SEEING her being pushed gently around the gardens of a London nursing home, it was difficult to believe the frail old woman in the wheelchair once delighted in killing any Nazi in her way – with her bare hands.
Yet Nancy Wake was a Second World War super heroine, a Resistance fighter and secret agent so feared by Hitler’s war machine that she was top of the Gestapo’s most wanted list.
One of the most decorated Allied servicewomen of the war, Nancy was glamorous and ladylike – until fighting broke out, when she was reputed to act like “five men”.
Her famous exploits included throwing a grenade into a crowded Nazi cafe and, on a mission to blow up an ammunitions dump, killing an SS sentry with a single karate chop.
The fearless femme fatale is credited with helping to save the lives of thousands of Jews and Allied servicemen during the war by setting up escape routes through the Pyrenees.
And she played a key role in D-Day by leading 7,000 French Resistance fighters in missions to sabotage enemy installations in the run-up to the invasion.
Yet despite the Nazis’ best efforts – and a five million franc bounty on her head – Nancy always managed to evade capture, leading to her being codenamed The White Mouse by the Gestapo because she was so infuriatingly elusive.
Australian Nancy, who died on Sunday just a few days before her 99th birthday, was awarded France’s highest honour, the Legion d’honneur, Britain’s George Medal and the US Medal of Freedom for her extraordinary exploits.She was also the inspiration for Sebastian Faulks’ 1999 novel Charlotte Gray.
It is the story of a Scottish woman who joins the French Resistance during the Second World War and was made into a smash-hit film starring Cate Blanchett in 2001.
In accordance with her wishes, Nancy’s body will be cremated privately and her ashes will be scattered next spring at Montlucon in Central France, where she took part in an heroic 1944 attack on the local Gestapo headquarters.
Yesterday world leaders rushed to pay tribute to her after her death in a London hospital following a chest infection.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said: “Our nation honours a truly remarkable individual whose selfless valour and tenacity will never be forgotten. Nancy Wake was a woman of exceptional courage and resourcefulness whose daring exploits saved the lives of hundreds of Allied personnel and helped bring the Nazi occupation of France to an end.”
Her biographer Peter FitzSimons said: “They called her La souris blanche – the White Mouse – because every time they had her cornered she was gone again.
“Part of it was she was a gorgeous-looking woman. The Germans were looking for someone who looked like them, aggressive, a man with guns, and she was not like that.”
David McLachlan, president of the Returned and Services League of Australia, said: “She was very much involved in providing information for the planning of D-Day.
“She parachuted back in behind enemy lines after she’d been back to England. The Gestapo hated her, wanted her, more than anybody else. She was an incredibly brave woman.”
In one of her final interviews, aged 80, Nancy proved that, despite advancing years the feisty nature which made her a legend was still very much alive.
She said: “Someone once asked me, ‘Have you ever been afraid? Hah! I’ve never been afraid in my life.
“I loved killing Germans! I hated the Germans… I loathed and detested them, and as far as I was concerned the only good one was a dead one. And the deader the better.”
Calmly recalling the moment she karate-chopped a Nazi soldier to death, she said: “It had been raining and I thought that would be good because I wouldn’t make so much noise but I must have made a bit, because he turned around as I went to give him a karate blow and stuck his dagger in my arm.”
When asked what happened to him, she drew a finger across her throat and said: “He had it.”
Born in Wellington, New Zealand, Nancy moved to Sydney, Australia with her family when she was only two years old.
At 16 she ran away from home and worked as a nurse. Then, with £200 she had received in an aunt’s will, she travelled to New York, and London, where she trained as a journalist.
In the 30s she worked in Paris as a European correspondent for America’s Hearst newspapers and in 1939 met and married wealthy French industrialist Henri Fiocca.
In 1933 in her work as a journalist, she went to Vienna to interview Hitler.
Nancy was shocked while she was there to see Jews chained to huge wheels, being whipped by Nazi troops.
The experience had a profound effect on her and proved to be the turning point in her life. Realising what a danger Hitler posed to the world, she devoted herself to defeating the evil she had seen.
In 1939 when the Second World War broke out she immediately joined the French Resistance, starting as a courier carrying everything from simple messages to hi-tech radio parts.
She used her native cunning and beauty – being openly flirtatious – to overcome the suspicions of German guards to get through checkpoints.
Nancy soon graduated to spiriting downed Allied pilots or groups of Jewish refugees from one “safe house” to another until they reached the base of the Pyrenees, the gateway to freedom in Spain. She once said: “Freedom is the only thing worth living for. While I was doing that work I used to think it didn’t matter if I died, because without freedom there is no point in living.”
She once cycled more than 500 miles through several German checkpoints to replace codes which her wireless operator had been forced to destroy during a German raid.
Once the Gestapo almost caught her – but she shot her way out of a roadblock and managed to escape while bullets whistled around her ears. Then, at the sixth attempt, she managed to flee over the Pyrenees to safety in neutral Spain.
Her husband Henri was not so lucky. After being arrested by the Gestapo he refused to divulge her whereabouts or give an account of her activities and was executed. Nancy later said: “I will go to my grave regretting that. Henri was the love of my life.”
After escaping to Spain Nancy came to Britain and joined the Special Operations Executive, before being parachuted back into France on April 29, 1944. She became a vital liaison between London and the French Resistance.
Known by partisans by her codename Madame Andree she co-ordinated Resistance activity before the Normandy invasion and recruited more people to fight Germany.
French fighters later recalled how, to teach the male Resistance leaders to respect her, she would challenge them to drinking contests and was always the “last man” left standing at dawn. Referring to blind French Resistance hero Jacques Lusseyran, a partisan once told a British officer: “Madame Andree is braver than Jacques, and Jacques is the bravest man among us.”
After the defeat of Nazi Germany Nancy was among the first into the newly liberated Paris – but was still in a fighting mood when she got into an argument with a waiter.
The waiter thought he had won the confrontation by saying he would prefer to serve the Germans than the likes of her and her noisy friends. Nancy reflected on this for a moment before leaping to her feet and knocking him senseless with a right hook.
As soon as another alarmed waiter rushed to his fallen colleague with a glass of brandy, she grabbed it, drained it in one gulp, thanked him with the word: “Merci,” and strutted out of the door.
After the war Nancy continued working for British intelligence in Europe until 1957, when she moved back to Australia and married British fighter pilot John Forward.
While there, she unsuccessfully stood for parliament and, in 1985, published her autobiography The White Mouse.
It became a bestseller and has been reprinted many time since.
In 2001, four years after John’s death, she moved back to Britain.
Despite receiving the highest decorations from the French, British and Americans, she was for years denied a medal by her home country, Australia, on the grounds that she was not fighting for any of the Australian services during the war.
In her later years, Nancy was contacted on numerous occasions by the Australian government but she repeatedly rejected their offer of a medal.
When she was asked about this in April 2000 she was typically blunt.
“The last time there was a suggestion of giving me an Australian medal, I told the government they could stick their medals where the monkey stuck his nuts.
“The thing is if they gave me a medal now it wouldn’t be given with love so I don’t want anything from them. They can b***** off!’’
It was a typical outburst but three years later she mellowed and accepted her Companion of the Order of Australia, humbly saying: “I hope I’m worth it.
“I hope I will be able to live up to the oath that I have made to my country.
“And the people in it and those that will come after us.”
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad