January 30, 2014

Nancy Wake, dead at 95, left a Great Legacy

Blisteringly sexy, she killed Nazis with her bare hands and had a 5 million-franc bounty on her head. As she dies at 98, the extraordinary story of the real Charlotte Gray

A male comrade-in-arms in the French Resistance summed her up as: ‘The most  feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. And then she is like five men.’ She lived up to both parts of that compliment.

So feminine was she that when escaping from pursuers on one notable occasion, she dressed in a smart frock, silk stockings, high-heeled shoes and a camel-hair coat, arguing that she didn’t want to look like a hunted woman. In that same outfit, she jumped from a  moving train into a vineyard to avoid capture at a Nazi checkpoint.

 Nancy Wake

And so aggressive was she that, after being parachuted into France as a Special  Operations Executive agent, she disposed of a German guard with her bare hands and liked nothing better than bowling along in the front seat of a fast car through the countryside, a Sten gun on her lap and a cigar between her teeth, in search of Germans to kill.

Passionate and impulsive, with a tendency to draw attention to herself, she was not the ideal undercover agent. Her superiors didn’t think she would last long behind enemy lines.

But Wake proved them wrong and died this week, aged 98, in a nursing home for retired veterans in London. Her death brought to an end a life of such daring, courage and glamour that she was the inspiration for the Sebastian Faulks novel Charlotte Gray, which was made into a film starring Cate Blanchett.

Much of Wake’s extraordinary life was lived under assumed identities. She carried papers as Nancy Fiocca (her married name) and Lucienne Cartier. Her official SOE identity was Andree, though a gay friend in the  service called her ‘Gertie’. On one operation she was tagged ‘Witch’. But the best-known name was the one the Gestapo gave her when they put her on their ‘most wanted’ list, with a five million franc price on her head — that of ‘the White Mouse’, because she always managed to wriggle out of their traps.

Nancy Wake was born in New Zealand and brought up in Australia, a difficult child who took the first opportunity to leave the Antipodes for Europe. There, she partied between assignments as a journalist, before marrying a rich businessman from Marseille who could indulge her taste for champagne, caviar and the good life.

Nancy was visiting London, for, of all things, a slimming course, when war was declared in September 1939. When she tried to join up to fight she was pointed, to her disgust, in the direction of a Naafi (Navy, Army and Air Force) canteen. So she went back to France and, when that country fell to the invading Germans, she proved herself as brave and as aggressive as any man — and more than most.

In 1940, in the half of France unoccupied by the Nazis, Marseille was a magnet for downed RAF crew and British soldiers left behind after the Dunkirk evacuation, all hoping to make their way home via Spain.  An escape route over the Pyrenees was organised underneath the noses of the pro-German French authorities. Nancy’s wealthy husband, Henri, financed operations, while Nancy herself, dressed up to the nines, carried messages between members of the group.

Then she progressed to escorting the ‘packages’ — escaped Allied soldiers and airmen — along the coast to the border. It was dangerous work, with constant fear of discovery or betrayal. At one stage, she was arrested by French police and interrogated in prison for four days. The leader of the escape line bluffed his way in and  secured her release. After that, it was clear her days were numbered and she went to ground.

Six weeks before D-Day, she was parachuted into the heavily-forested and mountainous Auvergne region of central France to prepare local Resistance groups, the Maquis, for the job of harrying the Germans and delaying their reinforcements once the invasion began

The 7,000 partisans were disorderly, disorganised and riven by personal rivalries, more of a  rabble than an underground army that would do damage to the Germans. They had little interest in newcomers from across the Channel sorting them out, particularly a woman.

Nancy proved her mettle, arranging air drops and hiding supplies of weapons, travelling between the groups, paying out money, urging them to co-operate, knocking them, as best she could, into shape. She was as tough as the old army boots she eschewed for heels. With an escort of Maquisards, she shot her way through enemy patrols and roadblocks.
The sadness was that after the liberation she returned to  Marseille to discover that Henri was dead. Shortly after her flight from the city, he had been caught, imprisoned and tortured. The Gestapo shot him.
She blamed herself for his death. If he’d told them where she was, he might have lived. But he refused.
She was festooned with honours — a British George Medal, the French Legion d’Honneur and three Croix de Guerre. She remarried, returned to Australia to live, took up politics for a while, then came back to Britain to retire in 2001.

Her body is to be cremated, but at her request the ashes will be scattered in the Auvergne.
Posted by Jill Fallon at January 30, 2014 8:55 AM | Permalink