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Phyllis Latour Doyle: The Forgotten Spy Whose Knitting Helped Pave the Way for D-Day

The 23-year-old secret agent hid her codes in knitting to avoid detection by the Nazis.

In May 1944, a 23-year-old British secret agent named Phyllis Latour Doyle parachuted into occupied Normandy to gather intelligence on Nazi positions in preparation for D-Day. As an agent for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), Doyle – who recently celebrated her 98th birthday – secretly relayed 135 coded messages to the British military before France's liberation in August. She took advantage of the fact that the Nazi occupiers and their French collaborators were generally less suspicious of women, using the knitting she carried as a way to hide her codes. For seventy years, Doyle's contributions to the war effort were largely unheralded, but she was finally given her due in 2014 when she was awarded France's highest honor, the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.

Doyle first joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force at age 20 in 1941 to work as a flight mechanic, but SOE recruiters spotted her potential and offered her a job as a spy. A close family friend – her godmother's father who she viewed as her grandfather – had been shot by the Nazis and she was eager to support the war effort however she could. Doyle immediately accepted the SOE's offer and began an intensive training program. In addition to learning about encryption and surveillance, trainees also had to pass grueling physical tests. Doyle described how they were taught by a cat burglar who had been released from jail on "how to get in a high window, and down drain pipes, how to climb over roofs without being caught."

She first deployed to Aquitaine in Vichy France where she worked for a year as a spy using the codename Genevieve. Her most dangerous mission, however, began on May 1, 1944 when she jumped out of a U.S. Air Force bomber and landed behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied Normandy. Using the codename Paulette, she posed as a poor teenage French girl. Doyle used a bicycle to tour the region, often under the guise of selling soap, and passed information to the British on Nazi positions using coded messages. In an interview with the New Zealand Army News magazine, she described how risky the mission, noting that "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 also explained how she concealed her codes: "I always carried knitting because my codes were on a piece of silk – I had about 2,000 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." Coded messages took a half an hour to send, and the Germans could identify where a signal was sent from in an hour and a half, so Doyle moved constantly to avoid detection. At times, she stayed with Allied sympathizers, but often she had to sleep in forests and forage for food. During her months in Normandy, Doyle sent 135 secret messages conveying invaluable information on Nazi troop positions, which was used to help Allied forces prepare for the Normandy landings on D-Day and during the subsequent military campaign. Doyle continued her mission until France's liberation in August 1944.

Following the war, Doyle eventually settled in New Zealand where she raised four children. It was only in the past 15 years that she told them about her career as a spy. In presenting the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour to Doyle, French Ambassador Laurent Contini commended her courage during the war, stating: "I have deep admiration for her bravery and it will be with great honor that I will present her with the award of Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration."

Books About Female Spies and Resisters Of World War II

The Whispering Town

The Whispering Town

Written by: Jennifer Elvgren
Illustrated by: Fabio Santomauro
Recommended Age: 6 - 9

In Denmark, the Resistance successfully saved nearly the entire Jewish population across the sea to safety in Sweden, and this picture book captures the suspense and heroism of this incredibly brave act. Anett's family lives in a small Danish fishing village, and they're concealing Carl and his aging mama, the last pair they need to get aboard a fishing boat and to safety. But with the occupying soldiers getting suspicious, and a cloudy sky that will prevent Carl from seeing which way is safe from patrols, it takes Anett's clever idea of a chain of whispers to smuggle them safely to the harbor.

Making Bombs for Hitler

Making Bombs for Hitler

Recommended Age: 10 and up

At first, Lida believes that she and her family are safe from the Nazi regime, since they aren't Jewish — but her perception doesn't last. Nazi soldiers send Lida to a work camp, where she and other Ukrainian children will be worked making munitions until they drop. Lida comes up with a daring plan: sabotage the bombs. She and the other children set to work, but if they are discovered, their deaths will come that much sooner... Based on the real-life experience of countless Ukrainian and other Central and Eastern European children who were used as slave labor in Nazi work camps, this historical fiction novel captures the realities of the camps and the courage of those who resisted without being too graphic for younger readers. For another gripping historical fiction novel by the same author, this one about the Nazis' Lebensborn program, check out Stolen Girl.

Resistance

Resistance

Written by: Jennifer A. Nielsen
Recommended Age: 12 and up

In 1942 Nazi-occupied Poland, Jewish teenager Chaya Lindner is determined to fight the evil destroying her life... even in the face of overwhelming odds. She escapes the Kraków Ghetto where her family is imprisoned and joins the Jewish resistance as a courier. She learns about a planned uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto to fight Nazis' efforts to transport the remaining survivors of the ghetto to death camps. Like her fellow resisters, Chaya knows that there is no possibility that they will 'win' this fight, but they hope to save as many lives as possible, and to live — or die — on their own terms. This powerful historical fiction novel by the author of A Night Divided about the largest single revolt by Jews during WWII explores the Holocaust from the rarely-discussed perspective of Jewish resistance fighters through the story of one heroic young woman.

The Lady Is A Spy: Virginia Hall, World War II Hero of the French Resistance
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The Lady Is A Spy: Virginia Hall, World War II Hero of the French Resistance
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Written by: Don Mitchell
Recommended Age: 12 and up

Virginia Hall always wanted adventure, but many people thought that she would spend her life behind a desk after she lost her leg in an accident. Instead, when World War II broke out, she wanted to serve: first as part of a French ambulance unit, then as an undercover agent for the British Special Operations Executive. She was such an effective spy that the Gestapo declared "the Limping Lady" to be among the most dangerous spies they pursued. This is the true story of a woman who refused to let anything — or anyone — hold her back.

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity

Written by: Elizabeth Wein
Recommended Age: 13 and up

In World War II England, two young women become unlikely friends. One is a pilot, a new member of Britain's Air Transport Auxiliary; one is a spy, destined to assist the resistance in France. When one woman has to eject from their malfunctioning plane and is captured by the Gestapo, she steels herself for the brutality of an interrogation. But do they have the pilot, or the spy? And will Verity manage to keep Britain's secrets, or does her capture risk everything? Readers will devour this suspenseful and richly detailed book... and then go back to the beginning to look for the hints and clues they missed on the first read. Fans of this book will want to check out the companion novel, Rose Under Fire, and the prequel, The Pearl Thief.

Women Heroes of World War II

26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue

Women Heroes of World War II

26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue

Written by: Kathryn J. Atwood
Recommended Age: 12 and up

During World War II, women around the world stood up to protect those they could, doing everything from transmitting radio messages from occupied France, to hiding Jewish families or smuggling them out of dangerous territory, to conducting sabotage missions throughout Europe. Kathryn J. Atwood tells some of their stories in this book, showing how these women, from many nations and backgrounds, each took tremendous risks to fight the battles that they were not permitted to fight on the front. A companion book, Women Heroes of World War II: The Pacific Theater, tells the stories of women's contributions in China, Japan, Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines.

Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent

Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent

Recommended Age: 12 and up

On September 22, 1943, a British Special Operations Executive agent — renowned as "cool and resourceful and extremely determined" and "the best shot, male or female, we have yet had," parachuted into France to assist the French Resistance. This is the real story of Pearl Witherington, and the 29-year-old spy would become one of World War II's most celebrated women resistance fighters. In her own voice, Witherington tells readers about her recruitment and training; her work as a Resistance courier, posing as a cosmetics sales woman; and stepping in as the leader of her network, eventually commanding a 3,500-strong band of French Resistance fighters. As thrilling as any spy novel, this book will keep readers on the edge of their seats.

A Woman Of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II
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A Woman Of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II
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Written by: Sonia Purnell
Recommended Age: Adults

In 1942 France, a mysterious spy known as the "Limping Lady" was a linchpin for the French Resistance – the Gestapo called her "the most dangerous of all Allied spies." Her name, unknown to the Germans, was Virginia Hall. She was the daughter of a well-off Baltimore family turned Special Operations Executive agent, and her distinctive limp was from a prosthetic leg that most people believed would trap her behind a secretary's desk. Author Sonia Purnell explores the full story behind Hall's life, illuminating her determination and her wartime heroism. Fast-paced, thrilling, and meticulously researched, this biography of Hall is better than any fictional spy story. For another fascinating biography of Hall, check out The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy.

Code Name: Lise

The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII's Most Highly Decorated Spy

Code Name: Lise

The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII's Most Highly Decorated Spy

Written by: Larry Loftis
Recommended Age: Adults

After Odette Sansom decides to become an SOE agent in the midst of World War II, she parachutes into occupied France and meets her commanding officer, Captain Peter Churchill. The indomitable pair discover soul mates in one another, falling in love as they race to evade Hugo Bleicher, the German secret police sergeant who pursues them at every turn. When Bleicher finally captures them, they face prison in Paris, then torture in concentration camps in Germany, but their courage — and love — sustains them through seemingly unbeatable horror. Full of thrilling twists and turns and a heart-pounding romance, Sansom's true story is a tribute to the human capacity to overcome.

Nancy Wake: SOE's Greatest Heroine

Nancy Wake: SOE's Greatest Heroine

Written by: Russell Braddon
Recommended Age: Adults

From the moment the German army invaded France in World War II, Nancy Wake was part of the resistance movement. By 1943, she was on the Gestapo’s most wanted list, nicknamed the White Mouse for how easily she evaded their traps. And when she was forced to flee France for safety in Britain, she immediately joined the British Special Operations Executive’s elite group of female agents, soon to be parachuted back into France to lead a 7,000 member branch of the Maquis fighting force. This thrilling true story of one of World War II’s most remarkable heroines will top any fictional spy story!

Madame Fourcade's Secret War
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The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

Madame Fourcade's Secret War
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The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

Written by: Lynne Olson
Recommended Age: Adults

In 1941, 31-year-old Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, a young, privileged mother of two, was also the head of a critical French spy network, Alliance. It seemed like a role she was born to play: she was notoriously strong-willed and rebellious, willing to defy her country's patriarchal rules before the war — and the Nazi occupiers during it. Fourcade would be the war's only female chef de résistance; she held together thousands of agents despite relentless pursuit by the Gestapo. Thanks to her ferocious conviction, Alliance became the longest-lasting resistance network in France, supplying key information, including an enormous map of the beaches where the Allies landed on D-Day. This tale of a courageous woman who refused to give in is suspenseful and thrilling.

D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II
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D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II
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Written by: Sarah Rose
Recommended Age: Adults

In the midst of World War II, it appeared that the Nazis were unstoppable — especially with almost every man in England already fighting on the front. So the Special Operations Executive took a bold step and recruited women as spies. Thirty-nine women answered their call, including Andrée Borrel, Odette Sansom, and Lise de Baissac. In D-Day Girls author Sarah Rose draws on recently declassified documents, diaries, and more to create a compelling portrait of these three women and their motivations for risking everything in order to make the D-Day invasion possible — and pave the way for the Allied victory.

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