This biography of Melbourne-born secret agent Bruce Dowding is a fascinating portrait of a remarkable young Australian whose story was previously unknown to me. Secret Agent, Unsung Hero is co-authored by Dowding’s nephew, lawyer and former West Australian ALP Premier Peter Dowding, and wide-ranging author Dr Ken Spillman. As it happens, Ken was a student of mine. Later, we were contributing co-editors of The Greatest Game, a ground-breaking collection of writing about Australian rules football, first published in 1988.
It is lucidly written and replete with useful black-and-white illustrations, but the book’s publishers have done readers a disservice by making the print size too small, challenging someone like me with poor eyesight. Nevertheless, I found slowly digesting this fine biography to be well worth the effort.
A gifted all-round sportsman whose father had played Aussie rules for St Kilda in the Victorian Football League, Bruce Dowding left Australia in January 1938 to sail to France via the South Sea Islands and the Panama Canal. Because of his excellence as a teacher at Melbourne’s Wesley College, he had been granted six months study leave on full pay to complete a course on French language and civilisation at the Sorbonne.
The young Dowding’s letters to his family in suburban Glenhuntly paint a vivid picture of travel in the late 1930s. They also reflect the desire of educated and artistic young Australians to make pilgrimages to the wellsprings of European culture. His shipboard companions included the glamorous blonde star of several J.C. Williamson productions, Billie Williams, who was off to undertake further voice training in Milan; and Rex Wood, an emerging modernist painter whose work is held by the National Gallery and the Art Gallery of NSW.
Among the many highlights of this scrupulously researched book are first-hand accounts of life in France before, during and after the German invasion in May 1940 and the fall of France in June 1940. Dowding and Spillman depict Paris enjoying its “Last Dance”, living it up as many of its citizens became resigned to their country’s second German assault in one generation. Bruce Dowding arrived the year the Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett, living in Paris, was stabbed by a pimp. James Joyce provided Beckett with a private hospital room. As the authors reveal, Beckett “dropped all charges because his assailant was courteous”.
Soon after commencing his studies in Paris, the restless Dowding left the Sorbonne on a ten-week trip to England. An avid cricket fan, he watched the England captain Wally Hammond score 210 not out on the first day of the second Ashes Test at Lord’s, after which Don Bradman’s Australians struggled to a draw.
This review appears in September’s Quadrant.
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Returning to France, Dowding completed his stint at the Sorbonne. He befriended musicians and fell in love with Ebba-Greta, the sister of his friend the Swedish artist and cellist Max Bilde. Dowding also hobnobbed with the family of Australia’s trade representative in France, Clive Voss, playing cricket with Voss’s son and the Indian novelist Raja Rao.
Along with Simone de Beauvoir, Dowding became an habitué of Latin Quarter cafés. Like Henri Matisse and Tristan Tzara, he ate and drank with Pablo Picasso at Café de Flore. He also lunched with the prolific English writer Pamela Hansford Johnson, who later married C.P. Snow. He attended and wrote ecstatically home about concerts, including one given by Orchestre Colonne featuring the legendary German violinist Adolf Busch.
In spite of his obligations to Wesley College and the rising international tensions, Dowding decided to stay in a city that was, in all senses of the word, intoxicating. To boost his funds, he took a teaching position as assistant English master at a school in Loches, 270 kilometres south of Paris. In his spare time, he read the complete works of Shakespeare in French and commuted regularly to visit galleries and attend concerts.
The outbreak of the Second World War provoked in Dowding a moral crisis. Raised as a pacifist, but in search of a mission in life, he felt driven to support France—even if that meant enlisting in the British Army as an interpreter.
Posted to Boulogne by the Royal Army Service Corps, Dowding was captured during the German invasion. Soon after the French and German governments negotiated the June armistice that partitioned the nation into an occupied zone and Vichy France, he escaped a prisoner-of-war camp by crawling through a sewer. By the European autumn, he had reached the relative safety of Marseille.
Once there, Dowding became centrally involved in the formation of one of the most successful escape and evasion lines of the war. Using the name André Mason, he worked undercover for MI9, a secret branch of British intelligence watched over by and ultimately answerable to MI6. Dowding was second-in-command of the line, which stretched from the France-Belgium border to Marseille, funnelling hundreds of Allied servicemen to Britain via Perpignan, the Pyrenees and Spain.
An important aspect of Secret Agent, Unsung Hero is that Dowding and Spillman shine a torch on the failure of British historians to recognise the crucial importance to MI9 and the war effort of a cell of exiled opponents of General Francisco Franco’s Spanish dictatorship. Based in Toulouse and led by Spanish anarchist Francisco Ponzán-Vidal, the cell’s network extended across the Pyrenees and through Spain. Without it, funnelling Allied servicemen out of France would have been near on impossible. Bruce Dowding’s crucial work primarily involved liaison across the Marseille-Toulouse-Perpignan triangle.
