OBITUARY: by John BallantyneNews Weekly
Farewell to Resistance heroine Nancy Wake
, August 20, 2011
The legendary World War II underground fighter, and Australia’s most decorated servicewoman, Nancy Wake, died in London on August 7, aged 98. Nicknamed the White Mouse during the war for her skill at evading capture by the dreaded Gestapo in Nazi-occupied France, she saved the lives of countless Allied airmen and fought alongside the French Resistance. The Germans put a five-million franc bounty on her head.
Born in New Zealand, she grew up in Australia. In the 1930s, as a young woman, she travelled to Europe and witnessed the Nazis mistreating Jews in Prague and Vienna. She married a wealthy French businessman Henri Fiocca and was living in France when the Germans invaded in 1940.
She rescued numerous Allied airman who had survived being shot down over wartime France. She always dressed immaculately and taught young airman not to draw attention to themselves by glancing over their shoulders.
By 1943 it was too risky for her to remain in France. The Gestapo captured her husband who preferred to die under torture than disclose her whereabouts. She escaped over the Pyrenees and managed to reach England.
In London she volunteered for the French section of Britain’s clandestine Special Operations Executive (SOE). Nicknamed “Churchill’s Secret Army”, it was commissioned to conduct espionage, sabotage and guerrilla warfare against the Axis powers and to supply and aid local underground armies behind enemy lines. In Churchill’s words, its mission was to “set Europe ablaze”.
The SOE trained her in survival skills, armed combat, silent killing, radio and Morse code. Six weeks before the Allied D-Day landings in northern France, she was parachuted into the mountainous Auvergne region of central France, where she put her training into practice, and in doing so won the respect of hardened local Resistance fighters.
Her wartime exploits were chronicled in two biographies and were a major inspiration for Sebastian Faulks’s 1999 novel Charlotte Gray, later made into a film starring Cate Blanchett. The most authentic depiction of her life, however, was Channel Seven’s 1987 mini-series, Nancy Wake, starring Noni Hazlehurst and John Waters.
After the war, Wake returned to Australia and stood as a Liberal candidate against Labor’s Dr H.V. Evatt in the 1949 and 1951 federal elections. On the latter occasion she came within 250 votes of unseating him. How different Australia’s postwar politics, especially Labor Party politics, might have have been had Evatt lost on that occasion.
Nancy Wake was not only Australia’s but the Allies’ most decorated servicewoman. Yet, despite repeated requests from the RSL, the federal government refused to give her an Australian award until the time John Howard became prime minister. Wake believed this was her punishment for having stood against Labor’s Dr Evatt.
On Wake’s death, however, the current Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard paid generous homage to her memory. “Today our nation honours a truly remarkable individual whose selfless valour and tenacity will never be forgotten,” the Prime Minister said. “Nancy Wake will remain an abiding inspiration to generations of Australians.”