“Somebody once asked me, ‘Have you ever been afraid?’ … Hah! I’ve never been afraid in my life.”
Nancy Wake was the most decorated Allied servicewoman of WWII, and the Gestapo’s most-wanted person, they code-named her ‘The White Mouse’ because of her ability to elude capture.
Born in Roseneath, Wellington, New Zealand, on 30 August 1912, Wake was the youngest of six children.
Living in Marseilles with her French industrialist husband when the war broke out, Wake slowly became enmeshed with French efforts against the Germans, and worked to get people out of France. Later she became a leading figure in the maquis groups of the French Resistance.
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. Therefore, it became necessary for her to leave France.
After reaching Britain, Wake joined the Special Operations Executive. Training reports record that she was "a very good and fast shot" and possessed excellent fieldcraft. On March 1, 1944, she parachuted into occupied France near Auvergne, becoming a liaison between London and the local maquis group headed by Captain Henri Tardivat in the Forest of Tronçais. 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 was also involved in attacks on bridges, railway lines, and German convoys. She participated in a raid that destroyed the Gestapo headquarters in Montluçon, during which 38 Germans were killed. 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 when Wake insisted that she would perform the execution, they capitulated.
From April 1944 until the liberation of France, her 7,000+ maquisards fought the Germans in many different ways. At one point, being aware of this large group of Maquis, the Germans sent in 22,000 soldiers to wipe them out. However, due to Wake's extraordinary organizing abilities, her Maquisards were able to defeat them causing 1,400 German casualties, while suffering only 100 among 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. "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."
Immediately after the war, Wake was awarded the George Medal, 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 died on Sunday evening 7 August 2011, aged 98, at Kingston Hospital after being admitted with a chest infection. She had requested that her ashes be scattered at Montluçon in central France. Her ashes were scattered near the village of Verneix, which is near Montluçon, on 11 March 2013.
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. Shortly after the war, she was recommended for decorations in Australia but was turned down. Decades later, Australia offered to award her medals but she refused. It was not until February 2004 that Wake was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. In April 2006, she was awarded the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association's highest honour, the RSA Badge in Gold. 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.