A 96-year-old war heroine and spy who parachuted into France to help liberate the country from the Nazis has been honoured at a special ceremony in Devonport tonight.

Secret agent Phyllis "Pippa" Latour was recruited by Britain's Special Operations Executive, and trained in radio skills, surveillance, sabotage, map reading and self-defence before parachuting into Normandy on May 1, 1944.

Cycling through the French countryside with coded information hidden in her hair, Latour used hidden radio sets to send information to Britain that would help guide bombing missions to enemy targets.

If discovered behind enemy lines, the 23-year-old - whose code name was Genevieve - faced death at the hands of her captors.

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Agents were warned they had about a 50 per cent chance of survival. They were trained to take a cyanide tablet if captured, ensuring certain death within seconds.

Latour had several close calls, including a nervous moment when she was questioned by police and told to remove her clothes. She undid her hairtie and shook out her locks to show the female officer she had nothing to hide - concealing the fact that her codes were concealed in the hairtie itself.

But Latour survived the war, transmitting 135 secret messages to the UK before France's liberation in August 1944.

She married and became Phyllis Doyle, living in Kenya, then Fiji, before moving to New Zealand. She has always been reticent about her military career, keeping it secret even from her own children for much of her life.

But Doyle has received great praise from France, which awarded her its highest decoration - the Legion d'honneur - at a 2014 ceremony.

Victoria Cross winner and former SAS soldier Willie Apiata spends a moment with Pippa Doyle after she received the Legion of Honour medal in 2014. Photo/File
Victoria Cross winner and former SAS soldier Willie Apiata spends a moment with Pippa Doyle after she received the Legion of Honour medal in 2014. Photo/File

Tonight it was her French military parachute wings that Doyle received at the National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy in Devonport, 73 years after dropping into France.

Awarding Doyle the brevet militaire de parachutiste, French Ambassador Florence Jeanblanc-Risler said she had more than earned the badge for her "inspiring" service with the covert Scientist network, whose work was critical to the Normandy landings.

The ambassador said it was profoundly important to recognise those who contributed to the war effort.

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"In doing so, we send an important message to our younger generations about the profound impact of the war and the importance of standing up for our values. You are an outstanding example for young people today, and especially for young women."

The South African-born Doyle has also received an MBE, the French Resistance Medal and the Croix de Guerre for her wartime service.