Nancy Wake (1912–2011) codenamed ‘Helene’ and ‘Witch’ became one of the most decorated allied servicewomen of World War II.
The Gestapo called her the ‘white mouse’ and in France she was known by the partisans as ‘Madame Andrée
In 1940, Madame Andrée drove to the north of France from her home in Marseille. She was driving the ambulance her new husband Frenchman Henri Fiocca had given her.
Horrified by the sight of civilian casualties especially women and children strafed by German aircraft, Madame assisted in the evacuation of refugees streaming south.
These scenes and others including the humiliation and treatment of Jews in Vienna left a deep scar on her. She told herself she would do whatever she could to help.
Madame would not have thought that in a very short time she would have to throw herself from a moving train and outrun machine fire or that she would be attacked from the air in her car
She would not have thought, because this was only the beginning and in war nobody could know where it would go or how it would end.
But as she drove north she remembered her first magical days in France as a reporter and the warm Streets of Paris. At first unable to find accommodation, she got lucky, and was taken in by someone who was unable to forget an Australian soldier from the First World War.
The last Marseillaise broadcast before the fall of Paris had everyone in tears, no one could believe what had happened, before long Madame Andree had become active in the résistance movement. At first she worked as a courier, and then she helped run an escape network for refugees and soldiers. She made it to the top of the Gestapo’s most wanted list, all the time posing as an ordinary French housewife. But at home she had to be careful, having the Vichy Police commissioner living opposite, she needed to appear unconcerned by events around her.
She always made sure she had a good excuse for being somewhere. Asking for cigarette lights, she appeared confident, sometimes flirting with the enemy, even promising to meet later. This way she was able to travel and move around where men could not.
But soon there was an informer, a traitor in the résistance, and some of the members had been arrested. Madame was being watched, her phone tapped, the Gestapo were closing in and it was time to leave. Her husband Henri was to join her later in England. After six attempts and three days of interrogation, she crossed the Pyrenees and was on a boat to England. But deep down somehow, she felt she may never see Henri again. After the war she was to find out that he had been brutally tortured and murdered by the Gestapo.
In Britain, Madame joined the S.O.E the Special Operations Executive. It was set up by Churchill to conduct guerrilla warfare against the axis powers and aid the local resistance. She began training at a place the recruits called ‘the madhouse’ in all forms of combat, weaponry and intelligence.
On the 29th of April 1944 Madame parachuted back into France.
Feeling sick from the vibration of the aircraft as it ducked and weaved through enemy flak, when the time came to jump Madame was relieved, as she felt the cool air rush pass her face.
Under her parachute harness she wore a smart civilian costume, silk stockings, three quarter heeled shoes, overalls, then a camel hair overcoat. She carried one million Francs and plans in a large handbag, and two pistols by her side. Sewn into her sleeve was a cyanide capsule.
Soon Madame won the respect of the Maquis, and became a leading figure in a force numbering 7000.
The idea was to cause as much disruption to the Germans as possible, by blowing up trains, and raiding convoys, where they attacked them quickly and then quickly disappeared into the forests.
Many good friends were made and lost.
Madame travelled continuously, arranging airdrops of arms, radios and food, utilising up to 17 fields as drop zones.
When Madame’s radio operator lost his codes, knowing she had a better chance than any man, she took it on herself to cycle 500 kilometres through occupied territory to get her message through by another operator to London. She rode almost non-stop for 3 days.
By August 1944 Paris was liberated, Berlin would fall the following year, and Hitler would take his own life.