"I hate wars and violence but if they come then I don't see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas." Nancy Augusta Wake.
My novel, Madame Fiocca: A WWII Novel, is based on the life of Nancy Wake, the famous SOE heroine, journalist and French Resistance courier.
I first read about Nancy Wake and her role in World War Two several years ago, while researching another story. I remember thinking how incredible she was, leading thousands of maquisards into battle against the Germans in 1944. Her exploits grabbed my attention, and I wondered many things. Who was this woman who helped thousands of Allied servicemen (many airmen) and refugees flee the Germans via an escape network? How did she do it? She escorted them to the foot of the Pyrenees where Spanish guides waited to take them up and over the mountains into Spain. She reportedly killed a German with her bare hands and has spoken of this in many an interview, crediting her training with SOE in giving her such a skill. Then, once back in France as an SOE agent, she won over the difficult temperaments of certain Maquis leaders, and their men, and earned their respect, going on to lead around seven thousand of them into battle against the Germans.
And in-between these battles, Nancy was a lady who wore a silk nightdress to bed and had her own parcels of personal items flown in along with the arms and equipment for the Maquis. SOE sent her precious Lizzie Arden face cream and other things.
I found it intriguing how Nancy always denied ever being afraid during the war. She used to say, “I was far too busy to be scared.” How can that possibly be? Surely everyone was frightened, after all, one never knew who to trust. Even a good friend or family member might give you away to save themselves. I had so many questions and I did not find the answers to all of them, sadly, but I did discover an extraordinary lady who really was very ordinary, but very strong in so many wonderful ways. In writing a novel based on her life, I feel very honoured to have had the chance to do so, knowing that this story has travelled all around the globe and been received very well. It is my own way of shining a light upon one of the most fascinating, amazing women of the 20th century who deserves to be remembered for all that she did.
Nancy Augusta Wake was born in Wellington, New Zealand on 30th August 1912 but her family moved to Sydney, Australia when she was two years old. Her childhood was not the happiest, and her father left them when she was five. Nancy was devastated, having been the apple of his eye until the day he left. Life at home became unbearable for her and when she was sixteen she ran away. That was the beginning of her new life, her story. She found work, lodgings, and made a plan. She needed to save money to buy a ticket out of Oz. Nancy was determined to see the world, a dream she’d had for so long.
Eventually, she achieved that dream with the aid of her aunt, Hinemoa, who sent her a cheque for two hundred pounds. Soon, she set sail on the RMS Aorangi II in February 1933, aged twenty. She sailed around the world, loved New York, Canada and Europe, but finished in England where she had plans. Within a year she’d trained to be a journalist and had a job offer in Paris with the Chicago Tribune. France was a breath of fresh air, and Nancy embraced it as her own, devouring the culture and the language. And the French loved her. She was a jolly Australian woman, pleasant, gregarious, and one to join in. They often referred to her as ‘the girl who always laughed’.
Nancy loved reporting, and her work took her into the heart of Germany when one of her earliest assignments was to interview Hitler. While there she attended the mass rallies and witnessed the rise of the Nazi Party and saw first hand their brutality on the streets of Vienna. It was there while she watched a member of the SA (Brown Shirt) whip a Jewish man that she felt so useless because she couldn’t stop it. She vowed then that if ever she had an opportunity to do something about the Nazis, she would.
As war brewed, Nancy met and fell in love with Henri Fiocca, a wealthy industrialist. They married on the eve of war. When Henri was drafted to the front, Nancy decided to relinquish her wealthy life in Marseille and volunteered for the Red Cross, driving an ambulance. When the Germans took Paris, she drove home, weeping part of the way, and waited for Henri’s return. Fortunately he returned home within a month or two and life resumed some semblance of normal.
The German presence was not felt much in the south of France until later. Even so, when Nancy discovered an escape network had sprung up with its HQ in Marseille, she rose, eager to do whatever she could to help. That was the beginning of her clandestine work. Henri would have preferred her not to have become embroiled in that, but he assisted her and the network mainly with financial donations as money was key.
