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From Joe Lewis to Audrey Hepburn: 10 famous faces of WW2

They’re best known for their careers before and after WW2, but these men and women also fought for the Allies. From Audrey Hepburn to JD Salinger, find out more about the wartime activities of 10 famous faces from BBC History Revealed

US heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis receives a medal during WW2
Published: December 10, 2021 at 8:10 am
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Audrey Hepburn

Despite being a child during the war, the future film and fashion icon did her bit by aiding the Dutch Resistance. Hepburn’s mother had moved to the Netherlands hoping the neutral country would avoid attack, but that was not to be – the Nazis invaded in 1940. While both her parents actually supported fascism, the young Hepburn raised money for the Resistance by dancing at secret performances, and, like other children, she may have acted as a courier too. After she rose to global stardom, Hepburn only intensified her humanitarian efforts. She became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 1989.


Roald Dahl

Anyone who has read Going Solo knows there was more to Roald Dahl than beloved stories of a Big Friendly Giant, chocolate factories and marvellous medicines. Shortly after war broke out, he joined the RAF as a pilot. He qualified as a fighter ace – seeing combat over Greece in 1941 – but was invalided home suffering the effects of a plane crash, which had temporarily blinded him. Dahl was later posted to the US to work as a spy delivering information to Winston Churchill.


Clark Gable

The ‘King of Hollywood’ volunteered for the US Army Air Forces at the age of 40 and flew combat missions as a tail gunner. Clark Gable’s service saw him gain an unexpected fan, Adolf Hitler, who offered a substantial reward for anyone who captured the movie star alive. But a near miss during a raid on Germany concerned his movie studio so much that they asked for Gable to be reassigned to noncombat duty. He resigned a major.

Clark Gable in a plane during WW2
Clark Gable was inspired to enlist – despite being past draft age – after his wife Carole Lombard died in a plane crash. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Christopher Lee

Over his seven-decade career, the English actor was a prolific movie villain – notably Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and Dracula, a role he played 10 times – but in the war, he hunted real villains. Lee served as an RAF intelligence officer in North Africa, the Mediterranean and Italy, and was attached to the precursor of the SAS. In the months after the war ended, he helped track down and interrogate Nazi war criminals.


James Stewart

With military roots in his family, James Stewart, an actor on the rise in the late 1930s, enlisted as a private before the US had even joined the war. His career would take off again in 1946 with It’s a Wonderful Life, by which time he had become a heavily decorated officer. Stewart joined the Air Corps and, appealing against decisions to keep him away from combat, flew more than 1,800 hours in bomber missions. He ended his service a colonel – being promoted in 1945 – and having been awarded many medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross twice.


Ian Fleming

It is fitting that the mastermind behind James Bond spent the war devising and overseeing operations in naval intelligence. Commander Ian Fleming created a team of real-life 007s, known as 30 Assault Unit, which succeeded, among many other things, in capturing an Enigma machine. It’s believed that Bond’s superior, M, was inspired by Fleming’s boss and Director of Naval Intelligence, John Godfrey.

Colonel James Stewart during WW2
Colonel James Stewart (centre) led missions over Naxi Europe. (Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images)

JD Salinger

The young American was trying to make it as a writer when he was drafted into the US Army in 1942. He would carry pages of what became his iconic novel The Catcher in the Rye into combat – as he stepped on Utah Beach on D-Day and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Able to speak French and German, Salinger was assigned to counter-intelligence, where he interrogated POWs and took part in the liberation of Dachau concentration camp. As well as being hospitalised with ‘combat stress reaction’, his experiences had a profound effect on him and his writing.


Joe Louis

The world heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis became a vital publicity asset by joining a segregated cavalry unit. He boxed in charity matches to raise funds and was used in recruitment campaigns. He was still subjected to racial abuse, however. When asked about segregation in the army, he said: “Lots of things wrong with America, but Hitler ain’t going to fix them.”


Marcel Marceau

The French mime artist delighted global audiences for more than 60 years, especially as his stage persona, Bip the Clown. But as a teenager – named Marcel Mangel – from a Jewish family, he had to live in hiding when France was occupied. Taking the name Marceau, he joined the Resistance and helped smuggle Jewish children into Switzerland, using his natural acting skills to entertain and keep them safe. After Paris was liberated, he joined the French Army, before he could eventually enrol in drama school.


Alex Guinness

Before Star Wars, there was WW2. British actor Alec Guinness put his theatre career on hold when he joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve in 1941. The following year, he was granted leave to make his Broadway debut in Flare Path, a play about RAF Bomber Command. Guinness commanded a landing craft during the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, but when the war was over he swapped the beaches of Sicily for the desert planet of Tatooine when he accepted the role of Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi.


This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed


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