Nancy Wake: Stories of Service

Running time
6 min 54 sec
Date made
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory
Copyright
Department of Veterans' Affairs 2020
Spies played a vital role in the Second World War. In France, a spy network known as La Résistance collected data for the Allies and disrupted the occupying German forces. This tells the story of Nancy Wake, a New Zealand-born Australian woman who was in France when the war began. Her story had all the components of a spy thriller: specialist training, high-risk operations, dedicated technology and intelligence gathering. Wake exploited her sense of adventure and undertook the dangerous but effective role of a spy. Her story is one of service and courage as she carried out her role with the French Resistance.

Student inquiry questions

  1. Nancy Wake was appalled by the sight of Nazi gangs beating Jewish people in the streets of Vienna in Austria before World War II started. How might these experiences have affected her actions during the war?
  2. The French Resistance was formed after German armed forces invaded France in 1940. The Resistance set out to fight back against the German occupation by conducting high-risk operations, disrupting German communications and transport. Why was it important for the Resistance to carry out these operations?
  3. Nancy Wake had to escape from France after the Gestapo (German secret police) started to close in on her. She went to England, where she was trained to become a spy. After this training, she parachuted back into France to resume working with the French Resistance. Read about this phase of Nancy's life. Why did she choose to return to France, even though the risk was greater for her at that time?
  4. The French Resistance played an important role in the preparation of the Allied invasion of mainland Europe. What was its role? What might the Allied invasion have been like without help from the French Resistance?
  5. Nancy Wake's story is one of intrigue, courage and risk. Some historians disagree over how much of her story is true. Why might they doubt parts of Nancy's story?

Transcript

Opening credits - collage of drawings – soldiers, fighter aeroplane; black and white photographs of military nurses and soldiers; a row of medals; video title ‘Stories of Service: Second World War’. Music.

Presenter Warren Brown sits at a small circular wooden table. He wears a blue long-sleeved shirt and jeans. He holds a small paintbrush in his right hand. Part of a cartoon is visible on the table. Behind the presenter is a stone wall that is part of a house. He talks directly to the camera.

'When you think of spies, you can't help but think of Hollywood. James Bond taking on a villain, fast car chases and all kinds of gadgets.'

Brown's right hand is seen working on a black and white cartoon. A close-up shot shows his brush putting black ink on to paper. The next shot shows the full cartoon; it is of a woman standing on a street, with her head replaced by a question mark.

'But during the Second World War, spies were quite different. They looked just like everyone else. But they were equipped with specialist skills for espionage, disruption, sabotage and evading the enemy.'

Brown is seen sitting, with the stone wall from the earlier scene still behind him. He is seen from his chest up. He talks directly to the camera.

'Perhaps their greatest skill was their ability for concealment. They maintained their cover by blending in with those around them.'

The black and white cartoon from the earlier scene reappears on the screen. The cartoon background turns blue and the question mark on top of the woman's body changes into a woman's head. She has dark hair, wears a beret and has a scarf around her neck.

'One person who was well suited for the role of a spy was Nancy Wake. Her good looks, courage and confidence allowed her to evade suspicion, blend in with crowds and maintain her cover.'

The cartoon is replaced by a photograph to the left of the screen of young Nancy Wake, in a military uniform. The background of the screen has the appearance of old paper. Several objects appear in the corners of the screen. At upper left is a bottle of ink on a book. At upper right is the keyboard of an old-fashioned typewriter. At lower right is a stamp with a wooden handle. At lower left is a ball of crumpled up paper. All of these images disappear from the screen to be replaced by a black and white photograph of Adolf Hitler at right, a background image of military vehicles in a parade, a black and white photograph at lower left of a Nazi Party parade with people giving the Nazi salute and a black and white photograph at upper-middle showing European refugees sitting on a bare floor.

