AFTER witnessing Hitler's early atrocities, Nancy Wake vowed to fight him any way she could.She fought so well, she ended up on top of the Gestapo's wanted list, saved thousands of Allied lives, played a crucial role in D-Day and received France's highest military honour.
"Nobody can beat you Nancy, nobody," Sonya d'Artois told her old Resistance comrade when Wake was awarded Australia's highest civilian honour in 2004, six decades after the French recognised her.
She was resourceful, cunning, feisty, brave and tough, once killing a German sentry with her bare hands.
"She is the most feminine woman I know until the fighting starts. Then, she is like five men," one French colleague said of her. But, at the age of 98, Wake was finally beaten.
The White Mouse died in a London hospital yesterday following a chest infection.
After decades of confrontations with the RSL and Australian government, Wake moved back to England in 2001, aged 88 and determined to see out her days in the country which trained her as a spy and in the company of old comrades.
She was the Allies' most decorated WWII servicewoman and is revered in France as a national heroine for her Resistance work and bravery.
Wake was awarded France's highest honour, the Legion d'Honneur, as well as three Croix de Guerre and a French Resistance Medal, Britain's George Medal and the US Medal of Freedom.
When she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia at a ceremony in London in March, 2004, d'Artois flew in from Canada especially for the event and was joined by other former Special Operations Executive (SOE) spies and servicemen, including Air Chief Marshall Sir Lewis Hodges who was saved by Wake after being shot down over occupied France.
Hodges' was one of thousands of lives saved by Wake, who the Gestapo labelled the White Mouse because of her ability to repeatedly evade capture, despite a five million franc bounty on her head.
Born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1912, but moved to Sydney when she was one, Wake was independent and resourceful from a young age, moving out of home at 16 to train as a nurse and leaving Australia to see the world in her 20s.
She worked as a journalist in Europe in the 1930s, witnessing Hitler's Nazis persecute the Jews in Vienna and Paris and vowed to fight the German dictator.
She also loved a good time and the self confessed playgirl lived a heady and very sociable life in Paris, meeting her match in wealthy French industrialist and playboy Henri Fiocca. They married in 1940 and both became active in the French Resistance when the Germans occupied the country that year.
A spy and saboteur
For three years, she set up escape routes for thousands of Allied soldiers and airmen and led a band of the Resistance, but had to flee over the Pyrenees to Spain and eventually England after being arrested in 1943.
In England, she was trained by the SOE as a spy and saboteur and was parachuted back into France on the night of February 29, 1944 to lead 7000 Resistance fighters on life-threatening missions distributing weapons and sabotaging Nazi installations before D-day.
One operation included an attack on the local Gestapo headquarters in Montlucon, central France, where she requested her ashes be scattered.
She was machine gunned by a German aircraft and cycled 500 kilometres for three days through German checkpoints carrying vital radio codes for the Allies, taking out a factory and dispatching that SS guard along the way.
At the end of the war she learned the Gestapo had tortured and killed Fiocca in 1943 when he refused to give her up.
She returned to Australia after the war, unsuccessfully standing as a Liberal candidate in the 1949 and 1951 federal elections, but recording significant swings against Labor incumbent Herbert Evatt in the seat of Barton.
She returned to Europe after the 1951 election, married her second husband, former RAF fighter pilot John Forward, and came back to Australia with him in the 1960s.
The would-be politician again achieved a sizable swing for the Liberals but failed to take the Sydney seat of Kingsford Smith at the 1966 federal election.
"You can stick your medals"
In the mid 1980s, Wake and Forward left Sydney to retire to Port Macquarie, where he died in 1997.
Despite receiving the highest decorations from the French, British and Americans, Wake never received a military honour from Australia and left the country in 2001 after telling the government it "could stick their medals where the monkey stuck his nuts".
The RSL had said the government was "technically correct", but "a bit mean", not to award her a medal because she was born in New Zealand and never fought as an Australian servicewoman.
Three years later, the government, and Wake, mellowed and she accepted her Companion of the Order of Australia with humility.
"I feel very honoured. I never thought that would happen to me. It's really a wonderful feeling, I can't really express it in so many words, except that I feel honoured by it," she said after the ceremony at Australia House in London.
"I hope I'm worth it. I hope I will be able to live up to the oath that I have made to my country. And the people in it and those that will come after us."
As part of its rapprochement, the federal government helped pay the costs of her care in her latter years.
Still feisty and sharp
She lived the first two years of her life back in London at the Stafford Hotel in Piccadilly, enjoying six gin and tonics every afternoon at her reserved seat in its downstairs bar until a heart attack in 2003 slowed her down.
She then moved to the Royal Star and Garter, a nursing home for retired veterans, overlooking a bucolic River Thames in Richmond in west London.
A band of loyal friends of all ages looked out for her in London and many generous benefactors from around the world also helped pay the costs of her care and accommodation.
Even as she lived a quiet and contented life at the Star and Garter, she remained feisty and was still a sharp judge of character, resisting hundreds of requests for public appearances and meetings with politicians.
But even into her late 90s, she still loved a good party, as long as it involved some gin and her old war colleagues, or handsome young men in uniform, or best still, a combination of all three.
One of her last public appearances was as a guest of the trainee officers at Sandhurst Military Academy in Surrey, where she charmed the young men as much as they charmed her.
She had no children, but had a message for Australian youngsters.
"To honour your mother and father, your family, to be truthful ... don't steal or get mixed up with drugs and things like that," she said when collecting her AC.
"There's no point in doing anything like that. All this behaviour, doesn't mean you can't have fun.
"In fact, you can have more fun because the world is safer."
And she had great fun doing her bit to keep it safe.