“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.”
2014 marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day, which France had honored by recognizing those who fought. In November of that year, Pippa was awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest military award, established in 1802 by Napoleon Boneparte. It was presented to her by New Zealand’s French Ambassador, Laurent Contini, who shared that, upon learning she had earned the honor, had asked “What did I do to merit that?” Contini went on to speak of his “deep admiration for her bravery and her unshakeable commitment to ending the war”.
One of Contini’s observations, in particular, rings true in more ways than one.
“Pippa stands out as a formidable example for younger and older generations alike.”
A sentiment likely meant to highlight her sacrifice, perseverance and courage throughout her service, that can also be a testament to her honesty regarding the hardships faced by service members put in unimaginable circumstances. Often our hero stories shy away from some of the harder to swallow aspects of the harshly termed “collateral damage” that comes with conflict. The story of someone exacting revenge and emerging from their journey fully contented is usually easier than acknowledging that it’s also human nature to move past retribution and see the bigger picture through a softer lens.
Phyllis “Pippa” Latour is indeed a “formidable example” for everyone, particularly those past, present and future service members who experience unique and inconceivably difficult situations that arise and often remain unspoken. There is just as much admirability in being open about the mental burdens incurred when fighting for what you believe in as there is in battlefield heroism. Pippa’s work as a spy directly aided and influenced the war effort, ensuring the fall of the Third Reich and ending global turmoil, but her hero story doesn’t end there. She’s a hero to anyone faced with unthinkable choices, who made it out the other side with the kinds of wounds you can’t see. She’s a hero in action, intention and character, and that’s something we can all look up to.