France awards highest honour to modest WWII British spy heroine

New Zealand's member of parliament Judith Collins (left) and Phyllis Latour Doyle look at the Knight of the national Order of the Legion of Honour award she received from French Ambassador to New Zealand Laurent Contini in Auckland on Nov 25, 2014.&n
New Zealand's member of parliament Judith Collins (left) and Phyllis Latour Doyle look at the Knight of the national Order of the Legion of Honour award she received from French Ambassador to New Zealand Laurent Contini in Auckland on Nov 25, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

WELLINGTON (AFP) - A World War II heroine who parachuted behind German lines on "perilous" spy missions, but was so modest she only told her children about it 15 years ago, was Tuesday presented with France's highest honour.

British-born Pippa Doyle, now 93 and living in New Zealand, was awarded the Chevalier de l'ordre national de la Legion d'Honneur, or Knight of the national Order of the Legion of Honour.

The French ambassador to New Zealand, Laurent Contini, who presented the award to Doyle at a military barracks in Auckland, praised her courage in spying on German movements ahead of the D-Day landings in 1944.

However, the modest Doyle is reluctant to talk about her wartime experiences and only revealed her past to her four children 15 years ago.

During the war, she joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British organisation involved in espionage and sabotage in occupied Europe, after her godmother's father was shot by the Nazis.

She spoke fluent French and on May 1, 1944, was parachuted into Normandy under the code name "Paulette", where she spied on German troops and sent coded messages back to London.

"Pippa stands out as a formidable example for younger and older generations alike," Contini said.

"At the age of 21, she decided to join the resistance movement in a foreign country, held dangerous positions and undertook perilous missions to prepare the grounds for the allied troops to march on.

"I have deep admiration for her bravery and her unshakable commitment to ending the war and it will be with great honour that I present her with the award of Chevalier de l'ordre national de la Legion d'Honneur, France's highest decoration."

Doyle, whose first name is Phyllis but who is widely known as Pippa, has previously been awarded the Croix de Guerre and MBE (Member of the British Empire).

As part of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the battle of Normandy, France has undertaken a campaign of recognition of military veterans and civilians who fought in World War II.

Five other New Zealanders are to be appointed knights of the national order of the Legion of Honour at a later date.

Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the Legion of Honour recognises distinguished military and civilian service to France.