Nancy Wake was a British Special Operations Executive agent during the later part of World War II. She became the Allies most decorated servicewomen of the war, and was given the code-name “The White Mouse” due to her ability to elude capture.
Wake was born in 1912 in Roseneath, Wellington, New Zealand. Two years later, the family moved to Australia, although her father quickly turned to New Zealand. Wake’s mother was left to raise the children. Wake attended the North Sydney Household Arts School, after which she ran away from home to work as a nurse at age 16. In 1932, an Aunt died, leaving her with an inheritance of £200, Wake travelled to New York, London and Paris. Wake settled in Paris, and found work as a freelance journalist. She threw herself headlong into a glamorous life of parties and travel.
Wake witnessed the rise of Hitler, Nazism and anti-Semitism in Europe and in 1933, she travelled to Vienna to interview Hitler. While there, she encountered the horrors of war, including Jews chained to huge wheels, being whipped by Nazi troops. Wake realised the true extent of the danger Hitler posed and devoted herself to working to defeat the evil she had witnessed.
In 1936, Wake met Henri Fiocca, a wealthy industrialist from Marseille and three years later they married and settled in Marseille. Six months after they married, Germany invaded France and Wake realised that this was her chance to become a part of the French resistance. Her reputation as a wealthy woman and her high social standing gave her the cover she needed to help members of local Resistance groups. Wake became a courier, then an escort for Allied soldiers and bought an old ambulance in which she transported refugees trying to flee the country. She stated that “A woman could get out of a lot of trouble that a man could not.” She obtained false papers which allowed her to stay and work in the Vichy zone in occupied France, and would help around a thousand escaped prisoners of war and downed Allied pilots out of France to Spain. Wake was given the code-name “The White Mouse” due to her ability to elude capture, but she was in constant danger. The Gestapo tapped her phone and intercepted her mail in an attempt to catch her out, but she always evaded them.
By 1943, Wake had become the Gestapo’s most wanted person, with a 5 million franc bounty on her head. It was decided by the Resistance that Wake should flee to Britain, and after six attempts she made it across the Pyrenees into Britain. Wake then became one of 39 women and 430 men in the French Section of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). She worked with local resistance groups in sabotaging the Germans in occupied territories and was trained in survival skills, silent killing, codes and radio operation, night parachuting, plastic explosives, Sten guns, rifles, pistols and grenades. She was officially assigned to the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry along with the other women recruited to hide the true nature of their work.
In April 1944, Wake returned to France with another SOE operative, Major John Farmer. The two parachuted into the Auvergne region in central France intending to locate and organise the bands of Maquis and arrange communication with England in preparation for the D-Day invasion. There were 22,000 German troops in the area, and only 3 – 4,000 Maquis. Wake helped to increase the numbers to 7,000, and trained them in guerrilla warfare so that they could weaken the German army before the D-Day attack. In Wake’s mission to maintain communication with Britain, she was forced to cycle 500m through several German checkpoints to replace codes that had been destroyed in a German raid. Her journey meant that they could continue to call for fresh orders and drops of weapons and supplies which were critical for their success. In June that year, the German troops made their move on the Maquis, ending with 1,400 German troops dead to only 100 Maquis. Wake then personally led a raid on Gestapo headquarters in Montucon, and was forced to kill a sentry with her bare hands to keep her cover.
D-Day on June 6th, 1944 heralded the beginning of allied troops forcing the German army out of France and on August 25th of that year, Paris was liberated. Wake’s celebration was tinged with sadness, as she discovered that her husband was dead. He had been tortured and executed after refusing to speak of her whereabouts. A year later, Germany was defeated. Wake continued to work with the SOE, at the British Air Ministry in the Intelligence Department.
In 1960, Wake married John Forward, a former prisoner of war and returned to Australia. Wake was the recipient of a number of awards, including: the George Medal from Britain; 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. In 1985, Wake published her autobiography, The White Mouse which became a bestsellers. It has since been reprinted many times.
In 2004, Wake was awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia, and two years later she received the NZ Returned Services Association’s highest honour, the RSA Badge in Gold, as well as life membership for her work with the French resistance during the war. In 2001, Wake returned to England and in 2003 she moved to the Star and Garter forces retirement home in Richmond, London. Eight years later, she died at the age of 98.