Nancy Wake: The White Mouse Was The Gestapo’s Most Wanted


Nancy Wake was beautiful, smart Australian
woman living in France, and at first glance, she looked like a housewife, and no one would
have suspected that she was actually a secret agent for the SOE. During World War II, she was given the nickname
of “The White Mouse”, because she continued to escape from the Nazis’ grasp. After becoming an expert in espionage, she
was put on the Gestapo’s Most Wanted List, and had a 5-million-franc bounty on her head. This is the incredible story of Nancy Wake,
The White Mouse. Early Life
Lucky for us, Nancy Wake wrote her own autobiography, so we know plenty of information about her
life and adventures. First and foremost, she was born in Wellington,
New Zealand in 1912. At the age of two, her parents moved to Australia,
and she was raised in Sydney. Nancy was very independent and free-spirited
girl, so at age 16, she ran away from home to work as a nurse. A few years later, she inherited 200 pounds
from her aunt. It might not sound like a lot of money now,
but back then, it was worth the modern equivalent of 11,500 pounds. This gave her the financial freedom to travel
and live her best life. At 19, she hopped on a boat and landed in
North America to experience life in New York City. She just so happened to be there during prohibition. She said, “I had never consumed so much
alcohol in my short life. People were making it in bathtubs.” After getting this partying out of her system,
Nancy decided to move to London to take journalism classes when she was 20 years old. She tried to get her first paid writing gig,
and the hiring manager said that he was passionate about Egypt. Nancy really wanted the job, so she claimed
that she was into Egyptology as well. She had no idea how to actually read or write
Arabic, but she began jotting down scribbles on paper, and handed it over to the man, claiming
to know the language. He actually believed her, and she got the
job. This was deceptive, of course, but her ability
to lie under pressure would become vital during her spy career. Life in France
Eventually, Nancy Wake moved to Paris, where she found would as a freelance journalist. In most cases, she would go looking for a
great story to writer about first, and then find a buyer later. Back in the 1930’s, she could pay for six
months after selling just one article, her small apartment was so cheap. The rest of her money was spent on clothes,
jewelry, travel, and having a care-free life at parties. During this time, she learned to speak French
fluently. Nancy would take writing assignments all over
France, and became familiar with all of the train and bus routes throughout the country. At the time, she would have no idea just how
important and valuable this knowledge would be, but her familiarity with the French countryside
would later save her life. Nancy’s care-free lifestyle changed when
she was on an assignment in Vienna, Austria. For the first time, she witnessed the atrocities
of the Nazis regime. She said, “In the middle of that beautiful
city, there was a big wheel in the square. And the Jews were tied to the wheel. The SS were whipping them…I told myself
that I could ever do something about it one day, I would.” Nancy decided to live in Marseilles, France
for a while in 1936, and she began to explore the social scene. On her nights out, she always ran into a handsome
young man named Henri Fiocca. “He had always been with a different girl,
sometimes three or four the same day. I used to be pop-eyed at his stamina!” One night, he Henri himself to her, but she
did not take him seriously as a potential boyfriend. “He was charming, sexy, and amusing…But
I was too experienced to want anything from a playboy.” So, they remained friends, and she would congratulate
him on his ability to find a new woman every evening. Three years later, when Nancy was 27 years
old, she returned to Marseilles, and ran into Henri again. She finally gave him a chance. It only took them a few weeks to realize that
they were perfect for one another, and Henri proposed to her. It turns out that he was the son of a wealthy
industrialist, and would soon be the wife of a millionaire. In 1939, war was declared in France when Nancy
was on a train from Paris to London. She immediately went to the nearest recruiting
office in London, and offered her services to the war effort on behalf of Great Britain. Nancy wanted to help so badly, she was willing
to postpone her wedding to Henri. But the only job they could offer her was
being a lunch lady in the canteen. This was not the sort of help she had in mind,
and left the recruiting office. A few months later, Nancy and Henri were married. At first, she made the most of being the wife
of a millionaire. She said, “No woman could have been as useless
or as frivolous as I was during those winter months.” But the desire to help the war effort still
pulled on her heart strings, and she never let go of her deep-seated hate for the Nazis. Joining The French Resistance
Even though Nancy and Henri were wealthy enough to avoid war if they chose to, they both wanted
to do as much as they could to help. In 1940, Henri received his papers to fight
on behalf of the French army. Since they had the financial means, they stocked
