The Battle of Lwów begins. The Wehrmacht and the Red Army battle for control of the Polish city.
In Abbeville, France, the Anglo-French Supreme War Council meet for the first time.
In Canada, the Minister of National Revenue, James Lorimer, introduces a new tax of 20% on income in order to increase revenue to pay for the costs of war. There are also tax increases announced on alcohol, tea, coffee and cigarettes.
In Britain, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor arrive in England after being evacuated from France. Louis Mountbatten brought them back on board HMS Kelly. The couple stay with Major Edward Dudley ‘Fruity’ Metcalfe at his country house, Coleman’s Hatch, situated in the Ashdown Forest in Sussex. This is their first visit back to Britain since Edward’s abdication in 1936.
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declares Britain is at war with Germany.
On the 1st September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, attacking all fronts. People throughout Britain heard the whispers of war grow and grow and by the morning of the 3rd September 1939, the tension hung in the air of many a household.
While Chamberlain tried to avoid war at all costs, it was not to be. At 11 am on the 3rd September, people tuned in to listen to the news on their radios, and to their prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who was to address the nation. His voice was grave as he announced:
“This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final Note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received and that consequently, this country is at war with Germany.”
As his speech ended, church bells rang out all around the country then the air raid sirens wailed, prompting people to dash into the shelters in panic. Fortunately it was a false alarm. It was Sunday morning, and children played out in the streets and their gardens. Adults exclaimed, “Oh, God help us,” – those who knew what to expect.
Afterwards, young men all eager to ‘do their bit’ and to have some excitement, rushed out to join up. War had been expected for some time, although Chamberlain and his government had taken action to avoid it. In the meantime, Andersen shelters had been distributed to some 1.5 million homes to people living in areas which the government thought would be targeted by the Luftwaffe. The first shelter was erected in a garden in Islington, London on the 25th February 1939 and thereafter the shelters were rolled out up until the declaration of war.
Following the announcement, the blackout began and the lights all across Great Britain were snuffed out, one by one when darkness fell while gas masks were hastily distributed. The fleet was mobilised, placing the Royal Navy immediately in the action and Winston Churchill was given the post of First Lord of the Admiralty – the same post he’d held during the Great War.
Hitler sent a note to the British Government last night. The cabinet meet this morning to discuss and after around one and a half hours of deliberation, they send their reply to Berlin.
Britain is still standing firm in her undertaking to help Poland …”
As Britain stands firm, Germany are adamant re their claims on Danzig and the corridor, asserting they should be returned to the Reich.
Don’t buy any more groceries than you normally do…”
Quote from the Lord Privy Seal’s office
The British people were advised to stock up their cupboards a few months ago in readiness and now they are being asked to cease any additional buying in of goods. There is a concern that panic buying may begin and the government wish to reduce any additional demands on shops.
Rail passengers will now find notices of what to do in an air raid around the main line railway stations. Passengers are to asked not to leave the train if it stops outside a station during an air raid. Instead, they are to remain in their carriage, draw the blind to protect from shattered glass, and if possible, lie on the floor.
Meanwhile, hop pickers from London’s east end are busy at work out in the Kent fields, armed with their gas masks. The silver lining being the promise of a plentiful bounty of beer over the coming months.
France Evacuates her Children
Around 30,000 children have been evacuated from Paris by train. Gas masks were distributed to all those aged between two and ten. Evacuation of hospitals is underway. The street lights are turned off that evening in case of German air raids.
The beloved film, The Wizard of Oz opened today, August 25th 1939 in theatres throughout America. Starring Judy Garland as Dorothy. The film was based on the children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum.
Also on this day in 1944, Paris is finally liberated following many days of fighting between the Resistance and German soldiers. The French 2nd Armoured Division under General Philippe Leclerc is the first Allied force to enter the city. Parisians,relieved, overjoyed, cheer. The German commander of the Paris region, General Dietrich von Choltitz, signed a surrender at Montparnasse station in the presence of General Leclerc and Colonel Rol,commander of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI).
The new Free French wireless station reports that the German commander of the Paris region, General Dietrich von Choltitz signed a surrender at Montparnasse station in front of General Leclerc and Colonel Rol in Paris.
At 1900hrs, General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French broadcasts to the nation from the Hotel de Ville. He begins, “I wish simply from the bottom of my heart to say to you: Vive Paris!”
Friends call me, saying they can see huge fireworks all over the Hôtel de Ville, with red and blue rockets answering them in the south and west. It was the signal. The first tanks of Leclerc’s army had just rolled up to Notre-Dame. And then all the bells of all the churches rang in the night, drowning out the rumbling of the big guns.”
