The white mouse
This journalist and war hero did it all with a G&T in one hand and her middle finger to the world on the other.
She has gone by many names: born Nancy Wake, code-named ‘Madame Andree’ by the Allies, branded ‘The White Mouse’ by Nazi troops and dubbed ‘Une Femme’ by the partisans who were initially reluctant to take orders from a woman. The only thing she has more of than names is accolades, which leads us to believe that the most important and historically accurate title for Nancy Wake is ‘absolute badass’.
She died in 2011 but not before being recognised as Australia’s most decorated servicewoman. Wake used her charm, intellect and beauty to evade capture throughout the entirety of World War II, all the while pulling off things usually reserved for Marvel comics. Her biographer Russell Braddon put it mildly when he described Wake as one part guerrilla chieftain and one part houseproud hostess.
Born in Wellington, New Zealand, but raised in Sydney from the age of two, Wake was the youngest in a family of six. Wake ran away from home at 16 and eventually moved to London and then Paris in pursuit of a career in journalism. As World War II broke out, Wake was revolted by the ideology of the Nazis and, disheartened by much of the French media’s advice on how to adjust to Nazi occupation rather than fighting it, took a more hands-on approach to resistance. As Wake put it: “I hate wars and violence but if they come then I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.” So, Wake turfed the sewing implements and begun operating as a covert messenger. She quickly graduated to the task of smuggling Jewish families and other refugees out of occupied France. Later in the war she returned to Britain to get special ops training and became an expert in explosives, weapons and hand-to-hand combat, making her resume an A4 page of sheer intimidation. Cut to the next scene, with Wake parachuting back into France to assess the freedom fighters and distribute munitions in the lead up to D-Day. Instead of arguing with men about the semantics of being a woman in charge, Wake simply won their respect by drinking them under the table – she was known to down six gin and tonics a day.
She was fierce in way that is less Beyoncé on the red carpet and more Liam Neeson with a kidnapped daughter. According to one of her biographers, Peter FitzSimons, she took down soldiers with her bare hands, gunned her way through roadblocks and peddled a pushbike more than 500 kilometres through Nazi checkpoints to deliver intel to the Allies.
Being a self-taught journalist is an accomplishment, inadvertently fronting a feminist movement is awesome, earning a spot on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list is extraordinary/terrifying, and the combination makes Nancy Wake the most unlikely hero.