Woman in Arms by Russell Braddon [Book Review]
I re-read this over the holidays. Woman in Arms is one of the books I’ve owned the longest of those on my shelves. The story is just as remarkable now as it was when I first read Woman in Arms around 1990. Nancy Wake was born in NZ, grew up in Australia and moved to France where she worked as a journalist before WW2. She married a frenchman just after the outbreak of WW2 and worked to help people escape from the nazis. Eventually the Gestapo were after her and she too escaped to London. She then trained as an SOE agent and went back in 1944 to wreak havoc between the invasion and liberation.
Woman in Arms
Woman in Arms was originally published in 1956, Russell Braddon was able to speak to many of those involved. So this carries a level of detail that draws on the memories of the survivors. Much of this is verifiable in other accounts on my shelves. I doubt there’s much exaggeration, although there is clearly some bowdlerisation. That’s normal for the sensibilities of the 1950s. None of this though takes anything away from the sheer awe one feels at what Nancy Wake/Fiocca did.
She lived in Marseilles with her rich husband, Henri Fiocca. He was a businessman, and employed many people. Certainly they were well enough off to be able to afford a second flat, and food and money to help the many British interned in Marseilles. Nancy was involved with several famous escapers, including Ian Garrow, Jim Langley (who wrote his own memoir and co-wrote an official history of MI9) and Pat O’Leary (Albert Guérisse, a Belgian who took over the escape line from Ian Garrow). She spent almost three years working covertly with these men and others. Woman in Arms tells a little of her life and the difficulties faced, which mounted after the Germans occupied southern France.
Eventually Nancy was caught. They interrogated her for days, and all accounts agree that she didn’t tell them anything. Realising that she hadn’t broken the resistors worked to get her free. Nancy then left France and on the seventh attempt she made it over the Pyrenees, only to be locked up by the Spanish. Eventually she made it back to London. This wasn’t the end of her story though. She volunteered to go back.
SOE Agent – Woman in Arms
In the Spring of 1944 Nancy was parachuted into France with two other SOE agents to organise local maquis groups for action in support of D-Day and to help hasten the liberation. Nancy was the courier in her group, and also organised the sites and receptions for the supply drops. Her circuit ran into some difficulties early on in establishing itself. Woman in Arms is matter of fact about some of this, but there’s a real flavour of how occupied France was in the weeks before D-Day. Germans, and French collaborator police controlled the main towns. The maquis drove on the minor roads and controlled the countryside.
By the time D-Day came Nancy was supplying and directing several maquis groups. There are several accounts of firefights, and evading mass German attacks. The maquis groups were large, almost 7,000 men involved in her area. This made them targets for Germans, and more than once Nancy barely escaped. On one of those occasions she needed to cycle hundreds of kilometres alone to get messages out via other radio operators to replace the radios and codes that they’d had to destroy.
All in all this is a remarkable story, and one that is worth reading. Nancy Wake did extraordinary things.