This is Part Two of a Two Part Series. For Part One Click Here.
On 17th June 1943, Nancy arrived back in England. German U Boats had taken down a lot of Allied ships of late, so the escapees had to wait till there was cause to send an entire convoy back to Britain. This meant a stay of a few months in Gibraltar. She returned to find a vastly different London to the city she left in the early 1930s. The Luftwaffe had bombed the living hell out of the place.
For a time, Nancy tried to return to Civvy Street. She rented an apartment in Piccadilly, and made a home for herself there. She bought nice furniture and furnishings. Soon, she presumed, Henri would join her. Days ran on to weeks with no sign or word of her husband. Knowing their phones were likely tapped, Nancy determined she would not call, but would wait it out. Restless in civilian life, and probably pining a little for Henri, she looked for a way back into France. Various military organisations were not keen to sign her up, but finally, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) took her in. They had a very important role in mind for Madame Fiocca.
When the Nazis defeated the French, tens of thousands of men went bush, taking to the forests. These bands of merry men were known collectively as Le Maquis – the men singularly known as Maquisards. They were, by and large, untrained and underfunded – but were of great potential value to the war effort – if only someone could train them, organise them and arm them. Once organised, those partisans could wreak all kinds of havoc. Nancy was to be sent in as one third of a team code named Freelance. One of a number of similar teams, they would organise the Maquis. Freelance were trained up for the job in Scotland, then parachuted in to France, on 29th April 1944.
I won’t go into a day by day breakdown of Nancy’s time with the Maquis of L’Auvergne – I’m still hoping to keep this one a half hour episode – give or take – but there are a handful of details I need to cover.
There were seven thousand men in the forest, living nomadically in temporary camps. They slept under the trees, and mostly lived off the land. They were already somewhat active, carrying out the occasional ambush or act of sabotage. The game, however, for the allies was to get the men prepared for a big operation on D Day. As the Normandy landing neared, airdrops of equipment ramped up.
Even at this stage, the missions could get ropey. One day London sent a message to Nancy, to pick up a weapons instructor, code named Anselm. He was in a safe house in Montlucon with a former cook named Madame Renard. London presumed she would know the location of the safe house, and the password when she got there. The partisan who knew the house, and password had unbeknownst to London, ‘disappeared’ a while back. What’s more, Montlucon was by then swarming with Nazis who tended to pounce on any strangers asking questions. The mission was central to their plan – and it was also like looking for a needle in a haystack.
This tale, it turns out, ended with no great drama. Nancy evaded Nazi scrutiny, and eventually deduced the location of the safe house. Madame Renard played dumb to Nancy’s questions when she answered the door, till Nancy complimented her on the aroma of a cake Madame Renard had in the oven – Her reputation as the former cook to the ambassador well proceeded her. Renard presumed no Nazi would know this about her and let Nancy in. Anselm was hiding in a cupboard, pistol at the ready if the visitor was from the Gestapo. Just one broken link in the chain could ramp up the level of danger.
On 5th June 1944, a cryptic message came through via a BBC radio broadcast. “The crocodile is thirsty. I hope to see you again, darling, twice at the Pont d’Avignon… You may now shake the trees and gather the pears”. D Day was coming and Le Maquis moved into position. Armed with guns, and several tons of explosives, they descended upon twelve hundred designated targets, in the dead of night. Factories, telephone lines, railways, bridges, roads – were all blown to smithereens.
As the allies landed en masse at Normandy, Le Maquis did all the could to stop the Axis from deploying reinforcements from the South of the country.
Of course the Nazis weren’t just going to let them blow up all transport and communication lines, and fierce fighting broke out. Nazis being Nazis, where they couldn’t strike back at partisans, they took their anger out on the local population. Many houses were burned down. Many civilians were lynched in the streets, hung from lamp posts. Villagers were gathered en masse and executed by firing squad. Four days after the Maquis operation, the Nazis refocused and send an army of 7,000 troops, artillery and tanks into the forest, to crush a camp of 3,000 Maquis embedded at Mont Mouchet. A pitched battle erupted between the Nazis and the partisans. Nancy was tied up fighting her own Nazis too far away to help, but close enough to hear the carnage going on for days. The Maquis in the other camp, led by a man code named Gaspard, more than held their own.
In the meantime, thousands of French civilians flooded in to Nancy’s camp, asking to join the resistance. They were suddenly flat out arming these newcomers and preparing them to take on the Nazis at ‘Gaspard’s hill’. Several days into the battle, with casualties well in excess of partisan losses, the Nazis withdrew.
