AUSTRALIA - GREAT AUSTRALIAN WOMEN
SPECIAL FEATURE WEB SITE DEDICATED TO NANCY WAKE - "THE WHITE MOUSE"
Nancy Grace Augusta Wake, nicknamed "The White Mouse", served as a British agent during the later part of World War II. She became a leading figure in the French Resistance and became one of the Allies most decorated servicewomen of the war.
Born in Roseneath, Wellington, New Zealand 1912, Wake was the youngest of six children. In 1914, her family moved to Sydney, Australia and settled at North Sydney Shortly thereafter, her father Charles Augustus Wake, returned to New Zealand, leaving her mother Ella Wake (née Rosieur; 1874–1968) to raise the children.
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 then London where she trained herself as a journalist. In the 1930s she worked in Paris and later for Hearst newspapers as a European correspondent. 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.
An early image of Nancy Wake
In 1937 she 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. After the fall of France in 1940, she became a courier for the French Resistance. In reference to her ability to elude capture, the Gestapo called her the White Mouse. The Resistance had to be very careful with her missions. Her life was in constant danger, with the Gestapo tapping her phone and intercepting her mail.
By 1943, she was the Gestapo's most wanted person, with a 5 million-franc price on her head. When the network was betrayed that same year, she decided to flee Marseille. Her husband, Henri Fiocca, stayed behind where he was later captured, tortured and executed by the Gestapo. Wake had been arrested in Toulouse, but was released four days later. She succeeded, on her sixth attempt, in crossing the Pyreness to Spain. Until the war ended, she was unaware of her husband's death and subsequently blamed herself for it.
Nancy Wake - 1945
After reaching Britain, Wake joined the Special Operations Executive and on the night of 29–30 April 1944 she was parachuted into the Auvergne, becoming a liaison between London and the local maquis group headed by Captain Henri Tardivat. Upon discovering her tangled in a tree, 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.” Her duties included allocating arms and equipment that were parachuted in and minding the group's finances. She became instrumental in recruiting more members, making the maquis groups into a formidable force, roughly 7,500 strong. She also led attacks on German installations and the local Gestapo HQ in Montlucon.
From April 1944 to the liberation of France, her 7,000 marquisards fought 22,000 SS soldiers, causing 1,400 casualties, while taking only 100 themselves. 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 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. On another occasion, to replace codes her wireless operator had been forced to destroy in a German raid, Wake rode a bicycle for more than 500 miles (800 km) through several German checkpoints. 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 covering fire with exceptional coolness, facilitating the group's withdrawal without further losses.
Immediately after the war, Wake was awarded the Georges Medal, the United States Medal of Freedom, the Medaille de la Resistance and thrice the Croix de Guerre. She learned that the Gestapo had tortured her husband to death in 1943 for refusing to disclose her whereabouts. After the war she worked for the Intelligence Department at the British Air Ministry attached to embassies of Paris and Prague.
Nancy Wake in later life
Wake stood unsuccesfully as a Liberal candidate in the 1949 and 1951 Australia federal elections against Dr. Herbert Evatt, then Deputy Prime Minister, Wake left Australia just after the 1951 election and moved back to England. She worked as an intelligence officer in the department of the Assistant Chief of Air Staff at the Air Ministry in Whitehall. She resigned in 1957 after marrying an RAF officer, John Forward in the December of that year. They returned to Australia in the early 1960s.Maintaining her interest in politics, Wake was endorsed as a Liberal candidate at the 1966 federal elections for the Sydney seat of Kingsford Smith. Despite recording a swing of 6.9 per cent against the sitting Labor member Daniel Curtin, Wake was again unsuccessful. Around 1985, Wake and John Forward left Sydney to retire to Port Macquarie.
In 1985, Wake published her autobiography, entitled The White Mouse. The book became a best seller, and it has had many reprints. After 40 years of marriage her husband John Forward died at Port Macquarie on 19 August 1997; the couple had no children.
In 2001 Nancy Wake left Australia for the last time and emigrated to London. She became a resident at the Stafford Hotel in St James's Place, near Piccadilly, formerly a British and American forces club during the war. She had been introduced to her first "bloody good drink" there by the general manager at the time, Louis Burdet. He had also worked for the Resistance in Marseilles. In the mornings she would usually be found in the hotel bar, sipping her first gin and tonic of the day. She was welcomed at the hotel, celebrating her 90th birthday there, where the hotel owners absorbed most of the costs of her stay. In 2003 Wake chose to move to the Royal Star and Garter Home for Disabled Ex-Service Men and Women in Richmond, London, where she remained until her death on Sunday evening 7 August 2011, aged 98.