Last modified 30 June 2013
First published 1 April 2004. Reviewed 24 August 2011
Full name Nancy Grace Augusta Wake. AKA 'The White Mouse'.
Country: New Zealand, Australia, France.
Cause: Liberation of France and the defeat of European fascism in the Second World War.
Background: As Germany rises from the deprivations of the First World War and the Great Depression, the rest of the world tries to ignore the threat posed by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. But when Hitler launches his invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 the world finally realises that the Germans will not be appeased. Two days later Britain and France declare war on Germany.
Mini biography: Born on 30 August 1912 in Wellington, New Zealand, Wake is the youngest of six children. Her father is a journalist/editor.
1914 - Wake's family moves to Sydney, Australia. Her father soon abandons the family and returns to New Zealand, leaving Wake's mother to raise the children.
1928 - Wake leaves home and works as a nurse in rural New South Wales. After she turns 18 she returns to Sydney and takes employment in a shipping company.
1932 - When an aunt from New Zealand leaves her a £200 bequest, Wake travels to London, New York and Paris. She studies journalism in London then sets up base in Paris, working as a freelance journalist for the Hearst newspaper group. Among her assignments is an interview with Hitler in 1933.
1933 - The Nazis reach a position from which they can seize power in Germany on 30 January when Hitler is appointed chancellor.
Germany's last election until after the Second World War is held on 5 March. Though the Nazis win only 44% of the vote Hitler persuades the Reichstag (parliament) to pass the Enabling Law, allowing him to govern independently for four years. The Nazis now take full control of the state.
During an assignment in Vienna, the capital of Austria, Wake witnesses the impact of the Nazi regime first hand, including the persecution of Jews and other minorities.
"The stormtroopers had tied the Jewish people up to massive wheels," she later recounts. "They were rolling the wheels along, and the stormtroopers were whipping the Jews. I stood there and thought, 'I don't know what I'll do about it, but if I can do anything one day, I'll do it.' And I always had that picture in my mind, all through the war."
1936 - In March, Germany remilitarises the Rhineland, in direct contravention of the Treaty of Versailles signed at the end of the First World War. France protests the move but takes no further action. In 1938 France will also accede to Germany's annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, the German-speaking area in the north of Czechoslovakia.
Poland is overrun within a month, with Germany taking the west of the country and the Soviet Union occupying the east.
Wake is in Britain when the war breaks out, but returns to France. On 30 November she marries the wealthy French industrialist Henri Fiocca. The couple, who had first met in 1936, set up house in Marseilles.
Wake will soon be involved in the war effort, purchasing and driving a vehicle that she uses both as an ambulance and to supply refugee camps ahead of the front line.
1940 - Denmark and Norway fall to the Germans in April. The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France are invaded the following month. By the middle of June France has surrendered.
The French armed forces are demobilised and the French government dissolved. Administration of the country is split, with the Germans taking control of the northern two-thirds and a new French government being given the remaining third in the south. Based at Vichy in the Auvergne region of central France and headed by Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, the French administration comes to be known as the 'Vichy Government'.
During the occupation France will be forced to supply Germany with hundreds of thousands of labourers and more material aid than any other German satellite. The Vichy Government will be ruthless in its treatment of opponents and Jews, with about 75,000 mostly foreign-born Jews being arrested and sent to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps.
Resistance to the Vichy Government and the German occupation quickly takes shape and is supported by a London-based government-in-exile set up by General Charles de Gaulle.
As the war progresses Wake becomes increasingly involved in the French Resistance movement, taking advantage of her privileged social position to avoid detection, first as a courier, then as a member of the Allied Escape Route Organisation. Working with the organisation, she will help hundreds of escaped prisoners of war, stranded Allied troops, political refugees, and downed Allied fliers seeking safe passage out of France through to Spain.
1941 - Germany invades the Soviet Union on 22 June. The Germans advance swiftly but are halted on 6 December by a Russian counterattack just short of Moscow.
1942 - The Gestapo, or German secret state police, come to suspect that Wake is member of the Resistance movement, but are unable to prove her involvement. Her activities are attributed to an unidentified agent who, in recognition of Wake's ability to evade detection and capture, the Gestapo code-name 'The White Mouse'.
By 1943 'The White Mouse' will top the Gestapo's most wanted list. As 'The White Mouse', Wake will also have a five million franc bounty placed on her head.
In November the Germans occupy the southern third of France administered by the Vichy Government.
The following month Wake's Resistance network is betrayed and she is forced to go into hiding. The Resistance subsequently decides the risks have become too high for Wake and she should return to Britain. After six attempts to cross the Pyrenees mountains into Spain, including one where she is captured by the French Milice (Vichy militia) in Toulouse and interrogated for four days, she makes it out to Britain via Barcelona, Madrid, then Gibraltar. Her husband, Henri, remains in France.
Back in Britain, Wake joins the French Section of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), a unit of about 470 specially trained men and women set up to work with local Resistance groups in the German occupied territories.
Wake and her colleagues in the SOE receive training in survival skills, armed and unarmed combat, explosives, Morse Code and radio operation, surveillance and night parachuting.
Officially Wake is assigned as a captain in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.
1943 - The military turning point of the war in Europe comes when the German Sixth Army is defeated at Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in the winter of 1942-43. By the end of 1943, the Soviets have broken through the German siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and recaptured much of the Ukrainian Republic.
The German offensive in North Africa is stopped at the beginning of November, leaving the Allies free to land in Sicily and Italy.
To the west, the US and British navies gain control of the Atlantic shipping lanes, clearing the way for the 'D-Day' landings on the Normandy beaches in France on 6 June 1944 and the invasion of Germany six months later. Soviet troops, meanwhile, advance from the east.
