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Nancy Wake
04.26.2013 27450552861

"I donít see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas."


Nancy Wake was a hard-drinking, hard-fighting World War II special agent, saboteur, and resistance commander who survived four days of Gestapo interrogation, saved over two hundred downed Allied pilots from falling into the clutches of the Nazi penal system, blew up a couple German supply depots, had a bounty of five million Francs placed on her head, and then killed an SS stormtrooper with her bare hands by apparently dishing out a hardcore Austin Powers judo chop to the throat.

Born to a dirt-poor family in New Zealand in 1912, Nancy Wake's family moved her to Australia at the age of two.  Then her dad promptly abandoned Nancy, her mom, and her five brothers and sisters.  Growing up in poverty, Wake left home at 16 to go work as a nurse in Sydney, then at 20 she moved to London with about $300 in her pocket to try and make a new life.  By 22 this globetrotting Aussie/Kiwi was living in Paris, working as a freelance newspaper journalist during the day and  then rocking out at the hottest Parisian nightclubs after dark.  A tough-as-hell chick who could rarely be found without a double gin and tonic in her hand and designer cosmetics in her purse, Wake had a reputation for drinking hard, telling dirty jokes, and then getting a tall, dark, and handsome Frenchman pick up the tab for her. 

 

 

In 1933, Wake's newspaper beat took her to Vienna to do a story on the new German Chancellor, some guy named Adolf Hitler or something like that, so she headed out to see what the big deal was.  Wake interviewed Hitler, got the official party line, and then watched as gangs of Nazi thugs roamed the streets of Vienna beating the crap out of Jewish men and women for no good reason.  Wake, horrified by what she was seeing, vowed to oppose this Hitler fellow at any opportunity.

It wouldn't take long until she had her chance.

In 1940 the German Reich invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, and France as part of their whole "hey let's conquer the entire world" strategy of planetary domination.  By this point Wake had been married to a millionaire French industrialist for a few years, and when her husband was called up to service and ordered to desperately hurl himself in front of the Nazi War Machine in hopes that his crumpled-up mashed-to-paste corpse would perhaps clog up the gears of one of their Panzers and possibly slow it down by a couple miles per hour, Wake headed straight to the recruiting office and signed up to work as a nurse.  She drove an ambulance during the invasion of Belgium, watched the Nazis steamroll everything before them in a cloud of Teutonic dust, and then used her truck to help ferry British, Aussie, and New Zealand soldiers to the evacuation points at Dunkirk after it became painfully obvious that France was toast.

Nancy Wake, however, refused to evacuate with the rest of the English and Commonwealth forces.  She stayed behind in France, watched in horror as Hitler seized Paris and teabagged the Arc d'Triomphe with stormtroopers, and then she immediately started making plans to do whatever she could to get these Kraut bastards out of her new home and send them back to Bavaria in body bags.

 

 

Wake got to work almost immediately, using her and her husband's considerable wealth to shelter Royal Air Force pilots who had been shot down by Nazi anti-aircraft defenses in France.  Working out of a safe house she'd purchased outside Marseilles, Nancy Wake spent the first three years of the war recovering downed pilots, getting them fake papers, fabricated identification cards, new clothes, and false identities, and then ferrying them across the Pyrenees Mountains to Spain by sneaking them in trucks, bribing guards with huge stacks of cash, and doing whatever the hell she needed to do to get these pilots back to Britain safely.  Her operation became such a major pain in Germany's ass that they put a five million Franc reward out on her head, and known only by her nickname "The White Mouse", Wake at one point was on the top of the Gestapo's Most Wanted List.  Which is a bad place to be, honestly.

Finally, in 1943, the Germans started to figure out who the hell The White Mouse really was, and they then, in their typical German Gestapo way, decided the best thing to do would be to capture her, line her up against a brick wall, and shoot her in the back of the skull until she died from it.  Luckily for Ms. Wake's skull, the British spymasters intercepted the Gestapo communication ordering her arrest, and were able to relay the "GTFO" message to Nancy before the damned Nazis knocked on her front door.  Wake ran for it, made a break for the Pyrenees, and then, despite leaping from a moving train to evade them, she was shot at and captured by the Germans and hauled off to the local Gestapo police station.

