Nancy Wake

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Nancy Wake
Nancy Wake (1945).jpg
Nancy Wake circa 1945
Nickname(s) Heléne (SOE)
Andrée (French Resistance/SOE Identity)
White Mouse (Gestapo in France)
Witch (Operation:)
Born (1912-08-30)30 August 1912
Wellington, New Zealand
Died 7 August 2011(2011-08-07) (aged 98)
London, England
Allegiance France
United Kingdom
Service/branch Special Operations Executive
First Aid Nursing Yeomanry
Years of service 1943–1945 (SOE)
Rank Captain
Unit Freelance
Battles/wars World War II
Awards Companion of the Order of Australia
George Medal
Officier de la Légion d'Honneur
Croix de guerre (France)
Medal of Freedom (United States)
RSA Badge in Gold (New Zealand)

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake AC, GM (30 August 1912 – 7 August 2011) served as a British Special Operations Executive agent during the later part of World War II. She became a leading figure in the maquis groups of the French Resistance and was one of the Allies' most decorated servicewomen of the war. After the fall of France in 1940, she became a courier for the French Resistance and later joined the escape network of Captain Ian Garrow. By 1943, Wake was the Gestapo's most wanted person, with a 5 million-franc price on her head.

After reaching Britain, Wake joined the Special Operations Executive. On the night of 29/30 April 1944, Wake was parachuted into the Auvergne, becoming a liaison between London and the local maquis group headed by Captain Henri Tardivat in the Forest of Tronçais. From April 1944 until the liberation of France, her 7,000+ maquisards fought 22,000 SS soldiers, causing 1,400 casualties, while suffering only 100 themselves.

Early life[edit]

Born in Roseneath, Wellington, New Zealand, on 30 August 1912, Wake was the youngest of six children. In 1914, her family moved to Australia and settled at North Sydney.[1] Shortly thereafter, her father, Charles Augustus Wake, returned to New Zealand, leaving her mother Ella Wake (née Rosieur; 1874–1968) to raise the children.

In Sydney, she attended the North Sydney Household Arts (Home Science) School (see North Sydney Technical High School).[2] At the age of 16, she ran away from home and worked as a nurse. With £200 that she had inherited from an aunt, she journeyed to New York, then London where she trained herself as a journalist. In the 1930s, she worked in Paris and later for Hearst newspapers as a European correspondent. She witnessed the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement and "saw roving Nazi gangs randomly beating Jewish men and women in the streets" of Vienna.[3]

Wartime service and Special Operations Executive[edit]

In 1937, Wake met wealthy French industrialist Henri Edmond Fiocca (1898–1943), whom she married on 30 November 1939. She was living in Marseille, France when Germany invaded. After the fall of France in 1940, she became a courier for the French Resistance and later joined the escape network of Captain Ian Garrow. In reference to Wake's ability to elude capture, the Gestapo called her the White Mouse. The Resistance exercised caution with her missions; her life was in constant danger, with the Gestapo tapping her phone and intercepting her mail.[4]

In November 1942, Wehrmacht troops occupied the southern part of France after the Allies' Operation Torch had started. This gave the Gestapo unrestricted access to all papers of the Vichy régime and made life more dangerous for Wake.[citation needed] The Germans had an English spy, Sergeant Harold Cole, working for them. By 1943, Wake was the Gestapo's most wanted person, with a 5 million-franc price on her head. When the network was betrayed that same year, she decided to flee Marseille. Her husband, Henri Fiocca, stayed behind; he was later captured, tortured and executed by the Gestapo.[5]

Wake described her tactics: "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."[6]

Wake had been arrested in Toulouse,[when?] but was released four days later. An acquaintance managed to have her let out by making up stories about her supposed infidelity to her husband.[7] She succeeded, on her sixth attempt, in crossing the Pyrenees to Spain. Until the war ended, she was unaware of her husband's death and subsequently blamed herself for it.[8]

After reaching Britain, Wake joined the Special Operations Executive. Vera Atkins, who also worked in the SOE, recalls her as "a real Australian bombshell. Tremendous vitality, flashing eyes. Everything she did, she did well." Training reports record that she was "a very good and fast shot" and possessed excellent fieldcraft. She was noted to "put the men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character."[8]

