Journalist, socialite, secret agent. Nancy Wake’s life story is one packed with intrigue.
From hosting lavish dinner parties with Marseilles’ elite to fighting for the French Resistance in the space of mere months, Wake would then join one of the most secretive and dangerous organisations of World War Two: the SOE.
Fuelled by her abhorrence for Nazism, Wake utilised her magnetic beauty and daring personality to evade capture by the Germans, partaking in spying missions until the end of the war.
Here are 10 facts about the fearless Nancy Wake:
1. She was born in New Zealand in 1912
Born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1912, Nancy Wake was the youngest of the six children of Charles and Ella Wake. The family was of distant Māori descent through Nancy’s great-grandmother Pourewa, who is thought to have been one of the first ever Māori women to marry a European.
Two years after Nancy’s birth, her family moved to Sydney where she would spend her childhood, and was raised largely by her mother after her father deserted the family.
2. She worked as a journalist in Europe as a young woman
At the age of 16, Nancy ran away from home and worked as a nurse, before leaving Australia and journeying to New York City. She then went to London where she trained herself to become a journalist, and by the 1930s was working in Paris as a European correspondent.
During this time she travelled Europe, witnessing the melting pot of unrest bubbling over there in the lead up the World War Two. In Berlin she saw the troubling rise of Adolf Hitler to power, while in Vienna she saw firsthand the brutal beatings of Jewish people by Nazi police.
3. She married a wealthy man and became a socialite
In 1937, Wake met and fell in love with wealthy French industrialist Henri Edmond Fiocca. They were married on 30 November 1939 and settled in Marseilles, becoming notable members of the city’s wealthy social circles.
The pair’s lavish lifestyle would come to an abrupt and violent halt just 6 months later however, when Nazi Germany invaded France.
4. She joined the French Resistance
After witnessing the senseless violence of Hitler’s regime in Europe, Nancy resolved to join the Resistance movement in France soon after it was invaded. Despite the relative comfort she could have otherwise lived in, she was resolute in joining the war, stating:
I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.
Following the country’s devastating fall to the Nazis in June 1940, she joined what would become the Pat O’Leary Line, an escape network that aided Allied soldiers stranded in occupied Europe.
5. She was known by the Gestapo as the “White Mouse”
An attractive and fashionable young woman, Wake often used her sexuality to elude detection by German guards. Describing her tactics, she said:
A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I’d pass their posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me?’ God, what a flirtatious little b***ard I was.
Due to her canny ability to evade capture, she was dubbed the “White Mouse” by the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police.
6. After escaping France she joined the SOE in Britain
In 1942, Wake’s network in France was betrayed and she fled the country. Her husband stayed behind and was subsequently caught and executed, a tragic outcome Wake would later blame herself for.
Moving to Britain, she then joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an organisation that sent Allied spies into occupied France. They had in particular been looking for French-speaking women, who could easily assimilate into their surroundings in the country.
During training, Nancy was recorded as “a very good and fast shot”, and on 29 April 1944 she parachuted into Auvergne province. Codenamed ‘Hélène’, she served as a courier for the three-person “Freelance” team, which had been sent as a liaison between London and the local French resistance group.
Alongside organising the delivery and distribution of arms and materials, Wake also carried the list of targets to be destroyed by the Resistance before D-Day on 6 June.
7. She had a strong personality
Throughout her life, one of Nancy’s most notable traits was her bold personality.
Senior SOE agent Vera Atkins once described her as “a real Australian bombshell. Tremendous vitality, flashing eyes. Everything she did, she did well”, while she was also noted to “put the men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character.”
Quick-witted and forthright, when she first parachuted into France she was found tangled in a tree by Resistance leader Henri Tardivat. He remarked, “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year”, to which she replied: “Don’t give me that French shit.”
8. She took part in a raid that destroyed a Gestapo headquarters
During her time in France, Nancy reportedly took part in a significant raid that destroyed the Gestapo headquarters in Montluçon in central France, killing 38 Germans.
Uncovering a young girl acting as a German spy there, she bluntly called for the girl’s execution. When asked about this later in life, she stated plainly: “She was a dedicated Nazi. Oh, I’d have shot her. God yes, with the greatest of pleasure.”
During the raid, she also reportedly killed an SS sentry with her bare hands to prevent him from raising the alarm, using a deadly technique taught in the SOE training.
9. After the war she was awarded a number of honours
After the war ended, Nancy was awarded the George Medal from Great Britain, the United States Medal of Freedom, and the Médaille de la Résistance and the Croix de Guerre from France, among many others.
She would later sell her medals however, saying darkly: “There was no point in keeping them, I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway.”
10. She died in 2011 aged 98
After living in Australia for around 40 years, Wake moved back to London in 2001 following the death of her second husband, RAF pilot John Forward. In her final years, she lived in the Star and Garter home for ex-servicemen and women in Richmond, Surrey.
On 7 August 2011, she died aged 98 at Kingston Hospital, after being admitted with a chest infection. Her ashes were scattered at Montluçon, honouring her wish that:
When I die, I want my ashes scattered over the hills where I fought alongside all those men.