'Born in New Zealand, Nancy grew up in Sydney and was independent from the start. At 16, she moved away from home to study nursing and after receiving a small inheritance from an aunt, she pursued her dream of travelling to England via New York to become a journalist.'

'As European Correspondent for an American newspaper, Nancy witnessed the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement. While visiting Vienna in Austria, she reported seeing roving Nazi gangs randomly beating Jewish men and women on the streets. This, she said, appalled her, and she vowed to do something about it.'

The screen reveals a black and white photograph of Nancy Wake with her husband. A larger version of the photograph is in the background to the right of the screen. The background image changes into a French Resistance flag (the flag of France with the Cross of Lorraine in the centre – the cross has two horizontal lines). A moving image appears in the centre of the screen. It shows a person wearing a leather coat and carrying a machine gun walking from left to right. Only the person's torso is visible. They wear an armband that has the Cross of Lorraine on it. The moving image then becomes a Morse code machine, with someone tapping out a message. Only one of their fingers is seen, on the Morse code machine's key. A pair of binoculars appears above the Morse code machine image. The entire screen then changes to a map of Europe, with France and Spain marked out.

'In 1939, she settled in the south of France, after marrying wealthy French industrialist Henri Fiocca. In May 1940, after France's surrender to Germany, she found her calling - using her newfound wealth and social standing to help members of the local Resistance groups. The Resistance had emerged in France as a way of fighting back against the German occupation. Ordinary French citizens were soon carrying out high-risk operations as they tried to disrupt German communications and transport and gather information for the Allies.'

'From 1940 to 1943, she worked tirelessly for the Resistance, undertaking a range of tasks from couriering small packages to assisting the escape of Allied airmen and Jewish refugees from France into neutral Spain.'

The map is replaced by a photograph to the left of the screen of young Nancy Wake, in a military uniform. The background shows a blurred black and white photograph of two women sitting at a desk. One of them holds some paper in her hands. A moving image appears in the lower centre of the screen. It shows someone sitting at a desk, wearing a leather jacket, shirt and tie. An old-style telephone is on the desk. The camera moves toward the person, whose head is out of shot. The camera moves next to the person and pans down to a document on the desk. The document has a photograph of Nancy Wake attached to it. At the top of the document is a word in the German language and the Nazi Party symbol of an eagle above a swastika. The words 'The White Mouse' appear above the moving image.

'On learning of her involvement with the Resistance, Germany's secret state police, the Gestapo, put her on the most-wanted' list, but she slipped through their fingers so many times, Nancy was code-named "The White Mouse"; a pest they found hard to remove.'

Brown is seen in an outdoor setting. The stone wall of a house is behind him, along with a gravel path and a hedge. He wears a blue long-sleeved shirt and jeans. He walks toward the camera and then stops as he continues to talk.

'In fact, the Gestapo was so desperate to catch her, they offered a substantial reward for her capture. But time and time again, Nancy evaded them. She used her looks to her advantage. She said her attractiveness was her greatest weapon.'

The scene with Brown is replaced by a scene set in an open space, with trees and areas of grass. Two male actors dressed as German soldiers from the Second World War stand in the middle distance. A female actor dressed in dark clothing and pushing an old-style bicycle approaches them. One of the soldiers stops the woman and appears to ask her for some identification. The scene cuts to a view of the woman reaching into her coat pocket and pulling out an identity card. She hands it to the soldier; he looks at it, hands it back to her and motions for her to continue on her way. The next view is of the woman wheeling her bicycle past one of the soldiers. She is seen from the waist down, as is the soldier. He holds a rifle that appears to be of Second World War vintage.

'She went under the radar, outfoxing the enemy at checkpoints, using fake identities. Nancy used her confidence and training to outwit the German soldiers. When she approached a checkpoint, she would sometimes flirt with the guards to distract them. Her flirting would work and she'd be waved through.'

A map of Europe replaces the previous scene. The map has France and England clearly marked. A black and white photograph of Nancy Wake and her husband appears left of the centre of the screen.