On the night of 29/30 April 1944, Wake was parachuted into the Auvergne, becoming a liaison between London and the local maquis group headed by Captain Henri Tardivat in the Forest of Tronçais. Upon discovering her tangled in a tree, Captain Tardivat greeted her remarking, "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."[5][9] Her duties included allocating arms and equipment that were parachuted in and minding the group's finances. Wake became instrumental in recruiting more members and making the maquis groups into a formidable force, roughly 7,500 strong. She also led attacks on German installations and the local Gestapo HQ in Montluçon.[9]

At one point Wake discovered that her men were protecting a girl who was a German spy. They did not have the heart to kill her in cold blood, but Wake did. She said after that it was war, and she had no regrets about the incident.[10]

From April 1944 until the liberation of France, her 7,000+ maquisards fought 22,000 SS soldiers, causing 1,400 casualties, while suffering only 100 themselves. Her French companions, especially Henri Tardivat, praised her fighting spirit, amply demonstrated when she killed an SS sentry with her bare hands to prevent him from raising the alarm during a raid.

During a 1990s television interview, when asked what had happened to the sentry who spotted her, Wake simply drew her finger across her throat. "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."[6]

On another occasion, to replace codes her wireless operator had been forced to destroy in a German raid, Wake rode a bicycle for more than 500 kilometres (310 mi) through several German checkpoints.[4] During a German attack on another maquis group, Wake, along with two American officers, took command of a section whose leader had been killed. She directed the use of suppressive fire, which facilitated the group's withdrawal without further losses.[8]


Immediately after the war, Wake was awarded the George Medal,[11] the United States Medal of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance, and thrice the Croix de Guerre. She learned that the Gestapo had tortured her husband to death in 1943 for refusing to disclose her whereabouts. After the war, she worked for the Intelligence Department at the British Air Ministry attached to embassies in Paris and Prague.

Wake stood as a Liberal candidate[12] in the 1949 Australian federal election for the Sydney seat of Barton, running against Dr. Herbert Evatt, then Deputy Prime Minister, Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs in the Ben Chifley Labor government. While Chifley lost government to Robert Menzies, Wake recorded a 13 percent swing against Evatt,[13] with Evatt retaining the seat with 53.2 per cent of the vote on a two-party preferred basis. Wake ran against Evatt again at the 1951 federal election. By this time, Evatt was Deputy Leader of the Opposition. The result was extremely close. However, Evatt retained the seat with a margin of fewer than 250 votes.[14] Evatt slightly increased his margin at subsequent elections before relocating to the safer seat of Hunter by 1958.

Wake left Australia just after the 1951 election and moved back to England. She worked as an intelligence officer in the department of the Assistant Chief of Air Staff at the Air Ministry in Whitehall. She resigned in 1957 after marrying an RAF officer, John Forward, in December of that year. They returned to Australia in the early 1960s.[9] Maintaining her interest in politics, Wake was endorsed as a Liberal candidate at the 1966 federal election for the Sydney seat of Kingsford Smith. Despite recording a swing of 6.9 per cent against the sitting Labor member Daniel Curtin, Wake was again unsuccessful.[15] Around 1985, Wake and John Forward left Sydney to retire to Port Macquarie.

In 1985, Wake published her autobiography, The White Mouse. The book became a bestseller and has been reprinted many times.[16]

After 40 years of marriage, her husband John Forward died at Port Macquarie on 19 August 1997; the couple had no children.

In 2001, Wake left Australia for the last time and emigrated to London.[17] She became a resident at the Stafford Hotel in St James' Place, near Piccadilly, formerly a British and American forces club during the war. She had been introduced to her first "bloody good drink" there by the general manager at the time, Louis Burdet. He had also worked for the Resistance in Marseilles. In the mornings she would usually be found in the hotel bar, sipping her first gin and tonic of the day. She was welcomed at the hotel, celebrating her 90th birthday there, where the hotel owners absorbed most of the costs of her stay. In 2003, Wake chose to move to the Royal Star and Garter Home for Disabled Ex-Service Men and Women in Richmond, London, where she remained until her death.[9]

