By Mark Cantrell
If you had seen the young and attractive Nancy Wake in 1939, newly married to wealthy French industrialist Henri Fiocca, you couldn’t have guessed that within a few short years she would be the leader of more than 7,000 resistance soldiers.
As a well-to-do newlywed living in Marseille, France, her days were filled with leisurely baths, visits to beauty salons, and dinners at chic bistros. But then war broke out, and the New Zealand native’s life quickly changed course.
She had seen Nazi brutality in Vienna and developed a deep hatred of them, so when her husband was called up to fight the Germans, Wake convinced him to buy her an ambulance so she could use it to help the Allied war effort. From the front lines, she ferried wounded soldiers and civilians to safety until the fall of Belgium, when she realized she must flee to avoid capture. Then France fell, and its southern region found itself under the rule of the Vichy puppet government.
A turning point
One day, as Wake was waiting for her husband, she met a British officer who had been trapped in France when it fell. Still wanting to help out, she invited him and two of his fellow soldiers to her apartment for dinner. She gave them a radio so they could listen to BBC broadcasts and soon was supplying them — and some 200 of their comrades — with food and supplies.
It was just a short leap from supporting the soldiers to helping them escape. As part of the French underground, Wake provided escapees with clothing and fabricated papers to help them on their journeys. As a courier, she delivered messages between various factions of the resistance. To direct suspicion away from their home, Wake asked Fiocca to rent another apartment farther away, which became a halfway house for escapees.
In November 1942, that process became more challenging when the Nazis occupied Southern France. Until then, Wake and the resistance fighters had operated without much scrutiny. Still, Wake maintained her fashionable, upper-class airs, slipping from the Nazis’ grasp so often they referred to her as la Souris Blanche — the White Mouse.
By early 1943, the noose was tightening, and Fiocca and Wake left for England to avoid capture. But before that could happen, the Vichy police took Wake prisoner and interrogated her harshly for four days. Wake told them nothing, and eventually they let her go. She soon joined a group of escapees headed for England and over a period of weeks was able to make passage to Spain, through freezing weather, over the Pyrenees.
The making of a commando
When she finally arrived in London on a ship from Gibraltar, Wake wanted nothing more than to sleep and recover from her ordeal. But after a few weeks, with Fiocca still a no-show, she felt she must return to France. It was then she learned of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Formed in 1940 by Winston Churchill and his ministers, the organization was dedicated to aiding local resistance movements and bedeviling the Germans with guerilla warfare. To those in the organization, it often was known as “The Baker Street Irregulars.” To everyone else, it was not known at all.
Wake quickly was accepted into the group and sent to the headquarters of its cover organization, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, which had nothing to do with nursing or first aid. It was, in fact, a group of women who would be trained as cutthroat mercenaries, sabotaging the Germans in any way they could in advance of D-Day. For Wake, it was a perfect fit.
The first weekend at what would become known as the “Mad House,” Wake dreamed a good friend’s husband died. She woke up sobbing, feeling as though something terrible had happened to Fiocca, but her roommates managed to calm her fears so she could get back to sleep. She wouldn’t find out until after the war, but the Gestapo had, in fact, executed her husband that same night after he refused to give away her location.
Training for war
For the next few weeks, instructors relentlessly ran the women through their paces. A series of obstacle courses was the first challenge, followed by escape and survival scenarios that tested their intelligence and creativity. Wake aced them all. Next, she was sent alone to Scotland for additional training.
There she learned Morse code and how to shoot a Bren gun, rig detonators and explosives, and kill silently. Back in England, she underwent parachute training, enemy identification, and other forms of security instruction. She also was taught to make explosives using ingredients from pharmacies and hardware stores. Before graduation, she was given a cover story and a code name — Hélène — and told she must come up with a personal ID code. True to form, Wake selected a dirty limerick.
In the early hours of Feb. 29, 1944, a low-flying B-24 delivered Wake back to her adopted homeland by parachute, where she was met by members of the Maquis D’Auvergne, the rural French resistance. Her job was to coordinate nighttime supply drops with the Royal Air Force, which would supply the rebels with bazookas, hand grenades, and Sten guns to battle Hitler’s army. That process depended on a complex series of coded messages delivered by the BBC.
A new leader
But there was a problem. A vain, ambitious Maquis leader named Gaspard refused to adopt the guerilla tactics necessary in the situation, regularly risking capture by gathering all his men in one place and ignoring orders from London. After a German attack killed 150 of Gaspard’s men and scattered the rest all over Southern France, Wake took charge, notifying the men they would be armed and fed only if they followed her instructions. As she alone knew the plans for D-Day and when supply drops would occur, they had to accept her terms.
Then June 6, 1944 — D-Day — arrived, and the Maquis swiftly carried out their carefully planned attacks, severing telephone lines and blowing up factories and steel plants. Furious, the Nazis mounted a massive counterattack on the Maquis positions at Auvergne, sending the rebels scattering. Sure they would be captured or killed, Wake’s radio operator burned his code book, severing the lines of communication with London. Fortunately, there was another radioman some distance away, so Wake rode a bicycle from Auvergne to Châteauroux and back — 250 miles in 72 hours through German-held territory — to call London for replacement codes.
Later, she would remember, “When I got off that damned bike I felt as if I had a fire between my legs. I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t walk. When I’m asked what I’m most proud of doing during the war, I say, ‘the bike ride.’ ”
War and remembrance
The weapons dropped for the Maquis were becoming more sophisticated, so two American weapon instructors were sent along with a shipment. With their help, the rebels continued to ambush German convoys and destroy bridges and railways. They even attacked the Gestapo’s headquarters in Montluçon, France, killing 38 enemy soldiers. Wake called it “the most exciting sortie I ever made.”
Finally, Paris was liberated, and Wake and her men drove triumphantly into Vichy, where they were met by an overwhelmingly grateful public. After the war, Wake was showered with medals, including the Order of the British Empire and the American Medal of Freedom with Bronze Palm. Later in life she would sell most of them. “There was no point in keeping them,” she said, “I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway.”
Wake died in London Aug. 7, 2011, at the age of 98.