Born in Wellington, New Zealand on August 30, 1912, Captain Nancy Wake, Resistance leader and Special Operations Executive agent, wasn’t joking when she talked about her lack of fear. Wake was one of New Zealand’s most highly decorated soldiers with 12 decorations from the United States, the UK, France, the British Commonwealth, Australia, and New Zealand. Her many awards included France’s Legion D’Honneur and Croix de Guerre; Britain’s George Medal; and the U.S. Medal of Freedom.
In the process, Wake became one of the Gestapo’s most wanted enemies. They nicknamed her the White Mouse, put a five million franc price on her head, and still they couldn’t find her.
But she could–and did–find them, usually with lethal effect. A fellow resister later described her as “the most feminine woman I know until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men.”
Wake was ready to dedicate her life to fighting against the Nazis even before World War II began. A visit to Berlin and Vienna in 1935 allowed her to witness Nazi persecution and anti-Semitism first-hand. She resolved that, if ever the opportunity arose, she would do all she could to fight it. Later that same year, she married French industrialist Henri Fiocca, who would join the Resistance with her in 1940. In the meantime, the couple set up home in Paris.
The fall of France was the beginning of her remarkable career, the chance to honor her pledge to fight Nazism by any means open to her. Between 1940 and 1943, Wake and Fiocca helped organize escape routes for Allied servicemen and Jewish refugees trying to flee the German occupation. They were remarkably successful, a success that began attracting increasing suspicion from the Gestapo.
Until 1943, it went as well as could be expected. But things were about to take a tragic turn. Wake and Fiocca knew full well they were under suspicion and that the dreaded Gestapo would show no mercy if they were caught. That year, Wake became the Gestapo’s most wanted person–and the five million franc price was placed on her head.
Wake, who fled across the Pyrenees into neutral Spain and then England, wasn’t caught. Fiocca, who stayed in France to continue his Resistance work there, was. It wasn’t until after the liberation of France that Wake discovered what had happened to her beloved husband. Henri Fiocca had been tortured to death by the Gestapo, refusing to the last breath to give up his wife’s location.
In England, Wake immediately volunteered for SOE’s French Section run by Maurice Buckmaster and Vera Atkins. Buckmaster and Atkins immediately saw her potential and her willingness to undertake the most hazardous missions. In March 1944, Wake parachuted into France’s Auvergne region to help organize resistance fighters. Her main role was to arrange reliable communications between the local resisters and SOE headquarters in London as part of the preparations for D-Day. She was also tasked with arranging the arrival of more agents and airdrops delivering vital supplies, weapons, and ammunition. Without the airdrops, the resistance would simply have ground to a halt.
Wake set to work with typical gusto, eventually coordinating the activities of roughly 7,500 resisters in the Auvergne. She was also rigid about doing her share of the fighting. She ordered the killing of a French collaborator and even killed a SS soldier with her bare hands. As Wake later described it, “They’d taught this Judo-chop stuff with the flat of the hand at SOE and I practiced away at it. But this was the only time I ever used it–whack–and it killed him all right…”
Other exploits included joining an assault on the local Gestapo headquarters at Montluçon during which 38 German soldiers and Gestapo officers were killed. But one exploit in particular stuck in her mind. During a Gestapo raid her radio operator had destroyed the vital codes used for messages between France and London. Without the codes the radio link was severed. To re-establish communications, Wake travelled some 500 kilometers (over 300 miles) in 71 hours by bicycle, going through several enemy checkpoints and roadblocks to return with the vital codes.
With new codes the vital radio link was saved just in time for the Normandy landings. Wake and her 7,500 resisters fought using any weapons and methods available to them. In the process they did damage out of all proportion to their numbers. At one point the Germans sent 22,000 troops to destroy the White Mouse and her Maquisards. Wake’s response was characteristically devastating, her troops inflicting some 1,400 casualties while losing only 100 resisters, a 14:1 casualty rate.
With the war’s end, Wake found life somewhat dull. She moved to Australia, spending a few years in politics. Although she remarried in 1957, Wake still referred to her first husband, Henri Fiocca, as the love of her life. In 1985, Wake wrote her memoir The White Mouse, titled after her wartime nickname. When husband John Forward died in 1997 she sold her medals to live on the proceeds and returned to London in 2001. She spent the remainder of her life in England, moving into the Royal Star and Garter Home for Disabled Ex-Servicemen and Women in 2003.
Captain Nancy Wake died in August 2011 at the age of 98. At her request, her ashes were scattered in 2013 in her beloved France, in the village of Verneix. Verneix is near Montluçon, the site of her assault on the Gestapo headquarters beside the Resistance. To this day, Nancy Wake is remembered as one of the SOE’s most remarkable agents.
Featured photo: Alchetron