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The Death of Nancy Wake

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Nancy Wake died this week. She would make an excellent case-study for people studying the Second World War. In 1939 Nancy married the wealthy French industrialist, Henri Fiocca, in Marseilles. Nancy was in France when the German Army invaded in May 1940. After the French government surrendered, Nancy joined the French Resistance. She worked with Ian Garrow's group helping British airmen shot down over France to escape back to Britain.

In December 1940 the network was betrayed and Nancy was forced to go into hiding. She continued to work for the French Resistance and was eventually arrested while in Toulouse. However, the authorities did not realize they had captured the woman known as the "White Mouse" and she was released after four days.

It was now too dangerous to remain in occupied France and Nancy crossed the Pyrenees into Spain before travelling to Britain. David Stafford has pointed out: "Henri promised to follow. But he was picked up by the Gestapo and shot. She blamed herself for his death: if it had not been for her, she mourned, he would have survived the war."

Nacy Wake now joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and agreed to become a British special agent. Her training reports said "a very good and fast shot" and she "put the men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character". Vera Atkins, who worked in the SOE's French section, remembered her as: "A real Australian bombshell. Tremendous vitality, flashing eyes. Everything she did, she did well".

On 29th April 1944, Nancy was parachuted into the Auvergne region of France. Her main objective was to locate local bands of the Maquis and to provide them with the ammunition and arms that were being dropped by parachute by the Royal Air Force four times a week.

Nancy had the task of helping the resistance to prepare for the armed uprising that was due to coincide with the D-Day landings. She also led a raid against the Gestapo headquarters in Mountucon and a German gun factory. Henri Tardivat, one of her comrades in the resistance later said that: "She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men."

After the death of her second husband in 1997 she returned to London and lived in the Star and Garter Home for ex-servicemen and women in Richmond. To fund her later years she sold her war medals. She commented: "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."


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