Nancy Wake aka ‘The White Mouse’ was a North Sydney private school girl turned WWII spy, who in 1942 became the Gestapo’s most wanted with a bounty of five million francs on her pin-curled head. She killed Nazi’s with her bare hands, fought with the French resistance and saved countless lives, and like a true Sheila she wasn’t shy of a drink, and had a mouth so filthy it brings a patriotic tear to your eye.
Born on August 30, 1912, in Wellington, New Zealand (woops, stealing another one), the youngest of six children. The family moved to Sydney with when she was 20 months old and settled in North Sydney, but her father soon left Nancy’s mother with the six kids and returned to NZ. Nancy had a distant relationship with her mother.
At age 16 Nancy ran away from home and worked as a nurse. At 20 she inherited 200 pounds from an aunt and used it to get herself to New York, then London, where she taught herself to be a journalist.
Nancy worked as a freelance journo based in Paris and later for Hearst newspapers as a European correspondent. She witnessed the rise of Hitler and Nazism – in Vienna, she saw roving Nazi gangs randomly beating Jewish men and women on the street; in Germany she witnessed a Nazi rally and saw first-hand the spell that Hitler had seemingly cast over the German people.
In 1937 she met Henri Fiocca, a wealthy French industrialist, who she married in 1939. They settled in Marseilles, where Nancy now became a high society hostess – which suited her, she bloody loved a party. Marseilles was part of Vichy France – not immediately occupied by Germans after they invaded in 1940.
Wake’s involvement in the war effort started with her husband buying her a van that she used to ferry French soldiers from the front once the phony war ended and the Germans started invading Western Europe, starting with Netherlands.
Back in Marseilles, once Henri came home from the front, the two slowly became involved with the emergent resistance. Nancy’s status and femininity gave her cover to help be useful as a courier, and later an escort for Allied soldiers and refugees (including many Jews) trying to leave France. Women were less open to suspicion and not obliged to carry the same travel documentation as men.
Her incredible ability to elude escape led the Gestapo to name her “The White Mouse.”
By 1943 she had reason to suspect Germany’s occupying forces were onto her, so she fled France. Her husband stayed behind and was arrested and executed – he refused to give her up. That’s some serious romance right there. Like, he literally died for her. She made several attempts to make the dangerous and arduous escape over the Pyrenees from France into Spain on foot.
Wake eventually made it to England (on June 17, 1943) where she joined the British Special Operations Executive, an intelligence outfit working with the Resistance. Their goal was to help rescue British and Allied airmen shot down over France, to frustrate the German war effort in France and to prepare the way for an eventual Allied invasion of France.
On the night of March 30/31, 1944, Nancy (age 31) was among 39 women and 430 men parachuted into France to help with preparations for D-Day. She collected night parachute drops of weapons and ammo and hid them for the advancing allied armies, also setting up wireless communications with England and harassing the enemy in various ways. So fierce. She became a liaison between London and the local maquis group in the Forest of Tronçais, whose leader, Henri Tardivat, discovered her tangled in a tree, and said, "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." Onya Nancy!
Her duties included allocating arms and equipment and minding 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 also led attacks on German installations and the local Gestapo HQ in Montluçon. At one point Nancy discovered that her men were protecting a girl who was a German spy. They did not have the heart to kill her in cold blood, but when Wake insisted she would perform the execution, they capitulated. She was one tough cookie.
From April 1944 until the liberation of France, her 7,000+ maquisards fought 22,000 German soldiers, causing 1,400 casualties, while suffering only 100 themselves. Her French companions, especially leader, Henri Tardivat, praised her fighting spirit. 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."
Nancy Wake arrived back in Australia in 1949. She made two attempts to win a seat in the lower house as a Liberal Party member. Both failed, but hey, she gave it a bloody go!
There was also some controversy about her not receiving the Order of Australia until so late in the piece. She was resentful of that and pissed off to England where she was pretty miffed about the whole thing, but eventually returned to Australia.
She eventually kicked the bucket on August 7, 2011.
- Nancy lied in her job interview to become a journalist, claiming she was fluent in Egyptian. When asked to demonstrate, she scribbled shorthand backwards, fooling the interviewer who mistook it for some sort of hieroglyphics.
- Nancy once jumped from a train to escape the Gestapo.
- Wake killed an SS sentry with her bare hands to prevent him from raising the alarm during a raid.
- Wake rode a bicycle for more than 500 kilometres (310 mi) through several German checkpoints to replace codes her wireless operator had been forced to destroy in a German raid.
- During a German attack on another maquis group, Nancy, 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 group's withdrawal without further losses.
- "I loved killing Germans." She repeats the sentence, with even greater force. "I loved killing Germans! In those days, I thought the only good German was a dead one. The deader the better."
- “I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.”
- Despite receiving the highest decorations from the French, British and Americans, Wake never received a military honour from Australia and left the country in 2001 after telling the government it "could stick their medals where the monkey stuck his nuts".
- By her own account she once killed a German sentry with her bare hands, and ordered the execution of a woman she believed to be a German spy. “I was not a very nice person,” Ms. Wake told an Australian newspaper in 2001. “And it didn’t put me off my breakfast.”
- She once described herself as someone who loved nothing more than “a good drink” and handsome men, “especially French men.”
- She did not have affairs, she insisted in a 1987 Australian documentary. “And in my old age, I regret it,” she said. “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!”
- "If there is such a person as St Peter, I'm going to make it easy for him: I'm going to plead guilty on all counts."
- Braddon, Russell. Nancy Wake: The Story of a Very Brave Woman, Quality Book Club, Cassell & Co. Ltd: London, 1956.
- Braddon, Russell. Nancy Wake, Pan Books, London; Sydney, 1958.
- Braddon, Russell. Woman in Arms: The Story of Nancy Wake, Collins, London, 1963.
- FitzSimons, Peter. Nancy Wake: A Biography of Our Greatest War Heroine, HarperCollins, Pymble, New South Wales, 2002,Template:ISBN.
- Wake, Nancy. Autobiography of the Woman the Gestapo Called the White Mouse, Macmillan: South Melbourne, 1985, Template:ISBN.
- RTE 1 radio documentary, "Nancy Wake and Harry Potter", first broadcast 9-Aug-2011
- "Son and heir in Labor stronghold", Sydney Morning Herald, 12 October 2006 
- "Finally, Nancy gets her gong", Sydney Morning Herald, 3 March 2004 
- "Her only regret:not killing more Nazis", Capital Times, Wellington, 2 June 2010, accessible at Internet Archive 
- "White Mouse war legend back where she started", The Dominion Post, Wellington, 4 June 2010