Nancy Wake, with the German given moniker “White Mouse”, is one of the most famous spies in history and the most decorated heroines of World War II. She was a member of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a key figure to the French resistance, and the Gestapo’s number one most wanted individual.
Nancy Wake: Early life
Nancy Grace Augusta Wake also known as Nancy Fiocca was born on the 30th of August 1912 in Wellington, New Zealand. Her family moved to Sydney, Australia in 1914 when Wake was 20 months old. Growing up in Australia she had a tough childhood struggling with poverty and instability. Especially, when her father abandoned the family and moved back to New Zealand, shortly after moving to Sydney.
At just 16, Wake left school in Sydney and started working as a nurse around the country. When her aunt surprised her with a – very generous at the time – $200 gift, Wake decided to travel to Europe visiting London and Paris. In 1932, she eventually settled in Paris where she worked as a journalist for the Hearst group of newspapers. Four years later, she met a wealthy French industrialist, Henri Edmond Fiocca, in Marseille, and married in November 1939, living the social and extravagant life to the fullest. However, with the outbreak of the war, Wake let her husband know that she decided to get involved in the war effort.
The White Mouse
When Nancy Wake was in Europe during the 1930s, she witnessed the rise of Nazis and how Jews were tortured and beaten in the streets by the Gestapo. Wake later claimed that those incidents inspired her to work and fight against the Nazis. During the German invasion of France in 1940, Wake and her husband joined the resistance movement and helped thousands of Jewish refugees and Allied servicemen, working as a courier to help them escape France into Spain. She also aided officer Ian Garrow to transport British military personnel from France back to Britain. In 1943, after Gestapo noticed her activities, Wake became the Gestapo’s number one most wanted, offering a $5 Million reward “on White Mouse’s head”. The fact that Gestapo was getting closer, made Wake flee the country and moved to Spain and then to Britain. In 1944, she learned that her husband was tortured and executed by Gestapo due to his denial to inform on her.
Special Operations Executive
After being arrested and escaped to England, she joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the British Second World War organisation which fought the Axis Powers in occupied Europe. When she arrived in England in June 1943, she decided to be a spy and convinced special agents to train her in guerrilla warfare. Wake, code named “Hélène” worked in the French Section of SOE and after she completed the training, she parachuted into France in April 1944 to assist the Resistance before and after the D-Day.
Now Spy, Nancy Wake, was organising parachute drops of arms and equipment and was ensconced with the Maquis, the guerrilla resistance army in France. Following its successful history on the field, the White Mouse, became the administrative head of almost 7,000 fighters; she coordinated secret at-night airdrops of weapons and supplies.
Under the code name ‘Witch’ and the alias ‘Madame Andrée,’ the spy also participated in the sabotage of German installations while maintaining radio communication with SOE headquarters. In fact, according to the National Archives of Australia, when the radio codes were lost, she “cycled 500 kilometres in 72 hours to ensure and organise replacement codes”. It is noteworthy that before SOE attacked a German gun factory, when a security guard was about to raise alarm, Wake killed the man with her bare hands.
After the War
As soon as the Second World War was over, spy Nancy Wake returned to her home in Marseille and realised that it was commandeered by Gestapo. On the 17th of July 1945, she was awarded with the George Medal (GM) from the United Kingdom for saving thousands of lives especially of Maquis members during World War II. In 1949, the spy returned to Australia and later to Britain where she married RAF Officer John Forward.
In 1957, the couple settled in Port MacQuarie. On the 6th of December 2001 Wake decided to relocate to England and three years later, on the 22nd of February 2004, she was awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia. In April 2006, she also received the RSA Badge in Gold, the Royal New Zealand Returned the Service’s highest honour. Wake was also awarded with the Medal of Freedom from the US; Légion d’honneur , Croix de Guerre, France and Germany Star and the Medaille de la Resistance from France; The 1939-45 Star and George Medal from the United Kingdom.
Nancy Wake: A Summary
Nancy Wake is one of the most decorated heroines of World War II and one of the most famous spies in history. Starting off her career as a nurse in Sydney and, later, as a journalist in Paris, Wake soon realised that she wanted to become a female spy. She joined the SOE, the British secret organisation in WWII, starting as a trainee spy and eventually became the administrative head of approximately 7,000 fighters in the field.
Her action was so catalytic during the French resistance that made her the number one most-wanted individual for Gestapo, which offered a $5 Million reward on the White Mouse’s head. Leaving a life between Australia and Britain, Nancy Wake finally returned to England in 2001 where she remained until her death at the age of 98 on the 7th of August 2011.
Image: Wikimedia Commons (link)