The White Mouse
Nancy Wake is relatively unknown by most Australians. In some ways, this is surprising considering that she was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War 2 and played such a significant role in the Allied resistance to German occupation that she topped the Gestapo’s most wanted list. It might be expected that Australian war historians would be keen to raise awareness of such a positive role model.
Aside from being a decorated soldier, Wake was a pioneering feminist who spoke loudly with her words and then backed them up with her actions. She once said,
"I hate wars and violence, but if they come I don't see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas."
With many high school textbook writers desperate to provide gender balance to Australia's war lessons, and many feminist academics promoting an ideal of gender opportunity, it might again be expected that they would want to affirm support for a positive role model. Why they haven't reveals something about the political nature of Australian history writing.
Hitler's most wanted
Nancy Wake had a difficult childhood growing up in Sydney. Her mother was a dogmatically strict religious woman. Her father was a journalist who went to live in New Zealand to make a movie about Maoris. He sold the family home and never came back, resulting in his family being evicted. An unreliable father and an oppressively strict mother seemed to breed a rebellious streak in Nancy.
In 1928, at the age of 16, Nancy commenced work as a nurse. In 1932, she inherited some money and immediately used it to travel to London and then onto mainland Europe to train and work as a journalist. One of her early assignments was to interview Adolph Hitler. In the same year, she visited Vienna and witnessed the impact of the Nazi regime first hand. She later recounted,
"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."
In 1939, German troops invaded Poland, forcing Britain and France to declare war on Germany. At the time, Wake was in England, but she quickly returned to France where she married a wealthy French industrialist named Henri Fiocca.
Slowly but surely Nancy drew herself into the fight. In 1940, she joined the embryonic resistance movement as a courier; smuggling messages and food to underground groups in Southern France. She also bought an ambulance and used it to help refugees fleeing the German advance.
As the beautiful wife of a wealthy businessman, she had an ability to travel in a way that few others could contemplate. She obtained false papers that allowed her to stay and work in the Vichy zone in occupied France. She became deeply involved in helping to spirit a thousand or more escaped prisoners of war and downed Allied fliers out of France. Although she was judged to be unruly by the Allied authorities, her exuberant spirits and physical daring were thought "good for morale''.
By 1942, the Gestapo had become aware of an unidentified agent that was proving to be a significant thorn in their side. They code named the agent 'the white mouse' and listed her as number one on their wanted list, attracting a five million franc reward.
With the net closing in, Wake escaped to England where she joined the French Section of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), a unit of 470 specially trained men and women set up to work with local resistance groups in the German occupied territories.
In 1944, Wake parachuted back into France to help preparations for D-day landings. She was put in charge of an army of 7,000 Maquis troops that engaged in guerrilla warfare to sabotage the Nazis. Henri Tardivat, one of her comrades, later said that:
"She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men."
Like a true commander, Wake always put herself in the thick of the action. On one occasion, the supply drops were threatened by the destruction of radio codes. Wake embarked on a marathon bike ride, cycling about 500 km in 72 hours (crossing several German checkpoints) in order to find an operator to radio Britain and request new codes. Wake took responsibility because she felt that, as a woman, she had more chance of passing hrough the checkpoints.
After the war, Wake received numerous international honours, including the George Medal, the Croix de Guerre, the Medaille de la Resistance, the Chevalier de Legion d'Honneur and the US Medal of Freedom. As for her home country, despite being recommended for medals by the RSL, no official recognition was ever forthcoming. In regards to being overlooked, Nancy was philosophical; once saying :
'they can stick their award and be thankful it's not a pineapple'.
In 1949, Nancy returned to Australia and stood as a Liberal Party candidate in the Sydney seat of Barton. In some ways her decision to enter politics was a shame because it inevitably divided public opinion about her and thus reduced the receptiveness of the Australian people to her story. It also made it difficult for the Labor Party to ever support the public celebration of her.
Despite a strong swing in her favour, Nancy didn't win her seat. Nor was she able to find any other suitable employment. She then returned to Britain where she was appointed as a Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) officer in the British Air Ministry. She remained in the post until 1958.
In 1960, she returned to Australia, and wrote her autobiography. In 1966, she again stood for politics but again failed to win her seat. In 2001, she returned to England to live out her days, with the express wish that her ashes be scattered over France after she died.
As for 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. She also said, 'I got away with blue murder and loved every minute of it.'
THE WHITE MOUSE THAT ROARED
By Tusker Trail on December 6, 2013 in Amazing Individuals Category, Historical Figures Category
A Killer’s Instinct
The Nazis code named her The White Mouse, but there was nothing mousy about Nancy Wake.
Combining glam looks with balls to the wall courage, Wake made life hell for invading Nazis in World War II France. “She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men,” said Henri Tardivant, a French resistance fighter among the several thousand men she commanded.
Wake killed Nazis with her bare hands, organized raids to blow up Nazi installations, but was also adept at getting behind Kraut lines using her softer side. She was the Allies go to girl softening up the Germans in advance of their D Day invasion. Wake had the tactical smarts and an unbridled pursuit of justice that burned through her hazel green eyes. She also had a killer’s instinct. The war brought her fame, but also stole the love of her life.
