With her film star looks she started the war a frivolous rebel; the young fiancée of a wealthy French industrialist and ended it one of the most decorated women of the Second World War with the George Cross, the Croix de Guerre, and the Medal of Freedom to her name. She was even awarded the Médaille de la Résistance an honour hardly ever bestowed on a foreigner.
Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born in 1912 in New Zealand. The youngest of six children, her family moved to Sydney when she was only two. Her father, Charlie, deserted his wife and family only months after bringing them to Australia, going back to New Zealand and leaving his wife to bring up the children alone.
Perhaps it was this early disruption that gave young Nancy her spirit. At 16 she ran away from home to work as a nurse. Later she made her way to Vancouver, New York and London where she trained herself in freelance journalism.
By the time Hitler began his climb to power in the 1930s she was working in Paris. As a European correspondent she witnessed the steady rise of the Nazi movement. On seeing the persecution of the Jews on the streets of Vienna she resolved: “there and then that if I ever had the chance I would do anything to make things more difficult for their rotten party”. Later she recalled the terrible scenes that she witnessed on the streets of Vienna: “They had a big wheel and they had the Jews tied to it, and the storm troopers were there, whipping them.”
Hitler’s troops marched on, and France was soon overrun. By 1940 Nancy was living in Marseilles, had married her French industrialist fiancée Henri Edmond Fiocca, and was driving an emergency ambulance. Then fate took a hand in the life of the girl who was to become the White Mouse. In a Marseilles bar one evening she met a young Scotsman, Captain Ian Garrow, and embarked on an exciting and dangerous double life.
Garrow had helped create an escape route for officers and airmen from Vichy France across the mountains into Spain, an enterprise that Nancy’s husband contributed large sums of his own money to. Nancy soon became a key member of the group, acting as an escort for escapees as they journeyed by train towards the Pyrenees.
Nancy’s exploits continued and by the autumn of 1942 the Gestapo had become acutely aware of a troublesome young woman whom they were now calling “The White Mouse”. Nancy continued to remain elusive, but the German’s were relentless and closing in on her. Credited with helping to save thousands of lives, Nancy was placed at the top of the Gestapo’s most wanted list with a 5 million-franc price on her head. The trap was set and it seemed like the White Mouse was finally running out of luck.
Henri was worried that Nancy would be caught and insisted that she get out of France and make her way to England where he would join her later. Remembering this time years later Nancy recalled: “Henri said, ‘You have to leave’, and I remember going out the door saying I’d do some shopping, that I’d be back soon. And I left and I never saw him again.”
It wouldn’t be until after the liberation of Paris and victory that Nancy would learn that Henri had been tortured before being executed by the Germans.
Back in Toulouse, Nancy went about her business trying not to draw attention to herself and following the war time mantra of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ as she waited to be extricated by the Resistance. Suddenly without warning, as she shopped in a local market, she was arrested in a random round-up and falsely accused of blowing up a cinema. It looked like the White Mouse had been trapped at last.
Nancy was interrogated and beaten for four days and then, in a reckless act of bravery, Patrick O’Leary her group leader appeared from nowhere and begged the French police chief to set Nancy free. O’Leary claimed to be a friend of Pierre Laval, the Vichy premier, also claiming that Nancy was his mistress. Unbelievably, he convinced the police chief, a man of the world it seems, that the story she had told was a cover to deceive her husband and he agreed to set her free.
It seemed that the White Mouse had the knack for survival and, after several failed attempts, Nancy eventually made it to England, buried in the back of a coal truck, where she was trained as a spy by Britain’s Special Operations Executive.
Nancy worked with the Resistance preparing for the D-Day landings in Normandy and parachuted back into France to distribute weapons among Resistance fighters hiding in the mountains. She once cycled 250 miles in 72 hours on a round trip through German-held territory to replace code books burnt by her wireless operator and continued to be involved in ambushing German convoys, destroying bridges and railway lines throughout the war. She was also in the thick of the raid that destroyed the Gestapo’s headquarters in Montluçon. The raid left 38 Germans dead and was, as Nancy wrote later, “the most exciting sortie I ever made. I entered the building by the back door, raced up the stairs, opened the first door along the passage way, threw in my grenades and ran like hell.”
After the war Nancy continued in intelligence, working at the British embassies in Paris and Prague. Then in 1949, she returned to Sydney, standing for Federal parliament on two occasions and failing.
After her failure at the 1951 election Nancy once again returned to England and worked as an intelligence officer in the Air Ministry until she remarried. Three years later Nancy and her husband, ex-RAF officer John Forward, returned to Australia. Nancy stood in the 1966 Australian elections but once again failed to win. In 1985 she published her autobiography – The White Mouse – and settled for a while in Port Macquarie, on the north coast of New South Wales. Nancy’s husband died in 1997 and in 2001 her wandering spirit led her back to England.
Nancy became a resident at the Stafford Hotel, just off Piccadilly. She could be found sitting on a stool at the bar most mornings, sipping gently at her first gin and tonic of the day and reminiscing. A huge personality, she loved to tell people how she had once refused decorations from the Australian Government saying: “The last time there was a suggestion of that I told the government they could stick their medals where the monkey stuck his nuts”,
In 2003 the legendary White Mouse that had so eluded the Gestapo moved to a forces retirement home just outside Richmond Park. She remained there until her death on the 7th August, 2011, a few weeks shy of her 99th birthday; the White Mouse had taken the bait at last.
Her ashes are due to be scattered next spring near Montluçon, the central French town she helped rid of the Nazis in 1944.