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Nancy Wake: The Most Decorated Female Spy of World War II

I am a freelance writer with a degree in Journalism and Communications. I enjoy researching history and sharing unique stories.

Nancy Wake during World War II

Nancy Wake during World War II

Nancy Wake: "The White Mouse"

Trained in sabotage and espionage by British Intelligence during World War II, Nancy Wake assisted in providing weapons and leading thousands of French resistance fighters against German defenses prior to D-Day. Working undercover in Nazi-occupied France, she distributed codebooks, weapons, and money, and she carried out many dangerous missions and raids.

Why Was She Called "The White Mouse"?

Wake's intelligence and skill helped her evade capture by the Germans many times. This led to her becoming one of the Gestapo's most wanted people. In fact, Wake's ability to elude capture led to the Gestapo nicknaming her “The White Mouse.” It seemed each time they had her cornered and believed she would be captured, she found a way to escape. At first, they didn't realize they were looking for a woman; of course, the Germans assumed the pesky spy causing them so many problems was a man.

Early Life

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born on August 30, 1912, the youngest of six children, in Wellington, New Zealand. When she was two years old, her family moved to Sydney, Australia.

At the age of 16, Wake left home and started working as a nurse, but after receiving a small inheritance from an aunt, she went to London via New York City and learned to be a journalist.

During the 1930s, Wake worked for Hearst newspapers as their European correspondent. While covering a story in Germany, she saw the rise of the Nazi movement and Adolf Hitler. She watched in horror as gangs of Nazis roamed the streets of Vienna and regularly beat Jewish men and women. This experience made her determined to find a way to defeat Hitler and the Nazis.

Marriage to Henri Edmond Fiocca

Wake met her husband, Henri Edmond Fiocca, a wealthy French industrialist, in 1937. The couple married in November of 1939, after which they moved to Marseille, France. A short time later, Germany invaded and occupied France.

Nancy Wake and husband, Henri Edmond Fiocca

Nancy Wake and husband, Henri Edmond Fiocca

Member of the French Resistance

In 1940, Wake became a courier for the French Resistance. Later, she became part of a network to help people escape and worked for a French captain named Ian Garrow. During this time, she smuggled food and messages to groups working underground in southern France. She also obtained an ambulance that was used to help refugees flee the German advance.

Nancy Wake with French Resistance

Nancy Wake with French Resistance

She Helped Prisoners Escape

As the beautiful wife of a wealthy French businessman, Wake was able to travel around the country in a way others could not. She obtained falsified papers that enabled her to work and stay within the occupied area of France known as the Vichy zone. She assisted over one thousand prisoners of war, including many Allied pilots, escape France by going through Spain.

The Gestapo's Most-Wanted List

Wake's work with the French Resistance meant she was in a constant state of danger. She was suspected of being a spy by the Gestapo and was constantly watched by them. Her phone was tapped, and her mail was opened. In 1943, there was a five million-franc reward offered to anyone who helped capture her. She was the most wanted person by the Gestapo in France.

This was when the leaders of the resistance told her she had to go to Britain. It took six attempts before she was able to get out of France by crossing the Pyrenees and going into Spain. She was captured by the Vichy militia and interrogated for several days, but she refused to give them any information. A friend tricked her captors into letting her go free, and eventually, she made it safely to Britain.

Member of British Special Operations

Once in Britain, Wake became one of 39 women in the French section of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). This group was responsible for working with local groups resisting Germans in occupied territories. During this time, she was trained in night parachuting, survival skills, and silent killing. She was also taught how to use grenades, rifles, and pistols, as well as plastic explosives and more.

Nancy Wake during covert operations

Nancy Wake during covert operations

Behind Enemy Lines Ahead of D-Day Invasion

In 1944, Wake and British Major John Farmer parachuted into central France. Their mission was to locate and organize groups of resistance fighters. They established places to store arms and ammunition provided by regular parachute drops.

