Nancy Grace Augusta Wake
Wake was born in Wellington, New Zealand on 30 August 1912. She lived and
was was educated in Sydney. In 1932 Wake married a French businessman,
Henri Fiocca. In 1940, she joined the French resistance movement. Between
1940 and 1942 she worked manning the dangerous escape routes through
France and helped save the lives of hundreds of Allied Troops.
the "White Mouse" by the Gestapo, Nancy Wake is one of the most
decorated women of the Second World War. She received the George Medal,
1939–45 Star, France and Germany Star, Defence Medal, British War Medal
1939–45, French Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, French Croix de
Guerre with Star and two Palms, US Medal for Freedom with Palm and French
Medaille de la Resistance for her courageous endeavours. Wakes' medals are
on display in the Second World War gallery at the Australian War Memorial.
and Germany Star
War Medal 1939–45
Studio Portrait of Nancy Wake
for WWII heroine Nancy Wake
January 28, 2004
THE most decorated female
servicewoman of WWII, Australian Nancy Wake, is to receive a helping
hand from the Australian Government in recognition of her
Prime Minister John Howard said today the Government would pay for a
carer to take 91 year-old Ms Wake away from the London nursing home
where she lives. "There's been discussion with
her about these arrangements and she is very happy with them,"
Mr Howard told Sydney radio 2GB.
"She will be provided with
some additional help and some additional support and comfort in her
very advanced years and in special recognition of what a remarkable
courageous and special Australian she was and remains." After growing up in Sydney, Ms
Wake moved to France in her early 20s as a journalist where she
married a Frenchman.
During the war she helped rescue
allied soldiers and after being trained in England, Ms Wake was
dropped back into France as a highly trained spy with the Marquis
Resistance. Her husband was executed by the
Nazis and she became the Gestapo's most-wanted person. She became known as "The
White Mouse" because of her ability to elude capture.
|Young Rebel from http://www.nzedge.com
Nancy Wake was born in the gusty heights of Roseneath, Wellington, New
Zealand, on 13 August 1912 to Charles Augustus and Ella Rosieur Wake,
the youngest of six children. The biography Nancy Wake, by Australian
journalist and rugby personality Peter Fitzsimons, strongly records her
"Ella Rosieur Wake came from an
interesting ethnic mix, her genetic pool bubbling with material from the
Huguenots, the French Protestants who had famously fled France so they
could pursue their religion freely, and Maori, as her English
great-grandmother had been a Maori maiden by the name of Pourewa.
She had been the first of her race to marry a white man, in the person
of Nancy's English great-grandfather Charles Cossell, and they were wed
by the Reverend William Williams at Waimate Mission Station on 26
October, 1836. Legend has it that the great Maori chieftain, Hone
Heke, had loved Pourewa himself and had sworn death to them both, but
had been killed in the Maori Wars before fulfilling his threat. In sum,
Ella's people went a long, long way back in New Zealand, and physically
she was like the land itself, rustically beautiful.
"Young Nancy's father, Charles,
however, was of solid English stock...an extremely good-looking, tall
man of easy, extroverted charisma and enormous warmth, he was a
journalist/editor by trade, then working on a Wellington newspaper.
He was a dapper dresser who never seemed to have a worry in the
When Nancy was 20 months old, her
parents moved to Sydney where she grew up, chafing under the confines of
genteel society. She was much younger than her brothers and sisters, and
strongly independent. "I was a loner and I had a good
imagination." She was a rebel, in particular shunning her
mother’s strict religious beliefs.
Wake was raised without affection by
her embittered mother after her father had walked out on them. "I
adored my father," Wake recently told the Sunday Times, sitting on
her bar stool with a walking stick in one hand and a gin and tonic in
the other. "He was very good-looking. But he was a bastard. He went
to New Zealand to make a movie about the Maoris, and he never came back.
He sold our house from under us and we were kicked out." Wake ran
away from home at 16 and went to work as a nurse. Then an aunt in New
Zealand sent her £200 - a princely sum in those days. She left for the
world. Wake used the money to travel to London and then to Europe where
she worked as a journalist, swinging with a cosmopolitan set of
independent and carefree young people. It was a glamorous life of
parties and travel, and she lived it to the full. "I've always got
on very well with the French, perhaps because I'm very natural."
|In 1930s Europe she
witnessed the rise of Hitler, Nazism and anti-Semitism. In Vienna
she saw horrific Dantescan scenes: Jews chained to a massive
wheels, rolled around the streets and whipped by Nazi
stormtroopers in a city square. The sight fed an early
determination to work against the Nazis and eventually led to her
courageous role in the French resistance.
