On this day 75 years ago, just days after VE Day, weary French airmen at RAF Elvington who were wondering when they’d ever be able to go home had a surprise visit from a special guest - the singer, spy, dancer, resistance fighter and darling of the Free French forces, Josephine Baker. BARBARA GEORGE reports

It was only a few days after VE Day and the capitulation of Germany. The 2,500 French airmen based at Elvington were restless. The question on everybody’s mind was 'When will we go home to France?'.

Preparations, practice exercises and outings in York could not seem to distract the airmen at a time when they were craving their French roots and culture.

On May 16, 1945, however, a surprise visit by a celebrity guest left an unforgettable memory in the minds of all those who were present. The guest? The US-born, naturalised French singer, dancer, resistance heroine and French Air Force Lieutenant Josephine Baker.

One of the men who was there that day, Pierre-Celestin Delrieu, was later to recall what happened in his book Feu du ciel, Feu vengeur (Fire in the sky, fire of vengeance): “Josephine Baker, yes, Josephine Baker came to surprise us one day, in all her charm.

“Proudly wearing the cap and uniform of the French Air Force, with two gold stripes, we saw Lieutenant Baker climb on an improvised stage inside the largest of the hangars. All the Frenchmen of Elvington wanted to see and hear her.

“Her beaming smile, her grace, her simplicity, her talent – it must be said – all contributed to victory; because, everywhere she went, she gave confidence to the troops, uplifting their morale.”

To the Frenchmen at Elvington it must have seemed as though the Theatre aux Armees, which organised civilian entertainers for French troops, had finally heard of the Frenchmen in exile in the deep corners of Yorkshire and had sent them Josephine. Her presence, for a few hours only, would give an amazing boost to everyone desperate to return home to France.

Pierre-Celestin Delrieu continued: “It was a spectacular triumph. The climactic point was when she sang ‘I have two loves: my country and Paris’. There were cheers, encores and tears on people’s faces.

“That evening, Josephine dined in the Officers Mess. Inside the lounge, she was mingling, from group to group, relaxed, friendly and informal. I was lucky to have her sit in front of me, for a few moments, and able to chat with her, moved by her presence, moved by everything she represented from France, our country freed nine months ago but still so far from us.”

But who was this darling of the French forces who did so much to lift morale at Elvington that day?

Josephine Baker was born in 1906 in St Louis, USA. After a difficult childhood including being sent away to work as a housemaid at the age of eight and two failed early marriages at the ages of 13 and 15, she moved to Paris in the 1920s, at the age of 19, after being scouted by a talent recruiter.

Whereas the USA was still very segregated at the time, Paris was opening its arms to many American artists.

She was first known for her provocative ‘Dance Sauvage’ also known as the ‘Banana Dance’, which equally shocked and delighted audiences. Vivacious and gregarious she soon became a star, becoming one of the most photographed people of the day, with dolls made in her image. She was a fashion icon and a true show woman, leading an extravagant lifestyle. Some days, she could be seen walking the streets of Paris with her cheetah, which sported a diamond collar.

Blessed with a beautiful singing voice, her song ‘J’ai deux amours: mon pays et Paris’ madeher a symbol of class and glamour. On her return to the USA in the mid 1930s, she was refused entry to many clubs and theatres. Insulted, rejected and segregated, she returned to her adoring fans in Paris and took on French citizenship through her third husband, the French industrialist Jean Lion.

Then the Second World War broke out. As early as 1939, she as recruited by the Deuxième Bureau, French military intelligence. She became a spy, using her fame and celebrity to infiltrate networks and gather high intelligence. She collected information about German troop locations from officials she met at parties. During events at Embassies and Ministries, she charmed people while gathering information without raising suspicion. Her café-society fame enabled her to rub shoulders with those in the know, from high-ranking Japanese officials to Italian bureaucrats, and to report back what she had heard.

After the German invasion of France, she left Paris and used her home in the Dordogne to house people eager to help Charles de Gaulle’s Free French movement. She used her international reputation as an entertainer to move freely and thus help refugees to leave the country. She travelled around Europe, visiting neutral nations such as Portugal. She carried information for transmission to England, about airfields, harbours and German troop concentrations in the West of France and used her sheet music to write coded messages in invisible ink. She pinned notes with information gathered inside her underwear, daring anyone to strip search Josephine Baker.

Later in 1941, she travelled to the French colonies in North Africa to continue helping the Resistance. In Morocco, she sang on a volunteer basis in front of French and Allied troops stationed in North Africa despite serious health problems. After her recovery (she developed an infection requiring a hysterectomy which led to peritonitis followed by sepsis) she started touring to entertain British, French, and American soldiers in North Africa.

The Free French had no organized entertainment network for their troops, so Baker and her entourage managed for the most part on their own and never charged admission or allowed civilians to attend her performances.

Dedicated to France, Josephine said: "It was France that made me. I am ready to give it my life today. You can dispose of me as you see fit." And, indeed, Josephine Baker risked her life fighting for the Free French several times.

It was not until 1961 that she was awarded the Medal of the Legion of Honour from General Valin at the Château des Milandes, her residence in the Dordogne. She also received the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Resistance.

Josephine used her notoriety to fight the racism that remained omnipresent at the end of the war. Despite her fame and glory in France, she frequently returned to the United States in the 1950s, participating in demonstrations and boycotts against segregation, and supporting the Civil Rights Movement.

During the March on Washington in 1963, Josephine stood next to Martin Luther King Jr. and was among the numerous notable speakers. She was the only woman to do so.

For her, there was only one race: the 'human race'.

After the war, Josephine, unable to sustain a pregnancy, adopted 12 children, all of different nationalities and religions, whom she called her ‘Rainbow Tribe’.

“All of a sudden, I felt that through little children, people, probably, would be able to get together in understanding. It might be that the children are a symbol of unity among the people of the world. So I started travelling around the world and picked one up here, one up there, got them together and they form a beautiful united family – a real league of nations”.

Josephine finally obtained the triumph she deserved in the US, performing at Carnegie Hall in 1973, at the age of 66. Her last performance was for the Monaco Red Cross in 1975, in Paris, to a standing ovation. She died shortly after of a cerebral haemorrhage.

20,000 people lined the streets of Paris for her funeral at La Madeleine. She received the honour of a 21 gun salute, and was the first American woman to be buried in France with full military honours.

In Elvington, 75 years after her visit, we are still humbled by her graceful presence and the joy she brought to our very own airmen as World War Two ended.

Barbara George is the director of the Yorkshire Air Museum