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How a young Australian woman landed on the Nazi's most-wanted list.

The Nazis called her ‘the white mouse’ for her ability to evade capture. But Nancy Wake was significantly less, well, mousey than her code name might suggest.

This was a woman who helped thousands flee persecution during World War II.
Who landed on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list, with a five-million Franc price on her head.
Who snapped a German munition factory guard’s neck. With. Her. Bare. Hands.
Who today is remembered as one of Winston Churchill’s most highly decorated secret agents and an Australian-bred war hero.

But you’d be forgiven for not knowing Nancy’s achievements, or even recognising her name. For history, and the crusty white dudes who write it down, have a tendency to muffle stories like hers. (I mean, to be fair, it says it right there on the tin – his[s]tory, ‘n’ all.)

Presenters/comedians/ Eliza and Hannah Reilly (Growing Up Gracefully) are eager to change that. Their new web series, Sheilas, produced by Giant Dwarf with support from Screen Australia, celebrates “the badass women of Australian history”.

Video by Giant Dwarf

Nancy Wake. Swimmer Fanny Durack. Bushranger Mary Ann Bugg. Feminist activist Merle Thornton. As they put it, “pioneering, tough-titted ladies who hiked up their petticoats and fly-kicked down the doors of opportunity.”

The sisters developed the series after they came to the realisation they could only name male icons of Aussie history; that was, after all, all they’d been taught at school.

“We feel it’s really important to look back at the achievements of the bold and badass women before us, and not take their struggles for granted,” Eliza told Mamamia. “They’re so inspiring when you think about the times in which they lived and how much courage it took for them to stand up to the status quo.

“We hope viewers will come away with a bit of that courage for themselves. And a few LOLs.”

Nancy Wake’s story.

So technically Nancy is a New Zealander, which we’re going to gloss right over because a) she moved to Australia at 20 months, and b) she’s definitely ours, OK? Good.

Born on 30 August, 1912, her restless spirit and fierce temper is said to have been forged by her father’s decision to abandon her mother and all six children when Nancy was just four years old.

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At 16, she ran away from home to become a nurse. And in 1932, a £200 inheritance from an aunt was her ticket to to travel to London, where she taught herself to be a journalist; a job that later took her to France as a correspondent where she married wealthy French industrialist, Henri Fiocca, in 1939.

There she had witnessed, first-hand, the rise of German fascism and the disturbing Antisemitism brewing under Adolf Hitler’s Nazi government. When France surrendered in 1940, her pen, her stories, were no longer strong enough weapons, and she became a courier for the French resistance.

Pin-curled hair. Red lipstick. It was the perfect cover.

Nancy Wake, played by Cecilia Morrow in Sheilas. Image: Giant Dwarf/Miles Bence.

Over the following years, Nancy began leveraging her husband's considerable resources to develop an escape network for Allied soldiers and civilians to flee into neutral Spain.

By 1943, the Germans had well and truly clocked her as an elusive pest - their 'white mouse'- and Nancy was forced to use her own underground network to escape over the Pyrenees to Spain and on to England. It took her six goes, but even with the Gestapo offering substantial reward for her capture, she made it in the end. (That's called resilience, kids.)

Later that year Nancy began working for the Special Operations Executive, a British intelligence outfit charged with supporting resistance groups in enemy-held territories. She parachuted into France - yes, literally - where she led a team of more than 7000 men tasked with upsetting the German advance and preparing for the Allied invasion on D-Day.

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Nancy oversaw parachute drops of arms and equipment, and her Marquis managed to destroy hundreds of key German resources: communication lines, bridges, railways, roads, factories, power stations.

"She is the most feminine woman I know until the fighting starts," one of Nancy's French colleagues recalled. "Then she is like five men."

The Reilly sisters and Cecilia Morrow in Sheilas. Image: Giant Dwarf/Miles Bence.

After her Marquis' most valuable weapon - their radio and codes - were destroyed in fighting, amid fear they could fall into enemy hands, it was Nancy who volunteered to organise replacement. She hopped on a bicycle and rode for over 300 kilometres through enemy territory and back. It took her 72 hours. Which, as Sheilas explains in modern terms, is like: "doing a spin class for three days straight, and instead of being surrounded by yummy mummies you're surrounded by actual Nazis."

Yep. That.

"In my opinion, the only good German was a dead German, and the deader, the better," she later said. "I killed a lot of Germans, and I am only sorry I didn't kill more."

After the war, Nancy was awarded Croix de Guerre with Palm and bronze star and the Medaille de la Resistance by France, the Medal of Freedom with Bronze Palm by the US, and the British George Medal.

She later had a crack at Australian politics. Twice. Which she was clearly much too good for.

Nancy died in London on August 7, 2011. A hero.

For more about Nancy Wake and other "badass women of Australian history", head to the Sheilas YouTube channel.

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