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Dear Reader #105

Dear Reader,

This month, I am writing Leaves, book three in The Olive Tree, my Spanish Civil War saga. This story features the Battle of Brunete and the plight of refugee children, like six year old Esperanza Careaga (pictured), who fled the fascists for saver havens elsewhere.

A post office directory from 1865 confirming that my 3 x great grandfather Richard Stokes was a furniture maker in Finsbury, London. From the 1600s every member of my Stokes family except one was a carpenter, originally based in Pangbourne (Richard’s father, William, was a weights and measures man, overseeing the distribution of corn as it arrived in London). 

Richard married Lucy Sarah Glissan, the daughter of a chemist and a nurse. The couple had seven children, including my direct ancestor, William Richard Frederick Stokes, another furniture maker.

My article about SOE heroine Eileen Nearne appears on page 36 of this month’s Seaside News.

My 3 x great grandmother Fanny Brereton was baptised on 19 November 1837 in Holy Trinity, Bristol (pictured). Her father, James Richard Brereton, a tinker, died shortly before her birth.

With William Bick, Fanny produced eleven children. However, she only married William when she was a month pregnant with their seventh child.

The family moved from Bristol to Hampshire, back to Bristol, before settling in London. James Richard Brereton was born in London and the family had relatives there.

William Bick worked as a stoker in Battersea Gas Works. The couple gave each of their children two names, so managed to think of twenty-two names, including Albert Charles Bick, their last born and my direct ancestor, who died during the First World War.

The last of my Heroines of SOE articles features Nancy Wake, a truly exceptional woman.

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born on 30 August 1912 in Wellington, New Zealand. Two years later, her family relocated to Sydney, Australia.

Nancy was very fond of her father. However, he returned to New Zealand leaving his wife and six children in Sydney. The separation ensured that Nancy endured a difficult childhood and aged sixteen she ran away from home. At first, she worked as a nurse. Then a legacy from a relative enabled her to travel to New York, London and Paris, where she reinvented herself as a journalist.

Nancy Wake

In 1937, Nancy met wealthy French industrialist Henri Edmond Fiocca, whom she married on 30 November 1939. The couple lived in Marseille and were there when the Germans invaded.

Never a passive person, Nancy responded by becoming an ambulance driver. Then, after the fall of France in 1940, she joined an escape network known as the Pat O’Leary Line. The Gestapo pursued members of the Line and because of Nancy’s ability to elude capture they named her the ‘White Mouse’. 

In November 1942, the Nazis occupied Vichy France, increasing the danger for Nancy and members of the escape line. When a traitor betrayed the network, she had no option but to flee France. Her husband, Henri Fiocca, decided to stay in Marseille. 

Although Nancy loved Henri, he was known for his affairs and the couple parted on the tacit understanding that neither party would remain faithful. Their relationship was an unconventional one and, personally, I believe that’s why fictional accounts of Nancy’s life have failed to capture the public’s imagination. Indeed, she was unimpressed with a well-made biopic released in her lifetime because she felt it focused on her relationship with Henri and not on her amazing wartime exploits.

The Gestapo captured Henri and murdered him. Although she suspected, Nancy didn’t learn of Henri’s fate until after the Allies had liberated France. The news devastated her and although she later remarried she lived with that sadness for the rest of her long life.

After escaping to Britain, Nancy joined the Special Operations Executive. Vera Atkins, a mother hen to the female members of the SOE, described Nancy as, “A real Australian bombshell. Tremendous vitality, flashing eyes. Everything she did, she did well.” Her intelligence record noted her “cheerful spirit and strength of character.” While M.R.D. Foot, the official historian of the SOE, said, “Her irrepressible, infectious, high spirits were a joy to everyone who worked with her.”

Nancy’s honours. From Wikipedia.

During the night of 29–30 April 1944, Nancy parachuted into Auvergne, France as a member of a three-person team. The team liaised with the Resistance, which often tried Nancy’s patience because of internal bickering and local politics. 

Nancy’s duties included surveying, collecting arms and money from parachute drops, training the local Maquis and engaging in sabotage. 

Setbacks occurred, which forced the Resistance and SOE into retreat. During one desperate episode, Nancy cycled 500 kilometres through enemy territory in 72 hours in search of a wireless, a feat she later recalled with justified pride.

Nancy participated in attacks on Nazi convoys. She also took part in defensive actions when the Nazis attacked the Resistance. Her main tasks were centred on organising the Maquis and distributing money and arms. Nevertheless, Nancy was active in all aspects of Resistance work and she killed several members of the Gestapo including a sentry with her bare hands. During a television interview in the 1990s, she described the incident. “They’d taught this judo-chop stuff with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practised away at it. But this was the only time I used it – whack – and it killed him all right. I was really surprised.”

After the liberation of France, Nancy returned to Britain. She mourned Henri then set about the next phase of her life, which included a return to Australia where in 1949 she stood as a Liberal candidate in the federal election running against the deputy prime minister. She achieved a thirteen percent swing, but narrowly lost the vote – 53% to 47%. In 1951, Nancy tried again and came within 250 votes of success. 

Nancy was a liberal in the widest sense. She was sympathetic towards homosexual members of the SOE at a time when hostility and prejudice were the norm. She possessed a heart of gold, and nerves of steel. 

Seeking a new challenge, Nancy returned to Britain where she worked as an intelligence officer at the Air Ministry in Whitehall. In December 1957 she married RAF officer, John Forward. In the early 1960s, the couple relocated to Australia where Nancy resumed her interest in politics.

In 1985, Nancy published her autobiography, The White Mouse. John Forward died on 19 August 1997 and in 2001 Nancy moved again, returning to London. She became a resident at the Stafford Hotel in St. James’ Place, near Piccadilly before ending her days at the Royal Star and Garter Home for Disabled Ex-Service Men and Women. 

Nancy died on 7 August 2011, aged 98, at Kingston Hospital. Her ashes were scattered near the village of Verneix, at Montluçon, central France.

Is my character Eve Beringar based on Nancy Wake? Yes, to some extent, but the overall answer is ‘no’. Eve is a composite character based on the lives and exploits of twenty-one SOE agents. I did consider writing about Nancy Wake. However, I felt that aspects of her relationship with her husband, Henri Fiocca, did not translate well into my fiction. 

Nancy Wake was an unconventional woman fighting an unconventional war. She was a remarkable woman, a true force of nature and undoubtedly one of the greatest heroines of the Special Operations Executive.

As ever, thank you for your interest and support.

Hannah xxx

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