Apr 28 , 2022
War role: Guerrilla fighter, spy
Medals and commendations: George Medal, Medal of Freedom from the U.S., Médaille de la Résistance, Croix de Guerre (three times)
Nancy Wake was a world traveler before the Second World War began. She was born in New Zealand, raised in Australia, and then lived in New York and London working as a journalist. She was living in Marseille with her French husband when Germany invaded the country. Wake didn’t hesitate to work for the French resistance. She hid and smuggled men out of France, transported supplies, and falsified documents.
The Germans captured Wake and interrogated her for days, but she gave up nothing. After her release, she escaped to Britain and joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE). With the SOE, Wake received weapons and paratrooper training. She dropped back into France as a spy. She blew up buildings, engaged in combat with the enemy, and killed an SS sentry with her bare hands.
The Gestapo tortured Wake’s husband when he refused to give up any information about his wife. He died as a result of the torture. Wake would discover this after the war. She ran for office in Australia and published her biography, The White Mouse (the Germans’ nickname for her), in 1988. She died in 2011 at the age of 98.
In 1937, Wake met wealthy French industrialist Henri Edmond Fiocca (1898–1943), whom she married on 30 November 1939. She was living in Marseille, France when Germany invaded. During the war in France, Wake served as an ambulance driver. After the fall of France in 1940, she joined the escape network of Captain Ian Garrow, which became the Pat O'Leary Line. In reference to Wake's ability to elude capture, the Gestapo called her the "White Mouse". The Resistance exercised caution with her missions; her life was in constant danger, with the Gestapo tapping her telephone and intercepting her mail.
I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.
In November 1942, Wehrmacht troops occupied Vichy France after the Allies' Operation Torch had started. This gave the Germans and the Gestapo unrestricted access to all parts of Vichy France and made life more dangerous for Wake. When the network was betrayed that same year she decided to flee France. Her husband, Henri Fiocca, stayed behind. He later was captured, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo. Wake described her tactics: "A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I'd pass their (German) posts and wink and say, 'Do you want to search me?' God, what a flirtatious little bastard I was."
In early 1943, in the process of getting out of France, Wake was picked up with a whole trainload of people and was arrested in Toulouse, but was released four days later. The head of the O'Leary Line, Albert Guérisse, managed to have her released by claiming she was his mistress and was trying to conceal her infidelity to her husband (all of which was untrue). She succeeded in crossing the Pyrenees to Spain. Until the war ended, she was unaware of her husband's death, and she subsequently blamed herself for it.
Most of the operations of Wake's SOE group were in or near Allier Department.
After reaching Britain, Wake joined the Special Operations Executive and was trained in several programs. Vera Atkins, who was the senior female in the SOE overseeing the agents going into France, recalls her as "a real Australian bombshell. Tremendous vitality, flashing eyes. Everything she did, she did well." Training reports record that she was "a very good and fast shot" and possessed excellent fieldcraft. She was noted to "put the men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character."
On 29–30 April 1944 as part of the three-person "Freelance" team headed by John Hind Farmer (code name "Hubert"), Wake parachuted into Auvergne province, France. Resistance leader Henri Tardivat discovered Wake tangled in a tree. He remarked, "I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year," to which she replied, "Don't give me that French shit." Denis Rake, a radio operator, was the third member of the team.
The team was to be a liaison between London and the local maquis group headed by Émile Coulaudon (Gaspard). The team's initial relationship with Gaspard was frosty. He wanted money and arms from the allies but was not cooperative until the French Forces of the Interior in London, the umbrella organization for the disparate resistance groups in France, instructed him to cooperate. SOE began sending in large amounts of arms, equipment, and money. Wake's duties were pinpointing locations at which the material and money were parachuted in, collecting it, and allocating it among the maquis, including pay to individual soldiers. Wake carried with her a list of the targets the maquis were to destroy before the invasion of France by the Allies (which would take place on 6 June). The destruction of communication lines and other facilities throughout France would hinder the German response to the invasion.
Disaster. The reach of the maquis exceeded their grasp. On 20 May, Couloudon declared a general mobilization of resistance fighters, collecting in total about 7,000 men divided into three groups. His objective was to demonstrate that the resistance was able to liberate areas from the Germans with its own forces. On 2 June, the Germans launched a probing attack on Couloudon's base at Mont Mouchet; on 10 June the Germans launched a larger attack, and on 20 June encircled Couloudon's positions and forced the resistance fighters to flee after taking heavy casualties. Wake and the members of her team accompanied groups of maquis in a three-day 150 kilometres (93 mi), retreat westward to the village of Saint-Santin.
The bicycle ride. During the flight from the Germans, Rake, the radio operator, had left his radio and codes behind and the SOE team needed to be in contact with London. The nearest SOE radio and operator were in Châteauroux, Wake said she borrowed a bicycle and rode it to Châteauroux, found a radio near there, updated London on the situation, and then bicycled back to Saint-Santin, traveling 500 kilometres (310 mi) in 72 hours. Fortunately for her, there were few Germans in the areas through which she bicycled.