up on food rations, and helped to feed their friends and neighbors who did not have the
foresight to prepare. They even purchased their own vehicle so that
Nancy could volunteer as an ambulance driver. The fighting was short-lived, and on June
16, 1940, Prime Minister Paul Reyaund resigned. Six days later, The Armistice was signed. By 1942, the Nazis had occupied all of France. Now, you would think that everyone would want
to fight for France’s independence from the Nazis, but it was a bit more complicated
than that. Germany put a man named Philippe Pétain in
charge as the new Marshal of France. He had been a famous World War I hero, and
many people still respected and looked up to him. Pétain was telling the public to cooperate
with Germany. Meanwhile, Officer Charles de Gaulle took
the opposite stance. He believed that the Nazis needed to be defeated,
and he became in charge of a group of war veterans known as The French Resistance. These people would attempt to destroy Nazi
infastructure, and kill as many Germans as possible. Marshal Pétain claimed that this Resistance
needed to be stopped, and this lead to the creation of a pro-Nazi paramilitary group
called The Milice. These were French men who agreed with the
Nazi ideals, and by 1943, they had 25,000 members. Many of the Milice would work to influtrate
the French Resistance as spies, only to later hand them over to the Gestapo. At first, Nancy and Henri were casually involving
themselves in subversive activities like delivering secret messages, or aiding Allied soldiers
they had met in a local hotels. Eventually, they began working more and more
with the French Resistance. Nancy became apart of an escape network lead
by Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Garrow. At first, he only trusted her to deliver coded
messages, but she was eager to get in on the action. A man named Patrick O’Leary was leading
people through an escape line that became known as the “O’Leary Line”. Nancy provided a safe house for these soldiers
and refugees before they were taken by a guide over the Pyrenees Mountains on the Freedom
Trail. One day, Lieutenant-Colonel Garrow showed
up to Nancy’s home unannounced with a man she had never met before. The maid had let them in, and when Nancy opened
the door to her parlor, the mystery man forced her dog to leave the room. This was Paul Cole, and he had already invited
himself to open their most expensive bottle of whiskey that she had been waiting to open
with her husband on Victory Day. Even during peace times, stealing a stranger’s
whisky and being rude to their dog is enough to get them banned from someone’s house
for life. Nancy was understandably infuriated, and she
immediately got bad vibes from Paul Cole. She ordered him to get out of her house immediately,
and never come back. This shocked the two men, because they did
not expect this outburst from such a dainty woman. Later, she tried to warn Garrow not to trust
Cole, because she believed that he was actually a spy for the Gestapo. But he dismissed Nancy, saying that she was
over-reacting, and being too sensitive. Nancy remained cautious around Cole, though,
and she began to realize that Garrow was using her as little more than a bank account. She and Henri had given the French Resistance
leaders whatever they wanted, they were overstepping their boundaries. Nancy began spending less time around Garrow,
and more time around Patrick O’Leary, since she could actually help save lives in a more
direct way by providing POW’s with a safe house. Nancy also began to smuggle pamphlets in the
shopping basket of her bicycle so that she could distribute Resistances newspapers and
secret messages. The Nazi soldiers never suspected her, because
she just looked like every other housewife in the country, and she could speak fluent
French without a hint of her Australian accent. Since Nancy never revealed to Paul Cole that
she was apart of the Resistance, he assumed that she was just a housewife. It would turn out that her intuition was spot-on,
and Paul Cole truly was a Gestapo agent. Soon after that meeting, he betrayed 50 members
of the French Resistance were arrested, tortured, and ultimately killed. Eventually, even Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Garrow
was caught, and put in jail as well. Instead of rubbing it in with an “I-told-you-so”,
Nancy and Henri tried to get him the best lawyer money could buy. When that failed, they helped to organize
his escape. Nancy’s friends managed to smuggle a Nazi
uniform into the prison, and Garrow was able to get out, in order to began his journey
on the Freedom Trail. Escape
From France In 1942, Germany declared that they wanted
350,000 French men to move to Germany in order to work in their factories. No one in France was happy about this of course,
but Marshal Philippe Pétain was able to negotiate a deal that for every 3 French men who went
to work in Germany willingly, they would release one French Prisoner of War. This was enough incentive for 50,000 men to
volunteer to leave. But not everyone was willing to bow down to
the Nazis. Groups of men and men who despised the Germans
began to disappear into the forests, and they called themselves The Maquis. These pockets of Maquis guerrilla fighters