Wake died on Sunday evening 7 August 2011, aged 98, at Kingston Hospital after being admitted with a chest infection.[18] She had requested that her ashes be scattered at Montluçon in central France.[19] Her ashes were scattered near the village of Verneix, which is near Montlucon, on 11 March 2013.[20]

Her obituary was included in (and inspired the title for) The Socialite who Killed a Nazi with Her Bare Hands: And 144 Other Fascinating People who Died this Year, a collection of New York Times obituaries published in 2012. [21]


Wake was appointed a Chevalier (knight) of the Legion of Honour in 1970 and was promoted to Officer of the Legion of Honour in 1988.[22]

Initially, she refused offers of decorations from Australia, saying: "The last time there was a suggestion of that I told the government they could stick their medals where the monkey stuck his nuts. The thing is if they gave me a medal now, it wouldn't be love so I don't want anything from them."[23] It was not until February 2004 that Wake received the Companion of the Order of Australia.[24]

In April 2006, she was awarded the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association's highest honour,[25] the RSA Badge in Gold.[26] Wake's medals are on display in the Second World War gallery at the Australian War Memorial Museum in Canberra.[1]

On 3 June 2010, a "heritage pylon" paying tribute to Wake was unveiled on Oriental Parade in Wellington, New Zealand, near the place of her birth.[27][28]

List of honours[edit]

Ribbon Issuing authority Description Date awarded Notes/citation
Ribbon of the AC Commonwealth of Australia Companion of the Order of Australia 22 February 2004 The award recognises the significant contribution and commitment of Nancy Wake, stemming from her outstanding actions in wartime, in encouraging community appreciation and understanding of the past sacrifices made by Australian men and women in times of conflict, and to a lasting legacy of peace.[24]
Ribbon of the GM United Kingdom George Medal 17 July 1945 FANY: Special operations in France[11][29]
Ribbon of the 1939–1945 Star Commonwealth of Nations 1939–1945 Star [citation needed]
Ribbon of the France & Germany Star Commonwealth of Nations France and Germany Star [citation needed]
Ribbon of the Defence Medal United Kingdom Defence Medal [citation needed]
Ribbon of the War Medal United Kingdom War Medal 1939–1945 [citation needed]
Ribbon of the Legion of Honor – Chevalier French Republic Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur 1970
Ribbon of the Legion of Honor – Officier French Republic Officier de la Légion d'Honneur 1988
Ribbon de la croix de guerre French Republic Croix de Guerre with two Palms and a Star[citation needed]
Ribbon of the PMOF United States of America Medal of Freedom with Bronze Palm. (Only 987 issued with Bronze Palm during WWII)[30]
Ribbon de la Médaille de la Résistance French Republic Médaille de la Résistance [citation needed]
New Zealand Badge In Gold 15 November 2006 Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association[26]


In 1956, Australian author Russell Braddon wrote Nancy Wake: The Story of a Very Brave Woman (ISBN 978 0 7524 5485 6).[31]

Nancy Wake wrote her own account (first published 1985) with the original title "The White Mouse" ISBN 0725107553

In 2001, Australian author Peter FitzSimons wrote Nancy Wake, A Biography of Our Greatest War Heroine (ISBN 0 7322 6919 9), a bestselling comprehensive biography of Wake.[17]

In 2011, German author Michael Jürgs wrote Codename Hélène: Churchills Geheimagentin Nancy Wake und ihr Kampf gegen die Gestapo in Frankreich. (translated: Codename Hélène: Churchill's secret agent Nancy Wake and her fight against the Gestapo in France).[32] The book was published in October 2012.


Seasons 1 and 2 of the 1980s British television series Wish Me Luck were based on her exploits and much of the dialogue was copied from her autobiography.

