W is for Nancy Wake

Round 20 of ABC Wednesday is billed as The Farewell Tour so this may be my last trip through the alphabet of the famous, the infamous and the forgotten.

This week I give you another of the remarkable women who operated in Europe during World War Two in the shape of Nancy Wake, also known as The White Mouse.

Wake was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1912, the youngest of six children. Two years later the family moved to Australia only for her father to return to New Zealand leaving his wife to raise the children alone.

At the age of sixteen Wake inherited £200 from her aunt and she used this to run away from home, first to New York and then to London where she trained as a journalist.

During the 1930s she worked as the European correspondent for Hearst newspapers and witnessed the rise of the Nazis, writing that she ‘saw roving Nazi gangs randomly beating Jewish men and women in the streets’ in Vienna.

In 1937 Wake met the wealthy French industrialist Henry Fiocca and the couple married in 1939, settling to a life of luxury in Marseilles in the south of France which is where she was when war broke out. She became a courier for the French Resistance and later joined Captain Ian Garrow network that helped Allied servicemen to escape capture.

Wake was adept at avoiding capture by the Gestapo and the Vichy authorities which earned her the nickname of The White Mouse, but life became much more dangerous for her when in 1942 German troops invaded and occupied the south of France, giving the Gestapo access to the files of the Vichy régime.

By 1943 Wake was top of the Gestapo’s most wanted list with a price of five million francs on her head and she narrowly escaped to Spain after her network was betrayed. Her husband stayed behind and was captured, tortured and murdered by the Gestapo, something that Wake was unaware of until after the war.

On reaching Britain, Wake joined the Special Operations Executive and trained in spycraft. By all accounts, she was an excellent shot and ‘put the men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character’.

In April 1944, Wake was parachuted into Auvergne in south central France to act as the liaison between London and the local maquis group headed by Captain Henri Tardivat in the Forest of Tronçais. Her duties included allocating arms and equipment and minding the group’s finances as well being responsible for recruiting more members. Thanks to her efforts, the group grew into a force roughly 7,500 strong.

Wake in 1994

Wake also led attacks on German installations and the Gestapo headquarters in Montluçon and demonstrated a ruthless streak. She discovered that her men were protecting a girl who was a German spy because they didn’t have the heart to kill her in cold blood, Wake said that if they were too squeamish to carry out the execution then she would.

From then until the end of the war, Wake’s force of 7,000 men fought 22,000 German soldiers, causing 1,400 casualties while suffering only 100 themselves. Henri Tardivat, praised her fighting spirit which she demonstrated when she killed an SS sentry with a karate chop to prevent him from raising the alarm during a raid.

After the war, Wake was awarded the George Medal, the United States Medal of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance and the Croix de Guerre. She continued to work with intelligence agencies in Paris and Prague. She also became interested in politics and twice stood as a Liberal candidate in the Australian federal elections.

Rachael Blampied as Wake in the docudrama The White Mouse

Wake returned to England in 1951 and worked as an intelligence officer in the Air Ministry in Whitehall until 1957 when she married RAF officer John Forward. The couple relocated to Australia in the early 1960s and both retired in 1985, the same year that Wake published her autobiography, The White Mouse.

Her husband died in 1997 and in 2001 Wake returned to England became a resident at the Stafford Hotel in St. James’ Place, near Piccadilly, which had been a British and American forces club during the war. In the mornings she would usually be found in the hotel bar, sipping her first gin and tonic of the day.

In 2003, she moved to the Royal Star and Garter Home for Disabled Ex-Service Men and Women, in Richmond, where she remained until her death in 2011 at the age of ninety-eight. Her ashes were scattered near the village of Verneix near Montluçon where she had made her great contribution to our freedom.

For further information, see Wake’s Wikipedia page, Nancy Wake by Russell Braddon, Heroines of SOE by Beryl Escott, NZ Edge, the GuardianThe Independent, the New York Times , the Washington Post and the docudrama The White Mouse.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

6 comments… Add yours
  • zongrik 14th June 2017

    Being on the gestapo’s most wanted list is scary

    Reply
  • zongrik 14th June 2017

    Being on the gestapo’s most wanted list is scary

    Reply
  • Roger Green 14th June 2017

    She had guts!

    ROG, ABCW

    Reply
  • Melody Steenkamp 14th June 2017

    What a scary thought to be on that list brrrrrrrr
    On the other hand we don’t have the opportunity to thank all those people, who really deserve it, for what they have done to set so many people free.

    Have a ♥-warming welcome ABC-day / week
    ♫ M e l ☺ d y ♫ (abc-w-team)
    Preview Round 21, starting july 12th

    Reply
  • Joy 14th June 2017

    Nerves of steel. I like the thought of her ordering her first gin and tonic of the day.

    Reply
  • islandrambles 18th June 2017

    Really lovely photos! I like all the wonderful words for “W”, I think she sounds pretty wonderful also. Have a great weekend. cheers

    Reply

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