In 1939 Nancy, married a
handsome wealthy French industrialist, Henri Fiocca, in Marseilles
(apparently seduced by his proficency in tango). "He was the
love of my life." Together they had a charmed and
sophisticated life of travel, dinner parties, champagne and
caviar, shopping and furnished accessories, residing in a luxury
apartment on a hill that overlooked Marseilles and its harbour.
Joining the Resistance
Six months after they married, Germany invaded France. Slowly but surely
Nancy drew herself into the fight. In 1940 she crossed the line between
observation and action, and joined the embryonic Resistance movement as
a courier, smuggling messages and food to underground groups in Southern
France. She bought an ambulance and used it to help refugees fleeing the
German advance. Being the beautiful wife of a wealthy businessman, she
had an ability to travel that few others could contemplate. She obtained
false papers that allowed her to stay and work in the Vichy zone in
occupied France, and became deeply involved in helping to spirit a
thousand or more escaped prisoners of war and downed Allied fliers out
of France through to Spain.
||Her missions with
the Resistance meant her life was in constant danger. She became
a suspect and was watched. The Gestapo tapped her phone and
opened her mail. She took many identities. She was so good at
evading the Gestapo they nicknamed her the "White
Mouse". By 1943, Wake was No 1 on the Gestapo’s most
wanted list and there was a five million-franc price on her
head. It was too risky for Wake to stay in France and the
Resistance decided she should go back to Britain.
"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 left and I never
saw him again."
Nancy's French Identity Card
Escape was not easy. She made
six attempts to get out of France by crossing the Pyrenees into Spain. On
one of these attempts she was captured by the French Milice (Vichy militia)
in Toulouse and interrogated for four days. She held out, refusing to give
the Milice any information, and with the help of the legendary 'Scarlet
Pimpernel of WWII', Patrick O'Leary, tricked her captors into releasing her.
Finally Wake got across the
Pyrenees and from there to Britain. She was on safer ground, but had no news
of her husband, who worked separately.
to the Fighting
Nancy Wake, then 31,
became one of 39 women and 430 men in the French Section of the
British Special Operations Executive which worked with local
resistance groups to sabotage the Germans in the occupied
She was trained at a British
Ministry of Defense camp in Scotland in survival skills, silent
killing, codes and radio operation, night parachuting, plastic
explosives, Sten guns, rifles, pistols and grenades. She and the
other women recruited by the SOE were officially assigned to the
First Aid Nursing Yeomantry and the true nature of their work
remained a closely guarded secret until after the war.
Poster for the war office by
“Your Talk May Kill Your Comrades”, 1942. >>>
In late April 1944,
Nancy Wake and another SOE operative, Major John Farmer, were
parachuted into the Auvergne region in central France with orders to
locate and organise the bands of Maquis, establish ammunition and arms
caches from the nightly parachute drops, and arrange wireless
communication with England. Their mission was to organise the
Resistance in preparation for the D-Day invasion. The Resistance
movement's principal objective was to weaken the German army for a
major attack by allied troops. Their targets were German
installations, convoys and troops. When dropped over Auvergne Nancy's
parachute became stuck in a tree. Her agent said he hoped all trees
could bear such beautiful fruit. Nancy told him not to give her 'that
There were 22,000 German troops in
the area and initially 3-4,000 Maquis. Gaspard’s recruitment work,
with the help of Wake, bolstered the numbers to 7,000. Nancy led these
men in guerrilla warfare, inflicting severe damage on German troops
and facilities. She collected and distributed weapons and ensured that
her radio operatives maintained contact with the SOE in Britain. (See
point from a reader regarding the accuracy of these figures).
On one occasion Nancy cycled 500 km
through several German checkpoints to replace codes her wireless
operator had been forced to destroy in a German raid. Without these
there would be no fresh orders or drops of weapons and supplies. Of
all the amazing things she did during the war, Nancy believes this
marathon ride was the most useful. She covered the distance in 71
hours, cycling through countryside and mountains almost non-stop. Her
focus was rock steady to the end of her epic journey, when she wept in
pain and relief.
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
It was an extremely tough
assignment: a near-sleepless life on the move, often hiding in the
forests, travelling from group to group to train Maquis, motivate,
plan and co-ordinate. She organised parachute drops that occurred four
times a week to replenish arms and ammunition. There were numerous
violent engagements with the Germans. The countryside was wracked with
hostage taking, executions, burnings and reprisals.
No sector gave the Reich more cause
for fury than Nancy’s – the Auvergne, the Fortress of France.
