She was an expert at using her prowess to escape perilous threats of being captured. A cunning pillar of beauty, she eluded her pursuers by way of flirtation and pure instinct, often finding her way around Gestapo traps set up for her entrapment. Many mistook her for a lofty French dame, perfect for hiding her true identity as a trained spy and soldier. She could even match her male comrades drink for drink if the occasion presented itself. The medals across her jacket proved her bravery and spoke of the ones conquered. Her shoulder-length brown hair and wide smile attracted men like the woman in the American Girl In Italy poster.
Nancy Wake Fiocca was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1912, and moved to Australia when she was a toddler. The youngest of six siblings, Nancy left her family at the age of sixteen and traveled back to New Zealand where she became a nurse. Upon receiving an inheritance from an aunt, Nancy used the money as a key to the door of adventure; in1931, she left home to travel the world.
Adventure! The mere taste of it left her yearning for more. Her heart was set on New York, London, and Paris. But it was in Paris that her heart was stolen by French industrialist, Henri Fiocca. They were married, and settled into a cosmopolitan life in France as partners in crime. Even after marriage, the call to live for much more rang in Nancy’s ears. Eventually this young woman’s desire lead her places few would dare to follow: covert operations, espionage training, and parachuting behind enemy lines.
Nancy found work as a corresponding journalist for the Chicago Tribune while she was living in France. As a journalist, she had the rare opportunity of interviewing Adolf Hitler himself, and Wake saw firsthand the atrocities he was committing against the Jews. It was then that her taste for adventure was finally met with passion, and she joined the battle to stop Hitler and his constituents.
During the Nazi occupation in France, Nancy and Henri became active in the Maquis Resistance. Their assistance during the German occupation was imperative in helping Allied Airmen, American soldiers, and concentration camp prisoners escape during the occupancy of the Gestapo. Nancy let nothing stop her. Her sanguine attitude and resourcefulness provided encouragement to those fighting by her side in the Resistance. However, facing the daily threat of capture, France became too dangerous for Nancy, and eventually she escaped to London in 1943. Henri continued to fight in the resistance, hoping to be reunited with Nancy after the war, and she entered an espionage-training program with British Intelligence.
Once trained, Nancy carried food, weapons, and codes to the resistance soldiers in enemy territory. She parachuted into combat zones, sometimes wearing high heels to avert the attention of soldiers. One time, she was captured and braved beatings for hours, but never released any information to the enemy soldiers. On another occasion, she had to travel over 300 miles while avoiding gunfire from German airplanes as she carried vital codes to Allied soldiers. It seemed that the more ominous the situation, the brighter her bravery shined.
She faced capture again several times, but her beauty was her best ally, acting as a disguise. Gestapo officers continually let her slip through their grasp due to her coy flirtations and ability to match the demure of a countryside French woman. She once escaped capture by setting up a date with a German soldier and slipping through the hands of the authorities with his help. Needless to say, that was a date she didn’t keep. Perhaps her effectiveness in this area also could have been due to the supplies of Elizabeth Arden face cream and silk stockings, which she had parachuted down to her. On occasions when she was confronted by the enemy, they simply dismissed her, looking for a male soldier carrying a gun. Thus, the Gestapo gave her the infamous title “la Souris Blanche,” or “The White Mouse,” and set the reward for her capture at 5 million Francs.
Nancy understood what it took to be a heroine in a war when the outcome looked grim, but she faced her fears, often times when her life was on the line. One of her comrades was quoted as saying, “[she is] the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men.” Nancy earned medals from four different countries, including the highest Medal of Honor in France and medals from the United States, Britain, and Australia. It was not until the war was won and France had finally been liberated that Nancy learned Henri had been executed in 1943. Before his death, he had been tortured, but had refused to reveal any information about Nancy–she had remained his secret weapon. Even by then, Nancy’s moxie and determination to bring down the enemy preceded her wherever she went, and she knew that Henri had not died in vain. They had won the war.
Years later, Nancy remarried a retired RAF fighter pilot named John Forward. They lived in London and Australia together, until he passed away in 1997. Nancy Wake died at the age of 98 in London, England. She asked that her ashes be spread at the Montlucon in France, the place where she fought the Nazis and destroyed Gestapo headquarters alongside a band of 7,000 resistance fighters. She proved to the world that being a hero doesn’t just take smarts or strength: it takes a desire for adventure and a passion for something worth fighting for.