Despite her future successes as a super agent for Australia and New Zealand during WWII, Nancy Wake had humble beginnings.
She was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1912, but her family moved to Sydney, Australia when she was almost two and she grew up there.
A Maori midwife delivered her and, at the time of her birth, allegedly pointed at a fold of skin on her head and said, “’This is what we call a kahu, and it means your baby will always be lucky. Wherever she goes, whatever she does, the gods will look after her.”
Her childhood didn’t appear to be very lucky. When she was four, just a few short years after the move to Sydney, her father left on a trip to the United States and never returned. This left her frazzled mother to look after six children, of whom Wake was the youngest.
She was constantly butting heads with her mother and, at the age of sixteen, she left home to work as a nurse.
She might have continued working independently in Sydney had it not been for the unexpected inheritance of £200 (about £11,500 today) from her aunt which allowed her to seek out adventure.
Arriving in London in 1932, she started a course in journalism. Her new career took her to Paris, where she lived for a year reporting on the situation in Europe as well as the rise of Nazism.
However, she had time for fun, too, and took full advantage of Parisian nightlife. Soon, the girl from humble beginnings had charmed Henri Fiocca, a French millionaire. They married shortly after the start of World War II and she moved into his mansion in Marseilles.
Wake was a working woman, however, and despised the Nazis. She could not abide sitting back while they marched into France. As such, she joined up with the local Resistance movement, acting as a courier.
She became an invaluable part of the Resistance movement, carrying important messages from one resistance group to another. It took the Nazis a while to figure out they were being duped by a beautiful, outwardly flirtatious woman, but when they did, they hunted her fiercely, eventually even putting a 5 million franc bounty on her head.
However, the Gestapo wasn’t able to catch Wake. Whenever they seemingly had her cornered, she managed to slip away unnoticed.
Because of this, they called her “the White Mouse.” She was very nearly captured once, in an incident that saw bullets whistling past her ears, but she managed to make it over the Pyrenees by herself, once again evading capture. Talking about her close calls, she said, “I never had time to worry.
And I have to admit, though some people won’t believe me, I was never afraid.”
From Spain she made her way to Britain, where she trained for sixteen weeks with the Special Operations Executive. At the end of this intense training, she was something of an expert in explosives, hand-to-hand combat, and weaponry. She was ready for her first mission: to assess resistance groups in France and let London know what each group needed in terms of munitions.
We all know that war was largely a “man’s” game back then, though, and despite parachuting into the forests of l’Auvergne to carry out her duties, she was met with many resistance fighters who couldn’t believe that Britain had sent in a woman for this job.
They refused to treat her with respect—that is, until she challenged the leaders to drinking contests which she nearly always won (in true Australian form. Later, she mentioned that she liked to consume at least six gin and tonics a day). In doing so, she was able to take some 7000 resistance partisans under her wing.
When D-Day arrived, Wake commanded her “troops,” organizing them to fight against the German soldiers rushing to reinforce their fellows at Normandy. She and the resistance fighters blew up bridges and wrecked trains, narrowly escaping capture.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Wake also killed a German sentry with her bare hands to prevent him from alerting the rest of the men that an attack was in full swing. Later, they liberated Vichy which had been in the hands of collaborationists.
It soon became clear that the Allies were going to win the war. Allowed into a recently liberated Paris, Wake and her friends found themselves at the British Officers Club acting a bit rowdy. The waiter serving them boldly proclaimed that he would rather be serving German soldiers than put up with them for another moment.
An angry Wake told him exactly how she felt by “knocking him senseless with a right-hook.”
A fellow waiter came running with a shot of brandy to revive the poor man. Nancy grabbed the shot instead, drained it, and said “Merci” before walking out the door.
After the war, Wake was decorated with medals from the United States, Britain, and France. It was sixty years before she would be granted medals from her native Australia and New Zealand because she hadn’t served with the Australian forces during the war.
What is Anzac Day? Anzac Day, 25 April, is one of Australia’s most important national occasions. It marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War.
What does ANZAC stand for? ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The soldiers in those forces quickly became known as Anzacs, and the pride they took in that name endures to this day.
Why is this day special to Australians? When war broke out in 1914 Australia had been a federated nation for only 13 years, and its government was eager to establish a reputation among the nations of the world.
When Britain declared war in August 1914 Australia was automatically placed on the side of the Commonwealth.
In 1915 Australian and New Zealand soldiers formed part of the expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli peninsula in order to open the Dardanelles to the allied navies.
The ultimate objective was to capture Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany.
A view looking aft of lifeboat carrying unidentified men of the Australian 1st Divisional Signal Company as they are towed towards Anzac Cove on the day of the landing.
The Australian and New Zealand forces landed on Gallipoli on 25 April, meeting fierce resistance from the Ottoman Turkish defenders. What had been planned as a bold stroke to knock Turkey out of the war quickly became a stalemate, and the campaign dragged on for eight months.
At the end of 1915 the allied forces were evacuated from the peninsula, with both sides having suffered heavy casualties and endured great hardships. More than 8,000 Australian soldiers had died in the campaign.
Gallipoli had a profound impact on Australians at home, and 25 April soon became the day on which Australians remembered the sacrifice of those who died in the war.
Although the Gallipoli campaign failed in its military objectives, the actions of Australian and New Zealand forces during the campaign left a powerful legacy.
What became known as the “Anzac legend” became an important part of the identity of both nations, shaping the ways in which they viewed both their past and their future.
In 1942, Dunlop was sent to Java, Indonesia to help treat allied and Australian troops who were stationed there in order to counter the Japanese threat. In March of that year the Japanese captured Weary’s hospital in Bandoeng, Java.
Weary could have escaped but he would not hear of leaving his patients and became a prisoner of war (POW).
All POWs were taken by ship to Singapore and from there some, including Weary, were railed in crowded rice trucks and sent to Thailand.
The Japanese utilised these men to build a continuous strategic rail line between Burma and Siam (now known as Myanmar and Thailand respectively).
Over four hundred kilometres long, this ambitious Japanese engineering project became known as ‘The Railway of Death’ – it has been estimated that including POWs and native labour, the construction of this railway cost one hundred thousand lives.
Weary led the first Australian group to arrive in Thailand and to work on the now infamous Burma – Siam Railway. In his dual capacity of Commanding Officer and Surgeon he had the care and responsibility for over one thousand men.
This group became known as ‘Dunlop Force’ or ‘Dunlop’s Thousand’.
Weary’ s medical skills, compassion and dedication to duty inspired his fellow POWs. He displayed extraordinary courage in attempting to improve the harsh living and working conditions imposed by his captors.
With scarce medical supplies and lack of proper instruments, the prisoners manufactured needles and artificial limbs from bamboo – improvisation was the order of the day and often made the difference between death and survival.
The men were required to work by Tokyo time, waking at 3am to begin their daily trials. Commonly breakfast consisted of one mug of rice and one of watery tea, while lunch and dinner would consist of rice with the occasional egg, but very little else.
Working from early morning until well into the night, the men were pushed to the brink of exhaustion; they were emaciated to levels they did not expect they could endure. Slow starvation and wretchedness was the order of the day. Weary bravely wrote:
“I have a conviction that it’s only when you are put at full stretch that you can realise your full potential”
Weary used his position as a doctor and Commanding Officer to protect his men. Having the awesome responsibility of deciding who was fit enough for work and who could remain behind to perhaps survive, he would often stand up to the Japanese soldiers, frequently with dire consequences for himself.
He was once made to kneel on gravel and hold up some heavy stones for many hours while a bamboo shaft was placed behind his knee.
But Weary never wavered; he always stood fast for his men.