Diary entry from Jean Guéhenno, a resident of Paris.
“I have never seen in any face such joy as radiated from the faces of the people of Paris this morning.”
Charles Christian Wertenbaker, Time Magazine’s war correspondent.
American writer Ernest Hemingway, tied with the 4th Infantry, made his way to the Ritz Hotel, where he “liberated” its famous bar, helping himself to numerous dry martinis.
The Battle of Britain intensifies. Some cloud remained at dawn but it was expected to be a clear day, warmer in the south. For northern England, cloud persists and rain showers expected.
Since August 18th, a lull had began, allowing both sides to regroup, rest, and prepare. The Luftwaffe have still not achieved what they set out to do – destroy the RAF. Goring’s original plan was for the destruction of the RAF within two weeks. The battle has now been raging for two months.
August 24th was the first day of a campaign of sustained bombing. The Luftwaffe flew over the Channel in vast numbers, more than the RAF could cope with. At 0830hrs, an enemy formation is spotted off the coast of Calais. The Observer Corps are ordered to keep a look out while Fighter Command HQ is alerted. The formation comprised of more than forty Dornier’s and Ju88s, with a fighter escort of over sixty Bf109s.
610 Squadron Biggin Hill intercepted. Their Spitfires dived into the middle of the formation, scattering the bombers. There is no account of any damage at this time and it’s presumed the enemy turned back.
Enemy bombers were detected that afternoon heading to London, but then changed course, heading towards the Sector Stations of North Weald and Hornchurch. By the time the RAF reached the area, the German bombers were already heading home, a trail of fire and destruction blazing in and around the Thames Estuary.
Combat action persisted over the Thames Estuary and around the coastal towns of Kent. Manston was heavily bombed. Fortunately, despite heavy bombing at Hornchurch and North Weald, operations were not affected. The RAF lose twenty aircraft, eighteen of which are repairable. Thirty-nine enemy aircraft destroyed.
Enemy bombers hit Portsmouth that afternoon, dropping over 200 bombs. This caused the largest number of casualties in a single raid so far in the battle. More than 100 civilians died, and 300 were injured. Homes, shops, factories and the Navy barracks all seriously damaged.
The seaside town of Ramsgate also suffered, with 1200 homes destroyed, and 24 people killed.
On this night, more than 200 heavy bombers raided the Dunlop Fort rubber works in Birmingham, severely hampering the production of tyres.
It was an understanding within the Luftwaffe, that London was not to be bombed unless by direct order of Goring. Up until now, people living in and around London had heard gunfire, gazed in awe at the dogfights in the skies above, and read about the war in the news. Tonight, all that was to change. Up until now, aside from a slight mishap when enemy aircraft mistook Croydon for Kenley and unleashed a couple of bombs, London remained untouched. Another time was a daytime raid when bombs were dropped on the docks and the outskirts of London. This time, it was a night raid, the first ever, and terrifying.
2300hrs: So far for the period of the war, Londoners although often hearing local gunfire, seeing vapour trails of dogfights in the sky and hearing about the war in newspapers and on the radio, and the only experience of bombing was when Croydon was mistakenly identified as Kenley and just a couple of bombs dropped on nearby Croydon and Purley, the target hear was naturally the aerodrome at Croydon. The other instance was earlier in the morning when bombs were dropped on the docks and outskirts of East London. But that was in daylight. This was to be a new experience, a frightful experience, for this was the first time that London would be bombed at night. Bombs dropped over Aldgate, Bloomsbury, Hackney, Finsbury, Stepney, Shoreditch, West Ham and Bethnal Green. The entire East End blazed, infusing the night sky red as shards of flame billowed from factory windows. Buildings crumbled.
Eight RAF pilots listed as missing. Two killed (1 died of wounds).
On this day in 1941, Drancy Internment Camp opened as an assembly and detention camp for Jewish people who would later be deported to other camps elsewhere. Originally built as a modern urban community, named La Cite de la Muette – The Silent City – it was situated in Drancy, a northeastern suburb of Paris, France.
On 20th August 1941, French police raided the 11th arrondissement of Paris, arresting over 4,000 Jews. The French authorities interned them at Drancy, marking its official opening. Barbed-wire fencing wrapped around the barracks and courtyard, while guards patrolled the camp.
There were five subcamps of Drancy throughout Paris. Following the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup on July 16th & 17th 1942, over 4,900 of the 13,152 people arrested were sent to Drancy prior to their deportation to Auschwitz.
Between June 1942 and July 1944, around 67,400 French, German and Polish Jews would be deported from Drancy in 64 rail transports. This included 6,000 children.
