Thursday, August 30, 2012

TFH 8/30: Nancy Wake, the "White Mouse"

Several weeks ago while searching around Netflix for something new to watch, I happened across a late 1980s British TV series called Wish Me Luck (IMDB). The show lasted for three series and just 23 episodes and portrays a hidden aspect of World War II: women who volunteered for covert duty assisting the French Resistance with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE, referred to in the show as "the Outfit"). Much of Wish Me Luck was based on the real-life exploits of one such courageous woman: Nancy Wake.

Nancy Wake, c. 1945
Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born in Wellington, New Zealand on August 30, 1912. She is today's Their Finest Hour honoree as this would have been her 100th birthday. Her journey from youth to wartime heroine is truly a remarkable one.

Ms. Wake was the youngest of six children. She moved to Australia at age two. Not long after, her father abandoned her mother and siblings and returned to New Zealand. She ran away from home at age 16 and found work as a nurse. In the 1930s, she travelled first to New York and then London, before settling in Paris where, self-trained, she worked as both a freelance journalist and for Hearst.

Soon after World War II broke out, she married the French industrialist Henri Fiocca on November 30, 1939. The couple lived in Marseille when France fell, and both began working with the Resistance. Wake acted as a courier and also sheltered many downed British and later American flyers before handing them off to escape networks.

By 1943, Nancy Wake was one of the Gestapo's most wanted resistance members in France. Not knowing her identity, the Nazis called her the "White Mouse" - in part because of her ability to evade capture. When her resistance network was betrayed and she was arrested - and able to bluff her way out of custody - the time had come to flee. She was forced to leave her husband behind and after six attempts, finally was able to escape across the Pyrenees to Spain.

Henri was arrested by the Gestapo, then tortured and murdered because he refused to give Nancy up. She didn't learn what happened to him until after the war. Nancy's war however, was far from over.

In Britain, Wake then volunteered for the SOE, ultimately to return to France and back to the Resistance. As a cover, she was given a position with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) while in reality she was being trained in guerrilla warfare, sabotage, wireless communications, armed and unarmed combat, and other covert action skills.

She returned to action when she parachuted back into France as part of the Allies build-up and intensification of Resistance activities in the days leading to the invasion. Her fighting spirit, tenacity, and resourcefulness were quickly recognized by the predominately male fighters she led. Much of her work was with the Maquis guerrillas. She led them on many successful attacks on Nazi installations and forces, including on the Gestapo office in Montluçon.

She fought both with guile and force. When a young woman in their midst was exposed as a German spy and collaborator, it was Nancy Wake who executed the traitor when the French hesitated. When an SS sentry nearly discovered an attacking Maquis unit, it was Nancy Wake who killed the sentry silently with her bare hands. Time and time again, at extreme risk to her own life, she put the cause of liberty and freedom above all.

Nancy Wake's wartime history is too extensive to retell here, and I obtained the first of the several books written about her life and experiences just two days ago and haven't been able to read it all.

After the war, she became one of the very few non-French to be awarded the Médaille de la Résistance (Medal of the Resistance), established in 1943 by Charles de Gaulle. The French government also later recognized her with two different degrees of the Legion of Honour (Chevalier in 1970, Officier in 1988).

Both the British Empire (UK) and the United States decorated her for her valor. The British honored her with the George Medal, established in 1940 as the Empire's second-highest award for bravery among civilians. The United States' Medal of Freedom (established 1945 for civilian acts of valor dating back to December 7, 1941) was bestowed upon her with the Bronze Palm designator. Personally, I wonder if those honorifics were lowballed.

Nancy Wake's award Citations are taken from the first biography written about her, Russell Braddon's The White Mouse, 1956, Appendix 1, pp. 252-254.

George Medal Citation (British Empire/United Kingdom)

Ensign Nancy Grace Augusta Wake, F.A.N.Y.

This officer was parachuted into France on the 1st March 1944 as assistant to an organizer who was taking over the direction of an important circuit in Central France. The day after their arrival she and her chief found themselves stranded and without directions, through the arrest of their contact, but ultimately reached their rendezvous by their own initiative.

Ensign Wake worked for several months helping to train and instruct Maquis groups. She took part in several engagements with the enemy, and showed the utmost bravery under fire. During a German attack, due to the arrival by parachute of two American officers to help in the Maquis, Ensign Wake personally took command of a section of ten men whose leader was later demoralized. She led them to within point-blank range of the enemy, directed their fire, rescued the two American officers, and withdrew in good order. She showed exceptional courage and coolness in the face of enemy fire.

When the Maquis group with which she was working was broken up by large-scale German attacks, and W/T contact was lost, Ensign Wake went alone to find a wireless operator through whom she could contact London. She covered some 200 kms. on foot, and by remarkable steadfastness and perseverance succeeded in getting a message through to London, giving the particulars of a ground where a new W/T plan and further stores could be dropped. It was largely due to these efforts that the circuit was able to start work again.

Ensign Wake's organizing ability, endurance, courage and complete disregard for her own safety earned her the respect and admiration of all with whom she came in contact. The Maquis troop, most of them rough and difficult to handle, accepted orders from her, and treated her as one of their own male officers. Ensign Wake contributed in a large degree to the success of the groups with which she worked, and it is strongly recommended that she receive the George Medal.

Medal of Freedom with Bronze Palm Citation (United States)

Ensign Nancy Wake, British National, F.A.N.Y., for exceptionally meritorious achievement which aided the United States in the prosecution of the war against the enemy in Continental Europe, from March 1944 to October 1944. After having been parachuted into the Allier Department of France for the purpose of coordinating Resistance activities, she immediately assumed her duties as second-in-command to the organizer of the circuit. Despite numerous difficulties and personal danger she, through her remarkable courage, initiative and coolness succeeded in accomplishing her objective. Her daring conduct in the course of an enemy engagement safeguarded the lives of two American officers under her command. Her inspiring leadership, bravery, and exemplary devotion to duty contributed materially to the success of the war effort and merit the praise and recognition of the United States. (GO 3. Hq USFET, 9 January 1947.)

In 2004 she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia - the highest civilian award of that nation - for her wartime service.

Ms. Wake continued to work in defense and intelligence after the war. She remarried in 1957. Wake and her new husband, John Forward, returned to Australia in the early 1960s. She ran for public office on two occasions in Australia (once was in 1951), but was not elected. After she lost John after 40 years of marriage in 1997, she returned to live in London.

Nancy Wake passed away from natural causes at Kingston Hospital in London on August 7, 2011 - just a few weeks before her 99th birthday. On her request, her remains were cremated and the ashes scattered in Montluçon, Allier Department, France - the ground upon which she so valiantly fought for the freedom of all nearly 70 years before.

Thank you, Nancy; our world today is a better place because of how you fought.

(In addition to the Wikipedia article already linked, and the book cited above, this post also draws upon these two obituaries: The Economist and The New York Times.)

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