Friday, 6 April 2012

Nancy Wake

Here is a piece written by Grahame Leech in The Australian last year about a very courageous and interesting woman, Nancy Wake.

THE most decorated woman of World War II, Nancy Wake had a five-million-franc price put on her head by the feared German secret police, the Gestapo, for helping the French Resistance. Branded the White Mouse by her hunters, she became the most wanted resistance fighter in France.   

It was an extraordinary turn of events for the former Sydney schoolgirl who had travelled to London and Paris in the early 1930s to try her hand at journalism.
Working as a newspaper reporter, Wake found herself in Vienna where she saw Jews being whipped in public by Nazi SS troops. In 2003, she described to News Limited's then-London correspondent, Bruce Wilson, one of the horrors she witnessed in 1938.

"The Germans and Austrians had set up a kind of Catherine wheel and tied these Jews to it, and as it went around they were beating them and throwing things at them," she said.
"I thought . . . what had they done, poor bastards? Nothing. So I said, 'God almighty, it's a bit much and I've got to do something about it'."

She was a first-hand witness to the rise of Adolf Hitler and was reputed to have interviewed him. These experiences were the catalysts for her determination to fight against Nazi tyranny if she ever got the opportunity.

In 1939, Wake married Henri Fiocca, a wealthy French industrialist whom she met on the social rounds of Marseilles. He was an expert tango dancer and became the love of her life. But their champagne-and-caviar lifestyle was abruptly ended by the German invasion of France.

By 1940, Wake was running messages and smuggling food for the French resistance, the Maquis. She branched out into helping downed Allied airmen escape capture and returning them to Britain. It has been estimated that she helped more than 1000 airmen escape.

It was perilous work despite her cover as the wife of a respectable businessman. She lived on her sharp wits.

"I'd see a German officer on the train or somewhere, sometimes dressed in civvies, but you could pick 'em. So, instead of raising suspicions I'd flirt with them, ask for a light and say my lighter was out of fuel," she recalled.

She told how she would get beautifully dressed and hang around making dates with Germans to get information.

"A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I'd pass their posts and wink and say, 'Do you want to search me?' God, what a flirtatious little bastard I was."

But in 1943, Gestapo agents were closing in. One day, she took flight. Wake told her husband she was going shopping and would soon return. They never saw each other again.

It took several attempts to cross the Pyrenees into Spain and on one occasion she was held and interrogated by the Vichy French collaborators of the German occupiers. She eventually reached Britain where she persuaded the Special Operations Executive to train her as a spy.

She later learned that her husband had been captured, tortured and executed for refusing to divulge information about her activities or whereabouts.

"I always felt responsible for his death," Wake said in 2002. "They tortured him. And his father said to him, 'They'll release you if you tell them where Nancy has gone.' And he said, 'Papa, laisse-moi tranquille'."

Fiocca's death did not, however, cause Wake to regret her resistance work. "I was broken-hearted, but I would have done it again. After all, the same could have happened to me."

Meanwhile, Wake trained in Scotland. She was taught survival in arduous conditions, parachuting, how to operate a radio, fire weapons, prime explosives and kill silently.

In early 1944, she and fellow SOE agent John Farmer were dropped into the Auvergne region of central France. Their mission was to organise the local resistance, collect nightly air drops of ammunition and arms, and establish radio links with their base in Britain.

Wake helped recruit an additional 3000 fighters to build a force of about 7000. She led groups of these fighters on guerilla attacks against German troops, installations and equipment.

In one confrontation with German soldiers, she lost her radio and codes and, therefore, all ability to communicate with her controllers in Britain. It was a severe loss because without a radio she could not receive orders or advice about air drops, nor could she report the results of her sabotage missions.

It meant a hazardous bicycle ride of 500km through German checkpoints to replace her lost codes. It was a marathon effort that took more than 70 hours. "I got back and they said, 'How are you?'. I cried. I couldn't stand up, I couldn't sit down. I couldn't do anything. I just cried," Wake recalled.

