Condolences - Nancy Grace Augusta Wake, AC, GM

I regret that I did not meet Nancy Wake, but I am glad that I did not meet Nancy Wake in the first 16 years of my life.

She once famously said, 'I killed a lot of Germans and I am only sorry I didn't kill more.' Nancy Wake was Australia's most decorated servicewoman and one of the most decorated allied servicewomen of World War II. She was a true heroine in every sense of the word. Her courage and resourcefulness in a wartime France saved thousands of allied lives.

The French government made her a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur, France's highest honour, and awarded her the Croix de Guerre with star and two palms and the Médaille de la Résistance. She also received Britain's George Medal and the US Medal of Freedom. In 2004, she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia, long overdue recognition from the country in which she grew up and to which she returned on war's end.

Nancy Wake trained as a nurse before an inheritance from a New Zealand aunt enabled her to fulfil her dream of travelling to New York, London and Paris. After studying journalism in London, she became a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in Paris and reported on the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. A 1933 trip to interview Hitler in Vienna galvanised her views on the Nazis. 'I saw the disagreeable things that he was doing to people, first of all the Jews,' she told ABC radio in 1985. 'I thought it was quite revolting,' she said.

When war broke out, along with her French husband she helped downed British pilots and Jewish families to escape the German occupying force, planning escape routes for thousands of Allied troops. She often used her feminine wiles to glean information from the Germans and to evade security. By 1943 Gestapo agents were closing in. Wake told her husband she was going shopping and would soon return. They never saw each other again. She later learned that her husband had been captured, tortured and then executed for refusing to divulge information about her activities or whereabouts. It took her several attempts to cross the Pyrenees into Spain. On one attempt she was held and interrogated by the Vichy French. She eventually did reach Britain where she convinced the Special Operations Executive to train her as a spy.

In early 1944 she was parachuted into the Auvergne region of central France to organise the local Maquis Resistance, collect air drops of ammunition and arms, and establish radio links with their base in Britain. Wake helped recruit an additional 3,000 fighters to build a force of about 7,000. She led groups of these fighters on guerrilla and sabotage raids on German troops, installations and equipment in the lead-up to D-day.

A French Resistance comrade said that, 'When fighting, she was like five men.' She could kill the enemy with her bare hands. Her proudest exploit was her very own Tour de France, cycling over 400 kilometres or so through occupied France in 72 hours to relay a request for a replacement radio and codes. In the final days of the war she was part of a very bold assault on the Gestapo headquarters which killed 38.

Upon her return to Australia after the war, Nancy joined the New South Wales Liberal Party and became an institution within our party. The Liberal Party is very proud to call her one of our own. She served as a member of the party's state executive and was known to address branch meetings and talk about her experiences during the war. Nancy stood as a candidate at the historic 1949 federal election. She contested the seat held by Dr Herbert 'Doc' Evatt, achieving a 13 per cent swing. When she won preselection for the electorate, the Liberal Party sent Dr Evatt a telegram: 'Nancy Wake, Liberal candidate, parachuted into Barton tonight'. She was a gutsy campaigner and she spent most days thereafter doorknocking and addressing meetings. She stated that her reason for standing was:

… a gradual gathering together of controls, centralisation of power in the hands of a few power-hungry fanatics …

Although Nancy was unsuccessful, the Liberal Party led by Robert Menzies won office at a national level at the election for the first time. Nancy Wake cut Dr Evatt's margin from 11,112 to 2,644. Undaunted, she decided to stand against him again. It was a testament to the postwar Liberal Party under Robert Menzies that it could attract candidates of the calibre of Nancy Wake.

In 1951 another election was called. The then Liberal Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, came to tell electors that they must send Nancy to Canberra. This time she missed out by just a few hundred votes. After a period living overseas, Nancy came back to Australia and contested the seat of Kingsford-Smith for the Liberal Party at the 1966 federal election. With her second husband, John Forward, as her campaign manager, Nancy threw her efforts into this new battle. Although she gained a 6.9 per cent swing against the Labor incumbent, Nancy fell short of winning the seat. The experience of being thrice rejected was a difficult one for Nancy, who came to regret her experience with politics. But the book by Peter FitzSimons on Nancy Wake, referred to by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, on page 287 indicates she was no run-of-the-mill Liberal Party candidate:

The Liberal Party was a deeply conservative organisation with very firm ideas about how a woman should behave and many local members looked askance at the 'Nancy way' for it was hardly a perfect match. She, for example, never wore stockings or a hat and was quite happy to cross her legs while sitting on a public platform if she felt like it and if she wanted to have a drink in a beer garden she did so and she simply did not give a damn if someone in the party thought that this was too unladylike for their proposed representative. 'What did I care about trying to be a lady?' she asks rhetorically. 'After what I had been through the thought that I would worry about whether or not I wore stockings or a hat was completely ludicrous. If any of them ever wanted to chip me about it, I told them off in the strongest possible language.'

Further on the respect in which Nancy Wake was held is referred to by the author, Mr FitzSimons. It was in the first campaign and Ben Chifley was in fact called in to exhort the electors of Barton to return Dr Evatt to Canberra though he was very careful not to utter one word of criticism against Nancy Wake. He writes:

It seems that this was more than simply a polite public stance for when, by pure chance, the Labor Prime Minister happened to come face to face with the Liberal candidate in the corridor of a hotel in the Barton electorate on a day when they were both campaigning, the Prime Minister removed the pipe from his mouth, bowed deeply and moved on. In response, Nancy recalls warmly, he was a lovely man, a true gentleman.

I believe that it is further credit to her that, having sacrificed so much during the war, she went to extraordinarily brave lengths in an effort to serve her country in peace. It has been said that her decision to enter politics divided public opinion about her, reduced the receptiveness of the Australian people to her story and made it difficult for the Labor Party to support public celebration of her. I do not believe this is the case, or if it was, time has erased any partisan feelings towards her, as this condolence motion testifies and as do the generous comments of the Leader of the Government in the Senate. Of course, way back then when she was a candidate that was also testified to by the homage that the Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, paid her. One can only imagine what contribution she would have made to our parliament had she been successful.

Nancy Wake's life force was an inspiration. As she said, 'I got away with blue murder and loved every minute of it.' I understand that Nancy Wake wanted her ashes to be scattered amongst the wildflowers at Montlucon in central France, where she fought in a heroic 1944 attack on the local Gestapo headquarters and where perhaps, from reading her biography, she was most alive. Her nation salutes her life, her bravery, her selflessness and her service. The coalition trusts that the Nancy Wake story will continue to be told for generations to come. May she rest in peace.

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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