Nancy Wake

Nancy Wake

Nancy Wake was born in Wellington, New Zealand, on 30th August, 1912. The family moved to Australia in 1914 and after being educated in Sydney she travelled to Europe where she worked as a journalist. In Nazi Germany she saw the rise of Adolf Hitler and Anti-Semitism. On one occasion in Vienna she witnessed Jews being whipped by members of the Sturm Abteilung (SA).

In 1939 Nancy married the wealthy French industrialist, Henri Fiocca, in Marseilles. Nancy was in France when the German Army invaded in May 1940. After the French government surrendered, Nancy joined the French Resistance. She worked with Ian Garrow's group helping British airmen shot down over France to escape back to Britain.

In December 1940 the network was betrayed and Nancy was forced to go into hiding. She continued to work for the French Resistance and was eventually arrested while in Toulouse. However, the authorities did not realize they had captured the woman known as the "White Mouse" and she was released after four days.

It was now too dangerous to remain in occupied France and Nancy crossed the Pyrenees into Spain before travelling to Britain. David Stafford has pointed out: "Henri promised to follow. But he was picked up by the Gestapo and shot. She blamed herself for his death: if it had not been for her, she mourned, he would have survived the war."

Nacy Wake now joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and agreed to become a British special agent. Her training reports said "a very good and fast shot" and she "put the men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character". Vera Atkins, who worked in the SOE's French section, remembered her as: "A real Australian bombshell. Tremendous vitality, flashing eyes. Everything she did, she did well".

On 29th April 1944, Nancy was parachuted into the Auvergne region of France. Her main objective was to locate local bands of the Maquis and to provide them with the ammunition and arms that were being dropped by parachute by the Royal Air Force four times a week.

Nancy had the task of helping the resistance to prepare for the armed uprising that was due to coincide with the D-Day landings. She also led a raid against the Gestapo headquarters in Mountucon and a German gun factory. Henri Tardivat, one of her comrades in the resistance later said that: "She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men."

After the war, Nancy worked for the Intelligence Department at the British Air Ministry. As her biographer has pointed out: "She never quite adjusted to peace. A desk-bound job in the British embassy in Paris quickly drove her wild with boredom, and she returned to Australia, where she stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate in 1949 and 1951. Still restless, she moved to London and married John Forward, an RAF bomber pilot. He liked a drink, enjoyed a joke, and they were well matched. They relocated to Australia and had a gregarious life marked by dining, golfing, occasional trips to Europe and interviews with journalists about wartime exploits."

After the death of her second husband in 1997 she returned to London and lived in the Star and Garter Home for ex-servicemen and women in Richmond. To fund her later years she sold her war medals. She commented: "There was no point in keeping them. When I die, I'll probably go to hell and they'd melt anyway. My only condition is when I die, I want my ashes scattered over the hills where I fought alongside all those men."

Nancy Wake died on 7th August, 2011.

Primary Sources

(1) M. R. D. Foot, SOE in France (1966)

Albert Guerisse established the PAT escape line in which three of F section's best couriers served their clandestine apprenticeship - Andree Borrel, Madeleine Damerment, and Nancy Wake. This line eventually carried over six hundred members of the allied forces-most of them shot-down aircrew back from hostile territory to fight again. His 'sustained courage and devotion to duty beyond all normal praise. He not only kept the line in being, but preserved his own integrity in the face of torture and concentration camps after his betrayal to the Germans in March 1943; eventually he was liberated from Dachau.

(2) Patrick Howarth worked for the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War and afterwards wrote about his experiences in the book, Undercover (1980)

Nancy Wake was a strongly built girl with an exuberance and a zest for living which led some people to wonder whether she could really be equipped for the role of secret agent. She was later to tell her biographer, Russell Braddon: 'My war was full of laughter and people I loved.'

She had worked as a journalist in Sydney and as a nurse in a mental hospital. At the age of twenty-two she married, shortly after war broke out, a rich Marseilles businessman named Henri Fiocca.

In 1940 she served for a time as an ambulance driver. Later she became involved in helping the escape of British prisoners of war. She travelled regularly between Marseilles and Cannes to organize escape

routes; the Fiocca flat in Marseilles was a refuge and a rendezvous for escapers; and she came under the control of the Belgian, Albert Guerisse, who also used the name of Patrick O'Leary and who was, arguably, the greatest of all the organizers in the Second World War of escape routes for prisoners of war in Europe.

