This is Part One of a Two Part Series. For Part Two, Click Here.
To the Nazis she was the White Mouse, a resourceful operative who evaded their clutches after having helped 1037 people escape Nazi territory along the “Pat O’Leary Line”. Britain’s Special Operations Executive called her Hélène. To them she was a member of their Freelance cell embedded within the French resistance. To Marseille’s high society, she was Madame Fiocca, an intrepid foreign journalist who arrived from a far-away land, fell in love with one of their most eligible bachelors, and subsequently become one of their own. To the French resistance she was the tough as nails Madame Andrée – a woman who could kill a man with her bare hands.
To Australia, the land she fled in her teens, in search of glamour and adventure, she is remembered as Nancy Wake – war hero.
As is often the case with Aussie icons, (see Phar Lap, the pavlova, the flat white coffee, the lamington, Crowded House, Russell Crowe, Stan Walker and Admiral Markham’s flag), Nancy Wake was born in New Zealand. Born in 1912, in Roseneath, Wellington to Ella, a homemaker, and Charles Wake, a journalist – the family moved to North Sydney, Australia when Nancy was two years old. Charles had been offered a much better job across the ditch, so they packed up all their belongings, rounded up all six of their kids and took off across the ditch – as so many young kiwi families still do. Biographies paint a picture of the family briefly enjoying a comfortable, middle class existence there, though Charles and Ella’s marriage had grown quite loveless at this stage. One day Charles just disappeared on them. Far from foul play, he’d abandoned the family and gone back to New Zealand. Before Ella and the kids had come to grips with the estrangement, they found out Charles had sold the new house from under them without warning.
The Wake family moved to a poorer neighbourhood, but stayed on in Australia. From here on, Nancy’s childhood was one of financial struggle, filled with dreams of moving to somewhere glamorous and exciting, and of regular conflict with her mother.
Aged 16, Nancy ran away from home to become a nurse. Technically as she was a runaway minor, wanted by the police, Shirley Anne Kennedy enrolled in the course in Mudgee, north-west of Sydney. This would be the first of many noms de plume she adopted in her life. A mining town with a poorly staffed hospital, and a never-ending supply of miners brought in with broken limbs, burns and nasty cuts – Nancy became an expert at patching up wounded men. Two years later, no longer a minor, she returned to Sydney, dropping the disguise. She worked for a shipping company for a while. Her big break, however, came in 1932. Her Aunty Hinamoa – the original black sheep of the family (Hinamoa ran off with a married sea captain) wrote to her to say she often thought about Nancy and wished her every success. She was sending Nancy £200 so she could live the life she wanted. A sum of around $11,000 Australian dollars today, this was a reasonable sum of money to go on an adventure with. Nancy booked passage on the RMS Aorangi II, headed for Vancouver, Canada.
From Vancouver, Nancy spent three weeks in New York – where she discovered their speakeasy’s – before moving on to London, England. In London she enrolled in a journalism school. By day she learned to be a reporter. By night she was a regular denizen of the nightclubs. One holiday weekend she jumped a plane across the English channel to Paris. Nancy adored Paris. On graduation she lied her way into a reporting job for the Hearst corporation, by convincing the interviewer she could read ‘Egyptian’ – her mock Arabic writing was just Pittman’s shorthand written backwards. As a Hearst corporation reporter based in Europe she got to relocate to Paris. Nancy learned the language, fit in well with the locals – and one night in 1937, while on holiday in Marseille, she met and fell in love with Henri Fiocca – a wealthy industrialist and eligible bachelor. The couple married in 1939, weeks after the outbreak of the Second World War.
Here I need to rewind for a second, to discuss the future Madame Fiocca’s first visit to Marseille. Any story of Europe in the 1930s is bound to intersect with a particular type of lowlife. Her visit to Marseille on 9th October 1934 would not have been her first experience of fascists in action – she was still in Sydney in 1932 when a fascist on horseback gazumped the socialist premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang. As Lang prepared to cut the ribbon on the newly built Sydney Harbour bridge, one Francis De Groot beat him to it with his cavalry sabre. What happened in Marseille, however, was far more ominous.
