Day 92 of Colourisation Project – August 7
Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.
On this day, August 7 in 2011, Nancy Wake, the most decorated servicewoman of the Allies in WWII and the Gestapo’s most-wanted person, passed away. Code-named, ‘The White Mouse’ by the Germans because of her ability to elude capture, her’s is a story of exceptional courage and daring exploits in the face of impossible odds.
This young Australian woman took on the role of Resistance fighter, leading an army of 7,000 troops in guerrilla warfare to sabotage the German Nazis. Her selfless valour helped save the lives of hundreds of Allied personnel and helped bring the Nazi occupation of France to an end.
Born in Wellington, NZ in 1912 her family moved to Sydney, Australia when she was two years old. She left home at 16 and made her way to London where she studied journalism. Her working life started out as a correspondent for The Chicago Tribune in Paris, reporting on the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Her work also took her to Vienna, where she witnessed the brutality of the Nazis and the rise of anti-Semitism. That was the seminal moment that led her onto the road of freedom fighter. All her efforts from this time on were aimed at ridding Europe of the Nazis.
In 1937, she met the the love of her life, the charming, sophisticated and very wealthy French industrialist, Henri Fiocca. She married him two years later and settled down to a life of luxury in Marseille. Her dream life came to an abrupt halt six months later when France was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany. Nancy didn’t hesitate to join the burgeoning resistance movement working as a courier, smuggling messages and food to underground groups in Southern France, all the while perfectly camouflaged by her high-society life in Marseille. Manning dangerous escape routes through France she helped save the lives of hundreds of Allied troops. She bought an ambulance and used it to help prisoners of war and refugees fleeing the German advance.
Her Resistance work placed her in constant danger. The Gestapo were onto her, tapping her phone and opening her mail. By 1943, Wake was No.1 on the Gestapo’s most wanted list and there was a five million-franc price on her head. Remaining in France was too risky an option so she set about returning to Britain via the arduous route across the Pyrenees. After five failed attempts and one arrest where she was interrogated and tortured for four days, she eventually made her way back to Britain, with no news of her husband’s whereabouts.
Back in England she continued her fight. At the age of 31, she became one of 39 women and 430 men in the French Section of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), which worked with local resistance groups to sabotage the Germans in the occupied territories. She trained as a spy at a British Ministry of Defense camp in Scotland in all manner of warfare; survival skills, silent killing, codes and radio operation, night parachuting, plastic explosives, Sten guns, rifles, pistols and grenades. Officially assigned to the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, her war efforts in the SEO unit remained a closely guarded secret until after the end of war.
In April 1944 she parachuted into the Auvergne region in central France, on a mission to organise wireless communication between London and the Resistance fighters. It also fell on her to oversee ammunition and arms caches from the nightly RAF parachute drops, and to facilitate the destruction of key targets.
In country overrun by German troops, she had to sleep out in the woodland to avoid detection. On one occasion she cycled 500 km through several German checkpoints to replace vital codes her wireless operator had been forced to destroy in a German raid. Through sheer tenacity she made the trip in 72 hours.
She survived countless violent engagements with the Germans shooting her way through roadblocks. She executed a German woman spy and killed a sentry with a judo-chop blow to the throat, to keep him from alerting the guard during a raid on a German munitions factory.
On 25 August 1944, upon the liberation of France, Wake led her troops into Vichy to celebrate. Elation soon turned to heartbreak as she learned that her husband had been arrested, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo in 1943 because he had refused to give them any information about her whereabouts.
Aged 37 and finding life difficult in post-war Europe she returned to Australia in 1949. She became involved in politics and ran twice for the Liberal Party in the seat of Barton, against Labor’s “Doc” Evatt, being defeated both times.
Dissatisfied with life back in Australia, Wake made the journey back to England and continued working at the British Air Ministry in the Intelligence Department. In 1957 she married John Forward a RAF Officer and former prisoner of war. They returned to Australia in 1959 and retired to Port Macquarie after another failed attempt at politics. When Forward died in 1997, Wake decided on yet another return trip to England. She returned in 2001 and lived there to the end of her days.
She passed away on 7 August 2011 just three weeks short of her 99th birthday. Her final wish to be cremated was observed,
“…and I want my ashes to be scattered over the mountains where I fought with the resistance. That will be good enough for me”.
Accordingly her ashes were scattered at Verneix, near Montluçon, scene of her parachute drop into extreme service for her country.
Her altruistic endeavours and bravery saw her highly decorated by France, Britain and the USA. She received the George Medal from Britain for her leadership and bravery under fire, the Commonwealth of Nations 1939-1945 Star, the Commonwealth of Nations France and Germany Star, British Defence Medal, the British War Medal 1939-1945, the French Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, the French Croix de Guerre with two Palms and a Star, the French Officier de la Légion d’Honneur, the US Medal of Freedom with Bronze Palm and French Medaille de la Resistance for her courageous efforts.
For many decades, she went unrecognised by the Australian government, possibly because she was considered a New Zealand citizen. At first, she declined offers of decorations from Australia, saying,
“The last time there was a suggestion of that 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 love so I don’t want anything from them.”
It was not until 2004 that Wake eventually received the Companion of the Order of Australia. In 2006 she received the NZ Returned Services Association’s highest honour, the RSA Badge in Gold, for her war efforts.
Wakes’ medals are on display in the Second World War gallery at the Australian War Memorial.
“I hate wars and violence, but if they come I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.”
— Nancy Wake