LONDON, England – Nancy Wake, a leader of the French resistance during World War II who became one of the Allies’ most decorated servicewomen, died in London on Sunday, August 7. She was 98.
Born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, Wake saved thousands of Allied lives by setting up escape routes and sabotaging German installations. Trained as a spy by the British, she led 7000 resistance fighters in D-Day preparations.
For a time, Wake topped the Gestapo’s most wanted list, with a reported bounty of five million francs on her head, dead or alive. She was nicknamed the “White Mouse” by the Gestapo because of her uncanny ability to evade capture.
After leaving Australia at a young age, Wake studied journalism in London. She became a correspondent for The Chicago Tribune in Paris and reported on the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. A 1933 trip to interview Hitler in Vienna led her to become committed to bringing down the Nazis.
“I saw the disagreeable things that he was doing to people, first of all the Jews,” she told ABC radio in 1985. “I thought it was quite revolting.”
When World War II broke out in 1939, she was living in the French city of Marseille with her first husband, French industrialist Henri Fiocca. She helped British servicemen and Jews escape the German occupying force. Her husband was eventually seized, tortured and killed by the Gestapo. But Wake managed to escape to London in 1943, where she received espionage training before helping to lead the French resistance in its final days.
Wake moved back to Australia in 1957 after marrying British fighter pilot John Forward. She moved back to Britain in 2001, four years after Forward’s death. She never had children.
“Nancy Wake was a woman of exceptional courage and resourcefulness whose daring exploits saved the lives of hundreds of Allied personnel and helped bring the Nazi occupation of France to an end,” Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a statement.
Regarded as a heroine in France, she was awarded that country’s highest military honor, the Legion d’Honneur, as well as three Croix de Guerre and a French Resistance Medal. She was also awarded Britain’s George Medal and the U.S. Medal of Freedom. She was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2004.
Following her death, the Jewish community of Wellington, New Zealand, where she was born, held a memorial ceremony for Wake, attended by Israeli Ambassador Shemi Tzur.
“After seeing the persecution of Jews in Vienna in 1938, Nancy Wake acted with immense bravery against the Nazi German occupation of France,” said Inge Woolf, director of the Wellington Holocaust Research and Education Centre.
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