When the front lines are the home front

Nancy Wake - Peter FitzSimons The autobiography of the woman the Gestapo called the White Mouse - Nancy Wake Nancy Wake: SOE's Greatest Heroine - Russell Braddon

Nancy Wake, 1945

New Zealand born, Australian raised Nancy Wake, is one of my all time heroines. I'm not doing the #bookadayuk because I fail at remembering to do anything daily past waking up and stumbling around for coffee. But the entry for "Home front" got me thinking of her, and oddly enough I'd just been reminded of her recently when my daughter asked me for something "like Code Name Verity". I figured you can't beat the real thing, and Nancy's story beats most fiction anyway.

Married to a frenchman at the time of the fall of France, she was living in Marseille, and almost immediately signed up as a courier for the Maquis (the french resistance), risking her life daily to pass intelligence between cells. Under the code name "The White Mouse" she soon became one of the Gestapo's most wanted. Arrested, but somehow released after a friend managed to convince the gestapo she wasn't in fact the white mouse, but rather a cheating wife, she escaped in a daring trek across the Pyrenees mountains, eventually making her way to England. Sadly her husband was not so lucky, tortured to death by the Gestapo, refusing to the end to tell them where she was, something Nancy herself didn't find out until after the war and always blamed herself for.

As if this wasn't enough adventure and danger for one lifetime though, she proceeded to train as a paramilitary at a resistance training camp in England, and then parachuted back into France behind enemy lines, to be the british intelligence liason for the local Maquis in Auvergne. Far from being just a liason, she was an active combatant, and several times in command of groups of Maquis during fire fights with the Germans.

This was one tough, tough little lady. Wikipedia relates one story: "At one point Wake discovered that her men were protecting a girl who was a German spy. They did not have the heart to kill her in cold blood, but Wake did. She said after that it was war, and she had no regrets about the incident." Another: "They'd taught this judo-chop stuff with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practised away at it. But this was the only time I used it – whack – and it killed him all right. I was really surprised". 

In any case, war stories for many of us, from lands who were never directly touched by war, are often divided into the home front stories (those who stayed behind) and the front lines stories (those who went to war). Sometimes it's hard to remember that for many people, the front line is the home front. And sometimes we forget the astonishing stories of those who weren't soldiers, but put their lives on the line to defend their homes.

I would rather like to recommend her own autobiography "The White Mouse", which I originally read in 1985 when it first came out and several times since then. It's delightfully matter of fact and self-deprecating, and very candid even when it doesn't exactly put Wake in the best light. There are also two very good biographies of her, one written in the 60's, and another from the 90's, although I personally prefer the earlier one (that's the Braddon book above). But any of them are fine reads, about a truly amazing lady. 

Nancy died in 2011, aged 98. 


ETA: See also this "Badass of the Week" short biography, it's a hoot: http://badassoftheweek.com/index.cgi?id=27450552861