The White Mouse


Verified SOF
Jan 15, 2008

As a war hero, Nancy Wake was a pioneering feminist that spoke loudly with words and backed them up with 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."

It was a philosophy she most definitely lived by. At the outbreak of World War II, Wake was working as a journalist; however, instead of thinking that she could most help by telling stories or knitting balaclavas, she felt she could most help by joining the fight. It was a wise decision. By joining the fight, she made such a contribution to the Allied effort that she topped the Gestapo’s most wanted list.

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, then 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 handsome wealthy French industrialist, 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, 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 and crossing several German checkpoints, in order to find an operator to radio Britain and request new codes. Wake took responsibility because a woman was deemed to have more chance.

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 public celebration of her. Arguably, her story of courage, self-sacrifice, and determination offered more than she could have ever offered as a politician.

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.'
An amazing person. My misfortune that I haven't heard about her until just now. Thanks QC.
I saw her interviewd once and she said the trick to get through the checkpoints was to carry a string bag. Because the contents of the bag were easily seen, no-one stopped her.
From April 1944 to the complete liberation of France, her 7000 maquisards fought 22,000 SS soldiers, causing 1,400 casualties, while taking only 100 themselves. Her French companions, especially Henri Tardivat, praised her fighting spirit; amply demonstrated when she killed an SS sentry with her bare hands to prevent him 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.

Another Kiwi that we claim as our own (moved to Australia when she was 2), Peter Fitzsimons wrote a book on her a few years ago, when I get through his book on Sir Charles Kingsford Smith (who had an electorate named for him which Nancy ran for in the 60's) I'm going to read it.
Wow. She's still alive. Heading up for her 100th birthday in a couple years. It would be a treat to meet such a legend.