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Nancy Wake: SOE French Resistance Heroine

'She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then, she is like five men.'
Captain Henri Tardivat: French Resistance Leader

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake - the White Mouse - Order of Australia, George Medal, Legion d'honneur, Croix de Guerre (3 times), Medal of Freedom (USA), RSA Badge in Gold (New Zealand) was a secret agent during the Second World War.

Born in Roseneath, Wellington, New Zealand, on 30 August 1912, Wake was the youngest of six children. She had Māori ancestry through her great-grandmother Pourewa, believed to be of the Ngāti Māhanga iwi, who was reportedly one of the first Māori women to marry a European. In 1914, her family moved to Australia and settled at North Sydney. Shortly thereafter, her father, Charles Augustus Wake, returned to New Zealand and her mother, Ella Wake (née Rosieur; 1874–1968) raised the children.

In Sydney, Wake attended the North Sydney Household Arts (Home Science) School. At the age of 16, she ran away from home and worked as a nurse. With £200 that she had inherited from an aunt, she journeyed to New York City, then London where she trained herself as a journalist.

She grew up a strikingly beautiful woman.

In the 1930s, she worked in Paris and later for Hearst newspapers as a European correspondent. In some accounts she actually interviewed Hitler in Vienna in 1933.

There is no question that she witnessed the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement and 'saw roving Nazi gangs randomly beating Jewish men and women in the streets' of Vienna. She never forgot or forgave what she witnessed. Wake saw with her own eyes the bestiality of the occupying German forces then and later in France and swore an oath that she would find a way to pay them back for their actions.

Nancy did not swear an oath lightly. She made good her promise in spades and in so doing entered the hallowed hall of legends. She bore the code name Hélène for SOE, Andrée for the Resistance but it was under the Gestapo's name of the White Mouse that she became best known

In 1937, Wake met wealthy French industrialist Henri Edmond Fiocca (1898–1943), whom she married on 30 November 1939. She was living in Marseille, France when Germany invaded. During the first phase of the war in France, Wake served as an ambulance driver using her own lorry.

After the fall of France in 1940, she became a courier for the French Resistance and later joined the escape network of Captain Ian Garrow. She worked tirelessly and in great personal danger to successfully pass downed Allied airmen - and others sought by the Germans - over the Pyrennees to Spain and eventual return to Great Britain

The Resistance exercised caution with her missions; her life was in constant danger, with the Gestapo tapping her telephone and intercepting her mail. In November 1942, Wehrmacht troops occupied the southern part of France after the Allies' Operation Torch had started. This gave the Gestapo unrestricted access to all papers of the Vichy régime and made life more dangerous for Wake. By this time Wake was the Gestapo's most wanted person in the Marseille area, with a price of 5 million francs on her head. In deference to Wake's ability to elude capture, the Gestapo called her the 'White Mouse'.

When the network was betrayed that same year she decided to flee France. Her husband, Henri Fiocca, stayed behind. 'Henri said ‘You have to leave’, and I remember going out the door saying I’d do some shopping, that I’d be back soon. And I left and I never saw him again.'

He later was captured, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo because he would not betray her. Until the war ended, she was unaware of her husband's death, and she subsequently blamed herself for it.

Wake described her tactics when passing through German lines: 'A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I'd pass their (German) posts and wink and say, 'Do you want to search me?' God, what a flirtatious little bastard I was.'

In the process of getting out of France, Wake was picked up along with a whole trainload of people and was arrested by the French Milice (Vichy Militia) in Toulouse. She was interrogated for four days but held out, refusing to give the Milice any information, even her name, and with the help of the legendary ‘Scarlet Pimpernel of WWII’, Patrick O’Leary, tricked her captors into releasing her. O'Leary claimed she was his mistress and was trying to conceal her infidelity to her husband (all of which was untrue). (O'Leary was Major General Comte Albert-Marie Edmond Guérisse GC, KBE, DSO (5 April 1911 – 26 March 1989), a famous Belgian Resistance leader who organized escape routes for downed Allied pilots during World War II using the alias of a Canadian friend, which helped mask his imperfect English and accented French. His escape line was dubbed the Pat Line.)

Escape from France was far from easy involving difficult treks over the Pyrenees into Spain. In all she made six attempts to get out over the Pyrenees.

Finally, Wake got across and from there was moved through Spain to Britain. Now, at last she was on safer ground, but she was there alone, with no news of her husband.

Nancy's forged ID card

After reaching Britain, Wake joined the Special Operations Executive - SOE - and was trained by them in several different training programs. Vera Atkins, who was the senior female in the SOE overseeing the agents going into France, recalls her as 'a real Australian bombshell. Tremendous vitality, flashing eyes. Everything she did, she did well.' Training reports record that she was 'a very good and fast shot' and possessed excellent fieldcraft. She was noted to 'put the men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character.' She was trained at a British Ministry of Defense camp in Scotland in survival skills, silent killing, codes and radio operation, night parachuting, plastic explosives, Sten guns, rifles, pistols and grenades. She became friends with the legendary Violette Szabo and one night together they debagged an unsuspecting instructor and ran his trousers up the flagpole before making their escape. She and the other women recruited by the SOE were officially assigned to the First Aid Nursing Yeomantry and the true nature of their work remained a closely guarded secret until after the war.

Nancy Wake, then 31, became one of 39 women and 430 men in the French Section of the British Special Operations Executive which worked with local resistance groups to sabotage the Germans in the occupied territories.

After the gruelling 16 week training period, on 29 February/March 1, 1944, she parachuted into occupied France near Auvergne, with another SOE operative, Major John Farmer, with orders to locate and organise the bands of Maquis, establish ammunition and arms caches from the nightly parachute drops, and arrange wireless communication with England. Their mission was to organise the Resistance in preparation for the D-Day invasion.

