The woman who became a spy in the Second World War
Nancy Grace Augusta Wake, AC, GM (1912 – 2011) (also known as Nancy Fiocca) was a New Zealand nurse and journalist who joined the French Resistance and later the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War II, and briefly pursued a post-war career as an intelligence officer in the Air Ministry. The official historian of the SOE, M.R.D. Foot, said that “her irrepressible, infectious, high spirits were a joy to everyone who worked with her”.
The woman who became a spy in the Second World War
I fought with the French Resistance against the Germans in the Second World War. I got weapons for the Resistance fighters and helped fighters to escape. I was part of the final victory against the Germans in 1945.
I was born in New Zealand, but I grew up in Sydney, Australia. When I was 16 years old, I left home and got a job as a nurse in the Australian countryside. In 1932, I received a surprise – 200 pounds from my aunt. It was a lot of money at that time and I decided to spend it. I went to Sydney Harbour and bought a ticket to North America.
I enjoyed the journey on the ship and then travelled around the USA and Canada. When I wasn’t travelling, I worked as a waitress to earn some money. After a while, I moved to Britain. I wanted to work on a newspaper, so I studied to become a newspaper reporter.
I got my first job on a newspaper in Paris, where I learned to speak French. I went to Germany and Austria for the newspaper. I saw the terrible things that Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party were doing in their country. I realized then that the Nazis were very dangerous. And they wanted to rule the whole of Europe.
In 1940, the Germans attacked France and occupied most of the country. I was already living in the south of France, where I married my first husband, a businessman, Henri Fiocca. We both hated the Nazis and wanted to help in the war against them.
I began to work for the French Resistance in Marseille. I delivered secret messages to the Resistance fighters and I also helped fighters to escape. The Germans tried to catch me. I used false papers and changed my appearance so they didn’t recognize me. In 1943, the Germans caught me, but luckily I escaped.
It was too dangerous for me to stay in France. I had to leave my husband and go over the Pyrenees mountains to Spain. From Spain, I escaped to London and joined the British army. I was a little surprised when the British wanted me to become a spy. They wanted me to be part of a secret army, which helped the French Resistance.
The training with the British army was very hard and I worked night and day to learn the special skills. I learned how to look after injured fighters. I also learned to kill. And so I became a spy and set off on my first mission to France.
I arrived in France on 29th April 1944. At first, the French Resistance didn’t believe that I could help them. They didn’t think that a woman could be a fighter. A Resistance leader told one of his men, ‘This woman could be an enemy. Ask her to go for a walk with you. When no one is around, kill her!’ They didn’t realize I could speak French. I understood everything.
When we went for the walk, I told the man, ‘If you attack me, I will kill you first.’ He believed me and took me back to the camp. At last, the Resistance allowed me to join them. I got weapons from Britain and also took part in their attacks against the Germans. We blew up railway lines and stole German weapons. On one occasion, I killed a German soldier. On another, I killed a Resistance fighter who was working for the Germans.
Our attacks against the Germans were very successful, but it was difficult to keep everything secret. Many local people were frightened of the German soldiers and sometimes they gave the Germans information about our plans. On one occasion, someone told the Germans about our secret radio transmitter. Our radio operator destroyed our codes so the Germans didn’t discover our secrets.
I cycled 500 kilometres to get new codes. When German soldiers stopped me, I told them, ‘I’m going to visit my aunt who’s very ill.’ After three days, I got the codes. Everyone said that I was very brave, but I didn’t think about that. I had to do it. It was part of my job.
With the new codes, I could send secret messages to Britain. We could receive new weapons and start our attacks again. Our attacks were important. They stopped the progress of around 50,000 German soldiers. These soldiers weren’t able to fight the British army, which was arriving in the north of France.
In September 1944, I received orders to go to Paris. In Paris, I helped the British and French armies in the final months of the war. On 8th May 1945, we heard the wonderful news. The war was over and the victory was ours!
I wanted to return home to my husband. I was shocked to discover that he was dead. He was killed by the Germans in 1943. It was time for me to start a new life.
I went back to Australia and tried to become a politician. I wasn’t successful and life seemed boring after the war. I then moved to the UK for several years and I got an office job with the British secret service.
I was happy to receive many honours for my work in the war, such as the George Medal from the British. And at the end of my life, I felt proud to be part of one of the most important victories in history. The victory brought peace and freedom to Europe.