Secret Agent, Unsung Hero
The Valour of Bruce Dowding
Peter Dowding and Ken Spillman
Paperback 288pp RRP: $39.99
Reviewer: Roger Buxton, October 2023
This book has two authors: prolific Australian author Ken Spillman and senior counsel and former West Australian premier Peter Dowding. Peter Dowding spent four decades researching the wartime experiences of his uncle Bruce Dowding, a heroic and important secret agent in France during World War II, who was captured and secretly executed in Germany. The French government proposed Bruce for two high decorations, but these were not awarded because the necessary approval was not given by the Australian government.
Bruce, from the Melbourne suburb of Glenhuntly, was a graduate of the University of Melbourne and was teaching at Wesley College in 1938, where he obtained a leave of absence to study at the Sorbonne with the expectation that he would return to the College in 1939. Falling in love with France, he extended his visit and was still there when war broke out in September 1939. With his excellent French he joined the British army as an interpreter in the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC), was captured near Boulogne, but escaped and made his way to the south of France in the unoccupied (Vichy) zone.
After Dunkirk many British soldiers and airmen, either escaped prisoners or evading capture, were stranded in northern France and attempting to return to Britain. Through the courage of French and Belgian civilians most of these managed to reach neutral territory or Vichy France in the chaos before German control became organised and escape much more difficult. After this, most of the Allied servicemen who found themselves unexpectedly on French soil were shot-down aircrew. Aircraft could be replaced but it was expensive and time consuming to train replacement aircrew. The British Government Department of Military Intelligence (MI9), set up in 1939, established escape lines in occupied territory to help evaders reach neutral countries. Some evaders were taken off by sea and some crossed from Occupied France to Portugal but most crossed the Pyrenees from the south of Vichy France into Spain and then to Gibraltar. One of the most important escape lines collected evaders in the north of France, usually in the zone interdite, moved them south to Marseille and then into Spain via Perpignan. This organisation became known as the Pat Line after one of its several leaders, Patrick O’Leary (typical of the time and place, Patrick Albert O’Leary was actually a Belgian doctor Albert-Marie Guérisse, who served in the Royal Navy, was accidentally left behind during a night landing mission and when temporarily captured by the Germans claimed to be an evading Canadian airman!), and it was as deputy leader of the Pat Line that Bruce Dowding performed his important service. His French was excellent and he was fearless, usually operating from Hôtel de la Loge in Perpignan, sheltering evaders and arranging Spanish passeurs for the trip over the Pyrenees. These passeurs had to be handsomely paid and large amounts of money were provided by MI9. It should also be understood that the collection of intelligence was another function of MI9 and that MI9 was arguably controlled by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).
One of the Pat Line managers was the British soldier Harold (Paul) Cole, variously described as ‘an East End spiv’ and ‘common’. Cole embezzled MI9 funds to support his fondness for women and the high life, but his extravagant lifestyle attracted the attention of the Abwehr and on 5 December 1941 he was arrested. Incredibly he immediately provided the names of about 80 French helpers and MI9 agents, including Bruce Dowding, who was quickly arrested. This arrest was at an unfortunate time as Hitler’s Nacht und Nebel decree had just been promulgated so Bruce disappeared into Germany with no further news of him until after the end of the war.
The book contains an excellent description of the operation of the escape line, as far as this is possible considering that some of the helpers and agents did not survive, the secrecy of the time, the policy of not writing things down and the continuing unavailability of important MI9 files. The treatment of the very controversial confrontation of the Pat Line leaders with Cole before his arrest and his subsequent treason is particularly thorough and informative.
The epilogue ‘Finding Bruce’, written by Peter Dowding, describes the lengthy efforts he made to trace Bruce Dowding from his arrest to his execution. This is a tribute to the uncle he never met, and a duty both to Bruce Dowding and Bruce’s bereaved parents. I highly recommend this book to those interested in the history of escape and evasion in France and especially of the Australian involvement.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.