Many women worked undercover during the world wars, but we know the names of only a few. Like men in the secret intelligence services, many went to their graves never revealing their roles. This blog series highlights a few that inspired me while writing At the Table of Wolves.
A decorated heroine of the French resistance in World War II, Nancy Wake’s life cut a meteoric path from an impoverished childhood in Australia to a high society hostess in the south of France and then, in occupied France, being responsible for saving hundreds of Allied soldiers’ lives, many of them downed paratroopers, by leading them across the Pyrenees to safety in Spain.
She said that she saw no reason why women should be limited to waving goodbye to their men and sitting at home to “knit balaclavas.”
The Gestapo noted her uncanny ability to elude capture, calling her “the White Mouse,” and putting a price of 5 million francs on her head. They subsequently tortured her French husband to death seeking to track her down. She did not shy from violence when it was called for, once killing a German soldier with her bare hands and also ordering the execution of a woman believed to be a Nazi spy. She remained unapologetic for such tactics throughout her long life saying, “I was not a very nice person, and it didn’t put me off my breakfast.”
After being captured in France she escaped and made her way to Britain where she, like so many other female spies, became a key player in the Special Operations Executive. Soon she parachuted back to France and became deeply involved with the Marquis, the French resistance, heading up 7,000 guerilla fighters and coordinating airdrops of weapons and explosives. As well, she fought along side them after first having to prove herself as an “honorary man,” which she did by regularly drinking her comrades under the table.
After the war she was awarded so many medals that she claimed she lived for years off the proceeds of selling them. She retired in London and died at the age of 98. Her last wish was to have her ashes strewn across the Pyrenees, the site of her most dangerous operations.
Other women spies in my blog series: