Women who made a difference – Nancy Wake

Having had my arm twisted to do another article in the series I remembered a very brave woman, Nancy Wake. I found out about her returning from a trip in the Gran Massif in France with my daughter and French son-in law. I saw a museum signposted about the French Resistance where her contribution to helping the Resistance was documented. Her exploits and others of the Special Operations Executive inspired the film ‘Charlotte Grey’.

She was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1912, but grew up from the age of two in Australia. After training as a nurse she used an inheritance, when aged 19, to travel to Paris, New York and then study journalism in London. She then landed a job as correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in Paris. In 1933 she was sent to interview the German Chancellor, Hitler, in Vienna and as a result she was filled with fear of the Nazis then on.

Having married a French industrialist, Henri Fiocca she was living in Marseilles when WW II broke out. Together they helped British Servicemen and Jews escape the occupation before Henri was killed by the Gestapo. Nancy then helped the evacuation of troops from Belgium before returning to France to join the Resistance forces and was such a ‘thorn in the side’ of the Germans they put a price of 5million francs on her head. She evaded capture on numerous occasions leading to her nickname, ‘Le Souris Blanche’ (white mouse). Her network was betrayed in 1940 but Nancy managed to travel through Spain to reach England despite being captured and tortured at one point.

She joined the Special Operations Executive (now the SAS) and was quickly trained up and parachuted back into France. Nancy helped to train and arm forces fighting the Germans in the lead up to the D Day landings. From April 1944 until the liberation of France, she fought alongside 7,000+ resistance forces against 22,000 German soldiers, causing 1,400 casualties, while suffering only 100 themselves. She was a fearless fighter, even killing a SS sentry with a judo chop. When the group she was with were compromised by German intelligence she cycled 300 miles in 72 hours to find another group with a radio operator to obtain new codes to get information back to Britain. Captain Henri Tardivat, one of her comrades in the Resistance, later described her as ‘the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then, she is like five men.’

After the war Nancy continued to work for British intelligence until 1957. Having married again to John Melvin Forward, a former RAF fighter pilot, she returned to live in Australia, making unsuccessful attempts to get elected to parliament. She felt unappreciated by the country of her childhood. This led her to refuse decorations from the Australian government, with characteristic bluntness, she said they could “stick their medals where the monkey stuck his nuts”. In February 2004, she relented and was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. This was along with the George Medal from Britain and ten other honours from France, USA, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, making her the most decorated woman of the war.

“Freedom is the only thing worth living for. While I was doing that work, I used to think it didn’t matter if I died, because without freedom there was no point in living”

Her husband died in 1997 and Wake settled for a final time in London. There was little she enjoyed better than “a bloody good drink”, and to fund her lifestyle she had sold her war medals. “There was no point in keeping them,” she explained, “I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway.” In spite of this she did not die until August 2011, just short of her 99th birthday.

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