Honouring our heroes: Ensign Nancy Wake

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Nancy Wake felt the rush of wind across her face as she parachuted towards the trees in the grassy fields of central France. Nancy’s job was to help supply the French Resistance fighters with the equipment they needed to resist the enemy. Somehow she had to make it happen.

A close-up photograph of a woman in uniformNancy Grace Augusta Wake was born in Wellington, New Zealand on 30 August 1912, but grew up in Sydney, Australia. Being much younger than her five siblings, Nancy spent a lot of time by herself, reading and dreaming of adventure like the heroine of her favourite book, Anne of Green Gables.

At 16, Nancy left home, and worked for two years as a nurse near Mudgee in central-west New South Wales. She then travelled to England and studied journalism, before being offered a job as a journalist in Paris, France.

Nancy fitted seamlessly into Paris’s café culture. She and her new friends discussed the political and social events of the day, particularly the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Curious to see the impact of this man and his Nazi regime, Nancy visited Berlin in 1935. There she witnessed the mistreatment of Jewish people and vowed to fight against it.

Returning to Paris, Nancy met Henri Fiocca, a wealthy French businessman, whom she married in 1939 just after war broke out. Soon afterwards, Henri was called up to serve in the French Army and Nancy joined the voluntary ambulance corps.  

When France fell in 1940, two-thirds of the country immediately came under German rule. Some French civilians were disgusted with what they saw as a shameful surrender. Like them, Nancy vowed to resist German occupation, and joined the underground Resistance movement.

Supported by Henri, who had returned from military service, Nancy took on the dangerous task of organising safe houses and manning the escape routes through France. She helped many Allied soldiers and airmen, and Jewish refugees, to safely flee the country.

By 1943, Nancy’s work had come to the attention of the Gestapo. They endeavoured to track her down, but each time they thought they had her cornered, she seemed to disappear. Code-named "the White Mouse", Nancy became one of the most wanted Resistance members in France.

Now it was her turn to escape. Agreeing to meet Henri in England, Nancy fled using one of the same escape routes she had previously manned herself.

Once in England, Nancy awaited Henri’s arrival. He never came.

Nancy trained to be a professional spy, and began working in the French section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was working with the Resistance.

The Resistance fighters hiding in the mountains needed equipment, and after parachuting into France on 31 March 1944, Nancy set about organising parachute drops of much-needed weapons.

Nancy once made a 400-kilometre round trip on a pushbike, through enemy lines, to send a message, after her friend Denden had destroyed their radio codes and buried their radio when he thought they were about to be overrun by the Germans.

In September 1944, during the liberation of Vichy, Nancy heard the shocking news that Henri had been captured, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo the year before.

After the war, Nancy was awarded the George Medal for her exceptional bravery. Her citation read, in part:

Ensign Wake’s organising ability, endurance, courage and complete disregard for her own safety earned her the respect and admiration of all with whom she came in contact.

Nancy returned to Paris in 1945 but lived alternately in Australia and England over the next 66 years, even trying her hand unsuccessfully in Australian politics. Nancy married her second husband, John Forward, an RAF officer and former prisoner of war, in England in 1957. She died in 2011, aged 98.


In the final year of Anzac Centenary (2014-2018) we are sharing stories of men and women from all wars, peacekeeping operations and conflicts through the Honouring our Heroes series.