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French agent dies at 98 ...

By John Lichfield

Nancy Wake, 'the White Mouse' and the most decorated woman of the 1939-45 war, disliked people messing around with her life story. Small wonder. It was an extraordinary story and an extraordinary life.

Ms Wake, who has died in London just before her 99th birthday, was a New Zealander brought up in Australia.

She became a nurse, a journalist who interviewed Adolf Hitler, a wealthy French socialite, a British agent and a French resistance leader. She led 7,000 guerrilla fighters in battles against the Nazis in the northern Auvergne just before the D-Day landings in 1944.

On one occasion she strangled an SS sentry with her bare hands. On another she cycled 500 miles to replace lost codes.

In June 1944 she led her fighters in an attack on the Gestapo headquarters at Montlucon in central France.

Work began earlier this month on a feature film about Nancy Wake's life.

Ms Wake, one of the models for Sebastian Faulks' fictional heroine Charlotte Gray, had mixed feelings about previous cinematic efforts to portray her wartime exploits, including a TV mini-series made in 1987.

"It was well-acted but in parts it was extremely stupid," she said. "At one stage they had me cooking eggs and bacon to feed the men. For goodness sake, did the Allies parachute me into France to fry eggs and bacon for the men?"

Until she led her men into Vichy, the headquarters of the pro-Nazi wartime French government, she believed that her French husband, Henri Fiocca, was still alive. She discovered in Vichy in August 1944 that Henri, a wealthy businessman, had been captured, tortured and executed by the Nazis the previous year. He had refused to give them any information about his wife, codenamed 'the White Mouse' by the Germans.

Even before she escaped to Britain, through Spain, in 1943 to train as a guerrilla leader, Nancy had been top of the Gestapo's French 'wanted' list. With her husband, she ran a resistance network.

Her "invisibility", according to French colleagues, was partly explained by her beauty. The Germans could not believe that one of their chief opponents was a slender, pretty, dark-haired woman.

In London she became one of 39 women and 430 men recruited into the French Section of the British Special Operations Executive. She was trained in guerrilla fighting techniques and parachuted back into France in April 1944.

After the war Nancy briefly became a politician in Australia. She returned to Britain to work for British intelligence until 1957, when she married a former British fighter pilot, John Forward, and returned to Australia.

Four years after her second husband's death in 1997 she returned to Britain and lived in The Star and Garter Home for veterans in Richmond, London.

She never had children.

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