Phyllis Latour MBE, who holds British Army Parachute Wings, recently celebrated her 100th birthday in Auckland, New Zealand. She is the last survivor of the female agents recruited by the Special Operations Executive’s French Section during the Second World War. Some say there were thirty-nine female F Section agents. Others say there were more than fifty but some operatives were on secondment to SOE, like Latour during her first mission to France. Most of them were given commissions in the FANY in the hope of legitimising them in the eyes of their captors should they fall into German or Collaborationist hands but they were seen as spies or irregulars and not therefore covered by the Geneva Convention. Several, like Latour, came from other branches of the Armed Forces.
Born in South Africa to a French doctor and his English wife and orphaned by the age of three, Latour spent her childhood and youth in various French and British colonies before making her way to Britain in 1941, where she volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, training as an air frame mechanic. Her fluency in French was soon noticed by SOE recruiting scouts.
Latour is known for her modesty when it comes to discussing her SOE work but we know that she operated in the Aquitaine region of Vichy France as a radio operator from August 1942 to August 1943 with fellow SOE agents Lise de Baissac and her brother Claude, in command of the Scientist network. Extracted from France, Latour was formally enrolled in the SOE on 1.11.1943 and promoted to Honorary WAAF Section Officer. Like other female SOE agents, Latour passed through No 1 Parachute Training School at RAF Ringway, near Manchester, although it took the Royal Air Force another few decades to formally award surviving SOE Girls their wings.
Latour was sent back to the Scientist network to gather information on German troop movements in advance of the planned Allied invasion. She parachuted from a USAAF Liberator bomber dropping two tons of arms and ammunition at 01:00 hrs to Scientist near Mont-du-Saule about 75 km south of Caen on 1.5.1944. She landed in an apple tree from which she had to be cut free.
Of those thirty-nine women verified as having served with F Section, fourteen were killed in action or captivity. Several were atrociously tortured and abused before being murdered. Three earned George Crosses –– two posthumously –- and another earned a George Medal.
Phyllis Latour was awarded the MBE on 4.9.1945 with other female SOE agents. Some of them refused the award because it was Civil. Pearl Cornioley –– whose name appears with that of Latour in this extract from The London Gazette –– said: “There was nothing ‘civil’ about what I did!”. Many felt that SOE agents like Cornioley and Latour ought to have received the Military Cross at the very least. The French awarded Phyllis Latour the Croix de Guerre avec Palme on 16.1.1946. The Palm, normally in Bronze, indicates an Army-level award, which is a high distinction. Latour and other SOE agents like Cornioley received the War Cross with the special silver-gilt Palm, equating to an Army level citation and awarded solely by the Gaullist Free French Forces in WW2.
Some idea of the extreme risks run by Phyllis Latour –– who never even claimed her medals after the war –– can be gleaned from a report written by her Resistance unit commander in Normandy afterwards. “[Latour] was an skinny, intense little South African of French extraction who’d managed to convince SOE headquarters that she spoke French like a native. Unfortunately, every word she uttered betrayed her Anglo-Saxon upbringing. But she was efficient, indispensable and dangerous. Some of that danger lay in her desire to follow her controllers’ instructions to the letter. She also refused to accept that she should keep a lower profile. But her flegme anglais, her British coolheadedness under pressure, was supreme.”.
Issued with 2,000 one-time codes printed on silk, Latour cut them into thin strips as needed and hid in her headbands. Known by various code names including Paulette and Geneviève, Latour had a number of close shaves with German and Collaborationist security forces. On one occasion, she was strip-searched by a female Sicherheitsdienst NCO. Ripping off her headband, Latour made a show of shaking her hair to show that she was hiding nothing. Nobody thought of examining the headband scrunched up in her hand and the Germans released the garrulous, petite girl posing as an art student. In the months leading up to D-Day, Latour sent 135 messages to England. These messages took around half-an-hour each to send and it was a risky business in areas heavily patrolled by German direction-finding vans. After D-Day, Latour and her unit remained operational in German-occupied areas until the end of August 1944.
Phyllis Latour –– whose married name was Doyle –– never told her children about her time with the SOE until they found out about their mother on the Internet in 2000. They persuaded her to apply for her medals and decorations. She was made a Knight of the Légion d’Honneur in 2014 and awarded the French Resistance Medal in 2017. We are all proud of the wings on our shoulders but let us think about what the wings she wears on her chest represent.