A South African Girl in the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.): “Pippa” Latour
Westland Lysander Mk III(SD), (Picture by Paul Maritz)
The type used to drop SOE operatives into occupied France during World War II.
The Second World War was to produce many courageous people, and among these can be counted the female operatives of the British Special Operations Executive, known as S.O.E., one of whom was a young south African lass from Durban, named “Pippa” Latour. This intrepid operative was to serve in occupied France for three years, working under the very noses of the “boche”, and courting danger at every turn.
Phylliss Ada Latour was born in Durban, South Africa, on the 8 April 1921.
In 1939, on the very eve of the greatest war to befall mankind, Latour left her native South Africa to finish her education in Europe.
Latour joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (or WAAF’s, as they were universally known) in 1941, becoming, like so many others, quite literally just a number, 718483 to be exact. Her initial wartime-role was that of a flight mechanic on airframes, whereupon she was recruited in late 1943 by Special Operations Executive, partly because of her “expert knowledge of French”.
In preparation for this hazardous work, she had to “undergo a course of commando training, which included 14 parachute jumps”. Section-officer Latour’s first operation in the world of clandestine warfare came in May 1944 when she parachuted into Orne, a “departement” of Northern France. Functioning as a wireless-operator under the code-name or “nom de guerre”, “Genevieve”, she formed part of the “Scientist” circuit, under its organizer Claude de Baissac, who was also a southern-African, hailing from Mauritius. “Scientist” was just one of the networks or “reseaux”, as they were known to the French partisans, established by “F Section” of the S.O.E. during the war.
Her code-name is intriguing, as “Genevieve” was the name of the patron saint of Paris, a shepherd’s daughter who lived in the 5th-century, and who encouraged the citizens when threatened by Attila and the Huns, and also brought them aid when Childeric attacked the city. And, 1500 years-later, yet another “Genevieve”, this time in the form of a young lass from South Africa, was again helping France to resist the invader.
Latour operated bravely and stoically, sending a plethora of coded messages back to London, all the while evading the enemy.
A South African newspaper was to report: “She entered France several times by this means [parachute] , spending lengthy periods engaged in propaganda work. She made her reports and received her instructions by radio. Sometimes she lived as one of an ordinary French provincial family; at other times she worked on farms or at other apparently normal occupations.”
It goes on to say: “On occasions, to avoid detection by the occupying forces, she had to take to the woods, living and operating with the Maquis. Maintaining her incognito was made more difficult by the frequent searches and inspections of documents to which the local population was subjected.”
It was lonely work in a land of strangers, and “anxiety was an ever-present emotion – anxiety as to what was happening to family and friends, with whom she could not communicate; anxiety about making contact with certain persons at specific times, and the endless anxiety as to how long the deception could be kept up”. All this on the shoulders of a girl but twenty-three years-of-age, but triumph she did.
But, there are always the lighter moments, even in the very midst of madness. On one occasion Gestapo agents mistakenly took Latour and her colleagues as simple peasants and “questioned them closely about some suspected persons who were obviously none other than themselves”, and on another, German soldiers actually hung their wet washing on a supposed clothes line, that was in fact none other than the “aerial of her portable receiving set!” Her trials and tribulations did not go unrewarded, as she was awarded the M.B.E. and the French “Croix de Guerre”, but more importantly this amazing South African-born operative and “field agent” was to help France, and indeed the world, shed the yoke of Nazi tyranny!
“Pippa” Latour later married an Engineer by the name of Doyle and lived in Kenya.
Claude de Baissac, and his sister, Lise, were both born in Mauritius. Claude (code-name, “David”)was awarded the DSO and made a Knight of the Legion d’ Honneur, and was also awarded the Croix de Guerre, while amazingly Lise (code-name, “Odile”) too was made a Knight of the Legion d’ Honneur and also received the Croix de Guerre, and was, in addition, made a Member of the British Empire (MBE).
[Sources: “South Africa” Newspaper, 25 August 1945; Wikipedia: “Phyliss Latour”; Special Forces website: S.O.E.. ]
The Southern African History Musings of Ross Dix-Peek
- A South African Girl in the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.): “Pippa” Latour