Nancy Wake-the path of most resistance

June 14, 2009

 “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.


Belated Wake Up- Before It’s Too Late

July 12, 2011

“The fact that she has never appeared (on the honours list) I think is a condemnation of our government.“  Prof. Graeme Wake*

Our civic and military honours system, in its various iterations with or without knights and dames, has often led to some curious awards, refracted through that part of the party political spectrum currently in favour. Over a long period of time, there have been some even curiouser non-awards.

Short Quiz
Which Kiwi, nicknamed the White Mouse by the Gestapo, garnered the following post-World War II awards for wartime bravery but hasn’t made it onto any national New Zealand civic or military honours list in the more than 65 odd years since her incredible wartime exploits?
Australia: Companion of the Order of Australia; George Medal
Commonwealth of Nations: 1939-1945 Star; France and Germany Star and bar
United Kingdom:  Defence Medal and bar; War Medal 1939-1945 
France:  Legion d’Honneur; Croix de Guerre with two palms and a star; Medaille de la Resistance 
United States of America: Presidential Medal of Freedom  with Bronze Palm
New Zealand: Nil, zero, nothing, not a sausage

Yes, that’s right, Wellington born Nancy Wake, who will turn 99 next month and still retains her New Zealand passport after a childhood move to Australia, is a heroine without honour in her own country, apart from a Kiwi Consolation Prize:  Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association Badge in Gold.

Relative Graeme Wake, a professor in industrial mathematics at Massey University’s Albany campus, says Ms Wake was physically frail and living in a rest home in England but her mind was still very sharp.*

Prof. Wake has recently approached his MP, Parliament Speaker Lockwood Smith, in a new bid to have his famous relative honoured by New Zealand.

See my 14 June 2009  blogpost  Nancy Wake-the path of most resistance* for more on the incredible veteran.
Email Lockwood Smith  supporting an appropriate award for Nancy Wake in the next Honours List.

Postscript  8/8/11   It has just been announced that Nancy Wake has died in London aged 98*. See video tribute below.*

*Blinks  Nancy Wake’s incredible story     8/8/11   Vid

#Lyall Lukey 12 July 2011  My other less serious blog