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The White Mouse of Oceania

Nancy Wake Wellington, New Zealand 1912 - 2011

In both world wars, the small populations of Australia and New Zealand sent troops thousands of miles to fight on the battlefields of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Pacific. The countries’ soldiers were renowned for their prowess, with the indigenous Māori Battalion’s reputation reportedly leading German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to proclaim, “Give me the Maori Battalion and I will conquer the world.”

But away from the frontlines, World War II saw another from Oceania – born in New Zealand and raised in Australia – whose exploits away from the battlefield not only garnered a host of medals but also a grudging respect from the Gestapo. One of the most decorated servicewomen of the war, Nancy Wake’s ability to foil and evade her German enemy gained her the nickname of the ‘White Mouse’, working behind enemy lines with the French Resistance and Special Operation Executive.

Born in the New Zealand capital of Wellington but raised in Sydney across the Tasman, Nancy would make the journey to Europe in 1932, as a 19-year-old, switching from nursing to journalism in Paris.  At the outbreak of war she had travelled south to Marseilles where she met and married her wealthy husband Henri Edmond Fiocca, and served as an ambulance driver in her own vehicle purchased by Henri during the brief battle for France in the summer of 1940. Faced with occupation by the ruthless German regime that she had seen first-hand during a work trip to Vienna years before, Nancy and Henri did everything in their power to help in the efforts against the Nazis, joining the French Resistance.

Following France’s surrender, the Allied soldiers and airmen that were left behind or shot down found themselves in precarious enemy territory. Organised by interned British Army officer Lt Col Ian Garrow and operative Patrick O’Leary, an escape network was set up to take these men, alongside refugees, into neutral Spain across the Pyrenees Mountains, in what became known as the Freedom Trail.

At first delivering coded messages and using her substantial house to house escapees, Wake also distributed Resistance leaflets around Marseilles from her bicycle, with her innocent demeanour ensuring the German occupying troops suspected nothing. Remarkably, while travelling around France to organise pockets of fighters, Wake was often stopped and questioned by the Gestapo, yet was never arrested. Possessing an unparalleled charm, determination and the persuasive skills she’d go from a runaway Aussie nurse to successful journalist and millionairess, Nancy continued to frustrate the German police, whose elusiveness not only resulted in her famous nickname, but an astonishing 5 million Franc bounty on her head.

 

Following a mass betrayal of Resistance fighters by a Gestapo agent, many were murdered while Garrow was imprisoned. With the net closing in around the Resistance, in 1943 Wake made the decision to escape to Spain, with Henri staying in Marseilles to avoid suspicion – but not before helping her comrade Garrow escape prison by bribing a guard.

Having travelled the French countryside extensively during the 1930s, Wake used her knowledge of the transport networks to travel the roads and railways until the opportune moment to cross into Spain. But it was during one of these trips she was finally caught and imprisoned by the Gestapo for having fake identification.

However, unaware of who they had imprisoned, Wake was interrogated and beaten by her captors before being sprung by Patrick O’Leary, who claimed to be the man Wake was running away with – hence her fake documents. She made it to Spain, but her instinct that the net was closing tragically proved correct, as her beloved Henri was arrested on suspicion of being the husband of the White Mouse, and wasn’t as lucky in escape as his wife. He was executed by firing squad when he refused to reveal Nancy’s identity.

But the war wasn’t over for Nancy, who made it from Spain to Britain and volunteered for the Special Operation Executive, and trained in combat and clandestine tactics ahead of the planned Allied invasion of France. Following the sneaking and covert activities she partook in during the first part of the war, a combat-trained Wake was parachuted into the Forest of Tronçais in central France in 1944. As well as organising the local Resistance fighters she also took part in the more violent hands-on activities of bombing bridges and attacking German troops.

Though at first her fellow troops made the same mistakes as the occupiers in underestimating this well-dressed, well-spoken, attractive lady of leisure, they soon changed their mind after seeing her tenacious abilities in action, not least when she challenged her doubters to a drinking contest.

One of her most celebrated achievements was cycling a 400km return trip to the nearest functioning SEO radio, looking her best and using her wiles to pass every German checkpoint along the way. Of her evasiveness, Wake would comment: “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?’” The line worked every time.

Her skills and service led her to be rewarded with decorations from British, French, American, Australian and New Zealand authorities, and she continued to display the same charm and dogged spirit in the homes and hotels of England and Australia in which she spent the rest of her life. Defying any limitations to excel in one of the most dangerous theatres of the Second World War, dumbfounding both ally and foe alike, the story of the White Mouse is one of resilience and resistance on many levels.

We will remember them

Nancy Wake Wellington, New Zealand 1912 - 2011
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