In Marseille and Perpignan, that work intersected with an American rescue mission led by Varian Fry and supported by Eleanor Roosevelt. This operation, dramatised in the 2023 Netflix series Transatlantic, saved thousands of Jewish intellectuals, writers, artists and musicians. Among them were the political theorist Hannah Arendt, writer André Breton, and painters Marc Chagall and Max Ernst.
Fascinatingly, Bruce Dowding resided for more than six months at the same Perpignan hotel used by the American mission as a transit station. He is credited with connecting the Americans with some of the Spanish guides they needed to cross the Pyrenees. Another helper at that time was Dina Vierny, a young nude model who was muse to France’s pre-eminent sculptor, Aristide Maillol. Vierny also regularly posed for Henri Matisse.
At the end of 1941, Dowding was betrayed by Harold (“Paul”) Cole, now considered one of the most infamous British traitors of the war. Cole had worked for the escape line in the north of France. Unbeknown to Dowding and others in the line’s leadership, he had been convicted of many petty crimes in London before the war. When found to have misappropriated MI9 funds intended to support French helpers, in October 1941 Cole was summoned to Marseille by the new leader of the line, Pat O’Leary, and summarily dismissed. Dowding was present at this stormy November confrontation, at which O’Leary punched Cole’s face so hard that he broke his fist.
In the course of researching Secret Agent, Unsung Hero, the authors uncovered a letter written shortly afterward by the vengeful Cole. Addressed to O’Leary, it repudiates his leadership and implies that he was not the French-Canadian he claimed to be. In this, Cole was right—O’Leary was, in fact, a Belgian doctor named Albert Guérisse.
After returning to the north, Cole was arrested by German police. He promptly told the Gestapo the identity of dozens of French helpers, many of whom were executed or died in German concentration camps. Bruce Dowding—alias André Mason—was among them. MI9 boss Jimmy Langley later described Cole as “a con man, thief and utter shit who betrayed his country to the highest bidder”.
Dowding spent eighteen months in Nazi prisons, primarily Bochum in western Germany. Authors Dowding and Spillman movingly quote one of his fellow inmates, who recalled Bruce Dowding’s “celestial voice” singing the hymn “O Holy Night” as midnight church bells rang in Christmas Day, 1942.
Unlike some other prisoners, Dowding survived the relentless bombing of Allied aircraft during the 1943 Battle of the Ruhr. But the brave Melburnian was tried as an enemy of the Reich and executed by guillotine in Dortmund in June 1943. He had just turned twenty-nine. His comrades Pierre Carpentier and Protais Dubois—remembered today as heroes of the French Resistance—were beheaded the same day. Before his execution, Dowding had converted to Catholicism.
Dowding had been arrested one day after Hitler’s “Night and Fog” decree of December 7, 1941. This was framed to defy international conventions and make enemies of the Reich vanish without trace. Hence Dowding’s fate remained unknown until 1946.
His parents and siblings were unaware of his wartime work until O’Leary/Guérisse wrote a series of sensational newspaper articles syndicated around the world. When these appeared in the Hobart Voice in January 1948, a friend posted them to the family home in Glenhuntly.
Posthumously, the French government listed Bruce Dowding for the awards of the Croix de Guerre and Légion d’Honneur. Protocol required only the approval of the Commonwealth of Australia, but bureaucratic indifference derailed the process. As Dowding’s name was unknown in the armed forces, our government officials knew nothing of his work and expressed no interest in finding out.
A similar indifference was experienced by Dowding’s Marseille friend and colleague Nancy Wake, an Australian nurse and journalist who returned to Britain and joined its Special Operations Executive. In her autobiography, Wake wrote: “Bruce was proud of being Australian but he’d acquired the polish of a sophisticated European … His death was a particularly nasty one.”
Nancy Wake eventually received her Légion d’Honneur in 1970. It was 2004 before the Australian government finally honoured her, but despite Dowding’s crucial role in the rescue of hundreds of Allied servicemen and so many others, his valour and ultimate sacrifice have never been acknowledged.
In an epilogue to Secret Agent, Unsung Hero, Peter Dowding writes of his meeting in France with Jean-Claude Duprez, the son of Resistance hero François Duprez, who was one of Bruce Dowding’s confreres. After hearing that his comrade had been denied a Légion d’Honneur, Duprez was so appalled that in May 2013 he gave his father’s medallion to the Dowding family.
Let’s hope that, following the publication of Secret Agent, Unsung Hero, Bruce Dowding’s outstanding contribution to the Allied cause during the Second World War finally receives the official recognition it deserves.
Secret Agent, Unsung Hero: The Valour of Bruce Dowding
by Peter Dowding & Ken Spillman
Pen & Sword, 2023, 279 pages, $39.99
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. His next book is the satire Pandemonium, co-written with Ian MacFadyen and published by Hybrid next month, in which the hapless Grafton Everest becomes Secretary-General of the shambolic United Nations.