The White Mouse
By LtCol Mike Christy Together We Served Dispatches
Nancy Wake was the Allies’ most decorated servicewoman of WWII, and the Gestapo’s most-wanted person with a five million-franc bounty on her head. They code-named her “The White Mouse” because of her ability to elude capture. When war broke out she was a young woman married to a wealthy Frenchman living a life of luxury in cosmopolitan Marseilles. She became a saboteur, organizer and Resistance fighter who led an army of 7,000 Maquis troops in guerrilla warfare to sabotage the Nazis. Her story is one of daring, courage and optimism in the face of impossible odds.
Born on the windy heights of Roseneath, Wellington, New Zealand on August 30, 1912, Nancy was the youngest of the six children of Charles Augustus and Ella Rosieur Wake. According to her biographer, Peter Fitzsimons, Nancy’s mother Ella, “came from an interesting ethnic mix, her genetic pool bubbling with material from the Huguenots, the French Protestants who had famously fled France so they could pursue their religion freely, and Maori, as her [Nancy’s] English great-grandmother had been a Maori maiden by the name of Pourewa.”
Pourewa had been the first of her race to marry a white man, Englishman Charles Cossell, on October 26, 1836. Fitzsimons wrote that according to legend, “…the great Maori chieftain, Hone Heke, had loved Pourewa himself and had sworn death to them both, but had been killed in the Maori Wars before fulfilling his threat. In sum, Ella’s people went a long, long way back in New Zealand, and physically she was like the land itself, rustically beautiful.”
However, Nancy’s father, Charles, was an English thoroughbred: a tall, handsome, easy-going man who exuded charm and warmth, always nattily attired, an outgoing, carefree “Dapper Dan” without a worry in the world. He was also a journalist and editor who worked for a Wellington newspaper.
When Nancy was 20 months old, her parents moved the family to Sydney, Australia. There, Nancy grew up chafing under the restrictive confines of genteel society. She was much younger than her brothers and sisters, a strongly independent loner with a good imagination. She was also a rebel, turning her back on her mother’s strict religious beliefs.
Nancy was raised without affection by her embittered mother after her father had abandoned them. In an interview, she said she adored her father. “He was very good-looking. But he was a bastard. He went to New Zealand to make a movie about the Maoris, and he never came back. He sold our house from under us and we were kicked out.”
Growing up in poverty, she ran away from home at 16 and went to work as a nurse in Sydney. When an aunt in New Zealand left her $300 in her will, she used it to travel toLondon and then to Europe, where she lived in Paris working as a freelance newspaper journalist during the day and then swinging with a cosmopolitan set of independent and carefree young people at the hottest Parisian nightclubs after dark. It was a glamorous life of parties and travel, and she lived it to the fullest.
In 1930s Europe she witnessed the rise of Hitler, Nazism and anti-Semitism. In Vienna she saw horrific Dantesque scenes: Jews chained to massive wheels, rolled around the streets, and whipped by Nazi storm troopers in a city square. The sight fed an early determination to work against the Nazis and eventually led to her courageous role in the French resistance, leading her to later recount her thought on that day, “I don’t know what I’ll do about it, but if I can do anything one day, I’ll do it.”
In 1939 Nancy married a handsome and wealthy French millionaire industrialist, Henri Fiocca, in Marseilles “He was the love of my life,” she said. Together they had a charmed and sophisticated life of travel, dinner parties,champagne and caviar, residing in a luxury apartment on a hill overlooking Marseilles and its harbor.
Six months after they married, Germany invaded France. Slowly but surely Nancy drew herself into the fight. In 1940 she crossed the line between observation and action, and joined the embryonic Resistance movement as a courier, smuggling messages and food to underground groups in Southern France. She bought an ambulance and during the invasion of Belgium, used it to help refugees fleeing the German advance. She then used a truck to help ferry British, Aussie, and New Zealand soldiers to the evacuation points at Dunkirk after it became painfully obvious that France would be flooded with Nazis. Refusing to leave France, she stayed behind and watched in horror as Hitler seized Paris. She immediately started making plans to do whatever she could to “get the Kraut bastards out of France and send them back to Bavaria in body bags.”
Being the beautiful wife of a wealthy businessman, she had an ability to travel that few others could contemplate, let alone accomplish. She obtained false papers that allowed her to stay and work in the Vichy zone in occupied France, and became deeply involved in helping to spirit a thousand or more escaped prisoners of war and downed Allied fliers out of France through to Spain.
