Nancy Wake | Sarah Stook

“The White Mouse”. It is not a name one would associate with fear and dread, especially when it belonged to a thirty year old woman. 

When one reads about her, it’s as though you’re reading about a fictional heroine in a high octane action novel alá John Le Carré or Andy McNab. If it was a movie, you’d mock it for being too unrealistic. She was a poisoned flower- beautiful but deadly…

Nancy Wake, WW2 heroine.

The White Mouse and The Witch, these were the names that struck fear in the hearts of Nazis. Nancy Wake was nothing less than extraordinary- fearless, brave, a woman in a man’s world. She eschewed her education in a domestic arts school to train as a journalist on her own, venturing out to New York and London. This is brave for any young woman, especially one from far-flung New Zealand and Australia.

Wake was newly married when war gripped the world. She started as an ambulance driver, but the fall of France in 1940 was when we saw our renegade truly break out. 

The French Resistance was her first port of call. Wake became notorious, yet managed to evade capture by flirting with the Nazis and asking if they would search her. Her role was a courier, involved in an escape network for Allied soldiers. Cheeky devil.

Yet, it came with costs. When her cell was betrayed, Nancy was forced to flee. She only managed to escape when arrested because a Belgian Resistance member claimed she was his mistress and didn’t want to shame her husband.

Said husband had been captured, tortured and murdered by the Nazis. Wake would not know until the end of the war.

Whilst her role in the French Resistance was over, Wake had a new challenge: the Special Operations Executive, or SOE. The order of the day was bomb making, espionage and hand-to-hand combat. It was as though every fictional spy had been rolled into a strong- willed widow from New Zealand. She was said to have been the best in her group- though that shouldn’t be a surprise considering what we’ve learned about her so far.

In a humorous moment, when she was first dropped into the field, she landed in a tree and was tangled in her parachute. Even badasses have their less than elegant moments.

One legendary moment occurred when one of the group forgot his co-ordinates and radio. Of course, Wale had to get it. Cycling through three thousand miles of Nazi territory to deliver a message is more than you’d expect from your courier, but Wake was nothing but a perfectionist. The job was dangerous enough, but all that cycling was both risky and athletic. A rather simple way of travel, but with flair. 

Cycling through dangerous terrain wasn’t enough for Wake, who also attacked Nazi convoys and even killed a sentry in hand to hand combat. Yes, with her bare hands. 

Oh, and Wake also had three essentials when she was dropped behind enemy lines. The first was a handgun, as one would expect. The second was a satin cushion, which is a little strange, if understandable. The third was her favourite red lipstick. Yes, Ms. Wake would kick Nazi behind whilst looking immaculate. 

Remember that when you put on your best lipstick ladies. Pick a colour that you could fight baddies in.

The war was to of course end, which is when Wake discovered her husband had died several years prior. Wake would blame herself for this tragedy. 

She wasn’t done yet though. On fighting, she quipped:

‘I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.’

Wake continued in the intelligence industry, while gaining a chest of medals that would make an African dictator proud. Such honours included two Légion d’honneurs, a George Medal and the Medal of Freedom. In gaining her awards, Wake became the Allies’ most decorated woman. 

Now that the war was over, Wake decided to try her hand at another field hostile to women- politics. Wake ran twice for Australia’s centre-right Liberal Party, but failed narrowly on both counts. She also remarried, as well as splitting her time between Australia and Britain.

Even as her golden years dawned, Wake never lost her fabulous image. After deciding to sell her medals, she said:

‘There was no point in keeping them, I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway.’

Australia had turned her down for awards in the immediate post-war period, but tried to give her to them years later. Wake turned these down herself, with the following:

‘The last time there was a suggestion of that I told the government they could stick their medals where the monkey stuck his nuts. The thing is if they gave me a medal now, it wouldn’t be love so I don’t want anything from them.’

She lived her final years in London, mainly in a hotel. Wake enjoyed drinking gin and tonic in the mornings. She eventually moved to a care home for veterans, before dying at the impressive age of 98.

Imagine surviving a war and living to nearly 100. That’s just sticking two perfectly manicured fingers to the universe.

Wake is not well-known outside of her native Australia and New Zealand, despite both a mini-series and TV movie. She, however, should be. Wake was the best kind of rogue- using her rather unconventional nature for good. She fought against conventional limits on women in warfare and politics but never left her femininity behind. Wake loved her lipstick and images show that she had perfectly coiffed hair. She could also kill you in unarmed combat.

There’s something ever so inspirational about this woman, and it’s not just her fabulous taste in makeup. Wake was a fighter and put everything into the cause. She didn’t have to live this life, as she was from a good family and married very well, yet Wake refused to knit balaclavas for the men. Even in a war which saw many eccentric characters, Wake was different by even their standards.

Even though she was not born in our fair isles, she was an honorary Brit through and through. She had the spirit of the Commonwealth, a fire that no Nazi could pour out. With her G&T in the morning and cushions behind the front lines, Wake was nothing but herself. She didn’t mould herself to society, she made it bend to her stilettoed feet.

Wake probably wouldn’t want the honours others get, like grand statues and blue plaques on every corner. She was not a glory hunter, just a woman with the determination to do right. That is what puts her above others- she did not want shiny trinkets. Her strength was not just in her combat, but her spirit. One could imagine her being a heroine to many, if she was actually known. 

Would she care about being known? No, she’d probably puff on a cigarette and make a cutting remark about infamy. 

One would like to think she would secretly like being called a rogue though. Even she was aware of the fact she was a sparking anomaly in this war. There’d be a gentle smirk behind her drinking glass.

Remember to paint your lips like the White Mouse, the rogue who shook the Nazis like a tumbler.

This essay is an entry to the Mallard’s Rogues’ Gallery competition. You can find more information here.

Photo Credit.

You may also like...