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Incredible people do incredible things and there are no better examples of the heroism of men and women than in time of war.

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake AC, GM, was an incredible woman who, because of her acts of courage as a member of the French Resistance, became the most highly decorated woman of the Allied forces in World War II. The Gestapo called her ‘The White Mouse’ because of her ability to evade capture. This is her story.

Nancy Wake 1945Nancy Wake in 1945Nancy Wake was born in Wellington, New Zealand, on 30 August 1912, as the youngest of six children. She came to Australia with her family in 1914 but aftera short while, her father left for the United States of America to pursue a film making career. Before leaving Australia, he sold the family house and the family were evicted. Life in a large family without a father whom she loved and a mother who was strictly religious, was too much for a 16-year-old girl and Nancy ran away from home to work as a nurse in the Mudgee area of New South Wales.

Following a bequest of £200 from an aunt in New Zealand, Nancy travelled to London where she trained as a journalist. She accepted a position with the Hearst newspaper chain and was posted to Paris as the newspaper’s European correspondent. Following an interview with Adolf Hitler and a visit to Vienna where she witnessed the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party, she developed a hatred of the Nazi regime. She spoke of an episode in Venice where: ‘the stormtroopers had tied the Jewish people up to massive wheels. They were rolling the wheels along, and the stormtroopers were whipping the Jews. I stood there and thought, “I don’t know what I’ll do about it, but if I can do anything one day, I’ll do it.” And I always had that picture in my mind, all through the war.’

Nancy Wake carteNancy’s forged French passportIn 1937, Nancy, a 25-year-old attractive brunette, met Henri Edmond Fiocca, heir to a Marseille shipping organisation and they married in November 1939. She and her husband were living in Marseille when Germany invaded France in 1940 and both joined the newly formed resistance movement. Nancy became a courier for the group, carrying messages and food to resistance movements in Southern France. She later joined the escape network of Captain Ian Garrow, a British Army officer who, after the surrender of the Highland 51st Division at Saint-Valéry-en-Caux on the Normandy coast on 12 June 1940, began working with other British internees and agents such as Nancy Wake, to organize the escape to Britain of Allied internees, POWs and other personnel stranded in France.

Being married to an influential business man gave Nancy the opportunity to move freely in the Vichy Zone of occupied France. She used this freedom and forged papers to purchase an ambulance which she used as part of an escape route for hundreds of refugees, escaped prisoners of war and allied pilots. Many were hidden in her home at great risk to her and her husband before being transported to the safety of Spain.

The Gestapo had long been aware of a secret agent working within their midst and had placed her at the top of their wanted list with a reward of five million francs for information leading to her arrest. When the network was betrayed in 1943, Nancy agreed to return to England arriving there in the same year. Her husband had agreed to follow her but was captured, tortured by the Gestapo and executed. It wasn’t until the end of the war that Nancy was told of the fate of her husband.

On reaching Britain, Nancy joined the French section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and underwent training as a field agent to work with local resistance units in German occupied territories. She excelled in explosives, weaponry, hand-to-hand combat, Morse code and fieldwork.

Following the completion of her training with SOE, Nancy was parachuted into the Auvergne in April 1944 to establish a liaison with the local guerilla band of the French Resistance in the Forest of Tronçais. The group was led by Captain Henri Tardivat who later said that: ‘She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men.’

HenriTardivatCaptain Henri Tardivat, French Resistance leader who operated with Nancy’s help.Never one to shirk a responsibility, Nancy took a leading role in raids on German installation including the local Gestapo Headquarters in Montluçon. She organized the distribution of arms and equipment which had been air dropped by the Allied forces, to local resistance groups and was instrumental in the development of the local resistance into a formidable force of more than 7,000 fighters. From April 1944 until the liberation of France, her group of 7,000+ maquisards fought 22,000 German soldiers, causing 1,400 casualties, while suffering only 100 themselves.

Asked how she would like to be remembered, she said she hoped to go down in history as the woman who turned down 7,000 sex-starved Frenchmen!

For her courage and commitment to the Allied cause for freedom, Wake received the following awards:

  • George Medal
  • 1939–45 Star
  • France & Germany Star
  • Defence Medal
  • British War Medal 1939–45
  • The United States Medal for Freedom
  • Chevalier de Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest military honour.
  • French Croix de Guerre, with Star and two Palms
  • The French Médaille de la Resistance

The Australian government initially refused to honour Nance Wake with an Australian honour; however, in 2004 following numerous recommendations by the Returned Soldiers and Services League, she was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia for her significant contribution and commitment during the war.

In 2006, the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association awarded her with its highest honour, the RSA Badge of Gold.

Nancy Wake’s medals are on display in the Second World War Gallery at the Australian War Museum.

Wake returned to Australia after the war and stood as a Liberal candidate in the 1949 and 1951 Australian federal elections for the Sydney seat of Barton, running against Dr Herbert Evatt, then Deputy Prime Minister, Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs in the Ben Chifley Labor government. Although unsuccessful on both occasions, she recorded a 13% swing against Dr Evatt in 1949 and lost by less than 250 votes in 1951.

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 but resigned in 1957 after marrying an RAF officer, John Forward, in December of that year. They returned to Australia in the early 1960s and moved to Port Macquarie, NSW, where John died on 19 August 1997.

Nancy WakeNancy Wake – The White Mouse by Melissa Beowulf Photo by Ian BaumannMaintaining her interest in politics, Wake was endorsed as a Liberal candidate at the 1966 federal election 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.

In 2001, Wake left Australia for the last time and emigrated to London. She became a resident at the Stafford Hotel in St James’ Place, near Piccadilly, formerly a British and American forces club during the war. The general manager at the time was Louis Burdet who had also worked for the Resistance in Marseilles. In 2003, Nancy 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.

When asked whether she feared for her life during her exploits she replied: ‘Freedom is the only thing worth living for. While I was doing that work, I used to think it didn’t matter if I died, because without freedom there was no point in living.’

Wake died on Sunday evening 7 August 2011, aged 98, at Kingston Hospital after being admitted with a chest infection. She had requested that her ashes be scattered at Montluçon in central France. Her ashes were scattered near the village of Verneix, which is near Montluçon, on 11 March 2013.

Following her death, the then Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard said ‘Nancy Wake was a woman of exceptional courage and resourcefulness whose daring exploits saved the lives of hundreds of Allied personnel and helped bring the Nazi occupation of France to an end,’ Ms Gillard went on to say ‘Nancy Wake will remain an abiding inspiration to generations of Australians.’

RSL national president Rear Admiral Ken Doolan said Ms Wake was a great heroine of WW II. ‘She was an extraordinarily brave person who did an enormous amount behind enemy lines, avoiding the Gestapo, standing up in a most courageous way against an awful regime, and setting a fine example for all of us.’

References: The White Mouse, The Australian War Memorial; The White Mouse who Roared, Gerry Carman, Sydney Morning Herald, 09/08/2011; Nancy Wake – Biography, Peter FitzSimmons; Nancy Wake, Convict Creations; Nancy Wake, moreorless.com.au; The White Mouse, Wikipedia; Nancy Wake – Obituary, The Guardian, 09/08/2011.

Article extracted from Freemason magazine, March 2017, pages 8 to 10.

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