Despite her future successes as a super agent for Australia and New Zealand during WWII, Nancy Wake had humble beginnings.
She was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1912, but her family moved to Sydney, Australia when she was almost two and she grew up there.
A Maori midwife delivered her and, at the time of her birth, allegedly pointed at a fold of skin on her head and said, “’This is what we call a kahu, and it means your baby will always be lucky. Wherever she goes, whatever she does, the gods will look after her.”
Her childhood didn’t appear to be very lucky. When she was four, just a few short years after the move to Sydney, her father left on a trip to the United States and never returned. This left her frazzled mother to look after six children, of whom Wake was the youngest.
She was constantly butting heads with her mother and, at the age of sixteen, she left home to work as a nurse.
She might have continued working independently in Sydney had it not been for the unexpected inheritance of £200 (about £11,500 today) from her aunt which allowed her to seek out adventure.
Arriving in London in 1932, she started a course in journalism. Her new career took her to Paris, where she lived for a year reporting on the situation in Europe as well as the rise of Nazism.
However, she had time for fun, too, and took full advantage of Parisian nightlife. Soon, the girl from humble beginnings had charmed Henri Fiocca, a French millionaire. They married shortly after the start of World War II and she moved into his mansion in Marseilles.
Wake was a working woman, however, and despised the Nazis. She could not abide sitting back while they marched into France. As such, she joined up with the local Resistance movement, acting as a courier.
She became an invaluable part of the Resistance movement, carrying important messages from one resistance group to another. It took the Nazis a while to figure out they were being duped by a beautiful, outwardly flirtatious woman, but when they did, they hunted her fiercely, eventually even putting a 5 million franc bounty on her head.
However, the Gestapo wasn’t able to catch Wake. Whenever they seemingly had her cornered, she managed to slip away unnoticed.
Because of this, they called her “the White Mouse.” She was very nearly captured once, in an incident that saw bullets whistling past her ears, but she managed to make it over the Pyrenees by herself, once again evading capture. Talking about her close calls, she said, “I never had time to worry.
And I have to admit, though some people won’t believe me, I was never afraid.”
From Spain she made her way to Britain, where she trained for sixteen weeks with the Special Operations Executive. At the end of this intense training, she was something of an expert in explosives, hand-to-hand combat, and weaponry. She was ready for her first mission: to assess resistance groups in France and let London know what each group needed in terms of munitions.
We all know that war was largely a “man’s” game back then, though, and despite parachuting into the forests of l’Auvergne to carry out her duties, she was met with many resistance fighters who couldn’t believe that Britain had sent in a woman for this job.
They refused to treat her with respect—that is, until she challenged the leaders to drinking contests which she nearly always won (in true Australian form. Later, she mentioned that she liked to consume at least six gin and tonics a day). In doing so, she was able to take some 7000 resistance partisans under her wing.
When D-Day arrived, Wake commanded her “troops,” organizing them to fight against the German soldiers rushing to reinforce their fellows at Normandy. She and the resistance fighters blew up bridges and wrecked trains, narrowly escaping capture.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Wake also killed a German sentry with her bare hands to prevent him from alerting the rest of the men that an attack was in full swing. Later, they liberated Vichy which had been in the hands of collaborationists.
It soon became clear that the Allies were going to win the war. Allowed into a recently liberated Paris, Wake and her friends found themselves at the British Officers Club acting a bit rowdy. The waiter serving them boldly proclaimed that he would rather be serving German soldiers than put up with them for another moment.
An angry Wake told him exactly how she felt by “knocking him senseless with a right-hook.”
A fellow waiter came running with a shot of brandy to revive the poor man. Nancy grabbed the shot instead, drained it, and said “Merci” before walking out the door.
After the war, Wake was decorated with medals from the United States, Britain, and France. It was sixty years before she would be granted medals from her native Australia and New Zealand because she hadn’t served with the Australian forces during the war.
Depicting what was probably the most decisive moment of the Battle of Gibraltar, this remarkable painting by Dutch artist Cornelius Claesz van Wieringen, is also an extraordinary attempt to capture the gruesome realities of an explosion.
Figures are shown flung through the air from the force of the blast, some severed in two — a torso here, a pair of legs there — and the choppy seas are strewn with blood and bodies.
For a long time the piece was mistakenly attributed to Hendrick Vroom, under whom Van Wrieringen studied. In 1621, the Admiralty of Amsterdam commissioned a painting from Vroom of the battle, which they planned to present to Prince Maurits, the commander-in-chief of the Dutch army.
Not happy with the extortionate sum demanded by Vroom, they turned to his pupil Van Wrieringen. Before he was given the commission Van Wrieringen had to paint a trial piece to see if he was up for the job, and it is thought that this is most likely to be this work.
The authorities apparently were not too put off by the gore, as they ordered a modello of the composition, which now lives in a private Dutch collection.
Bedded down somewhere in the Pacific during the mayhem and fierce fighting against the Japanese army during World War II, this American soldier takes time out to show some kindness by feeding a banana to a battle weary goat.