Nancy Wake was arrested by French police and handled their interrogation skilfully. (The fact that she could do so without training was to influence the judgment of those who had to decide whether she should

or should not be employed by SOE.) But she was considered too heavily compromised to remain in France. She succeeded in crossing the Spanish frontier at the fifth attempt.

After a period of training, during which her sheer vitality was at times found almost overpowering by her instructors, Nancy Wake was parachuted into the Auvergne at the end of February 1944. It was clear

to her and to the regular British Army officer, J. H. Farmer, who was in charge of their mission, that the people among whom they found themselves could develop into a powerful maquis organization.

(3) Sydney Morning Herald (25th April, 2000)

Australia's most decorated surviving war veteran, Nancy Wake, "the White Mouse", wishes to leave Australia and spend the remaining years of her life either in Britain - where many of her friends are - or France, where she rose to international fame during World War II.

"I only want one room," she says, "a bathroom and a small kitchen, anywhere over there."

Wake, 88 and widowed for the second time, lives alone on the pension on the second floor of a Port Macquarie apartment block.

She was awarded nine medals for her efforts fighting the Germans side by side with French partisans in the Auvergne region.

She had gone to Paris as a freelance journalist in the early 1930s; met and married a Marseilles millionaire, and become immediately involved in the Resistance once France fell to Germany in 1940. At great risk, she passed messages from group to group of partisans, ferried material under cover of darkness, and was part of large network which helped get Allied airmen and the like from out of the south of France and back to Britain.

So busy was she that the Gestapo called her "the White Mouse", in part it seems because whenever they had her cornered she was able to disappear. Her French husband was not so fortunate, and was executed by the Gestapo - she feels because of her activities. "I will go to my grave regretting that," she says, "for my first husband, Henri, was the love of my life."

(4) David Fickling, The Guardian (23rd February, 2000)

A woman brought up in Australia who became a heroine of the French resistance has finally been granted Canberra's highest honour, at the age of 91, and after leaving her home country to live in London.

Nancy Wake led 7,000 resistance fighters in missions to sabotage Nazi installations before D-day. Earlier she had helped more than 1,000 allied soldiers to escape to Spain.

Her activities earned her a chestful of medals from France, Britain and the US, but until now her achievements had not been formally recognised by Australia, where she lived from the age of 20 months.

She will be given the Order of Australia next month by the governor general, Sir Michael Jeffery, during his first official visit to Britain since his appointment last year.

Ms Wake's ability to evade capture was legendary, and earned her the Gestapo codename "the white mouse".

She escaped her pursuers on skis, across a hidden bridge, driving a car pursued by an aeroplane, and on one occasion by jumping from a moving train.

She has never had any regrets about her war years, during which she killed a man with her bare hands and suffered the death of her husband, who was killed by the Gestapo after refusing to reveal where she was.

She said: "I hate wars and violence but if they come then I don't see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas."

(5) David Stafford, The Guardian (8th August, 2011)

In April 1944, Wake was dropped by parachute into the Auvergne region along with Major John Farmer, leader of the Freelance resistance circuit. Wake was a woman of very high energy, he said, with "very clear ideas of how she wanted everything done". On landing, her parachute got stuck in a tree. One of the Frenchmen greeting her said he hoped all trees could bear such beautiful fruit. "Don't give me that French shit," she replied with her customary bluntness – or so she liked to chuckle when retelling the story.

Circumstances gave her considerable freedom of action. The circuit's orders were to help organise and arm the local maquis, and soon Wake was fighting alongside them in pitched battles with the Germans. "I liked that kind of thing," she said, although she had to prove herself first as an honorary man, a feat easily accomplished by regularly drinking her French comrades under the table. "I had never seen anyone drink like that," confessed Farmer, "and I don't think the maquis had either. We just couldn't work out where it all went."

Two weeks after D-day, a major attack by some 10,000 Germans using armoured cars, tanks, artillery and aircraft was made on their positions, during which they got separated from the circuit's radio operator, Denis Rake. To try to re-establish contact with London, Wake walked more than 200km (125 miles) and biked another 100km in an effort to make contact with an operator from another SOE group. Later, working with two American officers when the Germans launched an attack on another maquis group, she took command of a section whose leader had been killed and with exceptional coolness directed the covering fire while the group withdrew with no further loss of life.

Wake claimed to have dispatched a German sentry with the silent killing method she had learned during her training in Scotland, and once had even ordered a captured French spy, a woman, to be shot. "It didn't put me off my breakfast," she said. "After all, she had an easy death. She didn't suffer."