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.
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.