CODE NAME :PAULETTE
By, Captain Nancy Aldrich
Phyllis Latour was born in South Africa, in 1921. Her father was French and he mother British. She grew up in a household speaking both languages. The family moved back to England while she was still a child.
When war with Germany broke out, Phyllis wanted to do her part in the war effort. She volunteered with the Air Transport Auxiliary and was in training to become an aircraft mechanic. During her training it became apparent to those working with her that she was fluent in French. She was approached by Secret Services and asked if she wanted to become a spy. The father of her Godmother had been captured and shot by the Germans, and her Godmother had committed suicide when she was captured. There was a burning desire in Phyllis to do anything she could to avenge the needless deaths of those two people she dearly loved.
“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, “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.” Later she said, “I did it for revenge!”
The Special Operations Executive (SOE), was formed in 1940 to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe. Very few people were even aware of the SOE. It was known by various names. “The Baker Street Irregulars,” “Churchill’s Secret Army,” and the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” were a few of its names. The SOE operated in all countries, or former countries, occupied by or attacked by the Axis Forces. It employed or controlled over 13,000 people, 3,200 of whom were women. After the war, the SOE was officially dissolved on January 15, 1946.
Training was rigorous for all agents, including the women. They went through the same types of training as military, slogging their way through muddy trenches, calisthenics, hand to hand combat, strength training, etc. In addition, one instructor was a cat burglar who had been released from prison just to train the spies. He taught them to scale buildings and climb into windows, shimmy down drain pipes, and climb around on roofs without being seen. They were also taught to send Morse Code messages. They were required to be able to send 24 words a minute, which was twice as fast as required normally.
The SOE Operatives were given code names. During her service, Phyllis was given the names ‘Genevieve,’ ‘Plus Fours,’ and ‘Lampooner’ for her field work. She was first deployed in 1942 in Aquitaine Vichy. One of her most important deployments was in May, 1944, with the code name ‘Paulette.’ She was 23 years old.
She was parachuted into enemy occupied Calvados, Normandy. The Allies were planning “D-Day,” and needed reliable information about the German positions. She disguised herself as a poor, 14 year old French girl, and rode a bicycle through the countryside selling soap to the German soldiers. She said, “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.”
She was in contact with the French Resistance who gave her shelter and food when they could. “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.”
As she bicycled around the countryside she listened carefully to everything she heard. Between May and August she was able to send 135 messages back to the British. When asked about the codes she used, she said, “I always carried knitting because my codes were on a piece of silk, I had about 2000 codes 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.”
She knew that it would take the Germans an hour and a half to trace her signal. She could set up her equipment, send the message, and be gone in half an hour. She would be long gone by the time the Germans came looking for the person sending the messages.
At one point she identified a German listening post. She sent a message requesting that the post be taken out. However, when it was bombed a woman and two children were killed. She was haunted by knowing that she was responsible for their deaths. “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.”
War takes its toll on everyone, and she was no exception. “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 she married, and lived in several different countries. The family settled in New Zealand. She never spoke of her service for 60 years. Then, about 15 years ago, her son was researching information on “D-Day” and found the stories of his mother’s activities. He contacted the French Embassy and it was confirmed that his mother was a war hero!
Doyle had kept her wartime activities secret for almost 60 years. She finally told her children the stories after they came across the information on the internet. She never wanted publicity for her bravery. When asked if she wanted her medals to be formally presented to her, she responded, “no, it was my family who wanted them.”
The French Ambassador to New Zealand, Laurent Contini said,” I have deep admiration for her bravery, and it will be with great honor that I present her with the award of Cevalier de l’Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration.”
Mrs. Doyle was presented her medals in 2014, at age 93, about 69 years after her actions.
The French Ambassador to New Zealand, Laurent Contini said,” I have deep admiration for her bravery, and it will be with great honor that I present her with the award of Cevalier de l’Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration...
By, Captain Nancy Aldrich, award winning aviation writer, 20thcenturyaviationmagazine.com