Nancy Wake is a legendary World War II hero and one I greatly admire.
Her family moved to Australia when Nancy was two. Soon after, her father went back to New Zealand, leaving Nancy's mother to raise her six children. Nancy worked as a nurse until 1932, when an aunt in New Zealand bequeathed her a sum of money which allowed her to fulfill her ambition of travelling to Europe.
Wake lived in Paris working as a journalist, and later married a wealthy French industrialist, Henri Fiocca. In 1933 she went to Vienna to interview Hitler, the leader of Nazi Germany. In Vienna Wake saw Jews chained to huge wheels, being whipped by Nazi troops. She realised the terrible danger Hitler posed and devoted herself to defeating the evil she had seen.
In 1939 when World War II broke out Wake joined the French Resistance, not an official army but a citizen army formed to fight the Nazis. Wake fled France as the Nazis discovered she was helping Jews escape using an old ambulance she had bought. After Wake left France the Nazis tortured and killed her husband, Henri, as he would not betray the activities and whereabouts of his wife.
Wake escaped to London, where she trained as a spy. When she completed her training she parachuted back into France. Her job was to supply the Resistance with weapons, and establish covert communication with bases in England. On one occasion she rode a bicycle 500 kilometres over a period just less than three days, to re-establish a coded wireless communication network which was essential for supplies of weapons.
The Nazis did not suspect she was a Resistance fighter. Wake said, "I volunteered...not because I'm brave...being a woman I was the only one who could do it. When I got back...I couldn't stand up, I couldn't sit down. I couldn't do anything. I just cried."
Wake recalls that as a woman, it was easier for her get through the Nazi checkpoints, and to operate unnoticed by the authorities. Because of this talent for evasion her Nazi pursuers gave her the codename of 'White Mouse', and she was placed on their most wanted list in 1943, two years before the end of the war. Wake went on to lead 7,000 Resistance fighters, and she is reputed to have killed a German soldier in hand-to-hand combat, and to have executed a female German spy.
After the war she received numerous international honours, including the George Medal, the Croix de Guerre, the Medaille de la Resistance, the Chevalier de Legion d'Honneur and the US Medal of Freedom.
As for how she would like to be remembered, she says she hopes to go down in history as the woman who turned down 7,000 sex-starved Frenchmen, and says: "I got away with blue murder and loved every minute of it."
This is an excellent book on Nancy Wake by Peter Fitzsimons, one I've very much enjoyed.