Monday, December 1, 2014
A 93-year-old former British secret agent will receive France's highest award for her courage - 70 years after parachuting behind enemy lines in preparation for D-Day. For decades she has remained in the shadows; a reluctant heroine with an astonishing past. But on Tuesday, Phyllis Latour Doyle, a 93-year-old former British spy, will step into the limelight.
Seventy years after being parachuted behind enemy lines in occupied Normandy, Mrs Doyle – or Pippa to her friends – will be awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest decoration, in recognition of her courage in helping to liberate the country from the Nazis.
Motivated in part by revenge for the murder by the Germans of a close family friend, Mrs Doyle engaged in a mission to gather information on German positions ahead of the D-Day landings. In all, she relayed 135 secret messages to Britain before France’s eventual liberation in August 1944.
She was awarded the MBE for her bravery by the British government but her actions have remained largely unheralded. Mrs Doyle didn’t even tell her children about her exploits until 15 years ago.
That anonymity will change when the French ambassador to New Zealand, where Mrs Doyle, a mother of four, now lives, bestows upon her the Legion of Honour on Tuesday November 25.
Mrs Doyle was one of a handful of female agents working for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), set up to spy upon and sabotage Nazi-occupied Europe. She had joined the RAF to train as a flight mechanic in 1941 but the secret services spotted her potential. Although her mother was English, her father was a French doctor and Mrs Doyle was fluent in the language. Instead of working on fixing aircraft, she was whisked away for training in espionage.
“It wasn’t until after my first round of training that they told me they wanted me to become a member of the SOE,” she said in a rare interview five years ago, “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.”
A close family friend – her godmother’s father – had been shot by the Germans and her godmother had committed suicide after being taken prisoner by the Nazis. “I did it for revenge,” Mrs Doyle told the New Zealand Army News magazine in 2009.
In Britain, the SOE operatives were trained by a cat burglar, released from jail especially. “We learnt how to get in a high window, and down drain pipes, how to climb over roofs without being caught,” she recalled.
Given three separate code names – Genevieve, Plus Fours and Lampooner – she was first deployed in Aquitaine in Vichy France from 1942.
She was dropped behind enemy lines under a new code name, Paulette, into the Calvados region of Normandy on May 1 1944.
Although then aged 23, she assumed the identity of a poor 14-year-old French girl to make the Germans less suspicious. She used bicycles to tour the area, passing information through coded messages.
The messages would take half an hour to send and the Germans an hour and a half to trace the signal. She would have just enough time to send her message and move on before being discovered.
She would sleep rough in forests, forced to forage for food, or stay with Allied sympathisers. “One family I stayed with told me we were eating squirrel,” she told the Army News, “I found out later it was rat. I was half starved so I didn’t care.”
But the war – and the horrors she witnessed – took its toll. She has disclosed how she 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 later attended the funeral of a grandmother, her daughter and her two grandchildren, knowing I had indirectly caused their deaths.”
After the war, Mrs Doyle returned to Kenya, where she had gone to school, for her wedding to an Australian engineer. The couple had four children and moved to Fiji and then on to Australia, where they settled.
Eventually, she moved with her children to a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand, divorcing her husband in the mid 1970s.
Her bridesmaid, Barbara Blake, 91, who lives in north London, said her friend had never wanted publicity for her deeds. The French government, however, had wanted to make its award public to highlight Mrs Doyle’s remarkable achievements.
It wasn’t until the last 15 years or so – and her children now grown up – that Mrs Doyle confided in them about her career as a spy. “My eldest son found out by reading something on the internet, and my children insisted I send off for my medals,” she said.
“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 wanted them.”
Laurent Contini, the French ambassador to New Zealand, said: “I have deep admiration for her bravery and it will be with great honour that I will present her with the award of Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration.”
Article writen by Robert Mendick of The (U.K.) Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-two/11248032/Wartime-spy-finally-accepts-she-is-a-French-heroine.html