Wellington born Nancy Wake became the most decorated service woman of the Second World War. Primarily active in France, Wake became a key member of the French resistance, and by 1943 she was the Gestapo’s most wanted person with a 5-million-franc bounty on her head. Known as »The White Mouse » due to her propoensity for evading capture, and later dubbed »The socialite who killed a nazi with her bare hands », Wake’s legendary deeds include helping over 1000 downed airmen evade capture in France, leading a group of 7,000 masquisards against 22,000 German soldiers and purportedly killing a German guard with a single karate chop to the neck.
Nancy Wake was born in the gusty heights of Wellington, New Zealand on the 30 August 1912. The youngest of six children, Wake’s childhood was chaotic. Her father deserted the family and left his wife alone to raise the children. At the age of 16, Wake fled from home. Using £200 that she had inherited from an aunt, she travelled to New York and then London where she trained herself as a journalist. Working as a European correspondent in Paris and Vienna, Wake witnessed first hand the rise of fascism in Europe and became involved in the struggle against Nazism. Speaking of her experiences she said « The Germans and Austrians had set up a kind of Catherine wheel and tied these Jews to it, and as it went around they were beating them and throwing things at them. I thought . . . what had they done, poor bastards? Nothing. So I said, ‘God almighty, it’s a bit much and I’ve got to do something about it.«
At the outbreak of the war, Wake moved to Marseille where she married Henri Fiocca, a wealthy French industrialist. Their lavish lifestyle was rapidly put to an end by Germany’s invasion of France. It was here that Wake began her involvement with the French resistance. Initially acting as a courier for the resistance, she quickly branched out into helping downed Allied airmen escape capture. It is estimated that she helped more than 1000 airmen escape France and return to Britain. She used her position as the wife of a respectable businessman to avoid capture, and speaking of her interactions with German soldiers at the time she stated, « I’d see a German officer on the train or somewhere, sometimes dressed in civvies, but you could pick ’em. So, instead of raising suspicions I’d flirt with them, ask for a light and say my lighter was out of fuel. A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I’d pass their posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me?’ God, what a flirtatious little bastard I was. » Wake’s reputation quickly grew and by 1943 she was the the Gestapo’s most wanted person, with a 5-million-franc bounty on her head. With enemies closing in Wake fled France by crossing the Pyrenees into Spain and heading to Britain. She was forced to cut ties with her French allies, and she never saw her husband again.
After reaching Britain, Wake, then 31, joined the French Section of the British Special Operations Executive, she was trained in survival skills, silent killing, radio operation, night parachuting, plastic explosives, rifles, pistols and grenades. On March 1st 1944, Wake and Major John Farmer, a fellow SOE operative, were parachuted into Auvergne in central France, their mission was to organise the local resistance, collect air drops of ammunition and arms, and establish wireless communication with England. Wake became instrumental in recruiting members and quickly turned the maquis into a formidable fighting force. She fought alongside her comrades in pitched battles with the Germans, and had no trouble proving herself as an ‘’honorary man’’ to new comrades by regularly drinking them under the table, prompting Farmer to confess ‘’I had never seen anyone drink like that and I don’t think the maquis had either. We just couldn’t work out where it all went. » During this time Wake’s maquisards fought the Germans on several occasions. She was present in most of the raids, and once claimed to have killed an SS sentry with her bare hands to prevent an alarm being raised. She famously led her group of 7,000 maquisards to victory against 22,000 German soldiers, causing 1,400 German casualties, while only suffering 100. In August that year Paris was liberated, Wake celebrated in Vichy and heard of her husband’s fate, he had been tortured to death by the Gestapo for refusing to disclose her whereabouts. Despite her sadness Wake said she did not regret her actions during the war, stating « I hate wars and violence but if they come then I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas. »
Immediately after the war Wake was awarded several high honors, among them the George Medal, the United States Medal of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance, and the Croix de Guerre. After trying her hand at politics in Australia, Wake travelled frequently and grew restless in a number of administrative jobs before retiring. She died on the 7th of August 2011, aged 98, as the most decorated service woman of the Second World War. She requested that her ashes be scattered in France, saying ‘’I want my ashes scattered over the hills where I fought alongside all those men,’’ and in 2011 they were scattered near Montluçon in central France.
Hunter Wilson Burke