From here on in, the weapons drops increased, as the fight back took a pace. One day, a fatigued Nancy narrowly avoided being shot to pieces by a German plane, while she was picking up a supply drop. She dodged the planes strafing runs a couple of times by emergency braking, causing the plane to misjudge her trajectory. She abandoned the car at just the right moment. One final strafing run pierced the gas tank, and the car went off like a Roman candle. With just one package in hand retrievable – a special personal order of makeup and tea – she ran off into the forest. Another day, after several days of running on just two hours sleep a night, she narrowly avoided being blown to bits by German artillery. Worried she’d fall asleep at the wheel, Nancy took to a bed in a nearby abandoned farmhouse. A comrade burst in, warning the Nazis were coming. They relocated to the tree line just in time to see the farmhouse demolished by artillery fire.
There are a couple further tales I need to cover in the Nancy Wake story. First there was that bike ride.
In the days following their D Day operation, the Maquis withdrew to safer ground. They were fighting a guerrilla war after all. As they relocated, Nancy’s radio operator ‘Denden’- by all tellings a fascinating character as a wonderfully camp, openly gay man at that time – had been injured in battle, receiving a leg wound. He’d recover from the injury and did escape the Nazi grasp – but at the time he worried he’d be captured, along with the radio, so he destroyed his radio and codes. It was imperative get a replacement ASAP. Without contact with London they were flying blind.
The following day, Nancy rode twenty miles over the mountain to a pub where she hoped to make contact with another cell. She was greeted outside the pub by the publican. A communist was inside. He planned to shoot her. Nancy rushed into the pub, sat down across the table from the communist and slammed her pistol down on the table.
“I hear that you are going to shoot me. Well, you’ll need to be very quick on the draw”.
Nancy ordered a drink, all the while eyeballing the communist. She discovered the cell had left town, and there were now Nazis all over the place. The next closest spare radio was two hundred kilometres down the road in Châtearoux.
Given the distance and sudden influx of Nazis, Nancy decided her best hope was to get all dolled up, leave the gun behind – and do her best to pass for a local out to pick up the groceries. She left for Châtearoux in twilight. Sixty kilometres in, through hilly country roads, Madame Fiocca was exhausted, but she pushed on. As she reached some town or other on the way she’d stop for a drink, and do her best to glean whatever information she could about Nazi movements in the area. She’d jump back on her bike and continue. She arrived at the town of Bourges to find it boarded up. A troop of Nazis massacred a group of locals earlier in the day, and everyone was keeping their heads down. As she inconspicuously passed through, a group Nazis were packing up to leave for the next town.
The town of Issoudon was safer, and Nancy had a chance to have a drink and clean herself up a little. On her journey she did pass several troops of Nazis. Some waved as she went by, others cat-called after her. So far, no one bothered to ask her for her identification papers.
Within eighty kilometres of Châtearoux, the road was too congested with German trucks, so Nancy took a detour – and within a day and a half, she reached her destination.
When she finally found the radio operator, he obstinately refused to help her. She didn’t have the password. Prior to her run in with the radio operator, Nancy came across a Maquisard from another camp who was there to contact another radio operator in the town. Could he help her perhaps? She was told not. The contact had legged it, and there were Gestapo officers laying in wait in his apartment for whoever showed up. There was yet another cell camping out in the forest on the other side of town, however, and they had a spare radio. The ride back was complete agony. Every muscle in her body ached, and by now Nancy had worn away the skin on her thighs. Kilometre after kilometre she pushed on, not daring to stop as she worried she’d never get going again.
Three days after she left, Nancy returned – exhausted and in need of medical attention – having covered 400 kilometres.
For context the cyclists on the Tour de France cover a little over 3,300 kms in 23 days. She’d kept up one hell of a pace for an amateur, unaccustomed to riding, on an old-fashioned bike.
There are many other tales – many stories of gunfights with Nazis – one tale from July 1944 when the Maquis decided the Nazis needed a good shake up, so Nancy and a group of other Maquisards drove up to their makeshift headquarters at the Montlucon town hall at midday. The building was unguarded outside, so they had no trouble bursting through the doors, tossing hand grenades in, then running off. This attack maimed or killed 38 men, mostly officers. There’s also the story of the time Nancy killed a man with her bare hands. She was on a mission to take out an armoury in Mont Mouchet. Two guards would pace the perimeter in opposite directions, meet in the middle, then turn around. Once they walked a significant distance away from one another, the plan was to jump the guards and incapacitate them. Nancy and her comrades mistimed their run, one guard stabbing Nancy in the arm with his bayonet – before Nancy took him down with a karate chop to the neck. The chop allegedly broke his neck. A doctor at the camp patched her up afterwards.
