Nancy Wake – you’ve probably never heard of this heroine (the hell with p.c. heroes – she’d prefer to be called a heroine). She was a member of the French Resistance during the War (That’s World War II to those of you too young to know), and she died five days ago, aged 98. She was an incredible person – apparently she completely lacked the fear gene. Born in New Zealand in 1912, she grew up in Australia. At 16 she left for London, passed herself off as an Egyptian-speaking journalist, and ended up on journalistic assignment in Paris. (Can you imagine getting a job without credentials these days, by simply bluffing your way into it?) While there, she met and married a French industrialist, Henri Fiocca, and by 1938 was living in Marseilles, and speaking fluent French.
When the war broke out, she started helping allied pilots who’d been shot down to escape over the Pyrenees to Spain and thence to England. It was the escape route she eventually had to use herself, when the Gestapo was within hours of arresting her. It was the Germans who called her the White Mouse – they could never quite catch her. Maybe it was to do with her glamorous appearance – she used her bright red lipstick and flirtatious eyes to talk her way out of trouble more than once.
You can read her full obituary here, and I encourage you to do it – it reads more like fiction than fact, and in fact Nancy Wake was reportedly the model for Sebastian Faulks’ novel Charlotte Grey. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/nancy-wake-white-mouse-of-world-war-ii-dies-at-98/2011/08/08/gIQABvPT5I_story.html
The reasons she interests me are twofold: One, she lived the sort of life during the war that no woman could ever live now. Her initiative, resourcefulness and audacity made her a successful commander of a group of Maquis (resistance fighters). I don’t know how many women command male forces these days, but it can’t be many.
The second reason is my mother. Nancy Wake belonged to a small elite corps of women, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), as did my mother. I chose the photo above because I remember the same uniform hanging in my mother’s wardrobe when I was little. The FANY sent many of its members for training to the Special Operations Executive (precursor to MI5), and 39 of them were dropped by parachute into Europe as spies and Resistance members. 28 came back.
My mother worked in a different area, liaising with the Polish Army in Scotland, and then working for UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration). What all FANY members had in common was that none of them were paid. They had to show that they had enough money of their own to be able to buy their own uniforms and provide for themselves. This meant that many of them were also better educated than the average Englishwoman of the time. They were better travelled, and many spoke foreign languages fluently. Ideal spy material.
I have no idea whether I’d have the courage to do what these women did. And I don’t think I really want to find out, either.