Nancy Wake was given the moniker, “the White Mouse” by the Germans during World War II, for her uncanny ability to escape out of any trap. However, the glamorous female agent of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), was deadly; in one instance she killed an SS guard, taking him out with her bare hands to stop him from raising an alarm.
She was fearless, brave, and bloodthirsty once the fighting began. She was quoted after the war as saying, “In my opinion, the only good German was a dead German, and the deader, the better. I killed a lot of Germans, and I am only sorry I didn’t kill more.”
So, although she was known as the White Mouse, she was a very dangerous operative and helped numerous Allied airmen avoid capture in occupied France. She was also one of Winston Churchill’s most highly decorated special agents. The Germans put a price of five million francs on her head. They never paid…
Wake was born Roseneath, in Wellington, New Zealand, on 30 August 1912, and was the youngest of six children. She had Māori ancestry through her great-grandmother Pourewa, who was believed to be one of the first Māori women to marry a European. After moving to Australia in 1914, her father, returned to New Zealand and her mother was left 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 traveled alone to New York City, then London where she trained herself as a journalist.
Between the wars, she worked in Paris and later for Hearst newspapers as a European correspondent. She witnessed the rise of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler while reporting on the coming storm when she “saw roving Nazi gangs randomly beating Jewish men and women in the streets” of Vienna.
In 1938 she married the wealthy French industrialist Henri Fiocca. They were living in Marseille when France fell. She was at first an ambulance driver despite being a horrible driver. Living in Vichy, France, she joined the escape network of Captain Ian Garrow, which became known as the Pat O’Leary Line.
The Germans suspected her for quite some time, her phone was bugged and her mail opened. In November 1942 when the Allies invaded North Africa, the Germans overran the Vichy. Her Resistance organization was compromised and betrayed. She had to flee France, while her husband chose to remain behind. The Gestapo arrested, tortured and later executed Henri, something for which she would blame herself for the remainder of her life.
Wake made her way across the Pyrenees into Spain and returned to Britain. She had several close calls, once she was even picked up by the Germans and released. She was questioned on the street a number of times. But she kept her cool and coyly flirted with the German soldiers. “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,” she recalled.
Once in England, she joined the Special Operations Executive, a clandestine body formed by Churchill to train agents in guerrilla warfare against the Nazis. She came under the tutelage of Vera Atkins the senior female agent in France. Atkins remembered: “a real Australian bombshell. Tremendous vitality, flashing eyes. Everything she did, she did well.” She was an excellent shot, excelled at fieldcraft and put the men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character.”
On April 29-30, 1944, she was part of the three-person “Freelance” team headed by John Hind Farmer (code name “Hubert”). The team parachuted into Auvergne province, France. Local Resistance leader Henri Tardivat found Wake and her chute tangled in a tree. He remarked, “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year.” The fiery Aussie responded, “Don’t give me that French shit.”
Wake was part of a raid that destroyed the Gestapo headquarters in Montluçon, where the Maquis killed 38 Germans. It was during this operation that she killed an SS sentry with her bare hands during the raid. Wake was interviewed on television back in the 1990s, when she was asked what had happened to the sentry, Wake drew her finger across her throat. “They’d taught this judo-chop stuff with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practiced away at it. But this was the only time I used it — whack — and it killed him all right. I was really surprised.”
Arguably, the greatest of her wartime exploits was the time she bicycled 310 miles over 72 hours, passing through several German checkpoints, to replace vital codes her radio operator had been forced to destroy in a Gestapo raid and to check in with London to inform them of the situation. Without the codes, there could be no further drops of weapons and supplies.
“I got there and they asked: ‘How are you?’ I cried. I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t do anything. I just cried,” she said.
“She is the most feminine woman I know until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men,” one of her French colleagues recalled. During the American invasion of southern France in mid-August 1944, the Maquis exacted a heavy toll on the retreating and hated Germans.
However, her good friend Henri Tardivat was badly wounded during the campaign and would lose a leg to amputation. Wake then found out about the death of her husband during a victory celebration in Vichy. In mid-September, she and other members of the SOE team, their mission completed, returned to Great Britain.
Peter FitzSimons wrote a book about her, “Nancy Wake: A Biography of Our Greatest War Heroine.” Afterward, he said, “We both came to the conclusion that she was 10 times the man I would ever be.” Her story was later made into a film with Wake played by actress Cate Blanchett.
After the war, Britain awarded Wake the George medal, the United States gave her the Medal of Freedom and France honored her with the Médaille de la Résistance, the Croix de Guerre — three times — and the Légion d’Honneur. In 1957, Wake married John Melvin Forward, a former RAF fighter pilot. They remained together until his death in 1997.
Although she returned to live in Australia and made several unsuccessful attempts to run for parliament, she retained a love/hate relationship for her country. This is why she refused, with her straight-talking, if not slightly uncouth, way of describing things, decorations from the Australian government: She said that the Australian government could “stick their medals where the monkey stuck his nuts”. She was, in the end, Wake to a tee. However, in February 2004, she changed her mind and was made a Companion of the Order of Australia.
Wake settled at the Stafford Hotel, in St. James Place, near Picadilly in London. She died on August 7, 2011, at the age of 98.