Nancy Wake was a New Zealand born journalist turned spy for the British in France during WWII.
Born the youngest of six children, she was majorly affected when her father abandoned the family. At the age of sixteen, she ran away from home and made her way as a nurse. After receiving an unexpected windfall, a bequest left by an aunt, she traveled to London and received training in journalism. She became a European correspondent for a newspaper and situated herself in France. In this role, she had the opportunity to travel to Vienna and see firsthand the ill treatment of Jewish people, and “saw roving Nazi gangs randomly beating Jewish men and women in the streets”.
She met and married a rich industrialist, Henry Fiocca, with whom she was madly in love. She wanted to participate in the war effort, so she convinced Henry to purchase an ambulance for her so she could act as a nurse. She then began a courier service to get missives carried between enemy lines through her ambulance. Her network became so successful that the Gestapo gave her the code name White Mouse and put a five million franc price on her head. She was the Gestapo’s most wanted person. When her network was betrayed, she had to flee France and leave Henry behind.
She became a prominent leader of the French Resistance, and was known for her easy way of getting through enemy lines. She described her tactics as such: “A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I’d pass their (German) posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me?’ God, what a flirtatious little bastard I was.”
She led many operations, most notably an attack on a gestapo headquarter in Montlucon, France. Once, after a breach in codes, she herself rode more than 300 miles across borders by bicycle in order to make sure an important missive was received in time. She was also tough in other aspects of her character. She once killed an SS sentry with her bare hands, using a “judo chop” to the neck and another time, after discovering her men did not want to kill a German girl they had captured, who was a spy, she did it herself with no qualms.
When the war ended, she discovered that Henry had been taken by the Gestapo and tortured in an attempt to learn more about her and her whereabouts. He gave nothing away and was executed. Wake was heartbroken. Wake was awarded the George Medal, the United States Medal of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance, and the Croix de Guerre on three separate occasions. She continued working for the British Ministry’s Intelligence Department.
Written for Sheroes of History by Danielle Wirsansky who is a WWII history buff and Theatre/Creative Writing student at Florida State University.
Find our more…
Nancy wrote her own autobiography, “The White Mouse” which you can read to find out more about her (although it is quite hard to get hold of today.) There is also a book written about her life by Russell Braddon, called Nancy Wake: SOE’s Greatest Heroine
Find out more about the women of the Special Operative Executive (SOE) in this post.
Nancy lived to be 98 years old and was interviewed on camera several times. You can see more about her life, including actual interviews with her in this YouTube clip: