Recent years have seen a flood of new books belatedly highlighting the role of women in espionage in World War II. Despite rampant sexism and misogyny, women did indeed fill vital roles as spies and analysts in intelligence-gathering as well as partisan activities behind enemy lines. And few women played as prominent a part as a phenomenal Australian woman named Nancy Wake (1912-2011). Her exploits in France during the war have been the subject of at least five books as well as a feature film and a TV series. The best of the books, I’ve found, is Peter FitzSimmons‘ Nancy Wake, which appeared in 2011, the year of her death at the age of 98.
Nancy Wake: The gripping true story of the woman who became the Gestapo’s most wanted spy by Peter FitzSimmons (2011) 329 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
An “assisted autobiography”
FitzSimmons’ book might be characterized as an assisted autobiography. It’s based in large measure on the author’s interviews with Nancy Wake, and the copyright was registered in both their names. The book appears to be a much updated version of his own biography of Wake that had been published a decade earlier. There are frequent quotes from his interviews with her.
But Fitzsimmons clearly didn’t rely only on Nancy Wake’s own war stories. He’s obviously done his homework as well, drawing on many other sources, as you might expect of one of Australia’s most accomplished journalists. A clear picture emerges of a woman who was, to use a phrase in common use today, a piece of work. She was tough—she killed one German soldier with a karate chop—prickly, profane, disdainful of fools, and at times very, very funny. She was also a hard drinker who could (and did) drink the partisans she led under the table. An SOE officer she worked with in France told the author, “I had never seen anyone drink like that ever, and I don’t think the Maquis had either. . . In my long life, it remains one of the most extraordinary things I have seen.”
Although Wake married a French millionaire and adroitly played the part of a society lady, she comes across as having been more comfortable shooting Nazis and blowing up trains and bridges than trading bon mots at cocktail parties.
This female WWII spy led thousands against the Nazis
Wake’s career as a spy began when she enlisted as a courier for the nascent French Resistance in Marseille in 1940. Over the months, her stature in the underground network grew, and her role evolved from courier to organizer. She engineered several diabolically clever and daring escapes from both French and Nazi prisons. She was known to the Maquis as “Madame Andrée,” but the Gestapo came to call her “the White Mouse” because she kept eluding their traps. She adopted the moniker as the title of her autobiography four decades later. Ultimately, Wake was responsible at least in part for moving more than a thousand downed Allied pilots, Jewish fugitives, hunted partisans, and other refugees to safety across the border in Spain.
When Wake’s Marseille-based network was betrayed by a Gestapo spy, she fled to Spain herself—on the seventh attempt, and only after six months of trying—and subsequently by ship on to England. There, she attempted in vain to join General Charles de Gaulle‘s Free French. When the French declined to allow her into their ranks, she connected with Britain’s new Special Operations Executive (SOE).
The most decorated heroine of WWII
Following months of intensive training to prepare her for combat, Wake parachuted into the mountains of central France to equip and lead a force of Maquis partisans that grew to thousands as the Allied invasion of Normandy grew near. FitzSimmons describes her as “the most decorated heroine of the Second World War” and one of the most decorated combatants of either gender, and that may well have been the case. She certainly received a lot of medals over the years—from France, the UK, the USA, and, eventually, from Australia as well. Nancy Wake was, undoubtedly, one of the most extraordinary female spies of World War II.
A British officer reported to the London Telegraph in 1945, “The greatest and most sincere compliment I ever heard paid to anyone came from one of the partisans. After a skirmish with the Germans this man came to me and said: ‘Madame Andrée has more guts than Jacques, and he’s the bravest of us all.'”
For further reading
I’ve reviewed seven other good books about women’s role in espionage in World War II, some of which describe episodes in Nancy Wake’s career:
- The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone (The woman codebreaker who caught gangsters and Nazi spies)
- Code Name: Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became World War II’s Most Highly Decorated Spy, by Larry Loftis (A woman was World War II’s most highly decorated spy)
- Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy (The amazing story of the American “Code Girls” who helped win World War II)
- Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler by Lynne Olson (The truth about the French Resistance, dug out of old records)
- A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell (The WWII American woman spy who kept the French Resistance alive)
- D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II by Sarah Rose (The women who parachuted behind German lines and helped secure the Normandy landing)
- Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin (Resistance, and collaboration, among the rich and famous of Paris)
You might also be interested in:
- The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings (A revisionist history of intelligence in World War II)
- 5 top nonfiction books about World War II (plus many runners-up)
- The 10 best novels about World War II (with 30+ runners-up)
- Great biographies I’ve reviewed: my 10 favorites
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.