The Wise Woman: Nancy Wake
Nancy Wake: The White Mouse Who Never Got Caught
Nancy Wake was the Allies’ most decorated servicewoman of World War II. She was also the Gestapo’s most wanted. She was born in New Zealand in 1912, raised in Australia, and travelled Europe as a freelance journalist in her twenties, where she saw firsthand the appalling rise of fascism, Antisemitism and the atrocities the Nazis inflicted upon the Jews. The pivotal moment of her life came while she was in Vienna, just before Hitler came to power. There, she interviewed him, (“He was very good looking and spoke beautifully”) and noted how transfixed the young boys were with him. She watched with horror as Nazi storm-troopers tied the Jews to massive wheels, rolled them through the streets, and whipped them repeatedly. She “resolved there and then that if I ever had the chance I would do anything to make things more difficult for their rotten party”.
In France, in 1939, Wake married the love of her life, industrialist Henri Fiocca, and they enjoyed a privileged socialite lifestyle in one of the world’s most glamourous cities. But just six months later, Germany invaded and Nancy was drawn into the fight. She befriended British officers and worked with Captain Ian Garrow, organising the escape of British military personnel stranded after the failure of Dunkirk. This led to her involvement in the famous escape network, the Pat O’Leary Line, an escape route for downed Allied pilots. She smuggled messages and food to underground groups and bought and used an ambulance to ferry refugees and escaped prisoners of war cross the Pyrenees, into Spain. Her life was in constant danger, with the Gestapo tapping her phone and intercepting her mail, and by 1943, Wake was their most wanted person, with a 5 million-franc bounty on her head. They dubbed her the ‘White Mouse’ because she was so good at eluding capture.
In June 1943 the underground network was infiltrated and betrayed and her husband begged her to leave the country before she was captured and killed. Henri himself stayed behind, continuing to financially aid the resistance to fight to free his country. Wake would not learn until the war had ended that Henri had been captured and tortured by the Gestapo, and then executed when he refused to give her up.
After six attempts, and ultimately having to leap from a train window and make a run for it while dodging bullets, Wake finally arrived in England. There, she joined the SOE, the Special Operations Executive, which worked with the French Resistence to sabotage the Germans in occupied territories. Wake was trained in survival skills, codes and radio operation, explosives, Sten guns and grenades. On March 1st 1944 she was parachuted into the Auvergne district of central France with one million francs and instructions to locate, organise and train the local Marquis (the rural bands of French Resistance fighters) in guerilla warfare. She was to allocate ammunition and arms caches from the four-times-a-week parachute drops, arrange wireless communication with England, and manage the finances. Her ultimate mission was to organise the Resistance in preparation for the forthcoming D-Day invasion. This meant weakening the German army before the Allies’ main attack, sabotaging German installations, convoys and troops, destroying bridges and railway lines.
Initially there were 22,000 German troops in the area, compared to just 3-4,000 Marquis fighters. But Wake was as persuasive as she was determined and she almost doubled the numbers, streamlining her men into a formidable force of 7,500 fighters. Though the French were initially skeptical of taking orders from a woman, Wake’s attitude and ruthlessness soon won them over. “She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men”, said Henri Tardivat, local Maquis group leader and her right-hand man. From April 1944 until the liberation of France, her men caused 1,400 German casualties, while suffering only 100 themselves.
To coincide with the Normandy landings, Wake’s Maquis launched an all-out assault on factories and communications. A powerful German counter-attack, complete with aerial support, failed to stop them from wreaking havoc. But in the process they lost lines of communication with London when their wireless operator was forced to burn the code books. Without these there would be no fresh orders or drops of weapons and supplies. So Wake herself cycled 500 kilometres to replace the codes, riding through German-held territories and checkpoints. She cycled the distance non-stop, through countryside and mountain terrain, and when she returned 71 hours later, she could neither stand up or sit down. Her grit and determination didn’t stop there. When she discovered that her men were protecting a girl who was a German spy, and did not have the heart to kill her, Wake did. She personally led a raid on Gestapo headquarters in Montucon, leaving 38 Germans dead in, “the most exciting sortie I ever made.” She entered the building, raced up the stairs, opened the first door, “threw in my grenades and ran like hell.” She also had to shoot her way past roadblocks and even killed an SS sentry with her bare hands, to prevent him from raising the alarm during a raid. No sector gave the Reich more trouble than Wake’s. No woman gave the Gestapo the run around as much as the White Mouse.
It was only after Germany surrendered that Wake learned of her husband’s fate, and she spent the rest of her life bearing the guilt of his torture and death. Her extraordinary war efforts were rewarded with numerous medals and awards from umpteen countries: the George Medal from Britain, 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. After the war, she worked for the Intelligence Department at the British Air Ministry. Later, she returned to Australia, where she became a tireless campaigner for the rights of war veterans. Author Peter FitzSimons, who wrote her biography, said, “We both came to the conclusion that she was 10 times the man I would ever be.”
In 2001, Wake emigrated to London and took up residence at the Stafford Hotel, near Piccadilly, which had been a Allied forces club during the war. She would happily talk to anybody who asked about the war and her remarkable role in it. No one had the heart to tell her when the money from the sale of her medals ran out, so the hotel owners paid for her costs, helped by anonymous donators, thought to include Prince Charles. Nancy Wake died on 7 August 2011, aged 98. As per her request, her ashes were scattered at Montluçon in central France, the area where she led her men in the bravest of fights. When asked once, about facing fear during her War exploits, Wake replied, “Hah! I’ve never been afraid in my life.”
Nancy Wake is my absolute hero.
© C Dugmore
Nancy Wake, Russell Braddon, 1956
SOE: the Special Operations Executive, 1940-46, M R D Foot ,1984
The White Mouse, Nancy Wake, 1985
Sisters In The Resistance: How Women Fought To Free France, Margaret Collins Weitz, 1995
Nancy Wake: A Biography of Our Greatest War Heroine, Peter Fitzsimmons, 2001
Nancy Wake: The White Mouse, Paul Stanley Ward, 2000 http://www.nzedge.com/nancy-wake/
Often enough, the difference between hero and villain is a matter of choice. Hitler was himself a decorated war veteran, and numerous people have written about not just his ability to draw and inspire people, but also his ability to mobilize an entire nation during a worldwide financial depression. Arguably, such a man would have had the potential to help and advance untold numbers of people in his life; but his choices took him in exactly the opposite direction. Nancy Wake is an example of someone whose choices were guided by a sincere motivation for the benefit of humanity. In your article, you point out that her actions were initially an honest response to the choices made by Hitler and his followers: with her own life at risk, she chose to stand in the way of a very dark wave. In my opinion, it would be difficult to find a more admirable sort of person to have as a personal hero (Wake’s husband was obviously of the same opinion); and I think it’s a fine demonstration of the kinds of choices you are capable of, that you would choose someone like Wake as your personal hero.
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Thank you for such a beautifully written comment. Nancy seemed to have been born in exactly the right time and place. She was, quite simply, born to play the role she did. Like many of the other WWII veterans, she struggled to adapt to civilian life afterwards. A situation not helped, I imagine, by the fact that as a woman, recognition and gratitude for her war effort was largely non-existent. It must have been demoralising for her and the other women who fought alongside the men to be left out of commemoration ceremonies and have their impact on the war ignored. But, my goodness, what a life Ms Wake led. What a life! I like to think of her frogmarching her men over those hills in France, back home where she was happiest, though happiest obviously isn’t the right word. Nancy, we salute you.