Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The White Mouse

In previous blogs I've been telling the story of the Dutch 'girl with the red hair'. An inspirational female Dutch resistance fighter. We in Australia have our own Hannie Schaft. She is Nancy Wake.

Wake died in August of last year. She died as Australia's most decorated WWII heroine. She died in England, not Australia. The newspaper article today suggests 'Australia pays tribute to Nancy Wake' (http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/national/13216512/australia-pays-tribute-to-nancy-wake/); too little, too late.

In her biography, Peter Fitzsimmons writes that she wanted to leave Australia and spend her remaining years in Britain or France.
'I only want one room,' she told her second biographer at their first meeting, 'a bathroom and a small kitchen, anywhere over there. The people of Port Macquarie have been wonderful to me, as have most individual Australians I've met, but I just feel the need to go to where I am appreciated.'

An example of the 'appreciation' she receives in France is that when she is wearing the rossette of her Officer de Legion d'Honneur, all the gendarmes salute her, and even stop the traffic so she may cross the road. The Australian Government recently made contact to see if she would accept having her achievements acknowledged by their awarding her an Australian medal, but she knocked them back outright.

'No,' she says flatly. 'The last time there was a suggestion of that I told the government they could stick their medals where the monkey stuck his nuts. The think is if they gave me a medal now, it wouldn't be given with love so I don't want anything from them.'
As well as the Legion d'Honneur, Wake was awarded Britain's George Medal and the US Medal of Freedom. But despite the international recognition, it took 60 years for Australia to honour her service, awarding her the Companion of the Order of Australia in 2004.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard today described Ms Wake as a person of exceptional courage whose action saved hundreds of lives. 'Nancy Wake was a woman of exceptional courage and resourcefulness whose daring exploits saved the lives of hundreds of Allied personnel and helped bring the Nazi occupation of France to an end,' Ms Gillard said. 'Today our nation honours a truly remarkable individual whose selfless valour and tenacity will never be forgotten. Nancy Wake will remain an abiding inspiration to generations of Australians.'
It took the Australian government sixty years to 'pay tribute' to our most decorated service woman. Nancy Wake may have had a point. Once again the representative of the people, the government, failed to represent the people in a sincere fashion.

In reference to her ability to elude capture, the Gestapo called Wake the 'White Mouse.' By 1943, she was the Gestapo's most wanted person, with a 5 million-franc price on her head.

'A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I'd pass their (German) posts and wink and say, "Do you want to search me?" God, what a flirtatious little bastard I was.'
On the night of 29–30 April 1944 she was parachuted into the Auvergne, becoming a liaison between London and the local maquis group headed by Captain Henri Tardivat. Upon discovering her tangled in a tree, Captain Tardivat greeted her remarking, '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.'
She was often less than welcomed by the partisans when she first made contact, as they could not believe that they had been sent 'une femme'; they simply refused to treat her with respect. She decided to teach them respect. She would engage the partisan leaders in drinking contests, and when she was the 'last man' left standing at dawn - and she always was - they would look at her with new eyes.
One evening Wake was dining with friends in the reopened British Officers Club in Paris when she got into a blue - not for the first or last time - with an uppity waiter. This waiter thought he had won the confrontation by saying he would much prefer to serve the Germans than the likes of her and her noisy friends.

She reflected on this for perhaps half a second before leaping to her feet and knocking him senseless with a right hook. As she recounted, as soon as another alarmed waiter rushed to his fallen colleague with a glass of brandy, she grabbed it, drained it in two seconds, said 'Merci', and walked on out the door. That was Nancy Wake.
Nancy Wake was the Australian that we Australians like to think we are.

She became instrumental in recruiting more members and making the maquis groups into a formidable force, roughly 7,500 strong. She also led attacks on German installations and the local Gestapo HQ in Montlu├žon.

At one point Wake discovered that her men were protecting a girl that was a German spy. They did not have the heart to kill her in cold blood, but Wake did. She said after that it was war, and she had no regrets about the incident.

From April 1944 to the liberation of France, her 7,000 maquisards fought 22,000 SS soldiers, causing 1,400 casualties, while taking only 100 themselves. Her French companions, especially Tardivat, praised her fighting spirit, amply demonstrated when she killed an SS sentry with her bare hands to prevent him from raising the alarm during a raid.

During a 1990s television interview, when asked what had happened to the sentry who spotted her, Wake simply drew her finger across her throat. 'They'd taught this judo-chop stuff with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practised away at it. But this was the only time I used it - whack - and it killed him all right. I was really surprised.'
On another occasion, to replace codes her wireless operator had been forced to destroy in a German raid, Wake rode a bicycle for more than 500 miles (800 km) through several German checkpoints. During a German attack on another maquis group, Wake, along with two American officers, took command of a section whose leader had been killed. She directed the use of suppressive fire which facilitated the group's withdrawal without further losses.
Wake was particularly proud of her marathon ride: 'I got back and they said "how are you?" I cried. I couldn't stand up, I couldn't sit down. I couldn't do anything. I just cried.'
'She is the most feminine woman I know until the fighting starts. Then, she is like five men,' one French colleague said of her
Women, take note.

In 2001, Wake left Australia for the last time and emigrated to London. She became a resident at the Stafford Hotel in St James's Place, near Piccadilly, formerly a British and American forces club during the war. She had been introduced to her first 'bloody good drink' there by the general manager at the time, Louis Burdet. He had also worked for the Resistance in Marseilles. In the mornings she would usually be found in the hotel bar, sipping her first gin and tonic of the day. She was welcomed at the hotel, celebrating her 90th birthday there, where the hotel owners absorbed most of the costs of her stay. In 2003, Wake chose to move to the Royal Star and Garter Home for Disabled Ex-Service Men and Women in Richmond, London, where she remained until her death.
THE ashes of World War II resistance fighter Nancy Wake will be scattered over the French land she parachuted into to fight Nazis in 1944.
That says it all, doesn't it.

The heroine in Sebastian Faulks's 1999 novel Charlotte Gray is said to be based on Nancy Wake. Fittingly, the role in the movie of the novel was played by the brilliant Australian actor Cate Blanchett. She tells the story of the locals in France being involved in the movie, and how the older locals who had experienced the invasion during WWII where in tears when they saw the movie tanks and soldiers crossing the bridge into their town.

I am in awe of the people who resisted during WWII. These stories inform of a time in which Jan de Jong, a 21 year old 'boy' also resisted. Risking torture, injury, and death, for a greater good. I compare these people to us of today, none too favourably I have to confess.

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