Saturday, April 9, 2016

Nancy Wake, French Resistance Fighter and Saboteur

Studio Portrait of Nancy Wake, 1945
Nancy Wake was a member of the French Resistance during WWII and established such a reputation with the Gestapo for slipping through their fingers that they called her "The White Mouse." She helped hundreds of Allied soldiers and refugees to safety.

"I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas." ~ Nancy Wake

Born in Roseneath, Wellington, New Zealand on August 30th 1912, Nancy was the sixth child of Charles Augustus and Ella Rosieur Wake. Nancy's upbringing was a troubled one, with a mother who held strict religious views and a father that she adored, but who would abandon the family soon after they moved to Sydney when Nancy was 2.

Nancy's father Charles left for England to make a movie and never returned. To make their situation worse he also sold the family's home out from under them, so they had to find a new place to live.

Nancy ran away from home at the age of 16 and became a nurse, then tried her hand at journalism in London after bluffing her way into a job after telling a Hearst newspaper executive that she was fluent in Egyptian, even scrawling some shorthand on a pad of paper and passing it off as hieroglyphics.

The news executive bought her act and sent her to Paris to be a correspondent, where she somehow managed on a journalist's budget to live the life of the wealthy and carefree, a style described in her biography by Peter Fitzsimons as "Parisian nightlife to the full."

In 1936 she encountered Marseilles wealthy industrialist Henri Fiocca, a meeting she would later describe to the Daily Telegraph: "He was tall. He could dance the tango. And if you dance the tango with a nice, tall, man, you know what will eventually happen, don't you?" The two were married and settled in Marseille for three years.

Throughout this time and despite Nancy's somewhat charmed and extravagant lifestyle, the horror and impending threat of anti-Semitism and the Nazi army had not escaped her attention. In her travels through Vienna she witnessed terrible scenes that would both motivate and haunt her:

"The stormtroopers had tied the Jewish people up to massive wheels. They were rolling the wheels along, and the stormtroopers were whipping the Jews. I stood there and thought, 'I don't know what I'll do about it, but if I can do anything one day, I'll do it.' And I always had that picture in my mind, all through the war."

After Germany invaded France in 1940, Nancy was presented with her opportunity. She began helping the French resistance, using her cover as a wealthy socialite to deflect suspicion. She became a courier and then an escort for Allied soldiers and refugees trying to escape Nazi-occupied France, at one point purchasing an ambulance with which to transport refugees.

Nancy felt it was an advantage to be woman in that situation, as later told to an interviewer on Austrian television: "It was much easier for us, you know, to travel all over France. A woman could get out of a lot of trouble that a man could not."

She used her money to pay bribes to the prison guards of local authorities, then smuggled the escapees to safety in Spain. During the war, she is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of Allied soldiers and downed airmen.

By 1943 Nancy's missions had drawn the attention of the Gestapo, who tapped her phones and opened her mail. She had many close calls but managed to evade capture so many times they began calling her "The White Mouse." She was placed at the top the Gestapo's Most Wanted list, with a price of five millions francs on her head.

The Resistance decided it was too risky for her to stay. "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 never saw him again."

With the escape routes from France under constant watch, it took six attempts to cross the Pyrenees into Spain before she was successful, and she entered Spain in the back of a coal truck. During one of the attempts she was captured by the French Milice (French militia supporting the Nazis) and was interrogated for four days, but told them nothing and managed to trick her captors into releasing her after convincing them with the help of Patrick O'Leary (a.k.a. the Scarlet Pimpernal of WWII) that she was not the one they were seeking.

She arrived in England in June of 1943 and was recruited by the British Special Operations Executive, or SOE. She trained for eight months at a British Ministry of Defense camp in Scotland in survival skills, guns and ammunition, silent killing, codes and radio operation, plastic explosives, and grenades.

In late April of 1944 along with SOE operator Major John Farmer, Nancy parachuted into central France with orders to locate and organize the Resistance in preparation for the D-Day invasion. As she approached the ground Nancy's parachute got stuck in a tree but she was unharmed and apparently as feisty as ever; when her companion said he wished all trees could bear such beautiful fruit, she told him promptly not to give her "that French shit."

Their mission on the ground was to locate and recruit the Maquis (guerilla bands of French resistance) for an attack against German convoys in a effort to weaken them prior to the major attack by Allied troops. There were several thousand Maquis fighters in the area and 22,0000 German troops, but with recruitment efforts they bolstered their numbers to 7,000.

Members of the Maquis in La Tresorerie, September 14th 1944.
Photo by Donald I. Grant, from the Library and Archives Canada
Nancy led these men in a series of guerilla-style attacks against German troops, inflicting damage and collecting and redistributing their weapons. By the end of their battle they had lost 100 men and killed 1,400 of the German troops.

