World War II heroine, the White Mouse, dies

By AAP and AG staff 8 August 2011
Reading Time: 3 Minutes Print this page
Nancy Wake, the most decorated Australian servicewomen of WWII, known as the ‘White Mouse’, has died.

AUSTRALIAN WORLD WAR II heroine Nancy Wake has died in a London hospital, days before her 99th birthday.

Nancy, who was born in Wellington on 13 August 1912 and emigrated to Australia with her family when she was two, fought with the French Resistance and was dubbed the ‘White Mouse’ for her ability to evade Nazi agents. A close friend confirmed Wake’s death early on Monday.

She had lived in a London nursing home for retired veterans since a heart attack in 2003. Her health recently deteriorated after being admitted to hospital with a chest infection. Her condition worsened over the weekend and she died peacefully on Sunday evening at the Kingston Hospital.

The spy who saved thousands

When France was occupied by the Nazis in 1940 she and French husband Henri Fiocca became active in the resistance movement, saving thousands of Allied lives by setting up escape routes and sabotaging German installations. Trained as a spy by the British, she led resistance fighters in D-Day preparations and was on top of the Gestapo’s most wanted list.

Nancy is also regarded as a heroine in France, which decorated her with its highest military honour, the Legion d’Honneur, as well as three Croix de Guerre and a French Resistance Medal. She was also awarded Britain’s George Medal,  the US Medal of Freedom, and she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2004.

In 1939 she married Henri at Marseilles in France. “He was the love of my life,” she once said.

When the Germans became “curious” about her, in WWII, she fled to England. In reprisal Henri, a wealthy industrialist, was taken by the Gestapo and executed in 1943. “I remember going out the door saying (to her husband) I’d do some shopping, that I’d be back soon. And I left and never saw him again,” Nancy once said.

Later in the war she saw, first hand, several of her resistance comrades gunned down by firing squad. “They were my men and they were slaughtered by the Germans,” she said.

Journalistic beginnings

By the 1930s, Nancy was working in Vienna as a freelance journalist. She was disgusted by the treatment meted out to Jews and that turned her against the Nazis.

When France fell to Hitler’s advancing armies in 1940, Nancy joined the Resistance before heading to England where she trained as a British special operations spy. She then parachuted into France carrying weapons for Resistance fighters hiding in the mountains and taking control of some 7500 freedom fighters before the D-Day landings.

On one occasion she cycled some 500km in 71 hours to obtain new radio codes, the originals having been destroyed in a German raid. “I got back and they said, `How are you?’ I cried. I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t do anything. I just cried,” she said of the ordeal.

After the war, Nancy continued working for British special operations in civilian posts, and also at the British Embassy in Paris. Eventually she returned to Australia with her second husband, former British prisoner of war John Forward. She dabbled in Australian politics, running for the Liberal Party, but was unsuccessful at winning a seat.

In December 2002, the then 89-year-old Wake said she would leave her Port Macquarie, New South Wales, home to live in Europe. “… I think it’s my right to settle where I’ll be happier,” she told one reporter.

She left Australia in a wheelchair in December 2001: “This is it, I’m not coming back,” she told a Sydney Morning Herald reporter in her characteristically fiesty manner. “I see no future here.”

Wake’s life was chronicled in three books, one an autobiogrpahy, and in the film Charlotte Gray starring Australian actor Cate Blanchett. But the former journalist has never been completely comfortable with being in the spotlight.

“It’s very embarrassing,” she told AAP in February 2003. “I’m sick and tired of people wanting to know about my private affairs,” she said – although she admitted she liked six gin and tonics a day. About the same time Nancy was hospitalised in London after suffering a heart attack at Stafford Hotel in Picadilly, where she had lived since leaving Australia.

In January 2004, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said the Government offered to pay for a care giver.

“She will be provided with some additional help and some additional support and comfort in her very advanced years and in special recognition of what a remarkable courageous and special Australian she was and remains,” the former prime minister said.

In March 2004, nancy was living in a west London nursing home for ex-servicemen and women, with many generous benefactors around the world picking up the tab.

She once said she wanted her ashes scattered in the mountains of Auvergne in France, where “… I was with all those men fighting for the Resistance”.