Nancy Wake

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born in New Zealand on August 30, 1912. In 1914, her family moved to Australia. However, her father, Charles Augustus Wake, soon returned to New Zealand, and her mother, Ella Wake, raised her and her siblings.[1]

At the age of sixteen, Wake ran away from home and went to work as a nurse. With two hundred pounds she had inherited from Aunt, she traveled to New York and then to London, where she trained as a journalist. In the 1930s, she worked in Paris as a European correspondent for Hearst newspapers. There, she had a front-row seat to the rise of Adolf Hitler. She would later say that she “saw roving Nazi gangs randomly beating Jewish women and men in the streets” of Vienna.

On November 30, 1939, she married French industrialist Henri Edmond Fiocca. She was living in France when Germany invaded.

After the start of the war, she served as an ambulance driver. However, after the fall of France in 1940, she joined the escape network, which would become known as the Pat O’Leary Line. The Gestapo knew of her existence. They tapped her phone lines and intercepted mail. However, she continuously evaded them. Because of this, they began referring to her as the “white mouse.”[2]

In November 1942, the Germans occupied Vichy France, which gave the Gestapo unrestricted access to all parts and made Wake’s life more difficult and dangerous. She would later say, “a little powder and a drink on the way, and I’d pass their posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me?’ God, what a flirtatious little bastard I was.”[3]

Life in occupied France was extremely dangerous. Soon, the network was betrayed, and Wake decided that she needed to escape France. Her husband stayed behind and was soon captured, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo.[4]

While trying to escape France, Wake was arrested in Toulouse. She was released four days later, after the head of the O’Leary Line, Albert Guerisse, convinced the Gestapo that she was little more than his mistress who was trying to conceal her infidelity to her husband, none of which was true. Eventually, she was able to reach Spain.[5]

Nancy Wake would remain unaware of her husband’s death for the rest of the war. She would blame herself for the rest of her life.

After arriving in Spain, Nancy was able to travel to England, where she joined the Special Operatives Executive (SOE). In 1944, she was part of a three-person “freelance” team that parachuted into the Averagne province of France. While parachuting in, she got stuck on a tree to which her resistance leader, Henri Tardivat, remarked, ” I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year.” She is said to have replied, ” Don’t give me that French shit.”[6]

The freelance team served as a liaison between London and local resistance groups. Her primary duty was pinpointing locations where material and money needed to be dropped. She was responsible for collecting it and allocating it among the resistance. She also carried with her a list of targets they were supposed to destroy before the invasion of France by the Allies. At one point, The radio operator they were working with left his radio and codes behind, but the team urgently needed to contact London. The nearest SOE radio was over one hundred miles away. In seventy-two hours, Wake bicycled five hundred kilometers (three hundred ten miles) to get the messages to London.[7]

Although it has never been corroborated, Wake claimed to have killed at least thirty-eight Germans in a raid. She also said that she killed an SS entry with her bare hands. She later said, “They’d taught this judo-chop stuff with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practiced a way at it. But this was the only time I used it- whack- and it killed him all right. I was really surprised.”[8]

It was during a victory celebration in Vichy, France, that Wake learned of the passing of her husband. Not long after, she was recalled to Great Britain. After the war, she was heavily decorated by many different countries. In 1949, she stood as a liberal candidate in the Australian federal election for the Sydney seat of Barton.[9]

Nancy left Australia in 1951 and moved back to England. There, she worked as an intelligent officer and the department of the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff at the Air Ministry in Whitehall. She resigned in 1957 and married RAF officer John Forward the same year.[10]

In 1985, Wake published an autobiography called The White Mouse. In 1997, her second husband passed away. After his death, she sold her medals to fund herself, saying, ” there was no point in keeping them, I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway.”[11]

Nancy Wake passed away on August 7, 2011, at the age of ninety-eight. Her ashes were scattered in Verneix, France.


[1] Peter Dennis; Jeffrey Grey; Ewan Morris; Robin Prior, The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 626.
[2] Peter FitzSimons, Nancy Wake : the inspiring story of one of the war’s greatest heroines, (London: HarperCollins, 2002).
[3] Graem Leech, “Fearless matriarch of resistance”, The Australian, News Limited, 9 August 2011.
[4] “The White Mouse; Our Most Decorated Female,” August 11, 2010, https://web.archive.org/web/20100811085020/http://www.diggerhistory.info/pages-heroes/white_mouse.htm.
[5] David Stafford, “Nancy Wake obituary”, The Guardian, London, 8 August 2011.
[6] “Nancy Wake”, The Daily Telegraphm London, August 8, 2011.
[7] Russell Braddon, “Nancy Wake: The Story of a Very Brave Woman”, (Quality Book Club, Cassell & Co. Ltd: London, 1956), p. 132–152, 165-175
[8] Graeme Leech, “Fearless matriarch of resistance”, The Australian, News Limited, 9 August 2011.
[9] “Barton, NSW”, Voting by constituency: Legislative election 1951, 28 April 1951.
[10] “Nancy Wake”, The Daily Telegraph, London. 8 August 2011.
[11] David Stafford, “Nancy Wake obituary”, The Guardian, London, 8 August 2011.

Comments

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