“She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men.”
Henri Tardivat (Resistance comrade)
When Nancy Wake was born in New Zealand in 1912, the Maori midwife in attendance was delighted to find a kahu (thin membrane) around the baby’s head. This she predicted would bring Nancy good luck throughout her life. She would need to draw on this luck as the life she embarked upon saw her become WWII’s most decorated heroine. Dubbed “The White Mouse” by the Gestapo for repeatedly avoiding capture, at one stage she was on the top of their most wanted list.
Growing up in Australia, Nancy yearned to travel. London, Paris, New York beckoned. She was a determined and ingenious child and started saving from an early age. An unexpected gift of $200 from an aunt, a large amount at the time, allowed her to finally set sail. She made her way to the places on her list, trained herself as a journalist in London and continued her travels around Europe. It was on the streets of Paris and Vienna that she first saw the violence of the Nazi’s with their ever increasing power. After witnessing a horrific incident involving Jews being chained to a revolving wheel and being whipped in the street, she promised herself she would whatever she could to stop them.
She was to remain true to that promise. Living in Marseille with her French husband when the Germans invaded, she started off as a courier with the then infant resistance before playing a crucial role in helping hundreds of people escape through France and cross the Pyrenees to safety. She ended up having to take this route herself after being betrayed.It took six attempts over six months to make it across. From there she went to Britain, trained as a Special Operatives Executive, was parachuted back into France and helped to lead the 7000 Maquis soldiers, the French Resistance Guerillas. One of the key roles of the Maquis was to assist the Allies invasion of Normandy by their delaying tactics with the enemy.
This book is full of the details of Nancy’s early life, her glamorous married life in France pre war and all her brave actions during the war. I will leave all those amazing details for people wanting to read the book to discover.
Peter Fitzsimmons, a fellow Australian, has written this biography after spending many hours speaking to Nancy Wake. It has taken me a while to collect my thoughts on this book. I appreciated all the details of her early life and escapades and was fascinated with her war time story, her determination, passion and bravery. She made repeated personal sacrifices. In esaping the Gestapo she had to leave her husband behind and she continually risked her life to help others.
What I didn’t enjoy so much was the style or tone of the book, the way the information was presented. It is told in a flippant, slightly cocky way with plenty (I felt) of the authors own little remarks thrown in. Eg: “She was not a happy little vegemite”. In fairness I think Peter Fitzsimmons was probably trying to share the flavour he felt came through when speaking with Nancy Wake, she was apparently quite brash and said things as they were, but it was all a bit enthusiastic and I felt it trivialised the story somewhat.
Nancy Wake has written her own autobiography,The White Mouse, which seems to be hard to come by and Russell Braddon has also written the biography Nancy Wake, SOE’s Greatest Heroine.
I had been looking out for a book on Nancy Wake and picked this up from my local second hand book shop. I’m pleased to have read her story.
Challenges: War Through the Generations – WWII