GUTSY WOMAN: Nancy Wake

Updated: Jan 30

Today I’d like to talk about WWII spy Nancy Wake AC GM (1912-2011) also known as Nancy Fiocca. A nurse and journalist, Nancy Grace Augustus Wake was born in Roseneath, New Zealand. During WWII, Nancy joined the French Resistance and later the SOE (Special Operations Executive). The Nazi’s nicknamed her “white mouse” for her ability to elude capture by the Germans. After the war she was an intelligence officer in the UK’s Air Ministry.


Nancy grew up in New Zealand, the youngest of six children. Her great-grandmother Pourewa was thought to be of the tribe Ngati Mahanga iwi–part of New Zealand’s Waikato Confederation of Tribes. Nancy moved with her family to Sydney, Australia in 1914. Shortly, her father, Charles Augustus Wake, returned to Australia leaving his wife Ella Wake to raise their six children. Running away from home at age 16, Nancy began working as a nurse. With monies she had inherited from an aunt, the young woman journeyed to New York City and then London. It was there she trained herself as a journalist.


By the 1930s, Nancy was working in Paris as European correspondent for Hearst newspapers. She met and married a wealthy French industrialist Henri Edmond Fiocca (1898-1943). Nancy witnessed the rise of Hitler and the Nazi movement first-hand as she saw meandering Nazi gangs beat Viennese Jewish women and men in Austria’s streets. Living in Marseille when the Germans invaded France, she began serving as an ambulance driver. She once told an interviewer, “I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.”


After France’s fall in 1940, Nancy joined the escape network of Captain Ian Garrow (which later became known as the Pat O’Leary Line). The Resistance exerted much caution on her missions because her life was constantly in danger by Gestapo who tapped her phone and intercepted her mail. She became a courier and then an escort for Allied soldiers and refugees trying to leave the country. “It was much easier for us, you know, to travel all over France,” she told an interviewer for Australian television. “A woman could get out of a lot of trouble that a man could not.” In 1942, Wehrmacht (Germany’s army and navy) occupied Vichy France. This made life even more dangerous for Nancy as she secretly led downed Allied soldiers and downed airmen to safety. “I was never afraid,” she said. “I was too busy to be afraid.” Her network was betrayed that same year, spurring Nancy to flee France, leaving her husband behind. Later, Henri was captured, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo. Describing her tactics to elude, Nancy stated “A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I’d pass their (German) posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me?’ God, what a flirtatious little bastard I was.”


In the process of leaving France, Nancy was picked up, and arrested in Toulouse. She was released four days later because the head of the O’Leary Line claimed to the Gestapo she was his mistress and was simply trying to hide her infidelity from her husband (all of which was untrue). Nancy successfully walked across the Pyrenees to Spain after her release. It was not until the war ended that she discovered her beloved Henri had died. Nancy, of course, blamed herself.

Upon reaching Britain, Nancy joined the SOE and began training in several programs. Vera Atkins, a senior female overseeing SOE agents going into France, recalled Nancy as “a real Australian bombshell. Tremendous vitality, flashing eyes. Everything she did, she did well.” It was said Nancy was a “fast shot” and had excellent fieldcraft. Some said she put the men to shame by her “cheerful attitude spirit and strength of character.” In April of 1944, Nancy was part of a three-person team that parachuted into Auvergne province, France. She landed, kind of, in a tree and was helped to ground by Resistance leader Henri Tardivat. Her duties there required her to pinpoint locations where material and money were parachuted in, collected and given to a local team (known as the marquis–who were destroying communication lines and other facilities throughout France).


Her bicycle ride fleeing Germans is famous. Nancy borrowed a bike and rode it to Chateauroux in order to pick up a radio, then turned around and rode it back to San-Santin where her radio operator was located. The trip was a total of 500 kilometers (310 miles), and she did it in 72 hours eluding Germans all the way!! (What strength, courage, and endurance she had–I am simply in awe.). Her feats of fearlessness continued, doing whatever she needed to do to further the Resistance movement and survive the Nazi’s.

After the war, Nancy was awarded the George Medal (Britain’s second-highest Medal of Honor), the Medal of Freedom by the US, the Medaille de la Resistance, and three times–the Croix de Guerre (French military decoration). She was also awarded the “Companion of the Order of Australia”, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, a defense medal from the UK, and New Zealand’s “Badge in Gold.”


Nancy worked as an intelligence officer at the Air Ministry in Whitehall. She remarried in 1957 and subsequently resigned her post. The couple relocated to Australia where she renewed her interest in politics. Later, the couple retired to Port Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia. Nancy returned to London one final time, living there until her death at age 98! Wasn’t she extraordinary?


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