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August 8, 2013

BRUCE'S HISTORY LESSONS: The cagey, but never caged, White Mouse

Few have lived a life as meaningful or full as did Nancy Wake. While she lived in France in 1940 when Nazi Germany subjugated that country, she became a leader of the “maquis” groups — the French resistance fighters — who sabotaged the Nazi occupation of France at every opportunity. Wake was so good at her job, and so good at escaping capture, that the Gestapo nicknamed her “The White Mouse” because she avoided every trap.

Fearing the law of averages, however, in 1943 her colleagues convinced her to flee France and head for England, where she underwent rigorous training as part of England’s Special Operations Executive. She proved to be an outstanding trainee, and after completing her training she was parachuted back into France to once again assume a leadership position in the resistance. Her duties ranged from recruiting new maquis members to procuring weapons to leading attacks on hundreds of German military installations.

In some ways, she was an anomaly. She was breathtakingly beautiful and used her beauty to full effect — she was never without her lipstick and face cream — but she was also a hardened and often hard-hearted killer. She handled a machine gun better than most men and once killed a German soldier with her bare hands. And when she discovered another female resistance fighter was a spy, she shot her herself, later saying she had no regrets. “I was not a very nice person,” she explained, “and it [shooting the spy] didn’t put me off my breakfast. After all, she had an easy death … her death was a lot better than the one I would have got.”

Which was almost certainly true. From the spring of 1944 until France was liberated, she and her fellow resistance fighters fought an estimated 20,000 German soldiers and SS troops, inflicting nearly 1,500 casualties on the enemy while suffering less than 200 casualties. At one point Wake topped the Gestapo’s “most wanted” list, with a bounty of 5 million francs on her head.

After the war ended she returned to her place of birth, Australia, where she unsuccessfully pursued a political career, before finally returning to London. There, for a time, she lived in the Stafford Hotel near Piccadilly (in gratitude for her war service, the hotel owners let her stay there at almost no charge), where she often started her day in the hotel bar drinking gin and tonics.

A colleague once said of her, “She is the most feminine woman I know until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men.”

Wake died this week (Aug. 7) in 2011, three weeks shy of her 99th birthday. She was cremated and, at her request, her ashes were scattered in France.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is bruce@historylessons.net.

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