Nancy Wake

By: Victoria Yates

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born on 30th August 1912 in Wellington, New Zealand. The youngest, and most independent, of six children she moved with her family to Sydney in 1914.  Her father eventually left the family, leaving her mother the raise the family alone. After chafing under the restriction of genteel life, Wake ran away at 16 and worked as a nurse. At 20, with money left in the will of an aunt, she journeyed first to New York and then London where she became a self-trained journalist. In the 1930s she was in Paris, later working for Hearst Newspapers as European correspondent. She witnessed Hitler’s rise, and  in 1935 she met the French industrialist Henri Edmond Fiocca, whom she married four years later.

Wake was living in Marseille when the Nazis invaded, and following the fall of France she became a courier for the French Resistance, later joining the escape network of Captain Ian Garrow. Her life was always in grave danger, with the Gestapo taping her phone and intercepting her mail, codenaming her “White mouse.” By 1943 she was at the top of the Gestapo’s most-wanted persons list, with a 5 million franc bounty on her life. After the network was betrayed later that year, she fled, leaving her husband behind who eventually came to be captured and tortured to death for not revealing his wife’s whereabouts (Wake only came to know about this years later). Wake was arrested around the same time, only to be released four days later, going on to successfully cross the Pyrenees into Spain after her sixth attempt. From there she joined the Special Operations Executive (which went on to become MI6) in Britain.

In April 1944 Wake parachuted back into France where her 7000 maquisards (predominantly rural guerilla bands of the French resistance) fought against 22,000 SS soldiers, a conflict which resulted in 1400 casualties. She was praised by those that worked alongside her for her “fighting spirit.” This was evidenced by Wake killing an SS sentry with her bare hands to stop him from giving her away. Another example of Wake’s determination was when she rode 100miles on her bicycle through several German checkpoints so she could replace codes that her wireless operator had been forced to destroy.

After the war her efforts earned her the George Medal, The US Medal of Freedom, the Medaille de la Resistance and three Croix de Guerre. It was also at this time that she learnt the truth about the death of her husband. She continued to work with the British government in the Intelligence Department of the British Air Ministry, being attached to embassies in Paris and Prague. She married her second husband, John Forward,  and returned to Australia.

Wake stood as the Liberal candidate in the 1949 and 1951 federal elections for the Sydney seat of Barton, narrowly losing both. The narrowing margin by which her opponent was winning meant that after a similar repeat in 1958 he moved to a safer seat in Hunter.  Wake ventured into politics again in 1966 standing as the Liberal candidate for another Sydney seat. Despite making a good impact into the majority of the sitting opponent she was once more unsuccessful.

Since then Wake has written an autobiography, received the French title of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, and was awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia in 2004, and the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association’s highest honour, the RSA Badge in Gold.  Her husband Forward died in 1997, the couple never having had children.

Wake was a distinguished servicewoman, proving to be a exceptional leader who, at great personal risk, dealt successfully with issues that were of the highest importance.  It was very unusual for a woman to be working in one of the most dangerous arenas of the Second World War – but throughout the qualities she displayed are the hallmarks of a heroic leader in the truest sense of the definition.