One of her assignments was to make sure that radio operatives on the ground maintained communication with the SOE in Britain, so when the Germans launched a counter-attack against Maquis troops and destroyed the radio codes critical for communication, Nancy got on a bike and cycled 500 km in 72 hours, through mountains and German checkpoints, to reach a radio operator who could contact Britain and request new codes.

She slept in haystacks or out in the open during her journey. After reestablishing contact with London and ensuring the continuation of supply drops, she wept with pain and relief.

Nancy knew that as a woman, she was the one least likely to attract suspicion. "I volunteered … not because I'm brave … being a woman I was the only one who could do it. 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," she later recalled.

Reports are plentiful regarding her toughness; in one instance, three women in the French Resistance came under the suspicion of being spies. She interrogated all three and dismissed two after being convinced that they were innocent. The third she sentenced to death by firing squad.

"I was not a very nice person," she would later tell an Australian newspaper. "And it didn't put me off my breakfast. After all, she had an easy death. She didn't suffer. I knew her death would be a lot better than the one I would have got."

"And if I hadn't done it," she went on, "and she had gotten away and reported to the Germans what the Maquis were up to, how could I have ever faced the families of the Maquisards we had lost because of it? It was definitely the right thing to do."

During the war, Nancy would lead a successful raid on Gestapo headquarters, kill a sentry at an arms factory with her bare hands, and shoot her way out of a roadblock. Despite these exploits (or perhaps because of them), she remained something of an enigma, one who shared cigars with guerilla fighters and bested them in drinking, but travelled nowhere, it is reported, without her Chanel lipstick and face cream.

Said a colleague in the French resistance, "She is the most feminine woman I have even known, until the fighting starts - then she is like five men."

On June 6th, 1944 D-Day troops began forcing the German army out of France, and on August 25th, 1944, Paris was liberated. Nancy led her troops into Vichy to celebrate, then received an update that she had long suspected: that her husband Henri, the man she had described as the love of her life, was dead.

A year after Nancy left France, Henri was captured by German troops then tortured and executed, after he refused to give any information about his wife.

By the end of the war 375 of the 469 SOE operatives had survived the war. Of the 39 female operatives, two thirds had survived. In all, approximately 600,000 French citizens were killed during WWII, 240,000 of these in prison or concentration camps.

After the war, Nancy struggled to find something to fit her unique blend of skills and interests. “It’s dreadful because you’ve been so busy, and then it all just fizzles out,” she said to an Australian newspaper in 1983.

She worked for the Intelligence department at the British Air Ministry for several years then in 1949 returned to Australia, where she made the first of two unsuccessful attempts to enter politics as a Liberal Party candidate.

She received a number of international honors from France, England, and the United States after the war, but was for many years overlooked by her home of Australia, despite the recommendation of Australia's Returned Services League. She did not seem too bothered by this however, reflecting that "they can stick their award, and be thankful it's not a pineapple."

Nancy Wake with one of her awards in 2004.
Photographer Adam Butler, Associated Press

In addition to these honors, Nancy was the subject of at least two biographies and a television miniseries, though the latter of these took liberties with her story in a way that left her scornful.

In particular, she objected to being shown preparing food for the Maquis soldiers: "For goodness sake, did the allies parachute me into France to fry eggs and bacon for the men?” she asked. “There wasn’t an egg to be had for love nor money, and even if there had been, why would I be frying it when I had men to do that sort of thing?”

In 1957 Nancy married former British air force pilot John Forward, who died in 1997. The couple never had children. Nancy travelled between England and Australia for the remainder of her years, never finding a job that quite suited her. On December 6th 2001 she left her home in Australia for good and headed to England, where she would enter a retirement home for veterans in 2003.

Nancy died on August 7th, 2011 at the retirement home at the age of 98, with instructions that her ashes be scattered over France.

Regarding how she wanted to be remembered, she said it would be as the women who turned down 7,000 sex-starved Frenchmen. Recalling those days, she added "I got away with blue murder and loved every minute of it."

Additional Quotes:

On having affairs during the war, which she categorically denied: “What do you think my bosses in England would have thought, all those thousands of pounds to train me, and for me to go an have an affair. Really! And my old age, I regret it. But you see, if I had accommodated one man, the word would have spread around, and I would have had to accommodate the whole damn lot!”

On being afraid during the war: "I was never afraid. I was too busy to be afraid."

On wartime exploits: "I killed a lot of Germans, and I am only sorry I didn't kill more."


Nancy Wake, "White Mouse" of World War II, dies at 98. Adam Bernstein, The Washington Post, August 9, 2011.

Nancy Wake, The White Mouse. Paul Stanley Ward,The Global Life of New Zealanders,April 19th 2000.

Nancy Wake, Proud Spy and Nazi Foe, Dies at 98. Paul Vitello, The New York Times, August 13, 2011.

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