Updated: Mar 5, 2021
Nancy Grace Augusta Wake, AC, GM was a secret agent during the Second World War. Living in Marseilles with her French industrialist husband when the war broke out, Wake slowly became enmeshed with French efforts against the Germans, and worked to get people out of France. Later she became a leading figure in the maquis groups of the French Resistance and was one of the Allies' most decorated servicewomen.
After the fall of France in 1940, she became a courier for the French Resistance and later joined the escape network of Captain Ian Garrow. By 1943, Wake was the Gestapo's most wanted person with a 5-million-franc price on her head. It, therefore, became necessary for her to leave France.
After reaching Britain, Wake joined the Special Operations Executive. On Mar 1, 1944, she parachuted into occupied France near Auvergne, becoming a liaison between London and the local maquis group headed by Captain Henri Tardivat in the Forest of Tronçais. From April 1944 until the liberation of France, her 7,000+ maquisards fought the Germans in many different ways. At one point, being aware of this large group of Maquis, the Germans sent in 22,000 soldiers to wipe them out. However, due to Wake’s extraordinary organizing abilities, her Maquisards were able to defeat them causing 1,400 German casualties, while suffering only 100 among themselves.
Born in Roseneath, Wellington, New Zealand, on 30 August 1912, Wake was the youngest of six children. In 1914, her family moved to Australia and settled at North Sydney. Shortly thereafter, her father, Charles Augustus Wake, returned to New Zealand and her mother, Ella Wake (née Rosieur; 1874–1968) remained in Australia and raised the children.
In Sydney, Wake attended the North Sydney Household Arts (Home Science) School. At the age of 16, she ran away from home and worked as a nurse. With £200 that she had inherited from an aunt, she journeyed to New York City, then London where she trained herself as a journalist.
In the 1930s, she worked in Paris and later for Hearst newspapers as a European correspondent. She witnessed the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement and "saw roving Nazi gangs randomly beating Jewish men and women in the streets" of Vienna.
In 1937, Wake met wealthy French industrialist Henri Edmond Fiocca (1898–1943), whom she married on 30 November 1939. She was living in Marseille, France when Germany invaded. After the fall of France in 1940, she became a courier for the French Resistance and later joined the escape network of Captain Ian Garrow. In reference to Wake's ability to elude capture, the Gestapo called her the "White Mouse".
The Resistance exercised caution with her missions; her life was in constant danger, with the Gestapo tapping her telephone and intercepting her mail.
In November 1942, Wehrmacht troops occupied the southern part of France after the Allies' Operation Torch had started. This gave the Gestapo unrestricted access to all papers of the Vichy régime and made life more dangerous for Wake.
By this time Wake was the Gestapo's most wanted person in the Marseilles area, with a price of 5 million francs on her head. When the network was betrayed that same year she decided to flee France. Her husband, Henri Fiocca, stayed behind. He later was captured, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo because he would not betray her.
Wake described her tactics: "A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I'd pass their (German) posts and wink and say, 'Do you want to search me?' God, what a flirtatious little bastard I was."
In the process of getting out of France, Wake was picked up with a whole trainload of people and was arrested in Toulouse, but was released four days later. A resistance contact, Albert Guérisse, managed to have her let out by claiming she was his mistress and was trying to conceal her infidelity to her husband (all of which was untrue).
On her seventh attempt, she succeeded in crossing the Pyrenees to Spain. Until the war ended, she was unaware of her husband's death, and she subsequently blamed herself for it.
After reaching Britain, Wake joined the Special Operations Executive and was trained by them in several different training programs. Vera Atkins, who was the senior female in the SOE overseeing the agents going into France, recalls her as "a real Australian bombshell. Tremendous vitality, flashing eyes. Everything she did, she did well." Training reports record that she was "a very good and fast shot" and possessed excellent fieldcraft. She was noted to "put the men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character."
On Mar 1 1944, Wake was parachuted into the Auvergne, becoming a liaison between London and the local maquis group headed by Captain Henri Tardivat in the Forest of Tronçais. Upon discovering her tangled in a tree, Captain Tardivat greeted her remarking, "I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year.", to which she replied, "Don't give me that French shit."
Her duties included allocating arms and equipment that were parachuted in and minding the group's finances. Wake became instrumental in recruiting more members and making the maquis groups into a formidable force, roughly 7,500 strong. She also led attacks on German installations and at one point destroyed the local Gestapo HQ in Montluçon killing 38 Germans.
At one point Wake discovered that her men were protecting a girl who was a German spy. They did not have the heart to kill her in cold blood, but when Wake insisted that she would perform the execution, they capitulated.
From March 1944 until the liberation of France, her 7,000+ maquisards fought the Germans by any means they could. Her French companions, especially Henri Tardivat, praised her fighting spirit, amply demonstrated when she killed an SS sentry with her bare hands to prevent him from raising the alarm during a raid.
During a 1990s television interview, when asked what had happened to the sentry who spotted her, Wake simply drew her finger across her throat. "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."
On another occasion, to replace codes her wireless operator had been forced to destroy in a German raid, Wake rode a bicycle for more than 300 kilometres (190 mi) through several German checkpoints to get to another group’s wireless operator and send a message to London apprising them of the situation.
Unfortunately she could not convince the operator that she was with the SOE so she finally searched out the local maquis who did send her message. Wake then had to ride the bike back to where she started, and she did all this in 72 hours.
During a German attack on another maquis group, Wake, along with two American officers, took command of a section whose leader had been killed. She directed the use of suppressive fire, which facilitated the withdrawal of the group without further losses.