Wake figured out the differences between men and women at an early age and wasn’t about to let any physical shortcomings limit her. She was born in New Zealand and had more Maori warrior in her blood lines than genteel Kiwi. Among the games she played growing up in Sydney Australia was the pissing contest. It was girls vs. boys, a line was drawn in the sand and the winner was determined by who could pee furthest. After losing repeatedly our young heroine adjusted the rules. “It’s not fair, you’ve got a little thing, we don’t have, you’ve got to take a handicap,’’ she told her adversaries. The handicap was to step back a few paces in the sand and after they did, Nancy never lost another match. That early life lesson helped her survive WW II. The Nazis may have had bigger guns, but Nancy had better brains and more courage.
At 16, Nancy was ready to escape Australia and a mother who told her she was ugly. Nancy was ordered to pray every night and fear god, which of course she didn’t. The only thing that kept her awake was her dream of seeing the world. She had a post 1960s mentality that refused to be straight jacked by pre-40s conventions. When her aunt gave her 200 pounds she quit a dead end job in the county insane asylum and headed for Europe.
Lady Killer Overmatched
Touring Europe as a free-lance journalist in the late 1930s young Nancy interviewed rising German chancellor Adolf Hitler but was also drawn to the fast life. She could drink most men under the table and took a different tact in luring the most eligibles. Henri Fiocca was among the most sort after young viriles in pre WW II southern France. He could tango like a Buenos Aires maestro and owned a steel plant in Marseilles. He showed up nightly at the top casinos with several different bombshells by his side. Competitive, Nancy was curious how they landed by the steel magnet’s side and boudoir. “They ring me up,” Fiocca simply told Nancy implying he didn’t have to try too hard. “If you want to speak with me on the phone, Fiocca, you will ring me up!” she told him and left the casino. Fiocca was stunned by her brashness and soon was calling Nancy. They would marry a year later and our heroine found herself living in a luxurious harbor view apartment atop Marseille in Nov. 1939. A socialite life beckoned but Hitler had other ideas.
In her journalistic travels, Wake witnessed the SS’s brutality in Vienna seeing Jews chained to wheels and paraded through the streets. She was ready to fight the Nazis when they invaded France in 1940 and used Fiocca’s fortune to finance her resistance work.
Starting as an ambulance driver, Wake transitioned as a courier helping refugees escape France, meeting them at train stations taking them to safe houses. She learned the key escape routes through the Pyrenees and was a key operative in the burgeoning French underground. The Nazis were on to her taping her phone and following her. They dubbed her the White Mouse because of her stealth and put a 5 million franc reward on her brunette scalp.
Wake had to flee France and made six attempts to get to England. Her journeys through the Pyrenees were a steeplechase of daring do. Despite freezing nights in sheep pens, jumps from moving trains, getting jailed twice and being shot at by kraut patrols she made it to Spain and on to England.
Ready for the Kill
Trained by the British Special Operations Executive at a barracks in Scotland, Wake was given the organizing and killing skills needed to take on the SS. Parachuting back into France with fellow SOE agent John Farmer, Wake’s parachute got hung up in a tree. Tardivant was waiting below and like any sexist Frenchmen of the day couldn’t resist remarking what wonderful fruit the tree had born. “Don’t give me that French shit,” Wake snapped and quickly took control of her unit.
Wake’s band of 3,000 Maquis took on 22,000 Nazi troops who had built sizeable infrastructure in France with the help of the Vichy government. She led a raid on the Gestapo’s headquarters in Montucon and with a quick chop to a sentry’s throat instantly killed him. The raid included blowing up a gun factory. Wake also gained the fear of her men when she coolly executed an SS female spy without blinking.
In several biographies, Wake considered her most daring escapade a 500 kilometer bike ride through several German checkpoints to replace wireless codes that had been destroyed in a German raid. On a 0 speed bike she pedaled non-stop for 71 hours. At one Kraut checkpoint, an officer interrogated her. “Do you want to search moi? Wake asked the flustered sentry who let her pass through. At the end of the ride Wake couldn’t walk or sit but the new codes kept the communication lines open. The Brits resupplied Wake’s fighters with fresh guns and ammo that came in handy when thousands of German troops stormed the Maquis stronghold of Chaudes-Aiguews in June 1944. When the smoke dissipated, 1,400 Germans had died and just 100 Maquis perished.
By the time the war ended, Wake was among the most decorated war heroes. But the fame and honors were tempered by the death of Fiocca at the hands of Nazi interrogators a year before the war ended. He refused to give up his wife’s location and both paid a heavy price.
In many ways Wake’s feistiness and no nonsense approach to sticking it to the power elite was better suited to war than peace. She ran twice for the Australian parliament but lost to entrenched male conservatives who were able to exploit her straight shooting approach. In today’s world, Wake could have been a glass ceiling busting high tech CEO or a presidential candidate but in post war Australia she was limited. She penned her autobiography “The White Mouse” and settled into domesticity after marrying Farmer.
She never had kids but after Farmer’s death moved back to London and sold off her war medals to finance her lifestyle. She lived at the Stafford Hotel, a haunt of service men and women during the war and most days could be found at the hotel bar throwing back scotch and sodas telling war stories to anyone who would listen. She died at 98 in 2011 and her ashes were fittingly dropped by air over the mountains of France where she had fought the good fight.