Wake's story was told in a 1987 television movie, Nancy Wake, released as True Colors in the US. She was played by Australian actress Noni Hazlehurst. Wake criticized the way in which the film portrayed her, for instance as cooking breakfast for the men or as being romantically involved with another resistance member.[33]

Sebastian Faulks's 1999 novel Charlotte Gray is thought to be based on Wake's war-time exploits, as well as those of Pearl Cornioley, a British secret-service agent.[citation needed]

Wake was featured in a 2012 article in Military Officer.[34]

Rachael Blampied portrayed Nancy Wake in the TVNZ docu-drama Nancy Wake: The White Mouse


  1. ^ a b Dennis et al. (1995), p. 626
  2. ^ FitzSimons, Peter (2002). Nancy Wake A Biography of Our Greatest War Heroine. ISBN 978-0-7322-7456-6. 
  3. ^ "Obituary for Nancy Wake". New York Times. 14 August 2011. p. A18. 
  4. ^ a b Peter FitzSimons (2001). Nancy Wake, Australia's Greatest War Heroine. Harper Collins Australia. ISBN 0 7322 6919 9. 
  5. ^ a b "The White Mouse". Archived from the original on 11 August 2010. 
  6. ^ a b The Australian
  7. ^ RTE 1 radio documentary, "Nancy Wake and Harry Potter", first broadcast 9-Aug-2011
  8. ^ a b c Stafford, David (8 August 2011). "Nancy Wake obituary". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 9 August 2011. 
  9. ^ a b c d "Nancy Wake". London: The Daily Telegraph. 8 August 2011. Retrieved 9 August 2011. 
  10. ^ ABC Radio interview with Wake.[clarification needed]
  11. ^ a b "WAKE, Nancy: George Medal". Search Australian Honours. Commonwealth of Australia. 17 July 1945. Retrieved 11 June 2011. 
  12. ^ "Maquis Heroine tries Politics". The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media). 30 March 1949. p. 2. Retrieved 11 June 2011. 
  13. ^ "Barton, NSW". Voting by constituency: Legislative election 1949. 10 December 1949. Retrieved 11 June 2011. 
  14. ^ "Barton, NSW". Voting by constituency: Legislative election 1951. 28 April 1951. Retrieved 11 June 2011. 
  15. ^ "Kingsford-Smith, NSW". Voting by constituency: Legislative election 1966. 26 November 1966. Retrieved 11 June 2011. 
  16. ^ Wake, Nancy (1985). The White Mouse. Sun Books. ISBN 0-330-35605-4. 
  17. ^ a b Fickling, David (23 February 2004). "A belated salute for war heroine". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  18. ^ "War heroine Nancy Wake dies". Daily Telegraph (Australia). 2011. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  19. ^ "The heroics of Nancy Wake saved thousands of lives and played a crucial role in the outcome of the war". The Australian. Australian Associated Press. 8 August 2011. Retrieved 9 August 2011. One operation included an attack on the local Gestapo headquarters in Montluçon, central France, where she requested her ashes be scattered. 
  20. ^ "War hero Nancy Wake's ashes scattered in France". ABC News. 11 March 2013. Retrieved 11 March 2013. 
  21. ^
  22. ^ "Nancy Wake promoted to Officer of the Legion of Honour". 
  23. ^ "Nancy Wake". Retrieved 2013-06-17. 
  24. ^ a b "WAKE, Nancy: Companion of the Order of Australia". Search Australian Honours. Commonwealth of Australia. 22 February 2004. Retrieved 11 June 2011. 
  25. ^ "RSA History: The Badge". Remembrance. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association. 2011. Retrieved 11 June 2011. 
  26. ^ a b "Nancy Wake presented with Badge in Gold". RSA Review. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association. December 2006. Retrieved 11 June 2011. 
  27. ^ "Her only regret: not killing more Nazis". 2013-03-27. Retrieved 2013-06-17. 
  28. ^ "White Mouse war legend back where she started". The Dominion Post. 4 June 2010. Retrieved 27 October 2011. 
  29. ^ Supplement to the London Gazette, 17 July 1945, p. 3676
  30. ^ OMSA Info on Medal of Freedom
  31. ^ Braddon, Russell. Nancy Wake: The Story of a Very Brave Woman. ISBN 978 0 7524 5485 6. 
  32. ^ Bertelsmann, München (2012). Blick ins Buch. ISBN 9783570101421  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  33. ^ Lichfield, John (9 August 2011). "Resistance heroine who led 7,000 men against the Nazis". Independent. 
  34. ^ Cantrell, Mark. "The white mouse". Military Officer 10 (3) (Arlington, Virginia: Military Officers Association of America). pp. 92–96. 


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