Nancy Wake was a gutsy journalist from Australia who became a leader of the Allied resistance and killed a Nazi with her bare hands.
Born in New Zealand in 1912, Nancy was raised in Sydney. She ran away from home at age 16 and went to London, where she became a self-taught journalist.
As a young woman, Nancy described herself as someone who loved nothing more than a “good drink and handsome men, especially French men.” In 1930 she married Henri Edmond Fiocca, a wealthy French industrialist.
During the 1930’s Nancy worked for Hearst newspapers as a European correspondent. Stationed in Vienna, Nancy witnessed the rise of Nazism. She was shocked to see roving gangs of Nazis beating up Jews, and never forgot the sight of Jews chained to massive wheels and rolled through the streets. She later said, “I resolved there and then that if I ever had the chance I would do anything to make things more difficult for their rotten party.”
Nancy became a courier for the French resistance. Speaking perfect French, she worked with the “maquis” – guerrilla bands of resistance fighters. After Germany invaded France, she helped Allied POW’s and other personnel escape the country.
The Gestapo called Nancy the “White Mouse.” They tapped her phone and intercepted her mail. Nancy’s life was in constant danger.
Nancy described her method of avoiding detection by the Germans: “A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I’d pass their German posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me?’ God, what a flirtatious little bastard I was.”
Nancy led repeated attacks on Gestapo headquarters. By 1943, she was the most wanted resistance fighter, with a 5 million franc price on her head.
After Nancy’s maquis network was betrayed, she fled France. Her husband stayed behind, and he was captured, tortured and killed by the Gestapo. Nancy, on her way across the Pyrenees to Spain, was unaware of her husband’s death until after the war.
In 1944, Nancy parachuted into France. Her assignment involved collecting and distributing arms and equipment that were sent in by parachute. Nancy was a highly successful recruiter, and is credited with bringing 7500 fighters into the resistance.
From April 1944 until the liberation of France in August 1944, Nancy’s band of maquisards fought 22,000 German soldiers, causing 1400 casualties while sustaining only 100 of their own.
At one point, Nancy killed an SS guard with her bare hands to stop him from raising the alarm during a raid. She later described how she did it, “They’d taught this judo-chop stuff with the flat of the hand at SOE [special operations training] and I practiced away at it. But this was the only time I used it – whack – and it killed him all right. I was really surprised.”
Another time, Nancy’s wireless operator was shut down in a German raid, and she rode her bicycle over 300 miles through German checkpoints to deliver the secret codes.
After the war, Nancy was awarded the United States Medal of Freedom, the Medaille de la Resistance, and the Croix de Guerre, among many other honors.
Nancy continued to work as an intelligence agent. She married a Royal Air Force officer in 1957 and for the next several decades they divided their time between London and Australia. Nancy’s autobiography, The White Mouse, was published in 1985 and became a bestseller.
Nancy’s husband died in 2001, and she returned to London permanently. She lived at the Stafford Hotel near Picadilly, her expenses largely paid for by the hotel’s owners, who were honored to host a renowned heroine. She could be found every morning at the hotel bar, drinking her first gin and tonic of the day.
Nancy died in 2011 at age 98. Her remarkable story has been the subject of multiple biographies and television mini-series.
For fighting the good fight against the Nazi war machine, we honor Nancy Wake as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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