With Henri Tardivat. After her bicycle ride, the Freelance team, with another recently arrived operator named Roger, a 19-year-old American marine, returned to Allier Department to join the resistance group of Henri Tardivat (who had discovered her tangled in a tree after she was dropped in). In July two more Americans, Reeve Schley and John deKoven Alsop, joined their team as instructors. Neither spoke much French and Schley was nearly blind if not wearing his thick-lensed eyeglasses, but he impressed the maquisards with his immaculately tailored military uniform. Both proved to be effective instructors. Wake said that she and Tardivat initiated a series of attacks on German convoys and fought off an attack on their camp by the Germans in which seven French maquisards were killed. Her principal job, however, continued to be to organize the reception and distribution of arms and material for the resistance groups which was parachuted into Allier nearly every other night.
Wake claimed that she participated in a raid (not confirmed by other sources) that destroyed the Gestapo headquarters in Montluçon, killing 38 Germans. At one point Wake said she discovered that the men were using three girls as prostitutes and mistreating them. She coerced the maquis to release the women, to whom she provided a wash and new clothes. Nancy Wake set two of the girls free, but she suspected that a third was a German spy. After interrogating and exposing her, Wake ordered the resistance group to shoot the informer. They did not have the heart to kill her in cold blood, but when Wake insisted that she would perform the execution, they capitulated. Nancy Wake claimed that the spy girl spat and stripped naked in front of her before facing the firing squad. Wake showed no regrets for the execution. Wake also said that she killed an SS sentry with her bare hands to prevent him from raising the alarm during a raid. During a 1990s television interview, when asked what had happened to the sentry who spotted her, Wake simply drew her finger across her throat. "They'd taught this judo-chop stuff with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practised away at it. But this was the only time I used it – whack – and it killed him all right. I was really surprised."
After the invasion of southern France by American military forces on 15 August, the Resistance groups harried the retreating Germans. Her friend Tardivat was badly wounded and would lose a leg to amputation. During a victory celebration in Vichy, Wake learnt of the death of her husband. In mid-September, she and other members of the Freelance team, their job completed, returned to Great Britain.
Immediately after the war, Wake was awarded the George Medal, the United States Medal of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance, and thrice, the Croix de Guerre. She worked for the intelligence department at the British Air Ministry, attached to embassies in Paris and Prague.
Wake stood as a Liberal candidate in the 1949 Australian federal election 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. While Chifley lost government to Robert Menzies, Wake recorded a 13 percent swing against Evatt, with Evatt retaining the seat with 53.2 per cent of the vote on a two-party preferred basis. Wake ran against Evatt again at the 1951 federal election. By this time, Evatt was deputy leader of the opposition. The result was extremely close; however, Evatt retained the seat with a margin of fewer than 250 votes. Evatt slightly increased his margin at subsequent elections before relocating to the safer seat of Hunter by 1958.
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 the Air Staff at the Air Ministry in Whitehall. She resigned in 1957 after marrying an RAF officer, John Forward, in December of that year. They relocated to Australia in the early 1960s. Maintaining 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. Around 1985, Wake and John Forward left Sydney to retire to Port Macquarie.
In 1985, Wake published her autobiography, The White Mouse. Later, after 40 years of marriage, her second husband John Forward died at Port Macquarie on 19 August 1997. The couple had no children. She sold her medals to fund herself, saying, "There was no point in keeping them, I'll probably go to hell and they'd melt anyway." 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. She had been introduced to her first "bloody good drink" there by the general manager at the time, Louis Burdet. He also had worked for the Resistance in Marseille. In the mornings she would usually be found in the hotel bar, sipping her first gin and tonic of the day and telling war stories. She was welcomed at the hotel, celebrating her ninetieth birthday there. The hotel owners absorbed most of the costs of her stay. In 2003, Wake 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.
Wake died on 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. Her obituary was included in (and inspired the title for) The Socialite Who Killed A Nazi With Her Bare Hands: And 144 Other Fascinating People Who Died This Year, a collection of New York Times obituaries published in 2012.
The medals awarded to Wake for her World War II service on display at the Australian War Memorial
Wake was appointed a Chevalier (knight) of the Legion of Honour in 1970 and was promoted to Officer of the Legion of Honour in 1988. Shortly after the war, she was recommended for decorations in Australia but was turned down. Decades later, Australia offered to award her medals but she refused, saying: "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 from them." It was not until February 2004 that Wake was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. In April 2006, she was awarded the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association's highest honour, the RSA Badge in Gold. Wake's medals are on display in the Second World War gallery at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. On 3 June 2010, a "heritage pylon" paying tribute to Wake was unveiled on Oriental Parade in Wellington, New Zealand, near the place of her birth.
A minor planet was named after her.