Australian Nancy Wake, who as a spy became one of the Allies' most decorated servicewomen for her role in the French resistance during World War II, has died in London, officials said Monday. She was 98.
Code named the "White Mouse" by the Gestapo because she was so elusive during the war, Wake died Sunday in a London nursing home, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said.
"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," Gillard said in a statement.
Wake worked as a journalist in Europe, interviewing Adolf Hitler in Vienna in 1933, and then vowing to fight against his persecution of Jews. Trained by British intelligence in espionage and sabotage, Wake was parachuted into France in April 1944 before D-Day, helping to arm and lead 7,000 Resistance fighters in weakening German defenses, the Associated Press reported.
Evading capture many times, she was top of the Gestapo's most wanted list, reportedly with a bounty of 5 million francs, dead or alive.
"Freedom is the only thing worth living for," Wake once said of her wartime exploits. "While I was doing that work, I used to think it didn't matter if I died, because without freedom there was no point in living."
Speaking to Australian Broadcast Corp. radio on Monday, Wake's biographer said, "They called her the 'la Souris Blanche,' 'the White Mouse,' because every time they had her cornered ... she was gone again," Peter FitzSimons said. "Part of it was she was a gorgeous-looking woman. The Germans were looking for someone who looked like them: aggressive, a man with guns - and she was not like that."
Wake was Australia's most decorated servicewoman, and one of the most decorated Allied servicewomen of World War II.
France awarded her its highest honor, the Legion D'Honneur, as well as three Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de la Resistance. The United States awarded her its Medal of Freedom and Britain, the George Medal. Her only Australian honor did not come until 2004, when she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia.
Born Aug. 30, 1912, in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was the youngest of six siblings. At two, her family moved to Sydney, her father would soon abandon the family and return to New Zealand.
Longing to travel, Wake became a nurse before an inheritance from an aunt allowed her run away from home and to fulfill her dream of traveling to New York, London and Paris, she said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in 1985.
She became a correspondent for The Chicago Tribune in Paris, after studying journalism in London, and reported on the rise of Hitler in Germany. It was her 1933 interview with Hitler that led her on a mission to bring down the Nazis.
"I saw the disagreeable things that he was doing to people, first of all the Jews," she told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio in 1985. "I thought it was revolting."
When World War II broke out in 1939, she was living in Marseille, France, with her first husband, French industrialist Henri Fiocca, whilst helping British servicemen and Jews escape the German occupying force.
Eventually, her husband was seized, tortured and killed by the Gestapo for refusing to give her up. Wake, however, managed to escape in 1943 through Spain to London, where she received her espionage training.
"I have only one thing to say: I killed a lot of Germans, and I am only sorry I didn't kill more," she once said.
In 1949, she returned to Australia, where she failed several times to win a parliamentary seat. In 1957, she went back to England, where she married RAF fighter pilot John Forward. She did not have any children.
Per her request, Wake's body is expected to be cremated and her ashes scattered at Montlucon in central France, where she fought in a heroic attack on the local Gestapo headquarters.