fiction, historical fiction, History, Military History, Novel, The War in Europe,, Uncategorized

Nancy Wake’s True Love

When I first decided to write about SOE heroine, Nancy Wake, I read the tiniest snippet about her beloved husband, Henri Fiocca. It wasn’t much to go on, but it gave me an insight. Having watched and re-watched Nancy in interviews she gave over the years, I gained more insight whenever she was asked or spoke about Henri. Again, it wasn’t much to go on, but it was a little more and that combined with the author’s poetic licence, gave me quite a lot for a novel.

Nancy left her home in Australia and finally, after seeing the world, landed on her feet in her own apartment in the heart of Paris. The city of love. The city of lights. It was a city she loved dearly, and her French neighbours loved her.

While travelling on journalist assignments, she crossed paths with the wealthy industrialist, Henri Fiocca. Henri, an eligible bachelor, had a list of ‘girlfriends’ he’d call and take out to dinner. When he asked Nancy to call him, she replied, “I don’t call men. They call me.”

Needless to say, they crossed paths again, he wined and dined her and they tangoed. The rest is history. They married in October 1939, before the Germans reached France, before Henri was called up to fight. In June, 1940, after the fall of Paris, Henri returned home from the front. He and Nancy settled down to resume married life, but their quiet life was not to last. Nancy became intrigued by the plight of British officers interned at the fort in Marseille. One of them spoke of an escape line and she couldn’t wait to assist. Henri on the other hand was hesitant, only too aware of the horrors that lay in wait should she be caught. Still, he loved her and promised he’d help financially.

Henri & Nancy

While Nancy travelled by train to deliver messages or crystals for radios, with parts hand-sewn into the lining of her coat, the Germans presence was felt more and more throughout France. Even though southern France was the Free Zone, it was thought that German spies were everywhere. When the Free Zone was scrapped, the Germans marched into Marseille, and in no time at all became aware of a mystery woman operating there. They called her “The White Mouse,” because she was so good at evading capture, and offered a bounty for information that would lead to her capture. Of course, Nancy didn’t have a clue, nor did Henri. She continued her work, escorted refugees, Jews and Allied servicemen to the foothills of the Pyrenees where they waited for guides to take them across into neutral Spain.

In January 1943, a tip-off from a friend probably saved her life. He said the Germans had been asking about her. Henri told her she had to leave immediately. It was a mad rush to pack while he gathered a large sum of money for her to take. He arranged her departure with the escape line network. They were both distraught and worried. Nancy always maintained that her war was filled with laughter and that she never felt afraid. I find that typical of her generation, strong, courageous and indomitable. But she was surely speaking of her war before and after Henri, and her departure.

On the day she left, it was hurried and no doubt blurry. Imagine having to tear yourself away from the man you love, from your home and whole life, including your precious, beloved pet terrier. To walk away, pretend you’re going shopping and call back, “I’ll see you later.” Then, with the utmost composure, walk half a mile to the train station, board, and journey along the south coast watching out for German patrols. I can only imagine. And her escape from Marseille did not go smoothly, and if you read MADAME FIOOCA, you’ll find out exactly what happened.

Nancy once said that she loved the Tango – the dance of love. She remarked how well Henri danced. So, recently I saw a trailer for a film that came out in 2008. It’s called Easy Virtue. I’ve never watched it, but in the clip you’ll see a couple dance the tango, and all I saw were Henri and Nancy.

Lest we forget.

MADAME FIOCCA: A WWII NOVEL – Ebook available via Amazon now only 99p/99c throughout June 2021. Universal buy link: Mybook.to/MadameFiocca

Paperback coming soon.

Uncategorized

Anzac Day 2021

Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in New Zealand and Australia that commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in all wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations. It also commemorates all those who contributed and suffered as a result of their service. It is annually observed on April 25th, the day which marks the landing of “Anzacs” at Gallipoli in 1915.