were a vital part of the French Resistance. They worked to kill Nazis whenever they possibly
could. The only issue was that they were not organized,
and had no way of communicating with one another. Eventually, the Germans learned that there
was a beautiful member of the French Resistance who was managing to transport secret messages,
break POW’s out of jail, and organize safe houses. She was accomplishing so much, and continued
to go undetected. Nancy had such strong intuition about people’s
character, that she had been face-to-face with several Gestapo spies, and yet she was
never caught. They called her “The White Mouse”, because
she would always slip out of their hands. In 1943, the “White Mouse” became one
of the Gestapo’s Most Wanted, and had a 5 million franc bounty on her head. She and Henri knew that it was time for her
to escape. But if they both left at the same time, it
may look suspicious. Henri also wanted to stay in France, because
he felt like he had a duty to his family’s business. As she was preparing to leave, Nancy told
Henri that if he was unfaithful and moved on with another woman, she would understand. After all, she had no idea when, or if they
would ever see each other again. But he promised to wait for her. For Nancy, escaping the country was not so
straight-forward. For three months, she had to travel around
the country on buses and trains waiting for the perfect opportunity to cross the Pyrenees
Mountains undetected. She had to circle the country so many times,
she eventually ended up not far from her home in Marseilles. Nancy stood outside of her house, wishing
so badly to go inside to see her husband one last time. But she knew it would be too dangerous for
the both of them, and chose to walk away. Unfortunately, all of her efforts were in
vain, because she was caught with false identification on one of these trains, and the Gestapo threw
her in jail. Joining The SOE
While in custody, the Gestapo began to beat and interrogate Nancy Wake. They had no idea that they had just captured
the famous White Mouse. When they asked why her identification was
fake, she claimed that she had left her husband to be with another man, and wanted a fresh
start with a new identity. The Gestapo did not believe her, and claimed
that she must be responsible for setting off a bomb a few weeks earlier. They interrogated her for 4 days, and she
may have died, if it were not for her friend Patrick O’Leary. When Nancy never showed up to her rendezvous
point, O’Leary knew that she must have been captured. So he pretended to be this lover she claimed
to be running away with. The Nazis finally believed her cover story,
she was able to leave. Patrick O’Leary was finally able to get
her on the Freedom Trail, and she made her way to England. Once she arrived in the United Kingdom, she
decided to join Winston Churchil’’s group called the Special Operations Executive, or
the SOE. Churchill’s goal was to gather all of the
various factions of the French Resistance Maquis and have them come together to be one
large, organized group. D-Day was approaching, and they needed help
from the resistance to get France ready for the Allied invasion. Nancy moved to Scotland with a group of new
recruits, and they all began their spy training. The first stage was endurance. They were made to do exercises both day and
night. A lot of people couldn’t make it past that
first stage. For those who were left, they were trained
in combat, “silent killing”, weaponry, morse code, disabling a German tank, and so
much more. Even though she had absolutely no experience
in combat, Nancy was determined to get stronger, so that she would fight for the people of
France, and return home to her husband. Nancy was forced to practice karate chops
on a wooden desk in order to harden her hands. Her instructors claimed that one swipt chop
in the neck was enough to kill a Nazi. At first, she found this hard to believe,
until it actually happened. During a fight, she chopped a Nazi in the
neck, and then kicked him in the baby-maker. The first time she did this to a German officer,
she was shocked at how easily it killed him. Life in the Forest
Once her training was complete, it was time for Nancy
to return to France so that she could help organize one the Maquis. She parachuted from a plane wearing a camel
hair coat and high-heeled shoes. Once she landed, the Maquis were taken aback
by what looked like a posh housewife descending from the sky. This was all part of her disguise, of course,
since being under-estimated as a harmless housewife was part of her cover. Even though she was the famous “White Mouse”,
her beautiful and fashionable appearance did not leave the Maquis with a lot of confidence
that a woman could really do the job. Just like the Nazis, they thought she must
be useless, and they were not impressed that the British sent such a dainty woman to help
them. It was her job to convince these strangers
to work with the SOE, so she promised that the British would send supplies, and it took
several days for her radio operator, Dennis, to arrive. Finally, the supplies came through. Not only did they get the standard munitions,
but the SOE sent Nancy her special requests; new silk stockings, makeup, tea, and bottles
