Born as Nancy Grace Augusta Wake, on 30 August 1912 in Roseneath, Wellington in New Zealand, Nancy Wake was one of the most cunning British agents working in German-occupied France during World War II and known as the White Mouse to the Gestapo for the way she deftly avoided their traps.
Born as the youngest of six children of Charles and Ella Wake, she always felt a little isolated from the rest of the family, with the sole exception of her filmmaker father, whom she adored. In 1914, her family moved to Australia and settled at North Sydney and shortly thereafter, her father returned to New Zealand, but never came back to his family. Apart from attending the North Sydney Household Arts (Home Science) School, Nancy Wake’s childhood was spent waging a kind of guerilla war against her mother and finally, at the age of 16, she ran away from home. During the next two years she worked as a nurse near Mudgee, a town northwest of Sydney, under an assumed name until her 18th birthday, when she returned to Sydney to get a job with a shipping company, with the intention to live independently of her family.
However, as she surprisingly inherited £200 from an aunt, she got the opportunity to fulfill her dream of life and journeyed to New York City and then arrived in London in 1932 to begin a journalism course to train herself as a qualified journalist. Her career as a journalist started in Paris, documenting the events of Europe for the readers of the Hearst newspaper chain, including the violent rise of Nazism. In 1933, when she was asked to travel to Vienna to interview the new German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, she had the experience to witness the horrific treatment of the Jewish men and women at the hands of the roving Nazi gangs in the open streets of Vienna and vowed to oppose Hitler at any cost.
However, the sultry glamour girl, named Nancy Wake, used to lead two different lives throughout 1930s. The hard-working young lady journalist of the day, used to magically turn into a glamorous beauty by night, who liked to live and enjoy the Parisian nightlife to the full extreme. In 1936, she met a French playboy industrialist, a Marseilles millionaire, Henri Fiocca, whose tastes, like hers, ran to caviar and champagne midmorning and love in the afternoon. She married him on 30 November 1939, left journalism and settled into his luxurious mansion in Marseilles.
But, the state of tranquility did not last long and as the Germans rolled into France in 1940, she became an ambulance driver and gradually became a courier for the local Resistance movement. For two years Nancy and her husband worked as couriers for the resistance and later became part of an escape network to get the parachuted Allied pilots or Jewish families back to safety, until they reach the base of the Pyrenees, where other guides would get them across into neutral Spain.
Soon she became a threat to the Germans and they became desperate to capture her. As it became too dangerous for Nancy Wake to continue her work from inside France’s borders, her handlers advised her to make her way to England via Gibraltar. Her husband promised to follow her within a short time, after settling the family business. Unfortunately, soon after her departure, Henri Fiocca was arrested by the Gestapo and as he refused to divulge her whereabouts or give an account of her activities, he was shot. However, Nancy Wake did not learn about the death of her husband until after the end of the war.
Nancy earned her nickname of the White Mouse as she evaded capture by SS guards and Gestapo officers several times, on her way to Britain. As the trains were constantly patrolled by the Germans, she became successful after several failed attempts, when she made it to Spain on the back of a coal truck. Before that, once she was forced to jump from a slow-moving train, drawing the fire of German soldiers. On another occasion, when she was picked up on a train outside of Toulouse, she spun a wild tale of deceit, claiming she had to be let go because she was the mistress of one of the guards and that she had to conceal her identity from her husband. As a result, the sympathetic German guards allowed her to go. In fact, Nancy was confident of her physical beauty and used her charms and cunningly deceived the Germans on many occasions, even sometimes openly flirted with them.
After arriving in England in June 1943, Nancy underwent eight months of training in the Special Operations Executive and completed their course to become an expert in explosives, weaponry, hand-to-hand combat and prospering behind enemy lines. It was noted by her training officers that she was a quick learner, a fast shot and could put the men to shame. Within a short time, she was designated as a high ranking officer for the SOE in charge of organizing and allocating arms to 7,500 men. Under the code name of Madame Andree, she was parachuted back into France into the forests of Auvergne, at 1 o'clock on the morning of 31 March 1943, where 7000 partisans were to be found in separate groups. She herself led several attacks on the Gestapo in Montluçon and at one point interrogated three French women for possibly being spies. While she became satisfied that two of them were telling the truth, she sentenced the third to death by firing squad. She planned and executed a successful raid on a Gestapo garrison and an arms factory in central France in 1944. During the raid of the arms factory, as an investigating SS sentry was about to raise the alarm, she killed the guard with her bare hands with a judo-chop. Nancy further proved her devotion to the resistance when she rode 380 miles round trip on a bicycle within 72 hours, through numerous German checkpoints, to transfer a message from her resistance group to another. During the journey she slept in haystacks or in the open during her 72-hour journey, which resulted in reestablishing radio contact with London.
Throughout the war, Nancy Wake saved thousands of lives, participated in full-blown attacks, bridge blowing and train wrecking and at the same time, she helped co-ordinate her bands to thwart all attempts of the German battalions to reinforce them at Normandy.
Nancy Wake regarded her beauty as her principal weapon and shield and always carried her Chanel lipstick, facial cream and a favorite red satin cushion with her. She was regarded as the most feminine woman until the fighting starts and during a fight she fought like five men. As a warrior, she was fearless. She chomped on cigars and could drink like almost all of her male counterparts.
After the end of the Great War, Nancy Wake tried to find a job that suited her mentality. She ran unsuccessfully for political office in Australia and returned to England and worked as an intelligence officer in the department of the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff at the Air Ministry in Whitehall. She resigned in 1957 and married former British air force pilot John Forward, whom she had met in the mid-1950s. The couple relocated to Australia in the early 1960s and moved from Sydney to Port Macquarie in the mid 1980s, where they lived happily until John died in 1997. Nancy returned to England in November 2001, with the hope of meeting up with her surviving friends from the war. Before her death on the weekend, she was living in the Star and Garter Home, a nursing home for retired veterans in the London suburb of Richmond. However, she passed much of the day clutching a gin and tonic at the nearby hotel bar, where she had her first bloody good drink after the war.
Nancy Wake died on Sunday evening 7 August 2011, at the age of 98, at Kingston Hospital after being admitted with a chest infection. She never had children.
She was awarded nine bravery medals, which included the Medal of Freedom from the US, the George Medal from Britain and the Medaille de la Resistance from France. However, in a controversy that continued for the next five decades, she never received a medal from the Australian government, the country where she had grown up, as she did not fight for any of the Australian services during the war. Eventually, she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2004.