I tend to grab hold of an interest and wear it thin with my constant attentions, whether it’s my current favourite breakfast food, or a tv show, or a person in history.
This week it is All Nancy Wake, All the Time.
I saw a mention of her death in the paper and the name was ringing faint ‘bells’ of recognition somewhere in the recesses of my brain…who was she and why was it that I knew her name was familiar but couldn’t tell you more than ‘Something to do with the war’.
I mentioned her name at home the other day and my newly-stepped-step-daughter said ‘I have a book about her’. Hurrah. It’s the Russell Braddon biography of her time in the war, and though the prose is irritatingly flowery (‘She’s a rebel, she’s always laughing and she’s very, very feminine — that’s the best way to describe Nancy Wake’), she’s just such a compelling and fiery woman that I couldn’t put it down. Not even when, on top of work pressures, uni assesments and child health emergencies, the topic of evading the Gestapo began to creep into my brain preventing sleep and leaving me feeling ‘wired’.
What a firecracker of a woman! She ran away from home twice as a teenager, she took off overseas for a career in journalism, she moved to Paris, bought herself two dogs, and took up with a wealthy French business man (Henri Fiocca) who promptly gave up his womanising ways, married her and stayed adoringly by her side throughout her escalatingly dangerous exploits in assisting those captured, held or wanted by the Gestapo to escape Occupied France.
By twenty five she had become a key figure in the French resistance and was top of the Gestapo’s hit list – her ability to evade them while springing prisoners and smuggling people out of the country earned her the nickname of the ‘White Mouse’.
When (despite the false documents she carried to avoid the connection to her real identity) her daring and defiant efforts led to the Gestapo tapping her phone and watching her apartment, her husband stayed waiting for her return. Nancy crossed the Pyrenees Mountains after several unsuccesful attempts, an arrest and a prolonged beating, made her way to England and volunteered for training to be sent back again as a saboteur.
Her husband was picked up by the Gestapo after another Resistance member tried to get a message to him, via as it turned out a German counter-agent. He was tortured brutally for information. His father was sent to ‘reason’ with him to just tell them where Nancy was. Henri refused and, when it became clear that he would give no information on her whereabouts, he was executed.
Before she left France she had helped well over a thousand people escape Occupied France as well as feeding and providing for many families. On her return she found herself in charge of a Resistance force of over 7 000 and preparing them for D-Day sabotage plans. She was volatile, reckless, funny and incredibly brave. She couldn’t stomach blood, violence or death, but even before her Resistance involvement, at the beginning of the war she threw herself at into driving an ‘ambulance’ (a truck she insisted her wealthy husband buy her despite the fact she could not then drive, and in which she ferried refugees out of danger zones and collected bodies and the injured).
She fed, protected and smuggled to safety anyone she could at constant personal risk, she devised schemes, she defied authority, she talked her way out of trouble, she endured incredible discomforts and successfully managed several corps of Resistance fighters and led them through the pre and post D-Day attacks on German posts, parties and resources. It’s astonishing to me that she is not more famous than she is – or that I have remained so unaware of her exploits and the lengths to which she went for the things and the people she cared about.
I’ve only read the one book about her, and I’ve not much idea of what she did after the war, or of whether our politics would align, but I certainly admire her bravery and tenacity.
‘FUCK YEAH: NANCY WAKE’.