A belated salute for war heroine

David Fickling in Sydney
Monday February 23, 2004
The Guardian


Nancy Wake and Cate Blanchett at the premiere of Charlotte Gray
Nancy Wake and Cate Blanchett at the premiere of Charlotte Gray. Photo: PA
 

A woman brought up in Australia who became a heroine of the French resistance has finally been granted Canberra's highest honour, at the age of 91, and after leaving her home country to live in London. Nancy Wake led 7,000 resistance fighters in missions to sabotage Nazi installations before D-day. Earlier she had helped more than 1,000 allied soldiers to escape to Spain. Her activities earned her a chestful of medals from France, Britain and the US, but until now her achievements had not been formally recognised by Australia, where she lived from the age of 20 months.

She will be given the Order of Australia next month by the governor general, Sir Michael Jeffery, during his first official visit to Britain since his appointment last year.

Ms Wake's ability to evade capture was legendary, and earned her the Gestapo codename "the white mouse". She escaped her pursuers on skis, across a hidden bridge, driving a car pursued by an aeroplane, and on one occasion by jumping from a moving train.

Born in New Zealand and educated in Sydney, she moved to Europe in her 20s to work as a freelance journalist. She had been in Europe less than a year when she interviewed Hitler in Vienna and saw at first-hand the Nazis' treatment of Jews, making her an avowed opponent of the regime. She married the wealthy French industrialist Henri Fiocca and they settled in Marseille in 1939. Her resistance activities began after the German occupation and Vichy takeover in 1940.

For three years she managed to outwit her Gestapo pursuers before finally escaping over the Pyrenees to Spain. Returning to Britain, she was trained for vital missions backing up the D-day landings and parachuted back into France. "Over civilian clothes, silk-stockinged and high heeled, I wore overalls, carried revolvers in the pockets, and topped the lot with a bulky camel-haired coat, webbing harness, parachute and tin hat," she wrote.

The drama of her war years means she has been cited as inspiration for the heroine of Sebastian Faulks' novel Charlotte Gray, filmed with Cate Blanchett in the title role - though several other resistants claim the same part. She has never had any regrets about her war years, during which she killed a man with her bare hands and suffered the death of her husband, who was killed by the Gestapo after refusing to reveal where she was. She said: "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."

After years of conflict with Canberra about veterans' rights, she left Australia in 2001 to live in London. She sold her war medals for 75,000 to pay for the cost of living in a hotel in Mayfair, saying she was determined to prevent the Australian Museum getting its hands on them. She would not accept an honour from the Australian government, she told journalists, because "it wouldn't be given out of love". There has been some mending of bridges in the past year, since it was revealed that Prince Charles had taken to paying her hotel bills to save her from penury. Last month Canberra agreed to pay for a round-the-clock caregiver in the home where she now lives.

Asked about selling her medals, Ms Wake said: "There was no point in keeping them. When I die, I'll probably go to hell and they'd melt anyway. My only condition is when I die, I want my ashes scattered over the hills where I fought alongside all those men."

SECOND WORLD WAR: from the Guardian archive

War is declared
04.09.1939: Britain at war with Germany
04.09.1939: The ultimatum
04.09.1939: Mr Churchill - Peace in our hearts
04.09.1939: Leader: At war

Normandy landings
07.06.1944: Fighting in Caen, ten miles inland
07.06.1944: Weather held up invasion for 24 hours
07.06.1944: Nazi guns silenced

1943
08.05.1943: How we broke through
29.12.1943: With the eighth army

Persecution of the Jews
03.09.1942: How the Jews in France were rounded up
11.12.1942: The German massacres of Jews in Poland

Bombing of British cities
12.05.1941: Westminster Abbey hit
19.11.1940: London Underground during bombing raids
16.11.1940: Coventry's ordeal

Winston Churchill
21.08.1940: Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few

FIRST WORLD WAR: from the Guardian archive
12.11.1919: Yesterday's national tribute to the men who fell
30.06.1919: The war formally ended
12.11.1918: How the great news was received.
12.11.1918: The end of the war
11.11.1918: Kaiser abdicates and flees
21.10.1918: Prisoners' sad letters
18.09.1916: Armoured cars in action
03.07.1916: The new offensive in France
03.06.1916: Great battle in North Sea
10.05.1915: The Lusitania disaster
02.01.1915: Attacks on British front
28.10.1914: Germans held in check

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