8 Aug 2011

World War II heroine Nancy Wake dies

11:11 pm on 8 August 2011

Nancy Wake, one of the most decorated servicewomen of World War II has died in London, aged 98.

Known as The White Mouse for her ability to evade capture during the war, she died on Sunday in a hospital where she had lived for the past 10 years.

Nancy Wake was born in the New Zealand capital of Wellington in 1912, but moved to Australia at an early age.

In her early 20s, she went to Paris to work as a journalist and married French industrialist Henri Fiocca in 1939.

When France was occupied by the Nazis in 1940 the couple became active in the resistance movement.

Ms Wake saved thousands of Allied lives by setting up escape routes and sabotaging German installations.

Trained as a spy by the Special Operations Executive in Britain, she led 7000 resistance fighters in preparations for D-Day and was on top of the Gestapo's most wanted list.

Her exploits included an attack on a local Gestapo headquarters in 1944 in central France.

After Paris was liberated in August 1944, Ms Wake learned that her husband had been executed by the Nazis.

Nancy Wake is regarded as a heroine in France, which decorated her with its highest military honour - the Legion d'Honneur, as well as three Croix de Guerre and a French Resistance Medal.

She was also awarded the George Medal by Britain, the US Medal of Freedom and was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2004.

The New Zealand Returned and Services Association awarded her its highest honour, the Badge in Gold.

New Zealand's Labour Party leader Phil Goff says Nancy Wake's story is an inspiring one of remarkable bravery, courage and leadership.

Mr Goff says that while she left New Zealand as a young child, the country can be proud that she always regarded herself as a New Zealander.

In accordance with her wishes, Ms Wake is expected to be cremated privately and her ashes scattered next spring at Montlucon in central France where she fought in the war years.

Life after the war

In 1949, Nancy Wake returned to Australia and was persuaded by the Liberal Party to run for election against Labor Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Evatt.

She lost, but cut Mr Evatt's 23,000 majority to 2000. Disgusted by politics, she returned to England.

In an interview in 2001 Ms Wake said it was not difficult for her to evade capture.

I was very good-looking, I had the gift of the gab and when I went through the checkouts, I used to flutter my eyelids and say to the officer 'Do you want to search me? and he'd say 'No, mademoiselle, you carry on'. I should have been an actress.

In 1987, a television mini-series was made about her life, but she was irritated by historical liberties that were taken.

The novel Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulkes was based on her life and she was played by Cate Blanchett in a film of the book.