'However, as the Gestapo closed in on her, Nancy knew she had to escape from France. Getting out proved difficult. It took six attempts to eventually escape to England. Nancy's husband remained in France. Tragically, Nancy never saw him again. Henri was later captured, tortured and executed by the Gestapo.'

The map is replaced by a background that looks like old paper. A series of objects appear on the background. The first object, in the top right of the screen, is an old-fashioned travel case with a cruise line tag on the handle. A 1940s-era radio set appears in the bottom right of the screen. A simple machine gun appears in the centre of the screen. Another piece of 1940s-era radio equipment appears in the top right of the screen.

'Once in England, Nancy began training with British Intelligence for a role with the Special Operations Executive, SOE, a top-secret wartime covert operations organisation. Nancy was now being officially trained to become a spy.'

The screen changes to images from a black and white movie. The images include a woman appearing in a doorway, carrying a pistol in her right hand and suddenly turning to shoot a moving target that appears behind her; a man and a woman standing on a hilltop, dressed in military clothing and wearing backpacks; a woman and four men in military uniforms in a room, standing around a three-dimensional model of a military target; a woman wearing military uniform and standing in a field receiving instruction from a male soldier in how to signal with a torch; a woman in military uniform and wearing a parachute who then jumps from a basket suspended under a balloon; four Second World War British bomber aircraft in formation and shots of soldiers parachuting from them; a crew member throwing a large package out of another British bomber; a British bomber seen from outside as a package emerges from the bomber and falls away under a parachute; a woman in civilian clothing sitting at a desk practicing Morse code on a Morse code electric telegraph machine; a woman in civilian clothing walking into a room and shaking the hand of a man in civilian clothing.

'She trained in the arts of espionage and sabotage, learning crucial survival skills, weapon handling, hand-to-hand combat, secret codes and how to work with explosives. She was one of only 39 women in the SOE and was regarded as one of the most capable Resistance fighters in France during the Second World War. Nancy parachuted back into France in April 1944. Her job was to prepare and arm the Resistance fighters called The Maquis for the upcoming Allied invasion of mainland Europe. Winston Churchill had instructed the spies of SOE to "set Europe ablaze". Wake was involved in receiving parachute drops of weapons and ammunition, setting up wireless communications with England and recruiting and training members of the Resistance. It was dangerous work, but Nancy was determined the enemy wouldn't win.'

Brown sits at a small circular wooden table. He wears a blue long-sleeved shirt and jeans. He holds a small paintbrush in his right hand. A sketch pad is in his lap. Behind Brown is a stone wall that is part of a house. He talks directly to the camera.

'One of her remarkable feats during this time was a dangerous bike ride to retrieve secret radio codes.'

The screen changes to an animated cartoon depicting a woman riding a bicycle through a mountainous landscape. A dark and cloudy sky is overhead. The woman rides toward the viewer. The view of the woman changes to show her riding toward two German soldiers standing in front of a barricade. A German military vehicle is parked behind the barricade. One of the soldiers has his left arm raised.

'In 3 days, she rode an incredible 400km on a bicycle across mountainous terrain, from Auvergne to Châteauroux and back again. Nancy said she volunteered for this mission, as she thought - being a woman - she could get away with pretending she was a young housewife going home to her village.'

The animated cartoon is replaced by a live-action scene set in an open space, with trees and areas of grass. Two male actors dressed as German soldiers from the Second World War stand in the middle distance. A female actor dressed in dark clothing and pushing an old-style bicycle approaches them. One of the soldiers stops the woman and appears to ask her for some identification. The scene cuts to a view of the woman reaching into her coat pocket and pulling out an identity card. She hands it to the soldier; he looks at it, hands it back to her and motions for her to continue on her way. The next view is of the woman wheeling her bicycle past one of the soldiers. She is seen from the waist down, as is the soldier. He holds a rifle that appears to be of Second World War vintage.