Wake and Farmer also established wireless communication with Britain. Their objective was to weaken the German army before the D-Day invasion. There were over 21,000 German troops where they were operating. Initially, they had 3,000 resistance fighters with them, but Wake was able to recruit more than double that number. She led the resistance fighters in guerilla warfare and caused German troops and facilities significant damage. She was able to obtain and distribute weapons to resistance fighters and establish even more radio communication outposts.

A 300-Mile Mission by Bike

One of Wake's missions involved her riding a bicycle over 300 miles through numerous German checkpoints to replace codes a radio operator had been forced to destroy during a German raid. Without these codes, Wake and the resistance fighters would not be able to obtain orders, weapons, or supplies. She spent over 70 hours cycling through mountainous terrain in order to complete her mission.

Nancy Wake describing a mission to French Resistance fighters

Nancy Wake describing a mission to French Resistance fighters

Germans Tried to Kill Her

The Germans discovered where Wake and her resistance fighters were based and made plans to destroy them. In June of 1944, over 21,000 German troops surrounded the town where they were staying. It was one of the most hard-fought battles Wake had ever experienced; the Germans used aircraft, mobile guns, mortars, and artillery.

Eventually, Wake and most of the resistance fighters were able to escape. When it was over, the Germans had lost over 1,350 troops, and the resistance had lost 100 fighters.

Wake continued her fight against the Germans. She personally organized and led a raid against a Gestapo headquarters. During another raid on a German gun factory, she killed a sentry with her bare hands. Wake often shot her way through roadblocks and more.

Nancy Wake being awarded a medal

Nancy Wake being awarded a medal

Post-War Years

When the war was over, Wake left France. She learned that the Germans had captured her husband, Henri, in 1943. Because he had refused to provide any information about the location or activities of his wife, they tortured and executed him.

Wake went to Britain and worked at the British Air Ministry and Intelligence Department. She received many medals, including the George Medal from Britain and the Medal of Freedom from the United States. France awarded her the Legion d'Honneur as well as the Croix de Guerre with a silver star as well as two bronze palms.

In 1960, Wake married a former English prisoner of war named John Forward. Together, they moved to Australia.

Nancy Wake wrote an autobiography about her life

Nancy Wake wrote an autobiography about her life

Portrayals in the Media

Several books were written about Wake's experiences in World War II, including one she wrote herself called The White Mouse. In 1987, a TV miniseries was produced about her life, and in 2001, the movie Charlotte Gray, starring Cate Blanchett, portrayed the lives of Wake as well as other female spies during World War II.

Nancy Wake at the end of her life

Nancy Wake at the end of her life

Death

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake died at the age of 98 on August 7, 2011, in London, where she had been living in a nursing home since 2003. She was cremated, and her ashes were spread at a village in Vernix, France.

Comments

Readmikenow (author) on June 14, 2019:

RTalloni, I agree, she was an amazing woman.

RTalloni on June 14, 2019:

Such courage and character she had. I may have seen something about The White Mouse but this definitely whetted my appetite to learn more about this woman and those she worked with at that time. I will try to find Charlotte Gray.

Readmikenow (author) on March 31, 2018:

Mary, thanks. When I researched this article I found her to be such an inspiration. A truly special person.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on March 31, 2018:

What a great story. I will always remember her and the courage she had. It is admirable. I have to confess I have not heard of her before sot hanks for this hub.

Readmikenow (author) on February 13, 2018:

FlourishAnyway thanks! I agree, she was an incredible person. I know there is probably much more to her than I could find on my research.

FlourishAnyway from USA on February 13, 2018:

What a hero. I am in awe of her bravery and badassery. Thank goodness she was on our side. Currently, I am reading a fiction book called The Alice Network about female spies such as her, and it's very much like these tales. Perhaps it's even built off her account. What a phenomenal woman!

Readmikenow (author) on January 31, 2018:

Stephen, thanks. I was so impressed with her story. What a true hero.

Readmikenow (author) on September 11, 2017:

Ron, thanks! Her story is overwhelming with courage and determination.

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 10, 2017:

Interesting account. I had never heard of Nancy Wake, but her story is a great example of courage in the most difficult of circumstances.