And then there were tales of an aggrieved Maquisard who tried to have Nancy killed, so for some time she had a crew of Spanish Maquisard bodyguards with her wherever she went. There was another tale of Maquis behaving atrociously, when Madame Fiocca discovered one day one of the camps had a couple of women held captive – one a girl from the village who was being pimped out to the men, and another, a Nazi collaborator. One should never play ‘both sides had…’ around Nazis – they are always the worst people in any room – but it’s disturbing to think of this cell of Maquis who kept a woman as a sex slave.
Nancy freed the sex slave, but she begged Nancy to let her stay on as an assistant, which she assented to. The other lady was far more problematic – if they let her go, she would bring the Nazis back to the camp – On the other hand, she couldn’t be left with a cell of men who kept sex slaves. Feeling she had no other choice, Nancy executed her with her side arm. There were other tales that were far more acadian, like the night the partisans held a grand celebration in the forest to celebrate the beginning of the end for the Nazis, or another feast in honour of her 32nd birthday.
We probably know the broad strokes of how his tale ends, right? On August 25th 1944 Paris was liberated, and town after town were quickly freed from the Nazi yoke. The Nazis high-tailed it back to Germany, to protect their motherland, as the noose closed in on them. The Eastern front had very much turned the way of the Allies, though at an absolutely staggering loss of life. By late 1943 the USSR had recovered half of their land lost to the Nazis. Throughout 1944 they pushed on and on, till they were in Germany. The war in Europe effectively ended in a Berlin bunker, 30th April 1945. The Russian Red army had the city besieged, an ailing Hitler had just married his mistress Eva Braun on the night of the 28th. Probably thinking of how Mussolini was hung from a lamp-post and shot, Braun bit down on a cyanide pill – Hitler unholstered his gun. For decades rumours would circulate about their charred remains, and speculation the Hitlers faked their own death to live out the rest of their lives under the surname Wolff, somewhere in Argentina.
But those two monsters are certainly not the lovers we’re interested in. The question remained, what became of Henri?
Soon after the war, Madame Fiocca got the awful news. As Nancy arrived in Vichy she came across a woman she knew from Marseille. This lady was now working the reception desk at a hotel. The two women spoke, and the receptionist asked her what the future held for Madame Fiocca? Nancy answered she was going back to Marseille, and Henri. The receptionist, aghast, exclaimed ‘Oh no, Nancy, don’t you know? He’s dead.’
She was unable to provide any further details.
It was a long, arduous journey back to Marseille – some roads were too strewn by the wreckage of Nazi tanks. Bridges were blown to pieces – but she eventually found a path through. Once there the story came in bits and pieces.
Not long after Nancy’s escape, in March 1943, Pat O’Leary was arrested by the Gestapo. In May he stumbled across some random piece of information that simply had to be passed to the resistance. He shared this information with a prisoner who was due to be released, asking him to pass it on to Henri. It was all a ruse. The prisoner was a Nazi spy. It is not clear to me if the information was fake also.
Henri was arrested, and brutally tortured. To compound matters, the Gestapo approached Henri’s parents to say he was being tortured because he refused to divulge Nancy’s location. If someone gave up where the White Mouse was hiding, Henri would be released. It’s unlikely he would ever have been released, and Nancy was safely in Gibraltar by then. The Fioccas’ blamed Nancy for Henri’s death. Henri’s torture continued until October 1943, when he was finally lined up against a wall and shot. Heartbroken, and with nothing to stay for, the widow Fiocca set off for London.
She did return to Paris, spending time working for the British Air ministry in the city – before returning, briefly to Australia in 1949. Nancy ran for a seat in Parliament under a conservative ticket (one fault I guess, was she wasn’t a Labour supporter, but there you go). After a loss in 1949, and subsequently in the 1951 election, she returned to Britain. Back in London, a 1956 newspaper article on Nancy caught the attention of a former Flight Lieutenant Nancy had met in Paris named John Forward. John served in the war, but, having been shot down in 1942, spent most of that time in a German prisoner of war camp. One day he looked Nancy up, and dropped by her flat. The two hit it off, and would remain married for 40 years until John’s passing in 1997. In 1959 the couple moved back to Australia, and had two kids.
Nancy Wake passed 7th August 2011, aged 98; having lived several lifetimes worth of adventure. One wonders what Aunty Hinamoa would have thought of her investment?