'Throughout the ride, she had to pass by several German patrols and through numerous checkpoints. The guards had no idea how close they'd come to nabbing the elusive White Mouse.'

Brown sits at a small circular wooden table. He wears a blue long-sleeved shirt and jeans. He holds a small paintbrush in his right hand. A sketch pad is in his lap. Behind Brown is a stone wall that is part of a house. He talks directly to the camera.

'Nancy claimed this to be the proudest and bravest thing she'd ever done.'

The screen changes to a full-screen photograph showing what appear to be French Resistance fighters and Allied troops looking at a map pinned to the trunk of a tree. A smaller black and white photograph appears at the right of the screen. It depicts a woman and a man in civilian clothing behind sandbags piled up next to a building. The woman wears a German Army helmet while the man wears a French Army helmet. A poster appears in the centre of the screen, partially behind the photograph of the woman and man. The poster has text in the French language on it and shows what appear to be two Resistance fighters, in cartoon form. A machine gun appears above the poster and a hand grenade with a handle appears below the photograph of the woman and man.

'In the lead up to the Allied landings in France in 1944, Wake and the Resistance waged an intensive campaign of sabotage against the German occupation forces. She is even reported to have led a raid on the Gestapo headquarters at Montluçon in central France, resulting in the death of 38 Germans.'

The screen reveals a full-screen black and white photograph depicting many soldiers standing out in a field. Behind them, in the middle distance, parachutes descend from the sky. The screen then changes to a full screen black and white photograph depicting surrendering German soldiers being led by a Resistance fighter along a street in a French city. Other Resistance fighters follow the German soldiers. The screen changes again to briefly show a full screen black and white photograph of what appear to be French civilians celebrating the liberation of France.

'On the 6th of June, 1944, D-Day, Allied forces gained a foothold in France and 2 months later Paris was liberated and freed from German occupation.'

Brown is seen in front of a stone wall. He wears a blue shirt and is seen from the chest up. He looks directly at the camera as he talks.

'Nancy Wake, The White Mouse, is one of the most decorated women of the Second World War.'

The screen changes to a background image of an official Australian government document. A medal is at the far left of the screen. Eight more medals appear on the screen, from left to right. The first medal is round, the next two are star-shaped, the next two are round, the next two are cross-shaped and the last two are round. All the medals have ribbons in bright colours. The screen changes to a large colour photograph of an elderly Nancy Wake, wearing her AC medal. To the right of the photograph is an image of the AC medal in close-up. It is round with a crown at the top. The image of the medal is replaced with a black and white photograph of a young Nancy Wake in a military uniform. An image of Nancy Wake's French ID card and an old-fashioned bicycle appear behind the two main photographs. A machine gun appears toward the bottom right of the screen. A nib pen appears toward the bottom left of the screen.

'She received the George Medal, the 1939-45 Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defense Medal, the British War Medal 1939-45, the French Officer of the Legion of Honour, the French Croix de Guerre with Star and two Palms, the US Medal for Freedom with Palm and the French Medaille de la Resistance, for her courageous endeavours. She received the Companion of the Order of Australia, the AC in 2004. Nancy Wake lived the rest of her life between the UK and Australia. She died on the 7th of August 2011, in London, aged 98. Her story of service is that of a brave and committed individual who demonstrated extraordinary courage and resourcefulness in working with the French Resistance. Nancy and her French compatriots played an important role in the end of German occupation of France and the end of the war in Europe.'

Brown is seen in front of a stone wall. He wears a blue shirt and is seen from the chest up. He looks directly at the camera as he talks.

'Nancy was once asked why she risked her life doing such a dangerous job and she replied, "Freedom is the only thing worth living for. I used to think while doing that work, it didn't matter if I died, because without freedom there is no point in living".'

The Australian Government Department of Veterans’ Affairs crest appears on a black background.

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