Sunday 24 November 2013

Nancy Wake: The White Mouse

Eagle-eyed readers who know their wartime history will know that the beauty in uniform shown in the montage I made for the previous post was no model or actress but the real deal: Nancy Wake, SOE agent in France and the Allies’ most decorated servicewoman of WWII.

She was born a world away from Occupied France in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1912, of French Huguenot and English stock, with a dash of Maori. The family moved to Sydney, Australia when Nancy was 20 months old – she was the youngest of six children. But her newspaperman father walked out on them, and her mother struggled to raise the children alone. By 16, Nancy Wake was working as a nurse, but when an aunt in New Zealand died and left her a windfall, she used the money to travel to London and then to Europe.

Following in her father’s footsteps, she worked as a journalist, first in Paris, then witnessing the rise of Hitler, Nazism and anti-Semitism in Vienna. She met wealthy French industrialist, Henri Fiocca in 1937 – entranced by his spirited nature and proficiency at the tango! – and in 1939 Nancy was happily married to him, living a life of luxury in Marseille. Charming, sophisticated Henri was the love of her life, but the storm clouds were gathering.

Six months after they married, France was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany. Never one to stand by, Nancy joined the embryonic resistance movement as a courier, smuggling messages and food to underground groups in Southern France. As the beautiful wife of a wealthy businessman, she had connections and an ability to travel denied many others. With false papers and the purchase of an ambulance, she was soon involved in helping escaped prisoners of war and airmen out of France through to Spain on the “Pat O’Leary line”.

But the Gestapo was watching her. Her life was in constant danger but she assumed so many guises and was so adept at evasion that the authorities named her “The White Mouse”. At one stage she was top of the Gestapo’s most wanted list with a five million-franc price on her head. When it became too dangerous for her to remain in France, she managed, after five failed attempts and capture and interrogation by French Vichy enforcers, the feared Milice, along the way, to escape to Britain using the arduous route across the Pyrenees.

Anyone else might have thought they had done their bit, but Nancy Wake, then 31, joined the British Special Operations Executive which worked with local resistance groups to sabotage the Germans in occupied France. In the run-up to the D-Day invasion she learned about codes and wireless operation, survival skills and explosives, and in April 1944 she was parachuted into the Auvergne region in central France, her mission, alongside SOE agent John Farmer, to organise wireless communication between London and the bands of Maquis, to oversee ammunition and arms caches from the nightly RAF parachute drops, and facilitate the destruction of key targets.

It was a rough, tough life, a far cry from her cosmopolitan pre-war existence in the well-to-do quarter of Marseille. In country dominated by German troops, she slept in woodland, and on one occasion she cycled 500 km through several German checkpoints to replace vital codes her wireless operator had been forced to destroy in a German raid. It took her 71 hours, at the end of which she collapsed with pain and relief.

As she moved between Maquis groups hidden in the hills, she survived countless violent engagements with the Germans. She had to shoot her way through roadblocks, and execute a German woman spy on the basis that only one of them was going to get out alive. All around were hideous burnings and reprisals. She killed a sentry with her bare hands to keep him from alerting the guard during a raid on a German gun factory, saying afterwards that the SOE had taught her “the judo-chop with flat hand” but its effectiveness took her by surprise. Nancy Wake’s French resistance comrade Henri Tardivat said of her warrior queen qualities: “She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then, she is like five men.”

The liberation of France in August 1944 brought no good news for Nancy. She learned that her husband Henri was dead, tortured and executed by the Gestapo in 1943 because he had refused to give them any information about the whereabouts of his wife.

Back in London, Nancy Wake continued working at the British Air Ministry in the Intelligence Department. She married again in 1957, to a former prisoner of war, RAF man John Forward, and moved back to Australia with him. She was active in politics there, standing as a Liberal candidate, though never being elected.

For her achievements, she was awarded the George Medal from Britain for her leadership and bravery under fire, the Resistance Medal, Officer of the Legion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre with two bronze palms and a silver star from France, and the Medal of Freedom from America.

For many decades, she went unrecognised by the Australian government, possibly because she was considered a New Zealand citizen. Finally, in 2004, Nancy Wake was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. In 2006 Nancy received the NZ Returned Services Association’s highest honour, the RSA Badge in Gold, for her work with the French resistance during the war.

Nancy Wake returned to London in 2001 after she was widowed for the second time. She lived for a while at the Stafford Hotel in St James’s, which had been a forces club during the war and where she was still remembered. She passed away on 7 August 2011 in Britain, where she lived her last years at the Star and Garter forces retirement in Richmond, just three weeks short of her 99th birthday. Her ashes were scattered at Verneix, near Montluҫon, scene of her parachute drop into extraordinary wartime heroism.

For more detailed accounts of her life, I recommend Nancy Wake’s autobiography The White Mouse, published in 1985, and the authoritative biography by Australian journalist Peter FitzSimons, Nancy Wake: A Biography of Our Greatest War Heroine, revised in 2011. 


Amanda said...

Thank you so much Deborah for this wonderful story! I love to read or hear about heroines!

Muriel said...

She is an inspiration. Thank you, Deborah, for posting her story.

Maureen said...


I recently read "A Train in Winter', about women in the Resistance, all astonishing and incredibly brave.

Gill Edwards said...

so pleased you wrote this post, i am a huge history fan and people like Nancy have my undying admiration, what a woman.

Gill x

Marcheline said...

My kind of girl!

Bunched Undies said...

A brilliant telling of an extraordinary life. Thank you Deborah.

Val Davies said...

Has made me want to read the book a truly inspiring person

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