On October 9th, Nancy Wake was sent to Marseille to cover the arrival of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia. ‘Alexander the Unifier’, had formerly been the king of Serbia alone. He was having one hell of a time unifying his now multi-ethnic empire, particularly from ultranationalist groups who wanted self determination. The Ustase – a Croatian fascist organisation, run in exile from Italy, were by far his greatest threat. Yugoslavia also faced pressure directly from Fascist Italy, as they claimed ownership of regions within Slovenia and Croatia. On the political front, federalists wanted to split the empire into smaller constituent parts through legal avenues. A number of landlords were also furious with him, after Alexander dispossessed them of rural land, which he then redistributed to the serfs living on the land. The Austrian and Hungarian barons who lost out were a minor threat, but several Muslim landlords – remnants of Ottoman rule who lived locally, wanted the king gone. To top everything off, his Communist neighbours were looking across at him, just waiting for an opportunity to bring Yugoslavia into the fold.
In 1929, Alexander temporarily suspended democracy after fascists attempted a coup. Afterwards he fired corrupt, and fascist civil servants. He arrested the seditionists and troublemakers. The Ustase responded with a wave of bombings and assassinations. Desperate for help, and increasingly worried Hitler’s ascent in 1933 would lead to a combined Italian, German and Ustase coup attempt next time – the king called on France for help, and a military alliance.
Alexander arrived on the Dubrovnik on the 9th to a rapturous greeting from the locals.Greeted at the dock by French foreign minister Louis Barthou, the two men climbed into the back seat of a waiting car. They barely travelled 100 yards when an assassin approached the car, shouting ‘God save the King, then shooting both men dead. The assassin was, in turn, beaten to death by a furious crowd. The assassin, Vlado Chernozemsky, was an experienced killer who worked for a Macedonian ultranationalist group aligned with the Ustase. He’d already murdered two politicians before this incident, and was by then the guy who trained other assassins. Judging this job too important to leave to an apprentice, he went to Marseille himself to do the deed. Nancy was there to witness the assassination, and wrote a report for Hearst corporation – but as one of the first assassinations caught on film – the film footage is what people remember. All the same it left a lasting impression on her.
Mind you, violent fascists doing violent fascist things wasn’t something one could ignore in the mid 1930s. Besides France’s own home grown far right groups, like the Croix de Feu (who I mentioned in episode two of the Wall Street Putsch), there was a lot going on with the fascists. As a roving reporter based in Europe, Nancy saw, or heard of much of it. In 1933 she was even sent to Germany to interview Adolf Hitler. In 1935, she travelled to Vienna, Austria – then well in the grips of the fascists. Nancy was appalled to witness roaming gangs of fascists assaulting Jewish citizens in the streets without fear of reprisal. She vowed, should the chance ever present itself – she would help bring Hitler down. Right, back to 1939.
It is Christmas 1939 in Marseille, and after only a couple of months of wedded bliss, Henri was called up to serve in the army. Everyone feared the Nazis would be coming after France next, and while France had both the Maginot line, and a well trained, standing army of 800,000 men, the speed with which the Nazis took our Poland was utterly terrifying. Nancy was determined to play a part in the conflict – and had her millionaire beau buy her a truck she could use as an ambulance, should they be invaded. In March 1940, Henri was sent to the Maginot line on the North-East border with Germany.
As the Nazis blitzkrieg’ed through the North of the continent, at first through neutral Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg; Italy launched an attack on the South of France. Madame Fiocca was soon in the thick of it, providing medical help to, and evacuating the wounded. The Axis powers soon overran the Maginot line, crushing French defences. Wherever possible they just went around the big guns and defences. On 17th June 1940, Marshall Philippe Pétain – a World War One hero known as the Lion of Verdun, surrendered to the Axis. He soon after took charge as a puppet dictator of a breakaway nation in South of France. The new capital, the town of Vichy. In reaction, a Colonel named Charles de Gaulle crossed the English Channel – declared a government in exile who would continue to resist, and started planning that resistance alongside the British.
In October, Pétain announced Vichy France had agreed to collaborate with the Axis powers.
As local resistance networks formed, Nancy and Henri – now back from the front – joined the resistance.
Madame Fiocca started off as a courier, shipping radio parts and other equipment to agents in the field. This was dangerous enough – In Vichy France this carried a death sentence if caught. Nancy and Henri continued regardless. They would live double lives – well regarded socialites and pillars of the community on one hand, partisan spies on the other. Though every meeting brought the risk of being uncovered, tortured and executed, they continued to build networks among the disaffected. At night they listened intently to BBC radio broadcasts from Britain for news on the war, with a second radio blaring in the neighbours direction, to obscure the noise of the first.