Harjit follows the Sikh practice of wearing a turban and not cutting his hair or beard, but he talks with an accent that puts him in the league of Paul Hogan.
Harjit’s passion for breaking down prejudice led him to co-found the organisation Australian Sikh Heritage, which aims to promote the ties Australia has with Sikhs.
“One part of that rich shared heritage is with Anzacs and the Sikhs, and then a very important touch point in WWII being Manmohan Singh,” he says.
Sikh religion branched off from Hinduism around 500 years ago with the concept of the saint-soldier.
As well as a moral code the religion instructs followers to fight for truth and justice. Both world wars provided many Sikhs with a welcome opportunity to practice the soldier side of their beliefs.
“Sikhs are only two per cent of India’s population; however they contributed one-third of the million people that went from India as part of the volunteer army in WWI,” Harjit says.
Sikhs fought alongside the Anzacs at Gallipoli with the 14th Sikh Regiment suffering possibly the highest casualty rate of any force during the Gallipoli campaign, with only 4 survivors.
“379 Sikh officers died on the 4th of June in 1915; it virtually wiped out the 14th Sikh Regiment,” says Harjit.
These Sikhs were mostly from India, but research by Australian Sikh Heritage has also identified ten Sikhs from Australia who served as part of the Australian Imperial Force during WWI.
In WWII Australians and Sikhs found themselves fighting on the same side once again. While the Sikhs’ biggest role in this war was in Europe, they were also active closer to Australia.
But one of the great mysteries for Sikh military history has been traced back to Broome, in North Western Australia.
Manmohan Singh was the first Sikh to train to fly, and became well known before WWI when he participated in a competition to become the first person to fly from India to England.
As an accomplished pilot, Manmohan Singh was one of the first group of Indians to travel to England to join the Royal Air Force in 1939.
After hunting submarines in the Atlantic from a Sunderland flying boat, he was promoted to Flying Officer and given command of a Catalina flying boat in the Philippines.
But as the Japanese forces advanced south through Asia, Manmohan Singh was forced to withdraw south along with other allies. He eventually landed his Catalina on Roebuck Bay at Broome, which was thought by many to be out of range of Japanese planes.
Manmohan Singh was onboard his flying boat moored on Roebuck Bay on the morning of 3rd March, 1942.
Nine Japanese Zeroes fitted with detachable, long-distance fuel tanks strafed his plane along with 22 others that day. Manmohan Singh died during that action.
Plate 44 of the series is inscribed “I saw it” and gives a first-hand account of the brutality of war (Goya: Plate 44/ The Folio Society)
Goya’s unflinching cycle of drawings, The Disasters of War, are the most searing works of art ever to deal with conflict, argues Alastair Sooke.
It is one of the ironies of art history that the destruction of World War I inspired so many painters and sculptors to be more creative than they had ever been before.
We Are Making a New World (1918) by the British painter Paul Nash, who was an official war artist during the conflict, is a good example: a masterful summary of the impact of the carnage upon Western Europe, it is like a grenade lobbed into the idyllic garden of the tradition of landscape painting. In place of a pretty pastoral vista, Nash summons a desperate vision of a withered and mud-choked killing field, populated only by bomb-blasted trees that stand in for the millions of human casualties.
One of Goya’s more famous prints shows three naked and dismembered corpses (Goya: Plate 39 / The Folio Society).
For years my dear friend Vic Potticary would use this expression and for all that time I would pretend to know exactly what Vic was talking about.
But, I didn’t, I had visions of Terence Stamp swinging from the yardarm (my petard) in that wonderful black and white movie about the British navy, “Billy Budd”.
I was wrong. This is the Truth…
Injured by the device that you intended to use to injure others or being blown up by your very own petard.
The phrase ‘hoist with one’s own petar[d]’ is often cited as ‘hoist by one’s own petar[d]’.
The two forms mean the same, although the former is strictly a more accurate version of the original source.
A petard is, or rather was, as they have long since fallen out of use, a small engine of war used to blow breaches in gates or walls. They were originally metallic and bell-shaped but later cubical wooden boxes.
Whatever the shape, the significant feature was that they were full of gunpowder – basically what we would now call a bomb.
The device was used by the military forces of all the major European fighting nations by the 16th century to generally battlements and castle gates.
In French and English – petar or petard, and in Spanish and Italian – petardo.
The dictionary maker John Florio defined them like this in 1598:
“Petardo – a squib or petard of gun powder vsed to burst vp gates or doores with.”
Petar was part of the everyday language around that time, as in this rather colourful line from Zackary Coke in his work Logick, 1654:
“The prayers of the Saints ascending with you, will Petarr your entrances through heavens Portcullis”.
Once the word is known, ‘hoist by your own petard’ is easy to fathom. I’s nice also to have a definitive source – no less than Shakespeare, who gives the line to Hamlet, 1602:
“For tis the sport to have the enginer Hoist with his owne petar”.