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Nancy Wake

Kathryn S Gardiner  | Published on 8/13/2021

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights







“I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.”


Nancy Wake



Macmillan Australia (December 1, 2011)



In 1944, Nancy Wake parachuted into France in the dark of night. “The reception field...was too small for the arrival of two agents,” she wrote in her autobiography The White Mouse, published in 1985. “I landed in a thick hedge. My parachute was tangled in a tree.”

 

Nancy was soon located by her accompanying agent and life-long friend, Henri Tardivat, codenamed Hubert. Once out of the trees, the two found only more trouble. The little village nearby had seen the parachutes and they were shocked when one of the agents was a woman. Word spread fast and everyone wanted to meet her. Nancy stood in the village square, “shaking hands with the entire population.”

 

Not a sneaky start to a spy mission.

 

But Nancy knew she could work with this, as with every other challenge she’d faced. The little village, currently occupied by Nazi forces, had “simply let their exuberance overcome their sense of security.” Hubert was stressed and at a loss. Nancy, however, understood. “I had lived in the country so long,” she wrote, “I could think like them. ... In a nutshell, I was French, except by birth.”

__

 

Nancy had been born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1912. She was the great granddaughter of an Indigenous Maori woman who had married a European, possibly the first Maori woman to do so. When Nancy was only two years old, the family relocated to Sydney, Australia. Her father returned to New Zealand and Ella Wake, Nancy’s mother, raised their six children alone. Little Nancy was the youngest. 

 

She attended the North Sydney House Arts School until she dropped out and ran away at 16 in 1928. Teenage Nancy was working as a nurse when she inherited £200 (around £2,000 in 2020) from an aunt. With that funding, she left Australia. She went first to New York, then London where she received some journalism training. By age 22, she’d fulfilled a lifelong dream and was living in Paris, working for as a European correspondent for Hearst newspapers.

 

“There was something magical about living in Paris in those days,” Nancy wrote. “Parisians would tell me how wonderful the city had been before and after the Great War—‘la Belle Epoque,’ as they called it—but to me it was the most glorious place in the world and I adored working and living there.”

 

It was in Paris that Nancy met “academics and intellectuals,” many of them Jewish, who had fled to France to escape the Nazis and the new power of Chancellor Adolph Hitler. In café’s, Nancy and her friends gathered at tables and heard the tales of these refugees.

 

This spurred Nancy and several of her journalism cohorts to travel to Vienna. There, they hoped to find a scoop, or an inside story they could bring back to the newspapers. What they saw was roving gangs of Nazi supporters and Jewish citizens of Vienna receiving horrible treatment. “I resolved there and then that if I ever had the chance, I would do anything, however big or small, stupid or dangerous, to try and make things more difficult for their rotten party.”

 

This vow guided Nancy’s life from that day forward. 

 

She met Henri Edmond Fiocca, a French industrialist, in 1937. The two married in 1939 and moved to Marseille. Then, in May of 1940, Germany invaded France. During the invasion, she drove ambulances to aid the wounded. After France fell, she joined the resistance.

 

Specifically, she joined a group called the Pat O’Leary Line, which helped surviving Allied soldiers and French refugees escape to safety in Britain. Women were especially crucial in these efforts. “It was much easier for us, you know, to travel all over France,” Nancy told an Australian interviewer. “A woman could get out of a lot of trouble that a man could not.”

 

The Gestapo, however, became aware of her movements, though they could not locate her. They called her “The White Mouse” for her ability to elude and evade them. By the end of 1942, France was overrun. It was no longer safe for Nancy in the country that had felt like home.

 

She fled. Husband Henri stayed. They would never see each other again. 

 

Nancy reached Britain in early 1943 and her fight against the Nazis continued. She joined the Special Operations Executive, a British organization formed for the purpose of espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance in territories occupied by Hitler’s forces. She received additional training, including in firearms. 

 

Then, in April 1944, she and codename Hubert, parachuted into the Auvergne province of France. After their rather conspicuous landing, Nancy, Hubert, and their radio operator Denis Rake began their duties assigned by the SOE. Nancy collected the weapons that were parachuted into the area and distributed them among them resistance groups. “I was never afraid,” she told the Australian interviewer. “I was too busy to be afraid.” She also had a list of targets to destroy that would disrupt Nazi communication lines and their ability to respond when the Allies invaded in a few weeks.

 

As with any resistance, however, not all groups agree on a course of action. When one group leader, Émile Coulaudon, rallied men to liberate some areas of France without Allied assistance, the Nazi forces responded first with a probing attack and then with an all-out assault on Émile’s Mont Mouchet base.

