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Monday, April 25, 2011

Nancy Wake - Australian Wartime Hero



Nancy Wake was a highly decorated woman who worked with the French Resistance in WWII. The Gestapo called her the white mouse because every time they thought they had her cornered, she managed to escape. She tried twice to enter Australian politics but wasn't successful and she eventually returned to England forever.


Nancy was born in New Zealand and the family moved to Sydney in 1914 when she was two years old, the youngest of six children. Her father must have been a cruel man, he sold the family home and returned to New Zealand forever. This left his wife and six children with nowhere to live as they were evicted from their home after it was sold. All we know about her mother is that she was a strict, religious woman who was left to bring up six children on her own.


Nancy ran away from home when she was 16 and worked as a nurse and later as a journalist in London and ended up in Paris. When she saw the contempt and cruelty of the Germans towards Jews, gypsies and blacks on the streets of Paris, she decided to do something about it. "The stormtroopers had tied the Jewish people up to massive wheels. They were rolling the wheels along, and the storm troopers 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 when war broke out she was in England but returned to France where she met and fell passionately in love with rich successful French businessman Henri Fiocca. They were married and she joined the resistance movement and bought an ambulance to help transport refugees running from the German advance.



By 1942, she was causing thet Germans so much trouble, the Gestapo gave her the code name of 'the white mouse' and offered five millions francs for her capture. They arrested her husband and tortured him but he never did reveal her whereabouts and she was heartbroken when she heard that he had been executed. "He was a lovely bloke" she said "He was the love of my life."


She escaped to England and joined the French section of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) a unit of 470 men and women specially trained to work with resistance groups in German occupied territories. In 1944 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." One one occasion she threw a grenade into a dining room full of German soldiers. When the Germans broke the radio codes, she cycled 500 kms in 72 hours, crossing several German checkpoints to find an operator who would radio Britain for new codes.


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. But there was nothing from Australia, even though the RSL had recommended that her bravery should be recognised. She said "They can stick their award and be thankful it's not a pineapple".


In 1949 she came home to Australia and decided to stand as a Liberal Party candidate in the Sydney seat of Barton. But she didn't win and because she couldn't find any other suitable employment, she returned to England and became a WRAF officer in the British Air Ministry and remained in the job until 1958.


In 1960, she came home to Australian again and wrote her autobiography. In 1966, she tried for a second time to enter politics but failed to win her seat and in 2001 she returned to England, never to return. It is her wish that her ashes be scattered over France when she dies.


So how would she like to be remembered? She hopes to go down in history as the woman who turned down 7,000 sex-starved Frenchman and added "I got away with blue murder and loved every minute of it." She lives in London in The Star and Garter Home.