In 1933, as a reporter for Hearst, Nancy Wake was on assignment in Vienna. Wake witnessed the early persecution of Jews and other minorities.
"The stormtroopers had tied the Jewish people up to massive wheels," Wake later recounted. "They were rolling the wheels along, and the stormtroopers were whipping the Jews. I stood there and thought, 'I don't know what I'll do about it, but if I can do anything one day, I'll do it.' And I always had that picture in my mind, all through the war."
In 1939, Nancy married a handsome wealthy French industrialist, Henri Fiocca, in Marseilles. Six months after they married, Germany invaded France. In 1940 she joined French Resistance movement as a courier, smuggling messages and food to underground groups in Southern France. She bought an ambulance and used it to help refugees fleeing the German advance. Being the beautiful wife of a wealthy businessman, she had an ability to travel that few others could contemplate. She obtained false papers that allowed her to stay and work in the Vichy zone in occupied France, and became deeply involved in helping to spirit a thousand or more escaped prisoners of war and downed Allied fliers out of France through to Spain.
Early on, the the Gestapo suspected her and began tapping her phone and opening her mail. She took many identities to evade them. By 1943, Wake was #1 on the Gestapo most wanted list with a five million-franc price on her head.
Her husband told her, "You have to leave." Wake later told reporters, "I remember going out the door saying I’d do some shopping, that I’d be back soon. And I left and I never saw him again."
She made six attempts to get out of France by crossing the Pyrenees into Spain. The French Milice (Vichy militia) captured her one one attempt and interrogated for four days. She held out, refusing to give them any information, and with the help of the legendary 'Scarlet Pimpernel of WWII', Patrick O'Leary, tricked her captors into releasing her.
She finally made her way out of France and entered Britain. At a British Ministry of Defence camp, Wake received training in survival skills, silent killing, codes and radio operation, night parachuting, plastic explosives, Sten guns, rifles, pistols and grenades.
In late April 1944, Wake and another SOE operative, Major John Farmer, were parachuted into central France with orders to locate and organise the bands of Maquis, establish ammunition and arms caches from the nightly parachute drops, and arrange wireless communication with England. Their mission was to organise and train the Resistance in preparation for the D-Day invasion, but the French guerilla fighters wanted nothing to do with a "weak" woman. Wake quickly earned their respect. She could drink any man under the table and was superior to any man in battle.
There were 22,000 German troops in the area and initially 3-4,000 Maquis. Gaspard’s recruitment work, with the help of Wake, bolstered the numbers to 7,000. Nancy led these men in guerrilla warfare, inflicting severe damage on German troops and facilities. She collected and distributed weapons and ensured that her radio operatives maintained contact with the SOE in Britain.
Wake's most heroing mission involved her cycling 500 km through German checkpoints to replace her wireless radio and code book her operator had been forced to destroy in a German raid, shortly before D-Day. Without the codes they could not receive orders for the Allied invasion nor receive British air drops of weapons and supplies. She covered the distance in 71 hours, cycling through countryside and mountains almost non-stop.
With Wake's resistance group, no sector gave the German's more misery. The SS laid out a plan to obliterate the group. Heavily armed German troops were assembled near the Resistance's mountain stronghold. In June 1944, 22,000 seasoned SS troops attacked the Maquis' 7,000. The outcome: 1,400 German troops dead with only 100 of Wake's men lost.
Later, she personally led a raid on Gestapo headquarters in Montucon and additionally killed a sentry with her bare hands during a raid on a German gun factory.
After D-Day, allied troops began to force the German army out of France and on August 25, 1944, Paris was liberated. Wake led her troops into Vichy to celebrate; however, there she learned that her beloved husband Henri was dead. A year after her leaving France, the Germans had captured her husband, tortured and executed him, because he refused to give them any information about the whereabouts of his wife.
After the war, Wake continued to work for the SOE and retired in 1960.
Her, WWII comrade Henri Tardivat, described his guerrilla chieftain as, "The most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then, she is like five men."
When asked about facing fear during her World War 2 exploits, Wake replied, "Hah! I've never been afraid in my life."