 

This was the same base where Nancy, Hubert, and Denis operated. They, and other resistance fighters, were forced to flee, retreating to the village of Saint-Santin. But in his desperation, Denis had left behind his radio. They had no way to update London and the SOE of what had happened.

 

The nearest radio station was in Châteauroux, over 150 miles to the northwest. So, Nancy borrowed a bike. She rode to Châteauroux, radioed London with an update, then rode back to Hubert and Denis in Saint-Santin, a total of over 300 miles in just 72 hours on roads luckily light of Nazi soldiers. “When I got off that damned bike...I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t sit down, I couldn’t walk,” she said. “When I’m asked what I’m most proud of doing during the war, I say, ‘The bike ride.’”

 

The Allied Forces began their invasion in Normandy on June 6, 1944. While Nancy still collected and distributed arms parachuted into the area, she also began using them herself. She and Hubert participated in raids and attacks on German camps. She said they destroyed the Gestapo headquarters in Montluçon. “She the most feminine woman I know,” Hubert reportedly said, “but when the fighting starts, then she is like five men.”

 

But Nancy wasn’t exactly like her male counterparts. When she discovered her resistance comrades had forced three women into sex work, Nancy successfully negotiated their release. She gave the women new clothes and access to a washroom. Only two of the women would walk free, however: Nancy suspected the third was a German spy. She demanded the woman be executed on the spot. If the men wouldn’t do it, she would do it herself. The woman was duly killed.

 

Nancy told an Australian newspaper in 2001, “I was not a very nice person. And it didn’t put me off my breakfast.”

 

By mid-August, the Allied forces, now joined by the United States, continued pressuring the retreating German forces. With the Nazi evacuation from France, Nancy and her fellow soldiers rejoiced. But it was not without heartache. Hubert was seriously injured and lost a leg to amputation. At the victory celebration, Nancy finally learned her husband Henri’s fate. Soon after he and Nancy parted, Henri had been captured, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo.

 

The United Kingdom honored her with the George Medal for “brave conduct in hazardous circumstances,” but like many others, Nancy struggled to settle into life after the war. She returned to Australia where she was recommended but did not receive various medals. (The Australian government tried to rectify this decades later, but Nancy wasn’t interested. “The last time there was a suggestion of that, I told the government they could stick their medals where the monkey stuck his nuts,” she said. “The thing is, if they gave me a medal now, it wouldn’t be love, so I don’t want anything from them.”)

 

She tried her hand at Australian politics before returning to England in 1951 where she worked as an intelligence officer for the Air Ministry in Whitehall. She married John Forward, a Royal Air Force officer, in 1957 and the couple moved back to Australia in the early 1960s. The couple lived, worked, and politicked in Sydney until they retired to the coastal city of Port Macquarie in 1985. In 1987, a mini-series called Nancy Wake debuted on Australian television. Nancy had a cameo and consulted on the script, but was ultimately disappointed that her tale of resistance was turned into a love story. 

 

Despite her verbal rejection of medals, Nancy did receive a dozen of them for her service during the war, including a Officier de la Legion d’Honneur from the French Republic in 1988 and a Companion for the Order of Australia in 2004. After husband John’s death in 1997, she paid her living expenses by selling these medals. “There was no point in keeping them,” she said. “I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway.

 

In 2001, she returned to London, leaving Australia for the last time. She spent her final years in the Royal Star and Garter Home for Disabled Ex-Service Men and Women. She died at Kingston Hospital in 2011 at age 98. At her request, her ashes were scattered near Montluçon.

 

A new series about her life, Code Name Hélène, went into production in 2020. In 2017, the New Zealand rugby team the Black Ferns credited Nancy with their victory in the World Cup. Their coach had instructed them to research Nancy, a fellow Kiwi, and her work ethic struck a chord. 

 

“I remember days at training where we would be having an off day and our coaches would pull us up and say, would Nancy be happy with this? And we knew she wouldn’t, so we then had to rectify it,” said Charmaine McMenamin, loose forward for the team. 

 

“Nancy’s standard was hard to beat in terms of what she had to do to get a job done,” agreed assistant coach Wesley Clarke. “So, our language in the team started revolving around her and it became a theme for us.”

 

The team proudly named their trophy “Nancy.”

 

 

Sources: 

Wikipedia: Nancy Wake

The New York Times: Nancy Wake, Proud Spy and Nazi Foe, Dies at 98

Australian War Memorial: Nancy Grace Augusta Wake

Literary Hub: Meet Nancy Wake, the Most Incredible Woman You’ve Never Heard Of

The White Mouse by Nancy Wake

All Blacks: Black Ferns Inspired by World War Two Heroine Nancy Wake

We Are the Mighty: This deadly resistance fighter was the Wonder Woman of WWII