When her children asked what she did in the war, Dorothy Wakely told them that she drove ambulances and chauffeured officers. But when her son Simon was about 11 or 12, rummaging around a storage unit, he came across her revolver and bullets. She told him: “Oh, that was mine during the war.” It was only then, he told the BBC’s Last Word, that he realised there was probably more to it. To Wakely, who has died at the age of 104, the Official Secrets Act was “sacrosanct”. But, her son said, she had “an adventurous life right from the start”.
Wakely was born in 1915 in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. Soon after, her parents took her to live in India, where her father, the orientalist Bernard Temple, was working as a journalist. One of her earliest memories was of the dangerous overland journey from India to Persia, where her father was to become British vice-consul. “The tribesman, if they knew I was travelling, they bought and sold little girls in those days, so my father had to safety-pin me to him at night.”
Returning to the English countryside from a world of exoticism and servants was a shock to the young child, and it was not to be her last. As a teenager, she was sent to boarding school in Belgium, where she learnt fluent French. The school, she was told after the war, would later become the headquarters of Nazi leader Hermann Goering.
After finishing her education, Wakely followed her father into the world of journalism. When the war broke out, she was working as a personal assistant to the editor of the Sydney Daily Telegraph. In 1942, Wakely volunteered with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (Fany), driving tanks and ambulances.
Thanks to her pre-war experience, she was soon transferred from the Fanys to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to work as a driver and secretary for a colonel in the Intelligence Corps. But she quickly joined the SOE’s French division, to learn signals, ciphers and codes. She was trained to tap out and understand Morse code. According to the historian Clare Mulley, who interviewed Wakely, when she was chatting with other women she would find herself tapping out the conversation in code on the table. “She could hardly hear a bird sing without trying to translate its meaning in Morse,” Mulley told the BBC.
Wakely was posted to Thame Park, where wireless operators bound for occupied territory were trained. Before long, she was serving as a signals planner and training secret agents herself, sending them behind enemy lines to carry out acts of sabotage. Sometimes her agents would communicate under duress because they’d been caught by the Gestapo; other times, they’d stop communicating all together. Her son remembers her saying that so many agents were lost, that after a while she developed a sixth sense for who would make it through the war and who wouldn’t.
After a spell at Poundon House, near Bicester, learning radio frequencies and code plans, she joined the Inter-Services Signals Unit 6, becoming a Fany lieutenant. Just a few weeks later she found herself on a ship to Algeria, where the view of a white sandy beach was marred only by an aerial field.
There in north Africa, the team kept a 24-hour watch on the Nazi movements, relaying information to SOE HQ in Baker Street “so they could decide which railways and bridges to blow up”.
Later in the war, she was billeted in Bari, southern Italy, working with guerrilla fighters. One afternoon, outside her flat, she came across an officer and former security agent whom she had known at Thame Park. He told her that he had just defused a bomb in her flat. It turned out that Wakely was on a Gestapo hit list. Wakely was later awarded the Italy Star.
After the war ended in 1945, she returned to her work as an ambulance driver, going back to Belgium with a convoy. She later handed out food parcels to malnourished Britons liberated from internment camps all over France, and eventually worked for the embassy in Paris for the military attache.
It was in Paris that she met her future husband, Jimmy Wakely, who later became a group captain in the RAF and aide to the Queen.
But it was Wakely’s role in the SOE that was of greatest significance to the war: without that communication between London and occupied territory, Britain could not have coordinated the delivery of arms, organised targets or coordinated a response to the Nazi advance.
In her last letter to Clare Mulley, Wakely wrote that those years were the most important of her life. Her guiding principle, said Simon, was to be worthy of the sacrifice that others had made.
She is survived by her sons Paul, a teacher and church leader, and Simon, a former charity worker.
Dorothy Wakely, SOE intelligence officer, born 4 July 1915, died 6 May 2020
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