The Flame of Resistance, by Damien Lewis

This is an extraordinary story about an extraordinary woman.
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The Flame of Resistance is part biography of Josephine Baker and part history of the British and French Secret Services in World War Two. The book focuses on the intelligence war fought across French North Africa, painting both a romantic and brutal portrait of the war conducted by a fascinating cast of real-life characters. However, the star of the show is Josephine Baker.

By 1939 Josephine was a superstar, having overcome poverty and racial prejudice to find success and a home in France. She saw the coming storm in Europe and never one to duck a fight, joined French Intelligence as an unpaid ‘Honorary Correspondent’.

Unlike Mata Hari, another performer turned spy, Baker was able to use her notoriety to gather information without arousing suspicion. Josephine was a different kind of agent altogether, she had street smarts, as well as the support of French Intelligence. She used her celebrity as cover, able to hide in plain sight and to meet Axis diplomats without arousing suspicion.

Josephine Baker in 1940.

When France was invaded, she refused to perform in Paris while it was occupied and eventually went to Lisbon. Her fame giving her the means to smuggle vital information out of France. Lewis gives a vivid description of her time in Lisbon, the espionage capital of the war, where Ian Fleming got the inspiration for Casino Royale. Baker continued her clandestine work gathering snippets of information at embassy functions and society parties, before finding her way to Casablanca.

Josephine’s time in Morocco is the heart of the book. The Intelligence services had no assets in the country, which made her an essential cog in the Allies intelligence machine. Despite contracting a serious illness Josephine continued her work, using her hospital room as an espionage hub, where agents could pass on their reports; helping to prepare the way for Operation Torch. Following the Allied landings in North Africa Josephine continued her clandestine activities, gathering vital information on the growing unrest against French colonial rule; and navigating her way through the political infighting within the Free French movement. She also continued to entertain the troops in North Africa and Europe, refusing to perform to segregated audiences. And as she with her undercover work, she would not accept a payment.

For her tireless efforts during the war Josephine Baker was decorated with France’s highest accolades, culminating in her symbolic internment in the Panthéon in November 2021. An honour that has only been given to 81 people, including Victor Hugo, Marie Curie and Émile Zola, Baker is only the sixth woman and fourth person of colour.

Lewis strikes a finely tuned balance between telling Baker’s incredible rags to riches story, as a performer and civil rights activist, while primarily focusing on the intelligence war she took part in. The Flame of Resistance is a fitting tribute to not just a courageous and resourceful woman, but also the people who worked with her for the Allied cause.

Damien Lewis’ The Flame of Resistance is out now. Alan Bardos is a novelist and author of the Johnny Swift Thrillers.