As Paris fell, German troops throughout Vichy France became a regular sight – as did captured allied soldiers. Fort Saint-Jean, an old fortress on Marseille harbour became a prison camp for several hundred captured soldiers, sailors and airmen. As the authorities believed their captives couldn’t go anywhere, they were allowed to roam freely in the daytime. After a chance meeting in a cafe with a captured officer, Nancy started to courier them goods. A Commander Busch, who adopted the code name Xavier, was their first connection. Xavier would later escape the camp – and become an important resistance fighter himself.
In a matter of a few months the scope of their mission had increased greatly. The couriers were now part of a network smuggling people out of France into neutral Spain, then British controlled Gibraltar. They were a link in the chain known as the Pat O’Leary line – named after a Belgian doctor and agent who took on the nom de guerre. They took in soldiers and occasionally compromised agents – hiding them in rented apartments, or in Henri’s factory. They acquired documentation for them, before taking them to the Pyrenees mountains. Soon increasing numbers of French Jews came to them for help. Vichy France started sending Jews off to the concentration camps in October 1940.
In September 1941, the agents of the Pat O’Leary Line were sent into disarray when a rogue operative turned on them. An alleged British officer, allegedly named Paul Cole stole a large sum of money from the resistance he had been given to courier from one cell to another. Cole was confronted, but as the agents argued if they should kill him, Cole jumped out of a window. Cole, real name Harold Cole, handed himself in to the Gestapo, informing on the resistance. It turns out he was actually a British deserter with a long civilian history of theft and fraud. Cole was in Nancy’s house just the once, and Nancy having taken a dislike to him, had thrown him out. It was possible that one visit wasn’t enough for Cole to remember her location. All the same, 50 members of the resistance were captured and executed on his information.
On 8th November 1942, Britain’s General Montgomery led 110,000 troops into Northern Africa in Operation Torch. As the Allies pushed back the infamous Desert Fox, Erwin Rommel – taking swathes on land across the Mediterranean from France – the Nazis decided to formally annex Vichy France. With a flood of German soldiers into the region, the work of moving escapees along the Pat O’Leary line became all the more dangerous. The Vichy government had never taken to the ports of Marseille en-masse, setting fire to a neighbourhood which housed 20,000 people, to disrupt resistance activity in the area. The Nazis had no problem doing this, and did so. This led to a growing number of angry newcomers, now looking to join the resistance. Every new recruit brought added muscle – but also the real possibility of admitting another turncoat or double agent.
By 1943, having helped over a thousand people escape, Nancy – or the White Mouse, as the Nazis called her – was on the Nazis radar. Strange men began following her. The phone developed a strange click every time she picked it up. A man was caught going through her letterbox one day by a neighbour. Nancy and Henri discussed the situation; Nancy was to escape down the Pat O’Leary line immediately. Henri would get the factory in order to keep running without him, then follow her. Madame Fiocca’s escape was fraught with difficulty – the first two attempts scuttled by terrible weather. While in Toulouse, to meet with Pat O’Leary, she was arrested while trying to flee from a train. The police, unaware she was the White Mouse, detained her on suspicion of being a sex worker. Pat O’Leary came to her rescue, explaining to police she wasn’t a sex worker, but was in fact his mistress. Multiple times she tried to cross the Pyrenees – only to find the Gestapo had just rumbled one link or another in the O’Leary line.
Just prior to her sixth attempt, Nancy joined in on a jailbreak of ten Allied officers, then, with the officers in tow, she made her escape. This involved all manner of complications, like having to jump from a moving train and a dash away from Nazis, as they fired a rain of bullets at her. Having legged it, the escapees made their way on foot over the mountains, a trip which took several days – much of the journey was without food and drink, in unsuitable clothing for the freezing nights. One night they had to sleep in a pig pen, where it is thought Nancy contracted scabies. The officers were often a millstone around her neck, complaining and stating they were too tired to go on. Madame Fiocca escaped the clutches of the Gestapo after a long, arduous journey. Soon she would be in England.
By mid 1944 however, she would be back in France – living in a forest, and leading a band of merry men against the Nazis.