Drancy was under the control of French police until being handed over to SS officer, Alois Brunner in 1943.
On 17th August 1944, the Swedish Consul-General Raoul Nordling took control of the camp after the Germans fled the advancing Allied forces, then handed it over to the French Red Cross. Only 1542 prisoners remained alive.
In 2001, Alois Brunner was brought before a French court by Nazi hunter, Serge Klarsfeld, and received a life sentence for crimes against humanity.
The film, “La Rafle” – “The Roundup” portrays the events of the Vel d’Hiv roundup. It is a portrayal of a grievous episode in WW2 history, of complicity and betrayal by the Vichy government and the French police. As it has been said many times over the years, this was a “stain of the war” that ashamedly went unacknowledged for many years by the French government until the 1990s.
Synopsis from imdb.com:
1942. Joseph is eleven. And this June morning, he must go to school, a yellow star sewn on his chest. He receives the support of a goods dealer. The mockery of a baker. Between kindness and contempt, Jo, his Jewish friends, their families, learn of life in an occupied Paris, on the Butte Montmartre, where they’ve taken shelter. At least that’s what they think, until that morning on July 16th 1942, when their fragile happiness is toppled over. From the Vélodrome D’Hiver, where 13 000 Jews are crammed, to the camp of Beaune-La-Rolande, from Vichy to the terrace of the Berghof, La Rafle follows the real destinies of the victims and the executioners. Of those who orchestrated it all. Of those who trusted them. Of those who fled. Of those who opposed them. Every character in this film has existed. Every event, even the most extreme, transpired on that summer of 1942.
On this day in 1941, a group of RAF men, all patients at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, founded The Guinea Pig Club. Bored, frustrated by their hospitalisation and numerous surgeries, the club was initially to be a drinking club, a way of passing time. The men named the ward at the hospital, “The Beauty Shop.”
Initially it was named something else, but then one of the men remarked how they were all simply “bloody guinea pigs” to the Maestro. The “Maestro” of course was Archie McIndoe. And, whenever a serious case arrived on the ward, or if Archie was doing the rounds of other hospitals in neighbouring regions, scouting for patients who might require his expertise, his famous words would ignite a spark of hope when he said, “Don’t worry. We’ll fix you up.” And that he did.
Maverick Kiwi Surgeon, McIndoe was a pioneer, taught by his cousin, Sir Harold Delf Gillies who himself pioneered techniques in plastic surgery during and after WW1. Mcindoe treated and cared for burned airmen during WW2. He and his incredible team rebuilt bodies and souls, making the effort to also address the psychological effects of war and injury. Mcindoe gave the men hope, often when they felt all was lost. He invited the entire town of East Grinstead to play their part too, and to invite the men into their homes for tea, to dances, to welcome them into society. The town later became known as “The town that didn’t stare”.
This year, 2021, the club celebrates its 80th anniversary. The club has provided support to its members over the years since its inception. Many of the members from the war years are now deceased and the club no longer holds annual meetings, known to the members as the “lost weekend.” A weekend of much fun and socialising.
This evening, will you raise your glass and remember those brave boys who fought so valiantly for our freedom today? They shall not be forgotten.
Below, a selection of images, from real life to reenactors, all reminiscent of the distant past of WW2, 1939-1945. We will remember them, their sacrifice, their courage, their heroism, all for our freedom.
Geoffrey Wellum DFC, known as “Boy” when he joined 92 Squadron in the autumn of 1939.One of the youngest to fly during the summer of 1940, he had an extraordinary career with the RAF and was one of the nation’s beloved veterans for years afterwards.
Squadron Leader Wellum, speaking in 2013, said: “Somebody said, “Here’s a Spitfire. Fly it, and if you break it there will be bloody hell to pay.”
“Looking at my life now, I had peaked at about 21 or 22. It was just lovely blokes, all together in Fighter Squadron.”
Born 4 August 1921, died 18 July 2018. I’m sorry I never got to meet him. A remarkable man. Many may have seen the film, “First Light,’ based on the book with the same title which was written by Geoff. It’s a beautiful book about his account of his war and I can highly recommend it. I treasure my copy.
I’ve written about D-Day a few times over the years, but today marks 77 years since the British and Allied Forces landed on various beaches on the French coast. Of course, that’s only part of the story and part of the military campaign. Many more men jumped from Dakota’s while the Navy played their part from the ocean depths and the air force theirs in the sky.
D-Day – the words sound strong. It stands for “Day Day” which sounds so very different and rather less effective if you were announcing it to the troops for the first time. D Day has a much stronger military effect overall. The term has become iconic and was coined for the actual name of the campaign – Operation Overlord.
