“Freedom is the only thing worth living for. While I was doing that work I used to think that it didn’t matter if I died, because without freedom there was no point in living.” Nancy Wake
Nancy Wake lives on as New Zealand’s unsung World War II hero. After fighting with the French resistance she became one of the most highly decorated people of the war. She received the British George Medal, the American Medal of Freedom and not one but two Croix de Guerre from the French as well as the Medaille de Resistance and later the Chevalier de Legion d’Honneur.
After Australian journalist and rugby player Peter Fitzsimons wrote her biography in 2001*, her adopted homeland belated recognized her. In 2004 Nancy Wake was, at long last, awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia.
In 2006 Nancy received the New Zealand Returned Services Association’s highest honour, the RSA Badge in Gold, as well as life membership for her work with the French resistance during the war. But at Government level she has not been given any recognition in her native land. It’s about time that was remedied while there is still time.
Born in Roseneath, Wellington in 1912 Nancy has French Huguenot, English and Maori ancestry. The family moved to Sydney when she was 20 months old. After her father deserted the family Nancy, the youngest child, chafed at the restrictions of her religious mother.
The book which sparked young Nancy’s imagination was Anne of Green Gables, with its young, forthright and unconventional central character and portentous opening lines:
“The good stars met in your horoscope,
Made you of spirit and fire and dew.”
Nancy’s first awakening led her to run away from home at the age of 16 and became a country nurse under a false name, a lesson in subterfuge and coping with crises which stood her in good stead later in her deadly resistance missions in occupied France.
Her eyes were really opened when, as a young journalist, she was witness to an act of Nazi violence in Vienna. From that moment on she was determined to do all she could to free Europe of the Nazi plague. She married a French businessman as the war broke out and lived a double life in Marseille as a member of high society and of the underground network, helping downed British airmen and others escape to Spain over the Pyrenees.
Nicknamed the White Mouse by the Germans in the early part of her underground activities, she was anything but. In the words of her George Medal citation “Ensign Nancy Wake’s organising ability, endurance, courage and complete disregard for her own safety earned her the respect and admiration of all with whom she came in contact.”
Forced to flee to London via the mountain route, after months of training in the British Special Operations Executive, she returned to France by parachute in April 1944 in order to follow the path of most resistance. Wake became a liaison between London and the local maquis group. She coordinated resistance activity prior to the Normandy Invasion and recruited more members. She also led attacks on German installations and the local Gestapo HQ.
On the one occasion, in order to replace the radio and codes her wireless operator had been forced to destroy in a German raid, Nancy rode a bicycle for more than 130 miles through several German checkpoints without official papers.
During a Maquis raid in the closing stages of the European war, when the aim was to tie up as many German troops as possible and prevent them moving to the D-Day breakthrough, she killed a sentry, who had wounded her with a bayonet , with her bare hands, using a karate-like blow that had been ingrained in her by her SOE training and practiced thereafter, just in case.
Her strong personality, shrewdness and common sense- reinforced by her access by clandestine radio to military supplies delivered from England by parachute-gave her the unchallenged leadership of a large number of French patriots, a signal achievement in itself in a male military milieu.
She was regarded as the bravest of the brave by her fellow resistance fighters. Colonel Paishing, the leader of the Spanish Maquis, delivered the piece de resistance for this resistance heroine: “She is the most feminine woman I know…. until the fighting starts! Then she is like 5 men!”
Nancy Wake is still alive, aged 96, in a London nursing home. She regards herself as still a New Zealander, though her last visit here was 85 years ago, and she has kept her New Zealand passport.
She lived on the knife edge during her two quite different and extraordinary chapters of World War II. ** It may not be too late to put her on centre stage and give her the recognition that she so richly deserves in her native land.
*Peter Fitzsimons, Nancy Wake: A Biography of Our Greatest War Heroine, published by Harper Collins, 2001. http://www.harpercollins.com.au/