Guts, steely determination, bravery and drinking skills characterised this amazing woman from NZ and Australia, who was at one stage Hitler’s most wanted woman. On the 30 August this year it will be 100 years since her birth in Wellington NZ, and gives us a moment to reflect on one of the bravest wartime heroines over the last 100 years.
Nancy Wake was born in Wellington NZ, but spent her youth living in Australia, and with her desire to see the world she ran away from home when she was 16 years old. With the help of an inheritance she travelled to London where she desperately needed a job. She saw an advertisement for a foreign journalist’s job on the Reuters Arab desk. At her interview, they asked her how her written Arabic was, and remembering her short hand writing course at Sydney before her trip to London replied “it’s very good”, and then proceeded to write in shorthand, fooling the interviewee into thinking she was writing Arabic – she got the job!
She was a knock-out of a lady and turned heads at every corner and bar! She lived in Paris and soon became an expert at balancing her cigarette delicately and sensuously in her fingers whilst drinking from her glass of red wine whilst sitting at a street-side café – a habit that would have been frowned on in Sydney or London at the time, but this was Paris!
Just prior to the occupation of France by the Germans in 1940, Nancy Wake married a wealthy trader from Marseille, where they lived. She became heavily involved in the resistance network. This network became harder and harder until the Germans also occupied the south of France and by 1943 life was exceptionally difficult for the French and Nancy Wake in the south. Nancy Wake was heavily involved in the escape network from the south of France, through to Toulouse, and across the Pyrenees Mountains, to freedom in Spain and then the repatriation of escapees to the United Kingdom. Hitler was personally interested in Nancy’s arrest and placed a large reward on her capture – he was besotted and annoyed by this “Souris Blanc”, the “white mouse” the name by which she was known. She was then required to use the network of escape she had helped establish and after many narrow escapes with the Gestapo she finally managed to cross the Pyrenees in mid-winter to her subsequent freedom in Spain, prior to her return to London.
Whilst is London, Nancy prepared for the Normandy invasion, by learning by heart thousands of codes that would be required once she had been “deposited” by parachute just prior to the invasion in central France. She was parachuted into the Auvergne region and when she landed, she landed hanging from a tree. The local band of resistance fighters came to rescue her from the tree, and one bright spark commented, “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year,” to which she replied, “Don’t give me that French shit.” Such was her habit of saying just what she thought!
Her honesty was brutal, her good looks were impressive, but her ability to drink the men under a table in evening drinking games was legendary, and helped her in gaining a healthy respect from their initial reluctance at having a lady as their leader. She would be the last to leave a bar after drinking heavily, often finishing at 5am, only to be demanding the troops be on parade early the next morning!
Her role was to coordinate the resistance fighters in this region and to prepare for the invasion. When the invasion occurred she needed to ensure that all the German troops were prevented from rushing to Normandy to assist in the defence of that region, so they became expert at demolishing railway and road bridges, bombing German convoys. The efforts were admirable and played a part in the eventual liberation of France. She fought beside men, she carried out daring dangerous deeds, whilst coordinating the troops of the region. She never hesitated in killing the enemy, sometimes with her bare hands, and as a 92 year old, Peter Fitzsimmons (in his book mentioned below) recounts her saying that the only thing she regretted is that she didn’t kill enough Germans – she didn’t like them!!
After the war Nancy Wake was largely unrecognized although in her later life she was recognized by the French government with their top award of a Legion d’Honneur, and the Australian government officially recognized her achievements. The NZ government offered her no official recognition, although in Wellington there is a memorial post dedicated to her on Oriental Parade, which came about through a local initiative rather than a national recognition! She died on 7 August 2011 at the age of 98.
If you are interested in reading more about Nancy Wake, a recent book which is a “must read” is by the Australian author (and ex rugby player) Peter Fitzsimons. This is an enthralling book, titled “Nancy Wake, a Biography of our Greatest War Heroine” (by Harper Collins Australia, 2001 (ISBN 0 7322 6919 9)).