D-Day, launched this day in 1944, was the largest sea, land and air operation. The forces involved in the campaign, included British, American, Canadian, Australian, Belgian, French, Greek, New Zealanders, Polish, and servicemen from Norway, the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
There had never been a campaign on this scale before. Even the equipment with which to carry it out was invented, such as landing craft with a drop down ramp so the men didn’t have to scramble over the side of the vessel. The campaign was scheduled to leave the Southern coast of England on June 5th. Due to bad weather, it was postponed, and brought forward to the 6th, when a meteorologist spotted a window of opportunity – a break in the bad weather that was just enough time for the landings to take place.
The south coast became one massive camp as troops prepared and equipment built up. Security was tight, travel restricted. Next came the job of fooling the enemy. Fake news was big news. The allies carried out exercises to confuse the Germans, who were already bracing for an allied invasion. Fake camps were established in England, and fake plans were leaked. Even fake coded radio messages were sent out.
Flight Lieutenant Les Munro, dropped “Window” from his aircraft on D-Day to make it appear there was an invasion fleet off Calais. “Window” was actually strips of aluminium dropped from aircraft to confuse German radar. Les (New Zealander) was a bomber pilot who previously took part in the Dambusters raid in May 1943 with 617 Squadron. The picture above shows him talking to King George VI.
There were more than 5000 ships, 11000 aircraft, and over 150,000 troops. Training for the operation began months before in England and for days leading up to the 5th June, equipment and vehicles lined the streets in England, as troops waited for their orders to ship out. In addition, around 100,000 French Resistance were ready and waiting to carry out planned acts of sabotage on German targets throughout France.
While Hitler had information that there would be an Allied invasion, he did not know when or where they would strike. The Allies launched a series of false operations in a bid to deceive the German forces and lead them to believe that the invasion target was the Pas-de-Calais. Norway and other targets were also leaked. The deception was to prove very effective, leaving the Germans with little defences at the Normandy beaches.
For the troops landing on the beaches, it was anything but a piece of cake.Hitler’s troops had prepared well, building impenetrable defences that stretched along the coast from Norway to Spain. For the troops, surviving the amphibious landings was their first objective. The second, was to breach the defences. Concrete turret defences, walls, and anti-landing obstacles.
News of the invasion reached Anne Frank as she listened to the radio from the family’s hiding place. From her written account she stated how there was “Listening on a secret radio, Anne Frank recounts there was “great commotion in the secret annexe!” She went on to say, “Hope is revived within us. It gives us fresh courage, and makes us strong again”. Tragically, the Franks were discovered by the Nazis and taken away to a concentration camp. Liberation for them did not arrive soon enough.
Nancy Wake longed for D-Day. Having joined SOE and trained hard, she parachuted into France in April 1944. Her orders? To infiltrate the various Maquis groups in the Auvergne region, recruit them, train them in readiness for the Allied invasion. The only problem was, she, like most others at that time, had little idea of when the invasion would take place. So, she carried out her orders. Just before June 6th, Nancy took a trip from her base in Chaudes-Aigues, to Montlucon. She had an address in her head, and her driver sped along the dry, dusty roads, the sun blazing. She wore a dress and had her bicycle in the back of the car. Her mission? Collect Anselm (codename), their new weapons instructor.
When they drew close enough to the town, out of sight of any German checkpoint, Nancy got out, climbed on her bicycle and pedalled the rest of the way. As she approached a checkpoint, the Germans had stopped a male citizen and one searched him while the other waved Nancy through. She arrived at the address, and was surprised to see Anselm was no other than her friend, Rene, from SOE training in England. He would be responsible for training the men to use a bazooka. When they returned to Chaudes-Aigues, Denis Rake, her radio op and friend rushed over to her. “It’s finally happened, Gertie,” he said. Gertie was his friendly nickname for her. “The Allies are here.” Well, needless to say Nancy was miffed to have missed all the excitement, especially all the acts of sabotage her group had carried out during the previous 24 hours.
Events are taking place across the UK to mark this special day this year. In Normandy, France, second world war reenactors paraded in WW2 vehicles in Colleville-Montgomery on June 5. There are also events taking place on the Normandy beaches.
The image above shows an Army nurse at a field hospital. Nurses landed on the Normandy beachhead four days after the initial invasion. The first to arrive were members of the 42nd and 45th Field Hospitals and the 91st and 128th Evacuation Hospitals. (Image courtesy of National Archives, 111-SC-190305)
In the UK, the National Memorial Arboretum will host an event with the Royal British Legion and Normandy Memorial Trust to commemorate the day. This includes a live broadcast of the official opening of the British Normandy Memorial in Ver-sur-Mer.
