Former premier’s hero in the family

A 30-YEAR journey to uncover the heroic deeds of his uncle and honour his father’s passionate search for the truth come to fruition for former WA premier Peter Dowding this week. 

The South Fremantle resident and co-author Ken Spillman officially launch Secret Agent, Unsung Hero: The Valour of Bruce Dowding on Wednesday. The book tells the story of his uncle’s remarkable journey from a carefree Australian teacher to a courageous figure in the French Resistance. His betrayal and secretive death at the hands of the Nazis in 1943 has hung like a black cloud over the family for decades, but Mr Dowding says the book finally brings closure.

• Former WA premier Peter Dowding. Photo by Steve Grant


An adventurous spirit, Bruce Dowding embarked on a life-changing journey to Paris in January 1938, escaping stolid Melbourne for gay Paris’ vibrant art, literature and music, and promising to be back home before the year’s end.

“He found a lot of friendships, some lovers, and he stayed on after 1938, refusing to come home,” Mr Dowding said, drawing on his uncle’s weekly letters back home which were kept by his father.

“He was having too much fun, much to his family’s increasing alarm because war was threatening, clearly.”

As the summer of 1939 drew on and the German army massed on France’s borders, Bruce’s parents sent money over for a ticket back to Australia; instead he wrote to say he’d signed up with the British army as an interpreter.

Mr Dowding believes his grandfather used his Masonic connections to track his son down when the letters then stopped arriving. An order was sent through to write home, but by the time the letter arrived his platoon had been overrun and he was a prisoner of war.

After one letter from the POW camp, there was a silence which lasted until after the war, leaving a legacy of frustration for the family which Mr Dowding hopes the book can now heal.

• Bruce Dowding

“What we now know is that he escaped from the POW camp, made it to Marseille and began helping British and allied servicemen escape from France and over the Pyrenees,” he said.

Bruce’s immersion in French culture had been so complete he was able to pass himself off as Frenchman André Mason, working for the British intelligence service MI9, organising couriers and often doing the running himself.

“That involved providing food and clothing and so forth, and money to the people who were looking after them. It was also money to pay the the Spanish separatist guides who were helping the guys get over the Pyrenees.”

Mr Dowding says as part of their research, he and Spillman were able to correct the record about the Spanish, who’d been written off as smugglers by earlier writers but were actually patriots trying to raise funds to return and attack the dictator Franco.

At the end of 1941 the organisation collapsed after being betrayed by Howard Cole, an habitual criminal who coughed up their names when arrested by the Gestapo, and eventually lent his assistance to the Nazi cause.

“He was a thief, he was a liar, he was a womaniser,” says Mr Dowding.


This was where Bruce Dowding’s story became almost impossible to trace, which was a deliberate ploy of the Nazis.

“All of them disappeared under a Nazi directive called NN – Nacht und Nebel – they no longer had an identity, they were numbers,” Mr Dowding explains.

He was able to piece together a sketch of Bruce’s life after his deportation to Germany from a couple of survivors’ accounts, but there weren’t many. On June 30, 1943 the Australian and his fellow Resistance members were decapitated. The family didn’t hear about it until 1946, and a year later received a letter from a German priest who’d attended the execution.

Mr Dowding has made several trips to France while researching the book, including catching up with the late artist Max Bilde, who’d hung out with Bruce in Paris. His sister and the Australian became romantically linked, but she fled home when war broke out and they never saw each other again.

“He was very emotional about it because he also had lost contact with Bruce and didn’t know what had happened to him,” Mr Dowding says of his visit with Bilde.

He was also able to find a few precious photographs of Bruce, including one showing him with famed New Zealand/Australian Resistance figure Nancy Wake and American Varian Fry, the subject of a recent Netflix series about his work smuggling thousands of Jews out of Germany. 

• Even digitally enhanced its grainy, but this photo shows Bruce Dowding with Resistance legends Nancy Wake and Varian Fry (left).

Wake, known as White Mouse by the Gestapo, briefly mentions Bruce in her autobiography, saying that they’d met each other as though long-lost brother and sister and she was impressed the Aussie had reinvented himself as a sophisticated European. 

While he’s found closure with the book, Mr Dowding said his father was able to put his demons to rest earlier, thanks to the discovery his brother had converted to Catholicism while in the POW camp.

“My father died in 2008, and before he died I’d organised a memorial service for Bruce. My father got a local Catholic priest to officiate, and that was a big closure for him.”

Despite that, there is still one outstanding question: “The one thing that Bruce and the family were in the end denied was that the leader of the organisation recommended Bruce for a posthumous Legion d’Honneur, and the Australian government just couldn’t be bothered facilitating it,” Mr Dowding says.

He says the vague official reason was that the government didn’t know much about him, something he hopes the book can rectify.

Secret Agent, Unsung Hero: The Valour of Bruce Dowding

Peter Dowding and Ken Spillman

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