Thousands of men lost their lives during the Gallipoli campaign, including 44,000 men from the French and British Empire which included 8,500 Australians and 2,779 New Zealanders. 87,000 Ottoman Turks also lost their lives.

In case you were wondering, ANZAC is an acronym for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.

More than 3,000 Australian nurses volunteered to serve during the First World War. They worked in hospitals, casualty clearing stations near the front line, or on hospital ships and trains. Nurses served around the world, in Britain, France, Belgium, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Many would go on to receive military medals for acts of bravery and for their service. Twenty-five Australian nurses lost their lives during their service.

The sights they were suddenly faced with must have been truly appalling and shocking, no doubt never witnessed before. Heavy artillery, machine guns and poison gas created injuries on such a huge scale. As one nurse noted, bullets were nothing, but shrapnel tore through flesh and severed limbs.

It was during this time that plastic surgery, still relatively in its infancy, was shaped through innovation as a direct result of injuries sustained by men during WW1. Sir Harold Delf Gillies, a distant cousin of renowned plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe who I mention in my book, The Beauty Shop: A WWII Novel, became a pioneer in his field during his war service. Faced with men who had had their faces torn to shreds by shrapnel, he had to devise ways of reconstructing their faces, working on jaws, noses, eyes. It was during this time that artists were recruited to paint such patients to record the injuries, and also the reconstruction work that followed.

Jaw injuries were severe, rendering men unable to eat and drink. Often, they had to be nursed sitting up to prevent them from suffocating if they lay down. Some had injuries that left them blinded, or having lost their eyes. Some had their noses literally ripped off, leaving a gaping hole.

Gillies was, like McIndoe, a New Zealander who later became based in London. In 1915 he was posted to France where he witnesses horrific injuries. On his return to England, he established a special ward at the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot where men with facial injuries could be sent. By 1916, Gillies convinced medical chiefs that a dedicated hospital was urgently needed for men with facial injuries. Thus The Queen’s Hospital at Frognal House in Sidcup was established in 1917.

Archibald McIndoe

Skin grafts were already in use, but more medical experience was required. Gillies pioneered techniques that greatly improved the success of grafts working, and also techniques in reconstruction. Men were not only physically injured, but psychologically too. They worried how their loved ones and friends would react to their altered image. Confidence was severely affected, men became recluses, depressed. Gillies was clearly aware of all possible problems associated with such injuries and their recovery.

Thousands of men suffered disabilities and long-term health conditions from their war injuries.

Gillies was very aware of the fact that men with facial disfigurements were severely disadvantaged in their lives, going forward. People on the street could not bare to look at them, often turning away or screaming out. Such men would have little to no chance of finding work. Earning a living was vital, so Gillies devised training schemes for the men so that they might learn new skills.

Gillies was a pioneer of plastic surgery, ahead of his time, and he would go on to teach his younger cousin, Archie McIndoe, who himself would become a pioneer in plastic surgery during the Second World War, where once again injuries were witnessed that had never been seen before. Archie took heed of his cousin, and performed magnificent work, including paying attention to the mental health of men too. Once again training was devised to give men fresh interests and new skills to equip them for a new life, a different life, in a greatly changed world after the war.

Another great lady, Nancy Wake, a New Zealander raised in Australia, would have celebrated Anzac Day too, had she still been alive. Nancy also did much for the war effort from October 1940 until the end of WW2. She worked as a courier for an escape network in Marseille, taking supplies to others in the network, and escorting evaders and civilians fleeing the Germans, to the foothills of the Pyrenees. Later, she too became an evader, crossing the mountains to reach Spain. In 1944, she joined SOE in London, and parachuted back into France in time to wreak havoc prior to the D-Day landings. Nancy is of course the heroine in my novel, Madame Fiocca: A WWII Novel.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon “For the Fallen”

Sir Harold Delf Gillies – 17th June 1882 – 10th September 1960.

Sir Archibald McIndoe – 4th May 1900 – 11th April 1960.

Nancy Augusta Wake – 30th August 1912 – 7th August 2011