Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History - Nancy Wake

Monday, August 15, 2011

I have a confession to make. I'd never heard of Nancy Wake before her death last week at the age of 98. This embarrasses me, because apparently Ms. Wake was one of the biggest badasses of World War II, male or female.

A native New Zealander, Ms. Wake and her husband were members of the French resistance from 1940 until 1943. She was so effective in her endeavors that she became the Gestapo's "most wanted" person and earned the moniker "The White Mouse" for her ability to elude capture.

In 1943 she fled to Great Britain, where she was recruited into the French Section of the British Special Operations Executive, where she was trained in guerrilla fighting techniques. From April 1944 to the liberation of France, she led 7,000 guerrilla fighters, who collectively fought 22,000 SS soldiers, causing 1,400 casualties, while taking only 100 themselves. She herself was perfectly capable (and willing) to kill German soldiers with her bare hands if it meant advancing her cause. Beautiful and relentless, she was a driving force in the deployment and effective use of the maquis, leading them to victory again and again.

She was qualified to make parachute jumps - and did. "On the night of April 29th, 1944 she was parachuted into the French region of Auvergne. Upon discovering her tangled in a tree, the captain of the local maquis remarked, 'I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year,' to which she replied, 'Don’t give me that French shit.'" My kind of gal.

Immediately after the war, Wake was awarded the George Medal, the United States Medal of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance and thrice the Croix de Guerre. She finished her career with the Intelligence Department of the British Air Ministry.

I've always had enormous respect for the World War II resistance fighters of France. These were some remarkable men and women, brave and daring, and in my mind, their choices and the single-minded execution of their mission helped to make up for the many, many quislings of the time. And I'd always known that many of those fighters were women. But I didn't know that in many cases, they were led by a woman, a woman of amazing gifts and courage, who set the standard for those of us who presumed to take up the profession of arms in their wake.

"I hate wars and violence but if they come then I don't see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas." Just so, Nancy Wake. Fair winds and following seas, my sister.

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Amended 8/15/2011 9:15 a.m. to include the following details about Ms. Wake's amazing husband, Henri Fiocca. I like the way Eric said it, so I'm posting his comment here:

A collateral hat tip from those who still believe in romance and/or are looking for marital inspiration to Ms. Wake's husband, Henri Fiocca: when Ms. Wake helped liberate Paris in '44, she discovered that after her husband was captured, he refused to give up any information about her, preferring to be tortured to death rather than sell her out to the Nazis or Vichy regime. Not that a person is defined by their spouse, but I think it says something about both of them that this was the sort of man she would marry and that she was the sort of woman who would inspire such loyalty. We should all do even half so well in choosing a partner.
Good man. Semper Fidelis, Monsieur Fiocca.

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Wave of the balaclava to my Hot Daughter and my platonic boyfriend Eric, who both sent me links detailing Ms. Wake's life for this feature.

9 comments:

Eric said...

I think it's also a nice point on the overlookable dangers of sexism that part of Ms. Wake's success evidently stemmed from the Germans thinking some of Wake's successes had to be the acts of some kind of burly übermensch dude, because, you know, hot chicks (and Ms. Wake was smokin', look at that pic) stay at home knitting gloves and pumping out future soldiers for the fatherland, they don't parachute back into territory they just made a daring mountain escape from because they weren't actually finished with all the name-taking and ass-kicking the Gestapo was about to so rudely interrupt. Underestimate a person because of your prejudices at your own peril, you know.

A collateral hat tip from those who still believe in romance and/or are looking for marital inspiration to Ms. Wake's husband, Henri Fiocca: when Ms. Wake helped liberate Paris in '44, she discovered that after her husband was captured, he refused to give up any information about her, preferring to be tortured to death rather than sell her out to the Nazis or Vichy regime. Not that a person is defined by their spouse, but I think it says something about both of them that this was the sort of man she would marry and that she was the sort of woman who would inspire such loyalty. We should all do even half so well in choosing a partner.

Janiece said...

Eric, as a woman who has fought sexism in my profession for my entire adult life*, I find that aspect of Nancy's story simply delicious.

And you are so right about Mr. Fiocca. I meant to mention his sacrifice in the piece and then got distracted.

When the Smart Man and I were discussing it, and I described the events that led to Mr. Fiocca's death, he nodded approvingly and said, "Good man."

Just so.

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*I am in no way comparing my own experiences to those this amazing woman. Seriously - NO COMPARISON.

Anne C. said...

Very cool story, Janiece, thank you! And I concur with the Smart Man's assessment of Mr. Wake.

spins = are they allowed to have a real word as a captcha?

Randy said...

Oddly enough, I was just doing some binge reading about Vichy France and the occupation last night. Good timing.

One minor quibble, though. She worked with the maquis. The marquis would've been more likely on the other side, being nobility and figuring anything was better than this pesky rabble-ridden republic they'd had.

beatrice in Paris said...

Merci, Janiece! I'll let you know if this story is covered in France.

TRABAJO ARTESANO said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Janiece said...

*TONG*

Warner said...

I don't know, the Marquis de Lafayette seemed pretty good about this overthrow thing.

Janiece said...

Welcome, Randy.

I've fixed the typo, thanks, although my platonic boyfriend Eric had to club me over the head with the correction.

Also: "Rabble-ridden." Hehe.