A personal story.
This article was contributed by reader-member Nigelle de Visme.
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I had the great good fortune to meet, very briefly, the legendary French Resistance leader, Nancy Wake, many years ago, when I was living in Australia.
Nancy Wake and her then-husband had retired to Port Macquarie. I met her in curious circumstances. I was driving from Springbrook, in south-east Queensland, to Mangrove Mountain in southern New South Wales, a distance of 900 kms, and had stopped at a rundown lean-to along the Pacific Highway which served as a petrol station. My beloved cat was travelling with me. Jasper and I hopped out of the car, an ancient Mazda held together by good luck, and repaired to the counter where I asked for a piece of steak for my cat.
A woman of a certain age came in to pay for her petrol.
She grinned at the scene and made a comment about white mice. I had actually read Russell Braddon’s remarkable biography and I knew at once who she was: Nancy Wake! The woman whom the Gestapo had code-named the White Mouse! I gasped, and she chuckled, rather delighted at my recognition. We chatted a while and went our separate ways.
That was way back in the last century – in the late seventies.
Biography: getting to know Nancy Wake
In June this year, 2017, I was invited to Olympia’s fabulous Book Fair and was introduced to the Birds, Giles (O.B.E.) and Ali, whose stand prompted me to ask for Russell Braddon’s biography of Nancy Wake – which has long since vanished from my own library. Their searches drew fruit and some months later the book arrived.
I devoured it.
In the interim decades, I had come to know France well and Nancy’s courage and the geographical terrain in which she worked now made a tremendous impact.
When I finished reading it I lent the book to a friend, now in her eighties, assuring her that she wouldn’t be able to put it down.
Her late husband’s mother was French, a resident of America until later in her life when she returned to her ancestral roots in Mauriac – Nancy’s stamping ground during her Resistance work.
Meanwhile, I went off to Sainte Baume to celebrate my seventy-first birthday.
Nancy Wake and Pat O’Leary
Imagine my surprise to receive the following email on 8 September from the friend to whom I lent the Russell Braddon Nancy Wake biography:
“Happy Birthday! Hope today comes up to expectations. You were quite right about “Nancy”, un-put-down-able! What was even more astounding was that she was so heavily involved with Pat O’Leary, whom I knew. My father, as I’ve told you, was a British liaison officer with the Belgians in Germany in the early fifties. Pat O’Leary was Major General Comte Albert-Marie Edmond Guérisse (GC, KBE, DSO) who organized escape routes with Nancy for downed Allied pilots during WW2. His alias was Patrick Albert “Pat” O’Leary; his escape line was dubbed the Pat Line.
Dr Guérisse – Pat O’Leary – was in Cologne and he came to our house a lot. His son Patrique was a friend of my youngest brother. In the fifties, he went to Korea and won various medals for bravery, like rescuing wounded men from No Man’s Land. I remember clearly how anxious his wife was about him in Korea but he was a brilliant surgeon and I can understand the attraction of doing a brilliant job on the seriously wounded. He was an absolute charmer too and once took a speck of dust out of my eye. I have never forgotten how gentle he was rolling my eyelid back on a matchstick and extracting the offending speck, which was quite big. My own memories added piquancy to my reading Nancy’s story. For such a decorated woman we are sadly uninformed of her in this country.
Another factor for me was that the area she was working in is (my late husband’s) ancestral home, Mauriac. When we had the enormous family reunion we travelled around the Puy-de-Dôme and Clermont-Ferrand where the family still live and work. Pat Guérisse wrote a book which you would enjoy if I could remember its title. Anyway, I do thank you for leaving Nancy Wake – and have a wonderful birthday today!
Muchest love, E.”
Nancy Wake: celebrated and wanted
Nancy joined the French resistance in 1940. Within three years her reputation was so great that the Germans put a huge price on her head – 5 million francs. She fought in 1944 with 7,000 French liberation fighters against 22,000 SS troops.
The Germans suffered 1,400 losses – the French, just 100.
Nancy’s first husband was caught and tortured horribly before being shot by the Gestapo when he refused to inform on his wife’s activities. In Braddon’s book, he writes of her nightmare on that day – though she was not to know of his death until nearly after the war when she returned to Marseille to find the truth.
She left Australia and returned to London in her eighties, living to the great age of 98. Her ashes were scattered in Montluçon, central France, in Spring of 2012.
Nancy Wake: extraordinary exploits
Nancy was the epitome of glamour with her red nail varnish and coiffured hair, yet when she was dropped into occupied France she became a fighting force. Even without a weapon, she was deadly. During one raid, she killed an SS guard with her bare hands to prevent him from raising the alarm.
One of her French colleagues recalled:
She is the most feminine woman I know until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men
Nancy believed the most useful of her wartime exploits was the time she cycled 500km (300 miles) over 71 hours, through the mountainous Auvergne, passing through several German checkpoints, to replace vital codes her wireless operator had ‘lost’ in a Gestapo raid. Without the codes, there could be no fresh orders or drops of weapons and supplies.
I got there 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”,
said this extraordinary woman who had recently killed an SS sentry with her bare hands.
The O’Leary line today
You can read more about The O’Leary line in an article Conquering the Cols by Nadia Jordan on FranceToday.com. It was this article which prompted me to share my story with you all.
“… a group of former military personnel between the ages of 28 and 74 took on the enormous physical and mental challenge of traversing the Pyrénées by bike from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean in just seven days; a journey of 720km (450 miles) on some of the toughest cycling routes in the world. This would be an enormous ask for the fittest amongst us but these are military veterans who have been injured in conflicts around the world and hence. And when they agreed to take part in this challenge, they were already facing a much bigger trial than most of us could ever imagine…”
Nadia goes on: “…there were a number of escape routes through France but the Comet Line, the Pat O’Leary Line and the Marie Claire Line were the most famous. One of the O’Leary networks went through central France to Agen and Toulouse and then to the central Pyrénées to the starting point of ‘Le Chemin de la Liberté’ in Saint-Girons. The high mountain route into Spain was carefully chosen as it avoided all official checkpoints.”
You can read more from Nigelle de Visme here
Were you aware of Nancy Wake and The Pat O’Leary line? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments below.
1. Nancy Wake and her medals via therongolianstar.com
2. Nancy Wake portrait via SMH
3. Nancy Wake younger self via Wikimedia Commons
Republished: Originally published on this site October 2017