Working out of a safe house she’d purchased outside Marseilles, Wake spent the first three years of the war recovering downed pilots, getting them fake papers, fabricated identification cards, new clothes, and false identities, and then ferrying them across the Pyrenees Mountains to Spain by sneaking them in trucks, bribing guards with huge stacks of cash, and doing whatever the hell she needed to do to get these pilots back to Britain safely. Her operation became such a major pain in Germany’s ass that they put a five million-franc reward out on her head, and known only by her nickname “The White Mouse,” Wake at one point was on the top of the Gestapo’s Most Wanted List.
In 1943, the Germans started to figure out who “The White Mouse” really was, and they then, in their typical German Gestapo way, decided the best thing to do would be to capture her, line her up against a brick wall, and shoot her in the back of the skull. Luckily British spymasters intercepted the Gestapo communication ordering her arrest, and were able to relay the message to Wake before the Nazis knocked on her front door. Wake ran for it, made a break for the Pyrenees, and then, despite leaping from a moving train to evade them, she was shot at and captured by the Germans and hauled off to the local Gestapo police station.
They tortured her for four days. She gave them nothing. Not even her real name. They let her go.
In an interview with a London newspaper, Wake said, “Henri said ‘You have to leave’, and I remember going out the door saying I’d do some shopping, that I’d be back soon. And I left and I never saw him again.” Later he was captured, tortured and executed by the Nazis.
Escape was not easy. She made six attempts to get out of France by crossing the Pyrenees into Spain. On one of these attempts she was captured by the French Milice (Vichy militia) in Toulouse and interrogated for four days. She held out, refusing to give the Milice any information, and with the help of the legendary “Scarlet Pimpernel of WWII,” Patrick O’Leary, tricked her captors into releasing her.
Finally, Wake got across the Pyrenees and from there to Britain. She was on safer ground, but had no news of her husband, who worked separately.
Wake, then 31, became one of 39 women and 430 men in the French Section of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) which worked with local resistance groups to sabotage the Germans in the occupied territories. She was trained at a British Ministry of Defense camp in Scotland in survival skills, silent killing, codes and radio operation, night parachuting, plastic explosives, Sten guns, rifles, pistols and grenades. She and the other women recruited by the SOE were officially assigned to the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and the true nature of their work remained a closely guarded secret until after the war.
In late April 1944, Nancy Wake and another SOE operative, Maj. John Farmer, were parachuted into the Auvergne region in central France with orders to locate and organize the bands of Maquis, establish ammunition and arms caches from the nightly parachute drops, and arrange wireless communication with England. Their mission was to organize the Resistance in preparation for the D-Day invasion. The Resistance movement’s principal objective was to weaken the German army for a major attack by allied troops. Their targets were German installations, convoys and troops. When dropped over Auvergne, Wake’s parachute became stuck in a tree. Her agent said he hoped all trees could bear such beautiful fruit.
There were 22,000 German troops in the area and initially 3-4,000 Maquis. These numbers were bolstered to 7,000 with the assistance of a spy in the American Military Intelligence organization (OSS), Lt. Rene Guiraud, along with Wake’s recruitment work. Wake led these men in guerrilla warfare, inflicting severe damage on German troops and facilities. She collected and distributed weapons and ensured that her radio operatives maintained contact with the SOE in Britain.
At the head of a group of dedicated, gun-toting Frenchmen, Nancy Wake spent most of 1944 â both before and after D-Day â leading daring guerrilla attacks on Nazi supply depots, rail stations, and communications facilities deep behind enemy lines. She sabotaged factories, raided depots, cut train tracks, and performed countless espionage and sabotage missions against the enemy. In one raid she killed a Nazi with her bare hands before he raised an alarm. In another attack she and some Maquis fighters rolled up to the local Gestapo headquarters in Montlucon, France, shot the place up, lobbed some grenades, and killed 38 members of the Reich’s notorious secret police. When enemy spies were captured, Wake was the one who interrogated them and determined whether they would live or die. When supply drops were parachuted behind enemy lines by Allied transport planes,Wake was the one who received the coordinates, made sure guys were there to pick up the gear, and distributed it to the men. One time, when her cell was attacked by over 10,000 Germans from the 2nd SS Panzer Division, Wake’s radio was destroyed when the truck she was driving was strafed by a Nazi dive-bomber â she responded by stealing a bicycle, cycling 500 km through several German checkpoints to replace codes her wireless operator had been forced to destroy in a German raid. Without these there would be no fresh orders or drops of weapons and supplies. Of all the amazing things she did during the war, Nancy believes this marathon ride was the most useful. She covered the distance in 71 hours, cycling through countryside and mountains almost non-stop. Her focus was rock steady to the end of her epic journey, when she wept in pain and relief.
