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Tuesday 21 November 2017

The war hero who saved hundreds of Allied lives

Nancy Wake, who has died aged 98, was among the most decorated secret agents of World War Two. During her wartime career she was both a key figure in an escape ring in Vichy France and a leader of the Maquis against the German occupation; her exploits won her the George Medal; the Croix de Guerre with palm (twice); the Croix de Guerre with star; the Medaille de la Resistance (a rare decoration for a foreigner); and the US Medal of Freedom with bronze palm.

When fighting broke out, however, she seemed nothing more than the frivolous young fiancee of a wealthy Marseilles industrialist. But by war's end in Europe she had become famed as a resourceful, dauntless Resistance leader, who topped the Gestapo's most-wanted list and had saved hundreds of Allied lives.

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born in Wellington, New Zealand, on August 30, 1912, the youngest in a family of six. She grew up at Neutral Bay, Sydney, where the family had settled. A good-looking girl with a streak of rebelliousness, she set out alone in December 1932 to explore Europe, via Vancouver and New York, living by freelance journalism.

In the summer of 1936 she met a "charming, sexy and amusing" man in Juan-les-Pins named Henri Fiocca; though he had a reputation as a playboy they started seeing each other and in 1939 he asked her to marry him.

By the time France was overrun in 1940 they had married and, though initially squeamish, she was driving an ambulance. Later, back in Marseilles with her husband, she embarked on an exhausting double life.

A chance meeting in a bar led to her employment as a courier on an escape route for officers and airmen from Vichy France across the mountains into Spain.

In the autumn of 1942 the Germans occupied Vichy France, and the Gestapo became aware of a troublesome agent whom they called White Mouse. But White Mouse proved elusive. Finally, when it seemed that the net was closing, Wake was advised by her husband to flee to England, where he hoped to join her.

Wake made several attempts to reach Spain, but was thwarted each time by arrests that broke up the circuit. On her final attempt she had to leap from a train window and run for it with several companions, dodging bullets before escaping through a vineyard.

Eventually she found guides who buried her in the back of a coal truck, then led her by rocky Pyrenean tracks into Spain. She reached England in a convoy from Gibraltar in June 1943.

Within eight months Nancy Wake had become a fully trained agent of the Special Operations Executive. Her training complete, she was parachuted into central France in April 1944, landing near Montluçon.

She was dropped into the Auvergne region along with Major John Farmer, leader of the Freelance resistance circuit. Wake was a woman of very high energy, he said, with "very clear ideas of how she wanted everything done". On landing, her parachute got stuck in a tree. One of the Frenchmen greeting her said he hoped all trees could bear such beautiful fruit. "Don't give me that French shit," she replied with her customary bluntness -- or so she liked to chuckle when retelling the story.

Wake's role was as assistant to Farmer in running the circuit known as Freelance, part of SOE's 'F' section, the 'Independent French' section headed by Maurice Buckmaster in London.

To coincide with the Normandy landings, the Auvergne Maquis launched a furious assault on factories and communications. A powerful German counter-attack, with aerial support, failed to stop them, but had the effect of cutting Wake's lines of communication with London.

To re-establish contact, essential before D-Day, she rode a bicycle from Auvergne to Châteauroux -- 250 miles in 72 hours on a round trip through German-held territory.

"When I got off that damned bike I felt as if I had a fire between my legs. I couldn't stand up. I couldn't sit down, I couldn't walk. When I'm asked what I'm most proud of doing during the war, I say: 'The bike ride'."

With victory came the bitter news that her husband Fiocca had been tortured and then executed by the Germans.

Wake duly continued in intelligence, attached to the British embassies in Paris and Prague. Then, in 1949, she returned to Sydney where she twice stood unsuccessfully for parliament.

After the 1951 election Nancy Wake returned to England, spending five happy years as an intelligence officer. In 1957, however, she married John Forward, an officer in the RAF, and resigned her post. Three years later they returned to Australia.

After her husband died in 1997 she remained in Australia for four further years until, in 2001, she decided to return to England for good.

Initially she became a resident at the Stafford Hotel in St James's Place, off Piccadilly and could be found on a leather stool in the hotel bar most mornings, nursing the first of the day's five or six gin and tonics.

Though she celebrated her 90th birthday there, and the hotel's owners welcomed her, they were obliged to absorb most of the costs of her stay, helped occasionally by anonymous donors -- thought to include the Prince of Wales.

The hotel said it was looking forward to planning her 100th birthday, but in 2003 Nancy Wake moved to a forces retirement home just outside Richmond Park, where she remained until her death.

Nancy Wake had no children. Her ashes are reportedly due to be scattered near Montluçon.

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