Remembering Nancy Wake: WWII’s Most Decorated Woman

nancy wake

While she was still alive, Nancy Wake, WWII’s most decorated woman for her extraordinary war feats, hated people who messed up her life story; she strove to keep every detail of it right. her being a stickler about it is no wonder. After all, she did lead a life of adventure and danger and managed to get through it all triumphantly.

The Start

Nancy Wake was born in New Zealand in 1912 but her family moved to Australia in 1914 where she spent her growing up years. She then went on to become a nurse and a journalist who saw the rise of Adolf Hitler into power. She later met a wealthy French industrialist by the name of Henri Edmond Fiocca and they got married in 1939.

After France’s Fall in 1940, Nancy Wake became a French Resistance courier and joined the escape network of Scottish Army officer Captain Ian Garrow.

Lead Away!

Counted among her many roles and exploits during the Second World War was being a British agent. She was also instrumental in recruiting more men for the French Resistance force and led about 7,000 guerrilla fighters against the Nazi troops in northern part of Auvergne days before the D-Day landings took place in 1944. Aside from that, she led attacks against German installations and one local Gestapo Headquarters in Montluçon, Central France.

She had become a hard “prick” to the Nazis but as much as they wanted her apprehended and killed, they just couldn’t get their hands on her. She was so good at eluding capture the Gestapo dubbed her the “White Mouse”. She also became Gestapos’ most wanted person and had a 5-million franc  price on her head.

Nancy was also someone who did things beyond the call of duty – at one time she had to kill a German girl whom the soldiers she was with were protecting but she learned was a spy. She also had to kill an SS officer using only her bare hands just he could not raise the alarm as they were doing a raid. When asked in an interview about hoe she managed to do it, she quipped:

“They’d taught this judo-chop stuff with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practised away at it. But this was the only time I used it — whack — and it killed him all right. I was really surprised.”

On another instance, when her wireless operator had to destroy the secret codes they had due to a German raid, Nancy bicycled her way for over 500 miles passing a number of German checkpoints along the way to replace them.

From Soldier to Star

Nancy’s life became a subject for documentaries, feature films and even TV series. She was even author Sebastian Faulks’ inspiration for his novel heroine, Charlotte Gray, which was made into a motion picture in 2001 which starred Australian actress Cate Blanchett.

However, Nancy expressed mixed emotions when it came to the production efforts made to show her WWII exploits; productions which included a 1987 TV mini-series.

“It was well-acted but in parts it was extremely stupid. At one stage they had me cooking eggs and bacon to feed the men. For goodness’ sake, did the Allies parachute me into France to fry eggs and bacon for the men? There wasn’t an egg to be had for love nor money. Even if there had been why would I be frying it? I had men to do that sort of thing,” she lamented.

She also got furious the said TV series made an implication that she had an affair with a fellow fighter. She stated that she was too busy fighting off the Nazis to actually have time for that.

Apart from that fact, she had believed her husband to be alive until she learned of the news after she led her men into the pro-Nazi wartime French government’s headquarters in Vichy. That was already in August 1944. While there, she was informed that Henri was captured, tortured and killed by the Nazis the previous year in Marseille and up to the end of his life, he refused to to divulge any information about her. She was in deep anguish upon knowing that and a part of her had blamed herself for her husband’s death.

The Enemy’s a Woman

As her French colleagues put it, Nancy’s “invisibility” lies in her gender – her being a woman – as well as her beauty. The Germans couldn’t just grapple with the truth that one of their main adversaries was a small, lovely, dark-haired member of the gentler sex.

Nancy also used her femininity to her advantage and refused to hide behind it. At one time, she was asked to describe her escape tactics and this was what she answered:

“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.”

However, she never let her being a member of the “fair sex” get in the way when she had to learn to tough it out in the war. At the age of 31, she became one of the 39 women and 430 men to be recruited for British Special Operations Executive’s French Section in London. he underwent training in guerrilla fighting techniques after which she was sent back  to France via parachute in April 1944.

She then recalled in one interview how her parachute got snagged in a tree. When she was found later by Captain Henri Tardivat, the leader of the local maquis (guerrilla) group, he had said:

“I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year.”

She immediately fired him a retort:

“Don’t give me that French shit.”

Life After WWII

Nancy Wake became a politician albeit for a brief tie in Australia when WWII ended. She went back to Britain after her political stint and worked for the British Intelligence until 1957. This time, she got married to an ex-British fighter pilot, John Forward, after which they went back to live in Australia. In 1993, John died and after four years, in 1997, Nancy returned to Britain and lived in a veterans home, The Star and Garter Home, which was situated in Richmond, London. She never had any children.

Nancy’s relationship with her adopted home country, Australia, was a little complicated. Australian government was among the few allied nations who refused to award her for her WWII efforts after the war. Later on, she refused to be decorated with Australian honors on that basis.

“I told the government they could stick their medals where the monkey puts it nuts,” she had said.

Nevertheless, in 2004 she acquiesced and became a Companion of the Order of Australia. included in her string of military decorations is a George Medal given by the British government in recognition of her bravery and leadership while under fire; the Resistance Medal, Officer of the Légion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre with two bronze palms and a silver star from France; and the Medal of Freedom given by the American government.

Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, commemorated Nancy Wake with these words on her funeral service:

“Nancy Wake was a woman of exceptional courage and resourcefulness whose daring exploits saved the lives of hundreds of Allied personnel and helped bring the Nazi occupation of France to an end.”

Before her death, Nancy had asked to be cremated privately. Her ashes were scattered in the hills near Montlucon, France, in accordance with her wish.

The Independent reports; Additional notes from Wikipedia

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE