Blessed with a cunning ability of outsmarting the Germans and defying their constant traps at every single turn during the second world war, the Gestapo dubbed her “the white mouse”. The actual name of this fearless yet charming woman was Nancy Wake, a New Zealand born journalist who played a critical role in saving lives and never backing down.
Nancy Wake learned in the early days leading up to the war, that some things just weren’t right and was quick to see that she didn’t approve of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party’s rise. While working for the Hearst newspaper, she was constantly seeing innocent people, mostly Jewish men, getting beaten bloody on the streets of Vienna by loyal Nazi members. Never one to remain silent and do nothing, everything she witnessed appalled her as the world crept closer to an all out war. This wasn’t acceptable to Ms. Wake…
Nancy Grace Augusta Wake had a very humble beginning born as the youngest of six in New Zealand in 1912. Her family two years later would move to Australia settling in North Sydney. This is where she spent her time growing up. It wasn’t long after the family resettled that her father Charles split up with the family by leaving the country.
He eventually returned to New Zealand. Nancy would be raised by her mother, Ella, in Australia with her siblings where she attended the North Sydney Household Arts School.
As a young teenager, Nancy, ran away from home to start a path for herself and worked as a nurse for awhile then ended up in New York to train as a journalist after receiving a small inheritance and saving money to in order to travel to the U.S. She was a self-starter and hardworking from the start supporting herself in life and in all endeavors.
By the 1930’s, as a young adult, Nancy made the move to France working in Paris and the Hearst Newspaper. It is here where a lot of things changed. This is when she met her first husband, Henri Fiocca, the man she described as “the love of her life forever”.
Henry Fiocca was a rich businessman who devotedly supported his wife’s career. When Hitler forces invaded France, Nancy Wake decided she would drive an ambulance to help injured soldiers as a way doing her part in the war effort. This was funded by her husband and she continued through the beginning of the war until the fall of France in 1940.
It was at this point where Nancy Wake truly begins to show her fearless, courageous, and defiant nature. After witnessing the travesty the French were enduring then seeing the awful treatment towards innocent Jewish men and women out on the streets by the Nazi party, she enlisted in the famous escape network of Captain Ian Garrow, which became later knows as the Pat O’Leary Line. A network designed to help allied soldiers and airmen escape capture and reach safety when they became stranded or shot down in Europe throughout WWII. A service that was critical in saving countless men during the war.
During her time as an agent assisting in the Pat O’Leary Line, Nancy, would run rings around the Nazi’s earning her the title of “The White Mouse” by them. This was due to her uncanny ability and clever ways of eluding them at every turn. She was great at being able to talk her way through anything and had a intuition when things weren’t what they seemed often using caution on all missions allowing them to be a success.
The Gestapo began to closely watch Nancy though, by tapping her phones, going through her mail, and keeping an ever present attention on all her actions. Nancy’s life was in constant danger and only one thing would have to go wrong which assuredly would have resulted in her immediate execution and death by the Nazi party no questions asked.
Everything started becoming a bit too dangerous but Nancy never faltered and kept going doing her best to outsmart the Gestapo and help all those possible evade them stating later that “A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I’d pass their posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me?’ God, what a flirtatious little bastard I was”.
Nancy and her husband Henri Fiocca did everything in their power to fight the Germans and help their beloved France despite the real ever present danger to their lives. The heat was on them. After the interception of their mail and a betrayal to the resistance, the clever Nancy, made the choice to flee France for her life. The hope was that her going to England would perhaps help get the attention off of them and regain safety in their lives.
In 1943, leaving behind Henri, as not to raise suspicion, Nancy began the process of retreat. Henri stayed behind to keep things looking normal, not believing their was any danger to his own person but only his wife. He would be able to keep the Gestapo from questioning her lack of presence by explaining she was off to shop, visit, and would return.
When Nancy boarded a train with false papers to leave France, she among numerous others were arrested. Luckily, she was released days later because Albert Guérisse, the head of the O’Leary Line, managed to secure her release by claiming she was his mistress.
Of course it was a lie. She wasn’t Albert’s mistress, but the Gestapo bought it, when he said she was trying to conceal their affair from her husband. She was able to eventually make it to Spain by crossing the Pyrenes, a mountain range between Spain and France.
The saddest part of this however, is what happened to Nancy’s husband Henri Fiocca. He doesn’t have a happily ever after at all and the couple would never see each other again. He was captured, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo in 1943 shortly after Nancy fled France. Henri was murdered for not giving up her location and remaining a loyal husband.
It wasn’t until the end of WWII and returning to their family home, that Nancy would learn of Henri’s fate. The news of his death years prior was a devastating blow she would not ever truly get over. Nancy immensely believed it was all her fault and blamed herself for his execution all the way until her death in 2011. She never was able to see her beloved husband again and carried the blame for his early demise for the rest of her life.
[ Nancy Wake and her Husband Henri Fiocca ]
Unaware of the death of Henri, it became apparent to Nancy that Spain was becoming increasingly unsafe as a hideaway leading to her travelling to the United Kingdoms. When she reached Britain, it wouldn’t be long before this tenacious women the made the decision to join ranks with the SOE, Special Operations Executive, and began her work fighting the Germans once again. Never to be sidelined, she was ready for the fight.
Nancy quite literally parachuted back into France from an airplane to work with the resistance at Allier, department of occupied France. She was involved in a battle between a French guerilla resistance group and German forces in the Auvergne region.
During her SOE training in London, Nancy proved to be not only one of the best shots in training, but she was resourceful, agile, strong, and had an excellent amount of stamina to keep her going. Nancy managed to do a lot of damage to the German forces.
Once the battle was over, the resistance group involved in the fight had been decidedly defeated leading to her very long bicycle ride to a phone so she could send a situation report to the SOE in London and get a new Radio sent to her team for their Radio Operator. This was beyond necessary and crucial for communication with the Allies.
Radio Operators allowed the resistance to be able to get men, support, equipment, supplies, share key data of German locations, and other information needed for winning the war and helping the French defeat their occupiers. Sabotage being the main goal.
What makes this bike ride so incredible and earned her not only a George Medal in the United Kingdom but also a Medal of Freedom in the United States is the distance, danger, and checkpoints she had to get through. Nancy rode five hundred kilometers, over three-hundred and ten miles total, to get to the next nearest Radio Operator in order to get messages out and gain a new radio for their team hundred of miles away.
When the war ended, Nancy made a political run in the 1949 Australian federal election for the Sydney seat of Barton, running against Dr. Herbert Evatt. She would run against again in 1952; however, despite the run being close to a tie each time.
Evatt would retain his seat. The narrow losses didn’t discourage Nancy and she continued doing her best to do good for the world. Finding love once again was in the cards.
After her close election loss in 1951, Nancy moved to England where she worked as an intelligence officer in the department of the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff at the Air Ministry in Whitehall. In 1957, she would marry for a second time to John Forward.
The couple had no children but remained married for forty years before John’s death in 1997. Nany wrote a biography of her life and she sold her medals to fund herself saying “There was no point in keeping them, I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway.”
Nancy Wake lived an amazing life and has inspired me to no end. She was quite a woman and had a spirit we should all aim to achieve. I recently watched a documentary titled The Gestapo’s Most Wanted: Nancy Wake that really was the inspiration behind my writing this article. I found Nancy to be fascinating and accomplished.
I will post the video of this documentary below right here on the page so every can watch it if they are interested in doing so. Just hit play and enjoy the documentary! You can also find this documentary on Amazon Prime or watch directly on YouTube for convenience. Please leave your thoughts in the comment section! Thank you as always for reading!
BOOK PICK OF THE DAY
‘Of all the variously talented women SOE sent to France, Nancy Wake was perhaps the most formidable’ —Sebastian Faulks
This is the incredible true story of the greatest spy you’ve never heard of—as told to the author by the woman herself.
At the outbreak of World War Two, Nancy Wake’s glamorous life in the South of France seemed far removed from the fighting. But when her husband was called up for military service, Nancy felt she had just as much of a duty to fight for freedom. By 1943, her fearless undercover work even in the face of personal tragedy had earned her a place on the Gestapo’s ‘most wanted’ list.
Mixing armed combat with a taste for high living, Nancy frustrated the Nazis at every turn—whether she was smuggling food and messages as part of the underground Resistance or being parachuted into the heart of the war to lead a 7,000-strong band of Resistance fighters.
The extraordinary courage of this unequalled woman changed the course of the war, and Russell Braddon’s vividly realized biography brings her incredible story to life.
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