Women in History: Nancy Wake

Nancy Wake was born in New Zealand in 1912, and just a few months before her second birthday, her family moved to Sydney, Australia, where she grew up.

When she was sixteen years old, Nancy left home and got a job as a nurse until she lleft the country for New York, then London where she trained in journalism, before moving to Paris where she worked as a journalist in the 1930s, writing a great deal about the rise of fascism and the horrors of anti-semitism in Nazi Germany. She married and moved to Marseilles in 1939. 

When France surrendered to Germany in 1940, Nancy worked as an ambulance driver in the war. She and her husband joined the French Resistance, for whom she worked as a courier before working to help both Jewish people and Allied servicemen to escape. She made several attempts of her own to escape, having fled Marseilles and even being imprisoned for attempting to leave the country unlawfully.

By the time Nancy did manage to escape to Spain via the Pyrenees Mountains, she was one of the Nazi’s “most wanted” secret agents. It was the Germans who gave her the name ‘The White Mouse’ in reference to her ability to evade capture. 

Once out of France, Nancy made her way to England where she received training in Special Operations. Nancy returned to France in 1944, tasked with helping the French Resistance organise and prepare for D-Day. She organised parachute drops of arms and supplies, and actually experienced combat against German troops. 

It wasn’t until after the liberation of France that Nancy learned that the Gestapo had killed her husband in 1943. His death was something she never got over, as she held herself responsible because he would not betray her. She finished her time with the Resistance in 1944, and returned to Special Operations in Paris and then London. 

After the war she received medals and, in later years, honours from Britain, France and the USA for her service and bravery. 

On her return to Australia she tried to enter politics more than once, but her attempts to win a seat in Parliament were unsuccessful. Restless and unfulfilled, Nancy travelled to England in 1957 and married again, returning to Australia with her husband. 

Nancy Wake published her autobiography, ‘The White Mouse’ in 1985. 

After her husband’s death in 1997, Nancy sold her medals to provide for herself. She went back to England in 2001 and spent the rest of her life there. She died in August, 2011, and her ashes were scattered near Verneix in central France. 

I admire Nancy Wake for her gutsy attitude, her opposition to injustice and her total commitment to a cause. She is a woman in history whom others can rightly consider a most inspiring role model.

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