Nancy was undoubtedly busy as a courier for the escape network in the early years of WW2, and having such a sense of purpose possibly helped her brush aside any natural fear. She had a strong spirit and the strength to push on, fighting what she perceived to be a worthy cause, despite the risks. It was around late 1942 when the Germans became aware of a woman operating in southern France, and they dubbed her “The White Mouse”, offering a bounty for her capture. However, she never knew about this or the bounty, not until much later.
Nancy was the consummate actress, quite forward, openly flirtatious with German soldiers in order to bluff her way through checkpoints. Painting on a brave face was a simple task and like a chameleon, she was changeable and adaptable to any situation or environment.
A friend tipped her off one day in January 1943 when the Gestapo were asking questions in her neighbourhood. Her husband, Henri, decided there was no choice but for Nancy to leave. It was the last thing she wanted to do, especially as Henri said he had to stay behind to secure his business but he promised he would follow on and meet her in London. And her escape? It was not a straightforward journey. She had to wait months, hiding at a safe house while arrangements were made and conditions were right for a journey that would lead her up and over the perilous Pyrenees and down into neutral Spain. During her wait, she made firm friends she would always remember and revisit after the war, people to whom she owed much.
Later, in London, she joined SOE and would parachute into France in April 1944, with plans to arm, equip and train thousands of Maquisards, and to cause disruption to the Germans ahead of D-Day. She was then code name Helene.
The French men she fought with loved her. They thought she was amazing, and formidable. Nancy made many firm friends for life, and one of them, Henri Tardivat, once stated: “She is the most feminine woman I know, but when the fighting starts she is like five men.”
Nancy Augusta Wake began life with very little, and went on to marry a wealthy man, Henri Fiocca, living a millionaire’s life, only to lose it all through war. At the end of it all she had to start again. Her story is a tragic story, like so many from those dark, dangerous years, but she eventually found happiness and perhaps peace later when she met and fell in love with John Forward, a fighter pilot at the end of the war. They married and settled eventually in Australia.
She visited France many times after the war, met up with old friends, reminisced over their exploits. Later, after John died, Nancy relocated to England having sold her many medals at an auction for quite a sum. She set up home at the Stafford Hotel, just off Green Park in the heart of Mayfair, London. At 11am each day, Nancy would arrive at the American Bar and order her usual – G&T. She lived there for two years, long enough for the hotel to have a bar stool specially made with her name engraved. If you go there today you’ll be able to order cocktails such as ‘The White Mouse’ and ‘The Spitfire’. Her stool is still there if you care to see.
Nancy moved to the Royal Star and Garter Home on June 9th 2003 and was there for just over eight years. Even towards the end of her days she was not forgotten. She received letters and pictures from people around the world, many from children whose pictures gave her great delight.
On August 7th, 2011, the world lost another of the greatest generation when Nancy Wake passed away. Her coffin, draped with the Union Jack, bore three small white mice, a fitting tribute to a war heroine. Her ashes would be scattered later as she requested, in the Montlucon area in her beloved France, where she spent exciting and enjoyable times that she once described as the best years of her life.
This is her quote from her own autobiography:
“I already knew the horrors a totalitarian state could bring and long before the Second World was declared, I understood that the free world can only remain free by defending itself against any form of aggression.
I knew too that freedom could not be permanent. It has to be defended at all cost, even if by doing so part of our own freedom has to be sacrificed.
Freedom will always be in danger because, alas, victory is not permanent.”
Nancy’s real story reads like something out of Hollywood. She was a wonderful human being, kind, incredibly generous, the greatest friend to have, and incredibly patriotic and brave. She was undeniably one of the great heroines of that era, although if she were still with us I know she’d dismiss that in a heartbeat. My greatest regret is not having had the chance to meet her and yet I feel as if I know her as well as any good friend.
Nancy Grace Augusta Wake 30 August 1912 – 7 August 2011
Lest We Forget.
Book Link: mybook.to/MadameFiocca
Free April 14-17th 2021