In her book Women Heroes of World War II, author Kathryn Atwood looks at the lives and courageous feats of twenty-six women during the Second World War. Here, Kathryn pays special tribute to Nancy Wake, a leading figure in the French Resistance.
All of the women in my book had impressive reserves of moral courage and most had specific epiphanies in which they decided to fight the Germans. So what differentiates Nancy Wake from the others? I believe it was Nancy’s dramatic and fascinating masculine/feminine duality, something that made this highly decorated Second World War hero perfect for the one job in which she would ultimately come to feel the most pride: her incredible 500 km, 72-hour bike ride that kept her enormous band of French fighters connected with London at a crucial moment in their battle against the Germans
Moment of epiphany
Many of the women featured in my book, Women Heroes of World War II, had epiphanies during which they decided to take their stand against the Nazis. For one, it was when she saw her father weeping at the onset of Belgium’s second German occupation. For another, it was the sight of women and children being chased down and shot in a Jewish ghetto.
Nancy Wake’s moment came in 1934 during a trip to Vienna where she and her fellow journalists were seeking the truth behind the Nazi-induced horror stories pouring out of Austria and Germany. There in Vienna’s very public main square, she saw a gang of Hitler’s Brown Shirts whipping Jewish men who were chained to enormous moving wheels. She documented her reaction to this scene in her memoir: “I resolved there and then that if I ever had the chance I would do anything, however big or small, stupid or dangerous, to try and make things more difficult for their rotten party. When war came to France, followed by the occupation, I found it quite natural to take the stand I did.”
By the time France was occupied, Nancy was the wife of a wealthy Marseille businessman and could have endured the German presence in relative comfort. Instead, she stayed true to her resolve and did whatever she was asked by the Resistance although she occasionally found her initial work as a courier rather boring. Because she was full of joie de vivre, standing around waiting for long periods of time –a necessary aspect of courier work – wasn’t exactly her idea of a good time. Yet she was so effective couriering information and trapped Allied servicemen that the Paris Gestapo began circulating descriptions of a female resistance worker they referred to as The White Mouse. The Marseille Gestapo and the Vichy police began watching Nancy so closely that she had to flee.
Her second wave of resistance work among the Maquis highlighted a fascinating masculine/feminine duality in her personality. In order to convince the French fighters to work for the Allies, it was crucial that she command their respect. She was able to do so because she clearly hated the Germans as much as they did, because she could keep them armed and trained in the use of those arms, and, most curiously, because she had an enormously high tolerance for alcohol: she could drink them all under the table. Or in this case, under the bushes, since they were all living together in the woods.
Yet even while she lived in the wild with these men, she stubbornly clung to as much femininity as possible. For instance, every so often, the SOE offices in London would send along with the ammunition drops personal packets for Nancy filled with luxuries that she absolutely treasured, such as chocolates, tea, and cosmetics. She also had in her possession a few satin nightdresses that she slept in every night: “No matter how tired I was, after a day in the male world wearing trousers,” she wrote later in her memoir, “I’d change into a frilly nightie to sleep.”
The bike ride of which she was to become so justifiably proud illustrates this masculine/feminine duality perfectly while also highlighting the acting skills she’d honed as a courier. This woman, who commanded the respect of thousands of tough French fighters, and who would later kill a German sentry with her bare hand, for this stage of the battle donned a feminine outfit, hopped on a bike, and a flashed a demure smile whenever she encountered the enemy.
Nancy Wake died, aged 98, on 7 August 2011.
Quotes taken from Nancy Wake: The Autobiography of the Woman the Gestapo Called The White Mouse. Sydney: Sun Books, 1985.
Read more in Kathryn’s book, Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.
See also article on Violette Szabo.