History

The real-life James Bond's clandestine relationship with celebrity spy Josephine Baker

The name's Dunderdale, Wilfred Dunderdale.

Picture this - a talented British spy is working with one of the most celebrated superstars of the day to uncover secrets that could help bring down Hitler's Nazi Germany. 

It sounds like a James Bond script, doesn't it?

Well, if that is where your imagination took you, you were not far off.

The former Royal Navy Commander turned British secret agent in question was a Second World War veteran who was fluent in French, Russian and German, with a love of fine wines, fast cars and a powerful punch that earned the British spy the nickname 'Biffy'. 

But this was not James Bond. 

Meet legendary British Secret Intelligence Service spymaster Commander Wilfred 'Biffy' Dunderdale – reportedly the inspiration behind James Bond, the iconic fictional character created by his close friend, naval intelligence operative and world-renowned author, Ian Fleming.

Commander Wilfred Dunderdale CREDIT Dunderdale Archives
Commander Wilfred Dunderdale (Picture: Dunderdale Archives).

One of Cdr Dunderdale's top-secret roles during the Second World War was to be the hand-in-glove spymaster for one of the world’s most famous black female entertainers in the early to mid 20th century, Josephine Baker. 

During the Second World War, Cdr Dunderdale joined forces with Josephine and her colleague Captain Jacques Abtey - the head of France’s military intelligence service - to fight the rapid spread of Nazism in Paris. 

When the French capital was taken over by the Nazis in 1940, about two million Parisians fled the city but Josephine stayed despite being barred from performing on stage because of her race. Jewish people were also banned from being entertainers. 

This was the turning point for Josephine. It prompted her to become an Allied spy and she began committing espionage for the French military intelligence agency, the Deuxième Bureau. 

Image ID FH6T51 Josephine Baker in uniform Second World War WWII WW2 CREDIT Hi Story Alamy Stock Photo
Josephine Baker in uniform (Picture: Hi Story / Alamy Stock Photo).

The story of American-born French entertainer Josephine Baker's extraordinary journey, from extreme poverty and hardship to commanding the stage and screen in France and being one of the Secret Intelligence Service's most valued assets, is being explored in great detail in Damien Lewis' latest book 'The Flame of Resistance: The Untold Story of Josephine Baker’s Secret War’, published by Quercus. 

The best-selling author also explores Baker's clandestine working relationship with her spymaster Cdr Dunderdale, a man whose work included playing a vital role in enabling Britain to crack the mind-boggling German Enigma code.  

For two decades, Lewis worked as an award-winning journalist, reporting from war, disaster and conflict zones but turned to writing non-fiction in 2004 when he wrote his first book 'Slave'. 

The author has written many books set during the Second World War including 'Churchill’s Secret Warriors', 'Hunting The Nazi Bomb' and 'SAS Band of Brothers'. 

His latest offering dives into the Dunderdale family archive - owned by Paul Biddle who gave access to Lewis - and Secret Intelligence Service files to reveal a unique and exhilarating story of espionage, a pioneering woman of great repute and top-secret messages written in invisible ink. 

Damien Lewis The Flame of Resistance Author CREDIT Millard Photography
Damien Lewis is the author of 'The Flame of Resistance' (Picture: Millard Photography).

Who was Josephine Baker? 

From extremely humble beginnings in St Louis, Missouri, which saw a young teenage Josephine marry twice before she was 16 and leaving school at 13 to perform on the streets, she forged her way to stardom despite facing fierce barriers throughout her career due to her race. 

Fed up with the prejudice and segregation she faced, Josephine moved to Paris in France to live in a city that, compared to the America she knew, was far more enlightened. Speaking with Mark McKenzie, a broadcaster for BFBS the Forces Station, Lewis explained what drew him to the story of Cdr Dunderdale and Baker, saying: 

"This is the story of the most photographed, and most famous, you could argue, back female superstar prior to World War Two, Josephine Baker. 

"What drew me to it initially ... was just the simple thought, how can someone of such high-profile superstardom, a true celebrity prior to the war, have become a spy? 

"That doesn't add up. How can you have that much profile and operate in the shadows? I just didn't get it." 

In 'The Flame Of Resistance', Damien writes of teenage Josephine's desire for a better way of life, where her creativity and talents were celebrated and not dismissed. He said: "She would find it chiefly in Paris, from where she would become a global star of stage, screen and song. 

"At first, in the early 1920s, she set Paris alight with her sexually charged, 'exotic', semi-naked dance routines, which both scandalised, provoked and captivated her audiences." 

Using a cover story of being a member of the French Nurse paratroopers, Josephine transformed herself into an Allied spy in occupied France for which she was awarded The Resistance Medal, the Croix de Guerre and Légion D'Honneur following the Second World War. 

When she became a spy, Josephine was so famous that she was hiding in plain sight. She managed to lead a successful double life because of the relationship she had with her spymaster, Cdr Dunderdale. 

Commander Wilfred Biffy Dunderdale ID card CREDIT Dunderdale Archives
Commander Wilfred 'Biffy' Dunderdale's ID card (Picture: Dunderdale Archives).

Following his death on 13 November 1990, Cdr Dunderdale was described in 'The Times' newspaper as being a "genuine romantic and pirate" adding that "a bottle of vintage champagne was never far from one hand, a cigarette held in a long holder in the other." 

Damien goes further than that by saying that "Dunderdale remains to this day this iconic figure, of the British Secret Intelligence Service" adding "he is the model for young wannabe British spies. 

"Dunderdale... was one of the key people in recruiting and handling Josephine Baker as she became an agent and she went from being a rookie trainee voluntary honourable correspondent to being towards the end of the war, really the kind of spymaster orchestrating many, many different levels of espionage operations." 

The undercover work undertaken between Cdr Dunderdale and Josephine and hundreds of other spies during the Second World War was crucial in the battle against Hitler. 

In 'The Flame of Resistance,' Lewis writes of Josephine's belief that "more is achieved by love than hate. Hate is the downfall of any race or nation." 

Through his research, Lewis discovered that Josephine loved Paris as it had embraced her when she arrived. But Nazi Germany was threatening her beloved city and the freedoms of herself and the Parisians she admired. 

Lewis writes: "To her, the rise of Hitler, Goering and Eichmann, plus the Führer’s other henchmen, threatened all that she had come to believe in and all that she held dear. 

"If the forces of Nazi Germany invaded, she would once again be forced to flee from prejudice and hatred." 

This was something she would not do. Instead, she teamed up with men and women like Cdr Dunderdale to play a part in helping to prevent the spread of Nazism. 

'The Flame of Resistance: The Untold Story of Josephine Baker’s Secret War' by Damien Lewis is published by Quercus at £20.

Cover image: Commander Wilfred Dunderdale and Josephine Baker (Picture: Dunderdale Archives and Hi-Story / Alamy Stock Photo).