She was the Allies' most decorated female secret agent of World War II.

Hated by the Nazis for her remarkable heroics in helping downed British airmen and Jewish refugees escape occupied France, fierce and fearless Wellington-born femme fatale Nancy Wake became the Gestapo's most wanted fugitive.

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born in the Roseneath suburb of Wellington on August 30, 1912, with a Maori great-grandmother.

Although she moved with her mother Ella, journalist father Charles, and five siblings to Sydney when she was just 2 years old, she always kept a Kiwi passport.

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At 16, the fiercely independent and intelligent Wake ran away from home and found work as a nurse. But in 1932 after an inheritance windfall from an aunt, she left Australia for Europe.

She studied journalism in Paris before being hired as a European correspondent for the Hearst newspaper group.

In the mid-1930s, she interviewed dictator Adolf Hitler and visited Vienna and Berlin where she witnessed overt and violent anti-Semitism that helped inspire her fight against Nazism.

In 1939, she married wealthy, handsome industrialist Henri Fiocca in France.

They briefly enjoyed a high-society life in cosmopolitan Marseilles of dinner parties, champagne, caviar and luxury travel.

But when Germany invaded France six months later, Wake enrolled as an ambulance driver to do her bit for the war effort.

She soon joined the fledgling French Resistance, initially smuggling messages and food to underground groups in southern France.

But Wake would go on to become a saboteur, organiser and frontline fighter leading an army of 7000 Maquis - rural guerrilla bands of troops - sabotaging the Nazis.

Daring and bold, she helped hundreds of British soldiers and airmen trapped by the collapse of France to escape back home.

She also assisted Jewish refugees fleeing over the Pyrenees into neutral Spain.Her heroic undercover work soon brought the attention of the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo.

Codenamed "The White Mouse" for her ability to avoid capture, Wake was the Gestapo's most wanted person.

In May 1943, with a five million-franc bounty on her head, she eventually escaped from France to Spain.

Henri promised to follow but he was caught by the Germans, tortured and executed.

Back in London, in the run-up to the D-Day invasions, Wake joined the French Section of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was eager to recruit French-speaking women to serve as couriers. In April 1944, after months of special spy training, Wake was dropped by parachute into the Auvergne region to rejoin the Resistance.

Major John Farmer, leader of the Freelance resistance circuit, said Wake was a woman of extremely high energy and "very clear ideas of how she wanted everything done".

Her job was to collect and distribute weapons secretly dropped by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and ensure radio operatives maintained contact with the SOE in Britain.

On one occasion, Wake cycled 400km in three days, slipping past German checkpoints with fake identity papers to replace codes her wireless operator had been forced to destroy in a German raid.

"When I got off that damned bike I felt as if I had a fire between my legs. I couldn't stand up. I couldn't sit down, I couldn't walk. When I'm asked what I'm most proud of doing during the war, I say: 'The bike ride'."

She was also tasked to help organise and arm the local Maquis, but was soon fighting alongside them herself in bloody pitched battles with the Germans.

After the war, Wake explained why she placed herself in such extreme danger.

"I don't see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas."

She was never scared.

"I was too busy to be afraid."

Wake, who astounded the Maquis with her unmatched drinking abilities, claimed to have once killed a German sentry with her bare hands.

She even ordered a captured female French spy to be shot.

"I was not a very nice person. And it didn't put me off my breakfast," she told an Australian newspaper in 2001.

"After all, she had an easy death. She didn't suffer."

When the war ended in 1945, Wake - who inspired Sebastian Faulks' haunting World War II novel Charlotte Gray, which explores the dark days of life under the Vichy regime - returned to London before working at the British Embassy in Paris.

Wake and her second husband - RAF fighter pilot and former prisoner of war John Forward - moved to Australia in 1959.

She was the most decorated servicewoman of the war, awarded nine medals, including the George Medal from Britain, the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, the Croix de Guerre (twice) and the Medaille de la Resistance from France, the Medal of Freedom with Palm from America and in 2004 the Companion of the Order of Australia.

In 2006, she was "absolutely delighted" to be presented with the Royal New Zealand Returned Services' Association's highest honour, the Badge in Gold and life membership.

In December 2001, four years after Mr Forward's death, Wake left Australia for England where she lived out her remaining years.

She died in London on August 7, 2011, aged 98.

She had no children.

Her ashes were scattered near the village of Verneix in central France where she worked with the Resistance.

• Nancy Wake: Gestapo's Most Wanted - History Channel - Monday 11 January, 9.30pm