The Nazis call for "total war" against the Allies.
1944 - On 29 April, Wake and another SOE operative, Major John Farmer, are parachuted into the Auvergne region of central France to help organise and lead the 7,000-strong 'Maquis' Resistance fighters in preparation for the D-Day invasion on 6 June.
"Over civilian clothes, silk-stockinged and high-heeled, I wore overalls, carried revolvers in the pockets, and topped the lot with a bulky camel-haired coat, webbing harness, parachute and tin hat," she later writes of the experience.
Under the alias of Madame Andrée, Wake organises parachute supply drops, collects and distributes weapons and ensures that radio contact is maintained with the SOE in Britain. She also participates in the guerrilla warfare leading up to and following D-Day, including sabotage raids on German installations and an attack on the local Gestapo headquarters in Montlucon.
When the supply drops are threatened by the loss of radio codes during a German offensive, Wake embarks on a marathon trek, walking and cycling about 500 kilometres in 72 hours and crossing several German checkpoints, in order to find an operator to radio Britain and request new codes.
"I got there and they said: 'How are you?' I cried. I couldn't stand up, I couldn't sit down. I couldn't do anything. I just cried," she later recalls.
One of her comrades in the Resistance, Henri Tardivat, later describes Wake as "the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then, she is like five men."
According to Wake, "In those days it was safer, or a woman had more chance than a man, to get around because the Germans were taking men out just like that."
The Allied forces liberate Paris on 25 August. Soon after the Germans are driven from France. However, the victory is shrouded by tragedy for Wake when she learns that her husband, Henri, had been captured, tortured and executed by the Germans after she left France in 1943. "I will go to my grave regretting that," Wake later tells her biographer Peter FitzSimmons, "for Henri was the love of my life."
General de Gaulle quickly takes charge of the political situation in liberated France, setting up a new provisional government. Collaborators are called to account, with about 10,000 being executed and 40,000 sent to prison. Vichy Government leader Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain is tried and condemned to death (the sentence is later commuted to life imprisonment). His deputy, Pierre Laval, is executed.
1945 - By March the Soviet armies have overrun most of Eastern Europe and are converging on Berlin. By April an Allied victory in Europe is certain. Berlin falls to the Soviet forces on 2 May. Germany surrenders unconditionally on 7 May.
The Second World War officially ends on 2 September when Japan formally signs documents of unconditional surrender.
Over 46 million Europeans have died as a result of the war. Worldwide, over 60 million have died.
Wake's contribution to the war effort will be recognised with numerous medals and awards, including the George Medal from Britain (awarded 17 July 1945), the Médaille de la Résistance, Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur (awarded 1988) and three Croix de Guerre (two with bronze palms and one with a silver star) from France, and the Medal of Freedom (with a bronze palm) from the US. She is the most decorated servicewoman of the Second World War.
1946 - Wake is appointed as executive officer in the British Foreign Office attached to the embassies in Paris and Prague. She will remain in the position until 1948.
1948 - Wake resigns from the Foreign Office and returns to Sydney, arriving in January 1949.
1949 - She stands as a Liberal Party candidate for the Sydney seat of Barton in the Australian Federal election but is beaten by the incumbent, Labor Party deputy leader Herbert Vere Evatt. She tries and fails again at the 1951 election.
1951 - Unable to find suitable employment in Australia, Wake returns to Britain, where she is appointed as a Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) officer in the Department of the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Intelligence) of the British Air Ministry. She will remain in this post until 1958.
1957 - Wake marries John Forward, a British fighter pilot and former prisoner of war. The couple move to Malta, where Forward is stationed.
1960 - Wake and her husband move to Australia to live. She tries to enter politics a final time in 1966, standing for the Liberal Party in the Sydney seat of Kingsford Smith, but is again unsuccessful. In the 1980s Wake and her husband retire to Port Macquarie on the North Coast of New South Wales.
1985 - Wake publishes her autobiography, 'The Autobiography of the Woman the Gestapo Called the White Mouse'.
1997 - Wake's husband, John, dies.
2001 - On 6 December Wake leaves Australia for good to spend the remainder of her life in Europe. She lives in the Stafford Hotel in London on the proceeds of the sale of her medals. When these funds run out she receives financial assistance from her many admirers.
"There was no point in keeping them," she says of the sale of her medals. "When I die, I'll probably go to hell and they'd melt anyway. My only condition is when I die, I want my ashes scattered over the hills where I fought alongside all those men."
2003 - Wake suffers a heart attack but survives.
2004 - On 22 February Wake is appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia in recognition of her "significant contribution and commitment" during the war.
She lives in the Royal Star and Garter Home for ex-servicemen in Richmond, West London.
2006 - The Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association awards Wake it highest honour, the RSA Badge in Gold.
2011 - Nancy Wakes dies in London on 7 August after being taken to hospital with a chest infection. In accord with her wishes, her ashes are scattered at the village of Verneix near Montlucon in central France.
Comment: The resistance to the Nazi invasion of France was a movement of many heroes. In the French Section of the SOE alone, 91 men and 13 women gave their lives in the battle against the fascists. Other SOE members like Odette Sansom endured torture and the prospect of death in Nazi concentration camps. French Resistance leader Jean Moulin died on 8 July 1943 after being captured and tortured by the Gestapo. He is now considered a French national hero. Many other French Resistance fighters also perished. Nancy Wake is a symbol of their struggle and their sacrifice.
"I hate wars and violence," she once said, "but if they come I don't see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas."
www.moreorless.net.au · 2000-2015