D-Day was brutal, bloody, with huge losses of life, but it was a monumental campaign which overall proved to be successful, helping to bring an end to the war.
MADAME FIOCCA: A WWII NOVEL Inspired by the true story of SOE heroine, Nancy Wake. Universal buy link: http://mybook.to/MadameFiocca Now only 99p throughout June 2021.
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.
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This year’s celebration marks 76 years since the end of the war in Europe, a war that had prevailed for almost six years and taken the lives of millions.
On the 7th May 1945, many people heard whisperings that the Germans had surrendered and the war in Europe was finally over. On that same day, General Eisenhower accepted the unconditional surrender of all German forces at his HQ in Reims, France.
Later that day, the BBC interrupted its scheduled programme with a news flash announcing the news that Victory in Europe Day was to be a national holiday. Newspapers ran the story and the news spread like wildfire.
On the 8th May 1945, Winston Churchill broadcast to the nation stating that at 02:41 am the previous day, General Jodl had signed an unconditional surrender of the German Forces which would be effective as of 11:01 pm that day, May 8th. He added cautiously, ‘We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing; but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead.’ Across the waves the war still raged against the Japanese in the Pacific and would continue until August.
Bells that had stood silent now peeled out all around the country and boats honked their horns while fighter aircraft performed victory rolls overhead.
On the other side of the Atlantic, President Harry Truman gallantly dedicated the victory to his predecessor, President Roosevelt, who had died a few weeks earlier on the 12th April.
People immediately rejoiced and celebrations began which were to last for two whole days all across the country, across the Channel and throughout Europe, Canada and America. In Britain, people celebrated with their neighbours in the streets, hung bunting and waved flags. Years of rationing, of making do and mend, of the mandatory and meagre five inches of bathwater, all faded into the background as people seized this moment; their moment, their freedom now secured.
In London, large crowds massed in Trafalgar Square and in the Mall as people made their way to Buckingham Palace where thousands staggered shoulder to shoulder and chanted, “We want the King!” At 3pm, Churchill made a radio broadcast which could be heard over the loudspeakers, and a hush descended over the large crowd of people as they listened to the Prime Minister.
Over the course of two days, the 8th & 9th May, people celebrated and embraced loved ones and strangers in the street, carried away on a euphoric tide. Who can forget this picture, one of many which captured the mood so evocatively on that day, May 8th?
War songs played out, including many of Dame Vera Lynn’s as the crowds sang along. In the evening, fireworks streaked through the sky, replacing searchlights and bombers. In France, similar mass celebrations played out.
Sadly, it wasn’t all rejoicing. For scores of people who had lost loved ones it was a bitter-sweet time. Today, we remember all those who lived through such incredible, dark times and survived, and all those who did not. Lest we forget.
"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
My latest release, SPITFIRE, is a short story set during WW2, and features a male protagonist, Sam, a fighter pilot flying sorties over Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo. I have no idea where he came from except to say that one morning he simply materialised, and in good time too. As the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of the Allied forces at Dunkirk approached, I wrote this short story. I was in the planning stage for the next WW2 novel, so maybe that was the nucleus, either way young Sam stomped into my world and he’s here to stay, at least for a while. You see, he’s to be the protagonist in my next book, so that’s a good thing as I’ve come to know him quite well as I attempt to plot and build scenes around him. It truly is a strange writers world, unique, serendipitous, and exciting.
A gripping tale of the courage and heroism of Churchill’s “Few” based on true events. Perfect for fans of Robert Radcliffe and Laura Hillenbrand.
May 1940. The French and British armies are in retreat as Hitler’s blitzkrieg storms through France. Finally, they are beaten back to the coast at Dunkirk, with nowhere left to flee. Churchill is determined to rescue as many men as possible, for without her army, Britain is sunk. A plan is hatched to evacuate the men from the beaches by sea, but it will take the combined strength of all the forces to ensure its success.
Sam, a young RAF pilot flies sorties daily over France, engaging the enemy in the skies over Dunkirk. He is determined to protect the men trapped on the beaches below, and give them a fighting chance of returning to home shores. Day after day he returns to base when others do not. He witnesses friends shot down by the Luftwaffe, sometimes lost at sea. And each time he wonders when his luck will run out, yet still, he returns to the hell in the skies.
Survival is Victory.
2020 is the 75th anniversary of VE Day. While the war still raged on in the Pacific, it was finally over for all in Europe and great celebrations rolled out around the world. Why not celebrate by reading a new book about those remarkable times, and in doing so, remember the “Few” who gave their all for us today. Lest We Forget.