On yet another occasion, Wake took command of a battle after her section leader died, then coordinated a strategic withdrawal that got her men out of a hardcore shootout with SS storm troopers without taking any further casualties.
It was an extremely tough assignment: a near-sleepless life on the move, often hiding in the forests, traveling from group to group to train Maquis, motivate, plan and co-ordinate. She organized parachute drops that occurred four times a week to replenish arms and ammunition. There were numerous violent engagements with the Germans. The countryside was wracked with hostage taking, executions, burnings and reprisals.
No sector gave the Reich more cause for fury than Nancy’s – the Auvergne, the Fortress of France. Methodically the SS laid its plans and prepared to obliterate the group, whose stronghold was the plateau above Chaudes-Aiguwes. Troops were massed in towns all around the plateau, with artillery, mortars, aircraft and mobile guns. In June, 1944, 22,000 SS troops made their move on the 7,000 Maquis. Through bitter battle and then escape, Nancy and her army had cause to be satisfied: 1,400 German troops lay dead on the plateau, along with only 100 of their own men.
Nancy continued her war: she personally led a raid on Gestapo headquarters in Montucon, and killed a sentry with her bare hands to keep him from alerting the guard during a raid on a German gun factory. She had to shoot her way out of roadblocks and execute a German female spy.
On June 6, 1944, D-Day, allied troops began to force the German army out of France. On August 25, 1944, Paris was liberated and Wake led her troops into Vichy to celebrate. However her joy at the liberation of Paris was mixed with a tragedy she had secretly anticipated: in Vichy she learned that her beloved husband Henri was dead. A year after Nancy had left France in 1943, the Germans had captured Henri, tortured and executed him, because he refused to give them any information about the whereabouts of his wife.
Within a year Germany was defeated. 375 of the 469 SOE operatives in the French Section survived the war. Twelve of the 39 women operatives were killed by the Germans and three who returned had survived imprisonment and torture at Ravensbruck concentration camp. In all 600,000 French people were killed during World War II, 240,000 of them in prisons and concentration camps.
Wake continued to work with the SOE after the war, working at the British Air Ministry in the Intelligence Department. In 1960 she married a former prisoner of war, Englishman John Forward, and returned to Australia to live.
After the war her achievements were heralded by medals and awards: the George Medal from Britain for her leadership and bravery under fire, the Resistance Medal, Officer of the Legion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre with two bronze palms and a silver star from France, and the Medal of Freedom from America. She was made a member of the Order of Australia, and New Zealand named a street after her.
However, for many years she was never awarded a medal by the Australian government. When the Australian Returned Services League recommended that Wake be awarded a medal, they were turned down. The Sydney Morning Herald (April 28th, 2000) surmised that she was turned down for a medal because she was born in New Zealand and was considered a New Zealand citizen. In 1994 she refused to donate her medals to the Museum of Australia and proclaimed to the New Zealand Press Association in Sydney (Evening Post, April 30, 1994) that she was still a New Zealander and reminded the press that she had kept her New Zealand passport, despite her 80 year absence from the country.
In 2004 Nancy Wake was, at long last, awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia. In 2006 Nancy received the NZ Returned Services Association’s highest honor, the RSA Badge in Gold, as well as life membership for her work with the French resistance during the war.
Wake’s dramatic life story and her feisty, courageous personality made her the ideal subject for documentaries and dramatizations. She tells her own story with interviews, reconstructions, stills and film footage in the video “Nancy Wake – Code Name: The White Mouse.”
In 1987 a television mini-series was made about her life.
Nancy Wake’s comrade Henri Tardivat perhaps best characterized the guerrilla chieftain:
“She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then, she is like five men.”
After making the final move back to England, Wake become a resident at the Stafford Hotel which had been a British and American forces club during the war. The hotel’s owners welcomed her warmly, absorbing most of the costs of her stay â helped occasionally by anonymous donations. Despite enjoying her residence at the hotel, Nancy Wake moved to the Star and Garter forces retirement home in 2003.
Nancy Wake passed away on August 7, 2011 at the retirement home where she had lived the last eight years of her life. Right up to her death, she remained assertive about what would happen to her body: “I want to be cremated, and I want my ashes to be scattered over the mountains where I fought with the resistance. That will be good enough for me”.
She lived to be 98 years old.