They tortured her for four days.  She gave them nothing.  Not even her real name.

They let her go.  A few weeks later she was driving through the Pyrenees in the back of a coal truck, and from there it was just a quick boat ride through U-Boat infested waters until she was back in London.

Her husband, unfortunately, wasn't so lucky.  He was captured, tortured, and killed by the Nazis.

This, naturally, only made Nancy Wake more pissed off.

 

 

In London, the now-famous White Mouse was brought in to the Special Operations Executive – Britain's special office dealing with badass spy shit.  She was trained in espionage, sabotage, and other awesome things, then in April 1944 she jumped out the back of a B-24 bomber and parachuted into Central France carrying a pistol, a radio, and a fat stack of cash.  Her chute got stuck in a tree on the way down, and when the local French resistance leader said some asinine thing like "I wish all trees grew such beautiful fruit," or something equally cheesy she gave him the finger and said (in perfect French no less), "Don't give me that French shit."

When the first group of Maquis she met (as in the French Resistance fighters, not the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine guys) chivalrously decided to say, "Eh forget this war thing, let's just kill this bitch and take all her cash", Nancy Wake escaped, fled across Central France on foot in the middle of the night, linked up with another, more gentlemanly maquis cell, and then proceeded to impress every man there with her fearlessness in combat and her ability to drink them all under the table.

In less than two months, she was a high-level officer responsible for acquiring and distributing weapons, ammunition, and communications equipment for an army of about 7,000 hardcore French Resistance fighters.

 

"I had never seen anyone drink like that, and I don't think the maquis had either.
We just couldn't work out where it all went."

 

At the head of a group of dedicated, gun-toting Frenchmen, Nancy Wake spent most of 1944 – both before and after D-Day – leading daring guerilla attacks on Nazi supply depots, rail stations, and communications facilities deep behind enemy lines.  She sabotaged factories, raided depots, cut train tracks, and performed countless espionage and sabotage missions against the enemy.  In one raid she killed a Nazi with her bare hands before he raised an alarm.  In another attack she and some Maquis fighters rolled up to the local Gestapo headquarters in Montlucon, France, shot the place up, lobbed some grenades, and killed 38 members of the Reich's notorious secret police.  When enemy spies were captured, Wake was the one who interrogated them and determined whether they would live or die.  When supply drops were parachuted behind enemy lines by Allied transport planes, Wake was the one who received the coordinates, made sure guys were there to pick up the gear, and distributed it to the men.  One time, when her cell was attacked by over 10,000 Germans from the 2nd SS Panzer Division, Wake's radio was destroyed when the truck she was driving was strafed by a Nazi dive-bomber – she responded by stealing a bicycle, riding it 125 miles in 72 hours to hook up with another Maquis cell, and immediately radioed London for assistance.  On yet another occasion, Wake took command of a battle after her section leader died, then coordinated a strategic withdrawal that got her men out of a hardcore shootout with SS stormtroopers without taking any further casualties.

 

 

When the war finally ended and it was time to hand out the medals, Nancy Wake found herself the most decorated Allied woman of World War II.  She received the British George Medal, the American Medal of Freedom, the French Legion d'Honneur, and three Croix de Guerres.  She was made a member of the Order of Australia.  New Zealand named a street after her. 

Naturally, not giving a crap about awards and stuff like that, Wake sold off her medals and lived off the money for the rest of her life.  When asked why the hell she sold a trio of Croix de Guerres, she said, "There's no point in keeping them… I'll probably go the hell and they'd melt anyways."

She lived to be 98 years old.

 

"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 was no point in living"

 

 

Links:

BBC Obit

The Guardian

Washington Post

Voices for Troops

Wikipedia

 

Sources:

Atwood, Kathryn J.  Women Heroes of World War II.  Chicago Review Press, 2004.

Braddon, Russell.  Nancy Wake.  Sutton Publishing Limited, 2005.

Breuer, William B.  Daring Mission of World War II.  John Wiley & Sons, 2001.



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Tags: 20th century | Australia | British Army | Guerilla | New Zealand | Spy | Women | Writer | WWII

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