The 1944 Normandy landings were approaching and the resistance was being primed to divert as many German troops as possible. Wake's groups were constantly on the move, sleeping rough and engaging the enemy in numerous firefights. Often, the local people suffered reprisals.

Wake was leading a force of more than 7000, a highly motivated army that was making life decidedly uncomfortable for about 22,000 German storm-troopers stationed in the Auvergne. In June 1944, the Germans attacked the resistance stronghold with the help of artillery and aircraft. At the end, about 1400 German soldiers lay dead; the resistance lost about 100.

During a later attack on an arms factory, Wake killed a sentry with a karate chop to the neck.
"They'd taught this judo-chop stuff with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practised away at it. But this was the only time I used it -- whack -- and it killed him all right. I was really surprised."

There were sabotage missions, roadblocks and gun fights. Wake led an attack on Gestapo headquarters; she reputedly executed a woman who had been spying for the Germans.

In August, Paris was liberated and Wake's fighters celebrated in Vichy where she heard of her husband's fate.

Nancy Wake was the youngest of six children to Charles Augustus Wake and Ella Rosieur Wake, a woman with French and Maori bloodlines. When she was 20 months old, the family moved to Sydney where she attended North Sydney Girls High School.

Her father deserted the family leaving his embittered wife to raise the children.
"I adored my father," Wake told a South African newspaper in 2001. "He was very good looking. But he was a bastard. He went to New Zealand to make a movie about Maoris and he never came back. He sold our house from under us and we were kicked out."

An unexpected gift of pound stg. 200 from an aunt enabled Wake to travel to London where she went to a finishing school for young ladies. She loved parties and adored France.

"I've always got on very well with the French, perhaps because I'm very natural."
After the war, Wake stayed with the SOE and in the air ministry intelligence section before moving back to Australia where she stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate for the federal NSW seat of Barton at the 1949 and 1951 elections.

She went back to England where she married Englishman John Forward, a former fighter pilot and prisoner of war. They returned to live in Sydney where she again unsuccessfully stood for parliament in the seat of Kingsford Smith. In the 1980s they moved to Lake Macquarie and into retirement. Forward died in 1997.

The French government made her a Chevalier de Legion d'Honneur, awarded her the Croix de Guerre with star and two Palms, and the Medaille de la Resistance. The British gave her the George Medal and the US awarded her the Medal of Freedom with Palm. She was also entitled to wear the British 1939-45 Star, the France and Germany Star, the British War Medal 1939-45 and the Defence Medal. She also held the New Zealand Returned and Services Association's highest honour, the badge in Gold.

Despite representations from the Returned Services League, successive Australian governments refused to recognise her heroism with an award. That was rectified in March 2004 when governor-general Michael Jeffery presented her with a Companion of the Order of Australia.

Ten years earlier, she had sold her medals to the RSL for $156,000. They were donated to the Australian War Memorial, despite the fact she was not officially an Australian nor had she fought as an Australian. It seems successive governments were reluctant to give her an award because she had never taken out Australian citizenship.

Wake left Australia in December 2001 saying she wanted to die in London where lived at the pound stg. 220-a-night Stafford Hotel in Piccadilly.

Her money ran out but the hotel was not prepared to evict her. It was revealed in February 2003 that Prince Charles had been helping pay the bills. She had her own stool at the hotel's bar, where she drank at least six gin-and-tonics each day, holding court for any admirers who dropped by.

Those who had contact with her later in life often shook their heads in despair at her decline.
"I loved killing Germans," she told a British journalist who had tracked her down in the bar. She repeated: "I loved killing Germans! In those days, I thought the only good German was a dead one. The deader the better."

After a heart attack in early 2003, she moved into a nursing home where she was supported by the Australian government.

Before the launching of her biography by journalist Peter FitzSimons in June 2001, the then defence force chief Peter Cosgrove said:
"Here is a woman of indomitable will, tremendous initiative [that] she was prepared to give everything a go. She lived life, in her younger years, absolutely in the fast lane and she had this ferocious determination not to vanish without a peep or a trace."

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