Nancy Wake S.O.E. (Special Operations Europe)
Nancy Wake, the 91-year old Special Operations
Executive agent known as "White Mouse", has been awarded the Order of Australia.
Neil Tweedie reports Nancy Wake seemed almost weighed down by the enormous
glittering insignia placed around her neck. The Order of Australia is a big
thing, in every sense.
But Miss Wake, 91 and confined to a wheelchair, was not fazed. How could she be
as the holder already of the George Medal and three Croix de Guerre - two with
palm and one with star. And the Medaille de la Resistance. And the American
Medal of Freedom. And the insignia of a Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur.
Few, if any, women have been decorated so highly for their exploits during the
Second World War. Miss Wake was one of the bravest and most resourceful of that
extraordinary band of men and women who made up the Special Operations
Executive, the SOE, created to wage war in Nazi-occupied Europe.
On March 3rd 2004 she was belatedly recognised by the land of her upbringing
when, during a ceremony at Australia House in central London, she was made a
Companion of the Order of Australia. The honour was bestowed by the Governor
general, Major General Michael Jeffery, who is visiting Britain.
"I feel very honoured," she said. "I hope I am worth it."
Miss Wake is one of those people who it is hard to believe exist outside the
realms of fiction. At the age of 28 she was helping Allied soldiers and airmen
to escape captivity, and by 32 was leading members of the French Resistance, the
Maquis, as a member of SOE.
She parachuted into occupied France, was machine gunned by a German aircraft
while escaping in a car, cycled 270 miles in three days through numerous enemy
checkpoints with vital radio codes, and killed a German guard with her bare
hands while sabotaging a factory.
The Gestapo put her at the top of their Most Wanted list and nicknamed her the
White Mouse for her unfailing ability to slip through their hands.
Present were some of the scores of servicemen she helped to escape. Air Chief
Marshal Sir Lewis Hodges met Miss Wake after his bomber was shot down over
France. Interned in supposedly neutral Vichy France, he was helped by her to
cross the Pyrenees into Spain. "She paved the way by organising the escape," he
said. "I remember I was sitting in a bar - the French let us go for a drink even
though we were interned and there were some Germans there. Nancy came in and
heard me and said 'you must be British'. The Germans were not very happy."
Sonya d'Artois, the daughter of an RAF officer, undertook her SOE training with
Miss Wake and was also parachuted into France.
She said of her lifelong friend: "Nancy was and is a very astute, very gutsy
lady. She was very feminine, but as tough as any man. I'm not sure they make
them like that now."
Miss Wake was born in New Zealand but moved to Australia at the age of two.
Endowed with an inexhaustible appetite for adventure, she travelled to Britain
and trained as a journalist.
In 1939 she married her first husband, a Frenchman named Henri Fiocca. He was 14
years her senior. He would later die under torture, refusing to disclose his
wife's whereabouts to the Germans. Miss Wake began her wartime career as an
ambulance driver in France, before fleeing to Vichy following the Fall of France
By September she was helping soldiers and airmen to return to Britain, feeding
them and acting as a courier. The Gestapo began to suspect her and she fled over
the Pyrenees. Terrible weather forced her return to France and she was arrested
and interrogated by the police. Amazingly, she was released and finally made her
way to Britain via Gibraltar. She was accepted into SOE and parachuted into
France before D-day to help co-ordinate attacks on German lines of
Miss Wake married after the war but had no children. She divided the post war
years between Australia and Britain, finally taking up residence in the Stafford
Hotel in Mayfair, an old SOE haunt. Her money ran out, but still she stayed on,
imbibing gin and tonic at the seat reserved for her in the bar. The management
were too polite to ask her to leave.
She now lives in the Royal Star and Garter home for ex-servicemen in Richmond,
west London, helped by a carer paid for by the Australian government.
A French comrade said of her: "She is the most feminine woman I know until the
fighting starts. Then, she is like five men."