The Mouse Who Roared

Nancy_Wake

They couldn’t catch her.

The White Mouse

Beneath her immaculate red fingernails, fur coats and love for gin and tonic, Ms Wake was a courageous and ruthless warrior.  General Dwight Eisenhower once said Wake alone was worth five army divisions.  “I have only one thing to say: I killed a lot of Germans, and I am only sorry I didn’t kill more,” Ms Wake famously said of her wartime exploits.

With a roar that makes both her name and nickname seem quaintly ironic this is Nancy at 89: “Somebody once asked me, ‘Have you ever been afraid?’ … Hah! I’ve never been afraid in my life.”

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake, Crafter Artisan, (30 August 1912 – 7 August 2011) served as a British agent during the later part of World War II. She became a leading figure in the maquis groups of the French Resistance and was one of the Allies’ most decorated servicewomen of the war. After the fall of France in 1940, she became a courier for the French Resistance and later joined the escape network of Captain Ian Garrow. By 1943, Wake was the Gestapo’s most wanted person, with a 5 million-franc price on her head.

After reaching Britain, Wake joined the Special Operations Executive. On the night of 29–30 April 1944, Wake was parachuted into the Auvergne, becoming a liaison between London and the local maquis group headed by Captain Henri Tardivat in the Forest of Tronçais. From April 1944 until the liberation of France, her 7,000+ maquisards fought 22,000 SS soldiers, causing 1,400 casualties, while taking only 100 themselves. [Wikipedia,revised]

 Nancy Wake’s interview

She was much younger than her brothers and sisters, and strongly independent. Born in New Zealand.

“I was a loner and I had a good imagination.”

She was a rebel, in particular shunning her mother’s strict religious beliefs.  Wake was raised without affection by her embittered mother after her father had walked out on them.

“I adored my father,” Wake recently told the Sunday Times, sitting on her bar stool with a walking stick in one hand and a gin and tonic in the other. “He was very good-looking. But he was a bastard. He went to New Zealand to make a movie about the Maoris, and he never came back. He sold our house from under us and we were kicked out.”

In 1928, at the age of 16, Nancy commenced work as a nurse. In 1932, she inherited some money and immediately used it to travel to London, then mainland Europe to train and work as a journalist. One of her early assignments was to interview Adolph Hitler. In the same year, she visited Vienna and witnessed the impact of the Nazi regime first hand. She later recounted:

“The stormtroopers had tied the Jewish people up to massive wheels. They were rolling the wheels along, and the stormtroopers were whipping the Jews. I stood there and thought, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do about it, but if I can do anything one day, I’ll do it.’ And I always had that picture in my mind, all through the war.”

Slowly but surely Nancy drew herself into the fight. In 1940 she joined the embryonic resistance movement as a courier, smuggling messages and food to underground groups in Southern France. She also bought an ambulance and used it to help refugees fleeing the German advance.

As the beautiful wife of a wealthy businessman, she had an ability to travel in a way that few others could contemplate. She obtained false papers that allowed her to stay and work in the Vichy zone in occupied France. She became deeply involved in helping to spirit a thousand or more escaped prisoners of war and downed Allied fliers out of France. Although she was judged to be unruly, her exuberant spirits and physical daring were thought “good for morale”.

Like all the Artisans, Crafters are people who love action, and who know instinctively that their activities are more enjoyable, and more effective, if done impulsively, spontaneously, subject to no schedules or standards but their own. [Please Understand Me II]

By 1942, the Gestapo had become aware of an unidentified agent that was proving to be a significant thorn in their side. They code named the agent ‘the white mouse‘  because the agent kept slipping between the cracks and avoiding capture and they listed her as number one on their wanted list, attracting a five million franc reward.

When the underground network was betrayed that same year, she decided to flee Marseille.

Escape was not easy. She made six attempts to get out of France by crossing the Pyrenees into Spain. On one of these attempts she was captured by the French Milice (Vichy militia) in Toulouse and interrogated for four days. She held out, refusing to give the Milice any information, and with the help of the legendary ‘Scarlet Pimpernel of WWII’, Patrick O’Leary, tricked her captors into releasing her.

Wake’s dramatic life story and her feisty, courageous personality made her the ideal subject for documentaries and dramatisations. She tells her own story with interviews, reconstructions, stills and film footage in Nancy Wake – Code Name: The White Mouse.

In 1987 a television mini-series was made about her life. However the subject was irritated by historical liberties that were taken with her life story, such as showing her having an affair while working for the Resistance in Auvergne:

“What do you think my bosses in England would have thought, all those thousands of pounds to train me and for me to go and have an affair. Really! The mini-series was well-acted but in parts it was extremely stupid. At one stage they had me cooking eggs and bacon to feed the men. For goodness sake did the Allies parachute me into France to fry eggs and bacon for the men? There wasn’t an egg to be had for love nor money, and even if there had been why would I be frying it when I had men to do that sort of thing?”

Nancy Wake’s comrade Henri Tardivat perhaps best characterised the guerrilla chieftain: “She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then, she is like five men.”

openquoteFreedom 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.closedquote — Nancy Wake

Other examples of Crafter Artisans include:  Karen FinermanClarissa ShieldsChelsea BakerLarry BirdKatherine HepburnBruce LeeJay-ZMickey RourkeLisa PresleyTatum and Ryan O’Neal and Michael Jordan.

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