It was March 1944 in occupied France, when the French Resistance leader Henri Tardivat found her, dangling from a tree. Her name was Nancy Wake, and she had just jumped from a B24 bomber, with a pocketful of classified documents. Tardivat couldn’t help himself. “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year”. “Don’t give me that French shit” she snapped, as she cut herself out of the tree.
Nancy Wake was not a woman to be trifled with.
Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born in New Zealand and moved to Australia as a young girl. She later moved to Paris where she met her future husband, the wealthy French industrialist, Henri Fiocca.
As a freelance journalist, a Parisian newspaper sent Wake to Vienna in 1933 to interview a German politician, by the name of Adolf Hitler. There she witnessed firsthand the wretched treatment meted out to Austrian Jews by followers of the future dictator. She vowed she would oppose this man, by any means necessary.
She would get her chance in 1940 when the German Blitzkrieg tore through Belgium, the Netherlands and France.
The couple had the means to leave but chose to stay in France, to help the Maquis. The French Resistance. For two years, Nancy and her husband Henri worked to hide downed allied flyers and get them out, of Nazi occupied France.
With the Gestapo reading their mail and staking out the Fiocca home the writing was on the wall. Nancy fled while Henri remained in Paris, to continue the couples work with the resistance.
Henri would be captured and tortured before execution, to reveal the whereabouts of his wife. Nancy would not learn until after the war, the man never gave up her whereabouts.
The British SOE called her by the code name, Hélène. To the Maquis she was Andrée. It was during her flight from France that Wake earned the name which would stick, given by the Gestapo who wanted her dead. “White Mouse,” they called her, for her ability to hide in plain sight and to disappear, without a trace. “A little powder and a little drink on the way” she later explained “and I’d pass their (German) posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me? God”, she said, “what a flirtatious little bastard I was.”
Once picked up on a train outside of Toulouse she spun a wild tale about being the mistress, of one of the guards. She pleaded with her captors that her husband could never know. Astonishingly, they let her go.
Wake eventually escaped occupied France moving first through the Pyrenees into Spain and then, to England. There she joined the British Special Operatives Executive (SOE). The training was intense: infiltration/exfiltration techniques, tradecraft, weapons, even hand-to-hand combat. Her trainers called her as competent, as the men in her class.
On April 29, 1944, Wake parachuted into the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of occupied France, part of a three-person team sent to support three Maquis organizations, operating in the region. She participated in a major combat operation pitting resistance members against the German wehrmacht. It was a major defeat for the Marquee. She later said she bicycled 500 km to bring a situation report, to her SOE handlers.
One day she found herself on an SOE team, on the inside of a German munitions factory. An SS guard nearly gave up the whole operation when he arrived, to investigate. Wake killed the man, with her bare hands. “They’d taught this judo-chop stuff” she later explained, “with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practiced away at it. But this was the only time I used it – whack – and it killed him all right. I was really surprised.”
SOE official historian M. R. D. Foot said “her irrepressible, infectious, high spirits were a joy to everyone who worked with her”. Henri Tardivat may have given her the ultimate compliment, after the war. “She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts” he recalled. “Then, she is like five men.”
She was the most decorated woman of World War 2, awarded the George Medal by Great Britain, the United States Medal of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance by her adopted home nation, and three times, the Croix de Guerre.
She worked for a time with the intelligence department at the British Air Ministry and dabbled in politics, after the war. She remarried, the union with RAF officer John Forward lasting 40 years until his death but producing, no children.
The White Mouse died of a chest infection on August 7, 2011, after a brief hospitalization. She was 98. Her New York Times obituary called her “The socialite who killed a Nazi, with her bare hands”.
She sold her medals along the way, because she needed the money. “There was no point in keeping them,” she said. “I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway.”