Methodically the SS laid its plans and prepared to obliterate the
group, whose stronghold was the plateau above Chaudes-Aiguwes. Troops
were massed in towns all around the plateau, with artillery, mortars,
aircraft and mobile guns. In June 1944 22,000 SS troops made their
move on the 7,000 Maquis. Through bitter battle and escape, Nancy and
her army had cause to be satisfied: 1,400 German troops lay dead on
the plateau, 100 of their own men.
Nancy continued her war: she
personally led a raid on Gestapo headquarters in Montucon, and killed
a sentry with her bare hands to keep him from alerting the guard
during a raid on a German gun factory. She had to shoot her way out
roadblocks; and execute a German female spy.
June 6, 1944, D-Day, allied troops began to force the German army out
of France. On 25 August 1944, Paris was liberated and Wake led her
troops into Vichy to celebrate. However her joy at the liberation of
Paris was mixed with a devastation she had secretly anticipated: in
Vichy she learned that her beloved husband Henri was dead. A year
after Nancy had left France in 1943, the Germans had captured Henri,
tortured and executed him, because he refused to give them any
information about the whereabouts of his wife.
Within a year Germany was defeated.
375 of the 469 SOE operatives in the French Section survived the war.
Twelve of the 39 women operatives were killed by the Germans and 3 who
returned had survived imprisonment and torture at Ravensbruck
concentration camp. In all 600,000 French people died because of World
War II, 240,000 of them in prisons and concentration camps.
Nancy Wake continued to work
with the SOE after the war, working at the British Air Ministry in the
Intelligence Department. In 1960 she married an English former
prisoner of war, John Forward, and returned to Australia to live.
After the war her achievements were
heralded by medals and awards: the George Medal from Britain for her
leadership and bravery under fire, the Resistance Medal, Officer of
the Legion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre with two bronze palms and a
silver star from France, and the Medal of Freedom from America.
However she was never awarded a
medal by the Australian government. When the Australian Returned
Services League recommended that Wake be awarded a medal, they were
turned down. Angry at the Australian government’s attitude, Wake
decided that she would never accept a medal from them: she vowed it
would go down in history that the most decorated Australian had never
been awarded an Australian medal. The Sydney Morning Herald (April
28th, 2000) surmised that she was turned down for a medal because she
was born in New Zealand and was considered a New Zealand citizen. In
1994 she refused to donate her medals to the Museum of Australia and
proclaimed to the New Zealand Press Association in Sydney (Evening
Post, April 30, 1994) that she was still a New
Zealander and reminded the press that she had kept her New Zealand
passport, despite her 80 year absence from the country.
Wake’s dramatic life story
and her feisty, courageous personality made her the ideal subject for
documentaries and dramatisations. She tells her own story with
interviews, reconstructions, stills and film footage in Nancy Wake
- Code Name: The White Mouse.
In 1987 a television mini-series was
made about her life. However the subject was irritated by historical
liberties that were taken with her life story, such as showing her
having an affair while working for the Resistance in Auvergne:
"What do you think my bosses
in England would have thought, all those thousands of pounds to
train me and for me to go and have an affair. Really!
"The mini-series was
well-acted but in parts it was extremely stupid. At one stage they
had me cooking eggs and bacon to feed the men. For goodness sake did
the Allies parachute me into France to fry eggs and bacon for the
men? 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?"
Nancy Wake’s comrade Henri
Tardivat perhaps best characterised the guerrilla chieftain: "She
is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then,
she is like five men."
Nancy Wake, lives at Port Macquarie,
New South Wales, Australia, but has recently expressed a desire to
spend the remaining years of her life abroad, either in Britain, where
many of her friends are, or France, where she rose to international
fame during WWII (see postscript).
"The people of Port Macquarie
have been wonderful to me, as have most individual Australians I've
met, but I just feel I would be better off in the UK or France where
I could go to special occasions as a member of a services
Demonstrating the esteem with which
she is held internationally, in France when she is wearing the rosette
of her Officer de Legion d'Honneur, all the gendarmes halt and salute
her. Asked if her desire to leave could be swayed if the Australian
Government were to at last acknowledge her achievements with an
Australian honour she replied flatly and with characteristic vigour,
"No. The last time there was
a suggestion of that I told the government they could stick their
medals where the monkey stuck his nuts. The thing is if they
gave me a medal now, it wouldn't be love so I don't want anything
Nancy Wake: A lover and a fighter.
She is just as assertive about what will happen to her body when she,
improbable as it seems, is gone, assured that this wake will be a
"I want to be cremated, and I
want my ashes to be scattered over the mountains where I fought with
the resistance. That will be good enough for me".