Extract from 'The White Mouse' the autobiography of Nancy Wake

Nancy's primary contact was the local Maquis group headed by Captain Henri Tardivat in the Forest of Tronçais. Upon first discovering her tangled in a tree after her drop, Captain Tardivat greeted her remarking, 'I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year', to which she replied, 'Don't give me that French shit.'

Auvergne and Massif Central

Typical steep sided country in the Auvergne

The Resistance movement’s principal objective was to weaken the German army in preparation for the major attack by Allied troops. The Maquis targets were German installations, convoys and troops.

Nancy's personal duties included allocating arms and equipment that were parachuted in and managing the group's finances. Wake became instrumental in recruiting more members and making the Maquis groups into a formidable force, roughly 7,500 strong. She was also involved in attacks on bridges, railway lines, and German convoys.

She participated in a raid that destroyed the Gestapo headquarters in Montluçon, during which 38 Germans were killed.

At one point Wake discovered that her men were raping a group of women among whom was a German spy. She was incensed at the men's treatment of the women, exclaiming she didn't want her side to be as disgraceful as the Germans: they had to live to a higher standard. She identified which of the women was a spy, had the others released and ordered her men to execute the spy. On another occasion she found some of her men torturing with a red hot poker a man she knew had betrayed her own contact in Marseille. She stopped the torture and ordered he be summarily shot.

From April 1944 until the liberation of France, her 7,000+ Maquisards fought the Germans in many different ways and it is true to say no sector gave the Reich more cause for fury than Nancy’s – the Auvergne, the Fortress of France.

To eliminate this threat the SS methodically laid its plans to obliterate the group, whose stronghold was the plateau above Chaudes-Aigues. Troops were massed in towns all around the plateau, with artillery, mortars, aircraft and mobile guns. In June 1944 22,000 SS troops made their move on the 7,500 Maquis. Through bitter battle and then escape, Nancy and her army had cause to be satisfied: 1,400 German troops lay dead on the plateau, against the loss of 100 of their own men.

It is illuminating to understand Wake's Maquisards accounted for about 70% of the about 2,000 Germans killed by the French resistance during the liberation of France, while their fatalities made up only 1% of the approximately 8,000 French resistance fighters killed in action. A comparison with other contemporary engagements (e.g. the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, in which the Allies suffered 10,000+ casualties including 4,414 confirmed dead vs. 4,000 - 9,000 casualties on the German side, or the Battle of Arnhem, in which there were 1,984 British vs. 1,300 - 1,725 German battle deaths makes the achievement of Wake's group look even more outstanding.

Her French companions, especially Henri Tardivat, praised her fighting spirit, amply demonstrated when she killed an SS sentry with her bare hands to prevent him from raising the alarm during a raid. During a 1990s television interview, when asked what had happened to the sentry who spotted her, Wake simply drew her finger across her throat. 'They'd taught this judo-chop stuff with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practised away at it. But this was the only time I used it – whack – and it killed him all right. I was really surprised.'

On one occasion Nancy cycled 500 km through several German checkpoints to replace codes her wireless operator had been forced to destroy in a German raid. Without these there would be no fresh orders or drops of weapons and supplies. Of all the amazing things she did during the war, Nancy believes this marathon ride was the most useful. She covered the distance in 71 hours, cycling through countryside and mountains almost non-stop. Her focus was rock steady to the end of her epic journey, when she wept in pain and relief.

'I got back and they said, 'how are you?' I cried. I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t do anything. I just cried.'

During a German attack on another Maquis group, Wake, along with two American officers, took command of a section whose leader had been killed. She directed the use of suppressive fire, which facilitated the withdrawal of the group without further losses.

Nancy Wake was the Allies’ most decorated servicewoman of WWII.

Order of Australia - George Medal (Great Britain) - Legion d'honneur (France) - RSA Badge in Gold (New Zealand) - Croix de Guerre (3 times) (France) - Medal of Freedom (USA) - Médaille de la Résistance (France)

With a roar that makes both her name and nickname seem quaintly ironic, this is Nancy at 89: 'Somebody once asked me, ‘Have you ever been afraid?’ … Hah! I’ve never been afraid in my life.'

"Freedom is the only thing worth living for. While I was doing that work,
I used to think it didn't matter if I died, because without freedom there was no point in living"

After the Germans were driven from France, Nancy made her way south to Marseille to seek out her husband. Bitterly she learned of his death.

Post-war she served with British Intelligence and eventually found her way back to Australia where she faded into the background after two attempts to be elected as a Member of Parliament but on 6 December 2001, she left her home in Port Macquarie, Australia for good to spend her final years in her cherished Europe.

'The people of Port Macquarie have been wonderful to me, as have most individual Australians I’ve met, but I just feel I would be better off in the UK or France where I could go to special occasions as a member of a services club.'

After making the final move back to England, Wake become a resident at the Stafford Hotel which had been a British and American forces club during the war. The hotel’s owners welcomed her warmly, graciously absorbing most of the costs of her stay – helped occasionally by anonymous donations including those from the Prince of Wales. The hotel manager - who had an enormous respect for her - had a special chair made for her at the bar and woe betide anyone sitting in it when Nancy made her customary appearance! Despite enjoying her residence at the hotel, Nancy Wake moved to the Star and Garter forces retirement home in Richmond in 2003 where she passed away on 7 August 2011. Right up to her death, she remained assertive about what would happen to her body:

'I want to be cremated, and I want my ashes to be scattered over the mountains where I fought with the Resistance. That will be good enough for me'.

Truly we lost a most remarkable woman that day. One doubts we shall see her like again.

Brilliant Australian Documentary

We salute the immortal memory of Nancy Wake and the heroes and heroines of the Maquis and SOE!

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