of expensive whisky. In order to break the ice, she challenged
the men in the Maquis to a drinking contest: Whoever was still standing at dawn wins. After this, the members of the resistance
lightened up, and they knew they could trust her. Of course, she got a lot of attention while
living in the forest, since she was an attractive young woman among a bunch of dudes. Years later, one of her biographers asked
if she ever had a lover when she was living with the Maquis. She rolled her eyes, saying, “If I had accommodated
one of them, I would have had to accommodate all of them.” In reality, she may have been a huge flirt,
but she was still faithful to her husband, Henri. One night, Nancy had a nightmare that Henri
was killed by the Nazis in a firing squad. She woke up in a cold sweat, and hoped that
it was just a dream. For once, she wanted her strong intuition
to be wrong. As D-Day approached, the radio operator, Dennis,
got himself caught up in the crossfire of the Maquis and the Nazis. He believed that he may be captured, so he
destroyed the radio. Thankfully, he made it out alive, but now
the resistance members are left stranded without any way to communicate with the British to
get help. If they could not communicate with the Allies,
thousands of men were going to die. The nearest SOE radio was over 200km away
at a chateau, and they would never be able to drive a car there without getting caught
at a checkpoint. So Nancy Wake offered to ride her bicycle. Over the next few days, she rode her bike,
occasionally stopping to refresh her makeup so that she looked like a pampered housewife. Luckily, she remembered the roads from her
time taking so many buses and trains as a journalist, so she at least knew where she
was going. Every time she reached a Nazi checkpoint,
she would smile and flirt with the guards. One of her go-to lines was, “Hello, officer,
would you like to search me?” with a little wink. It worked every time. Once she reached the chateau, she told them
that she was the White Mouse, and she needed to contact the British immediately. Once the SOE knew of their location, she had
to make her way back immediately, pedaling another 200km. Later in life, Nancy said this bike ride was
the most frightening thing she had ever done, but it was also the proudest. Because of this, the Maquis were able to get
another radio sent to them, and she and the other resistance fighters continued to kill
Nazis without any hesitation. She said, “If you ask me, the only good
Nazi is a dead one.” After The War
The war was finally over, and the Allies won. Nancy was recognized for her bravery, and
was awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom, the George Medal from the UK, the Badge of Gold
from New Zealand, and The Order of Australia. If it were not for her work organizing the
Maquis and securing that radio, thousands of people would have died in the forest. Unfortunately, by choosing to save thousands
of men, she had to sacrifice the one that meant the most to her. Henri had remained faithful to her, and was
awaiting her return. But the Gestapo had raided their home, and
arrested him under suspicion of being the husband of the “White Mouse”. They tortured him, and eventually, they offered
his freedom in exchange for confirmation that Nancy was the White Mouse. He refused to betray his wife, and was killed
by the firing squad. The day he died was the same day that Nancy
had the nightmare about his death. Their connection was so strong, she somehow
knew when the love of her life had been killed. Now that she had nothing left for her in France,
Nancy moved to London and joined the Air Ministry. Nancy Wake carried the guilt and sorrow over
the death of her husband for the rest of her life. Nancy would go on to move to Australia and
get married a second time to a man named John Forward, but she still kept a photo of Henri
next to her bed. When asked if she had any regrets, she replied,
“I killed a lot of Germans. I’m sorry I didn’t kill more.” As she grew older, she was still not happy,
especially after becoming widowed for a second time. She decided to sell her war medals at auction,
and used that money for her retirement. Since she continued to be restless, she longed
to be back in Europe again. At age 88, Nancy decided it was time for a
fresh start, so she moved into the Stafford Hotel in London. When the concierge asked how long she would
be staying, she said, “Until I die.” Hotel employees absolutely loved having her
there. The staff even had a special chair made for
her at the hotel bar, complete with a plaque that said “Nancy’s Corner”. They also painted a tiny white mouse on the
ceiling of the hotel in her honor. When guests heard that the famous Nancy Wake
was staying there, they would often stop by to speak to her at the bar. Because of this, she was never alone, and
continued to socialize, which was the thing she loved most. Eventually, Nancy ran out of money from her
retirement fund, and she could no longer pay the steep price tag of living in a luxury
hotel. When the Prince of Wales heard about this,
he invited her to Buckingham palace for tea. He paid for her bill, and continued to do
so for the rest of her life. She passed away in 2011, when she was 98 years
old.

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