Sydney Dowse MC - one of the Great Escapers

Sydney Dowse MC - one of the 'Great Escapers':
Sydney Dowse, who died on Thursday aged 89, was one of the principal constructors of the tunnel used in the Great Escape; he was among those who got away, and was at large for 14 days before being recaptured and sent to the "death camp" at Sachsenhausen, where he dug another tunnel to gain a few more days of freedom

.....'Although Dowse spent most of his time underground, he also befriended a German corporal who worked in the censor's office at the camp headquarters. Through this contact he obtained numerous authentic documents, which were passed to the escape committee for copying, and much valuable military intelligence. He even managed to persuade the corporal to provide him with a tailored suit, which he subsequently wore for his escape.

By mid-March 1944 the 336ft-long Harry (the only surviving tunnel) was complete. On the night of March 24 the tunnellers broke surface, but they were a few yards short of the covering woods. This caused delays; and Dowse, who was the 21st man to exit, and his Polish friend "Danny" Krol, were unable to catch their intended train. Their plan was to head for Poland, where they hoped to link up with the Polish resistance. The ever-resourceful Dowse had obtained a three-week supply of genuine food vouchers from the German corporal, so the two men decided to set off on foot and follow the main railway line eastwards........'

'......Despite the loss of so many men, Dowse always believed the Great Escape was worth it. In later years he observed: "We caused havoc to the Germans. We tied up thousands … looking for us."

Dowse had an irrepressible enthusiasm and easy-going bonhomie. In Sagan he gained the nickname "Laughing Boy", but this disguised a tough and determined resolve. His friend Jimmy James remarked: "His spirit was undimmed; even in Sachsenhausen he was as ebullient as ever."

In retirement Dowse divided his time between his elegant homes in Chelsea and Monte Carlo. Well known at the Savoy Hotel in London, he never needed to book for dinner, always being shown to one of the best tables.

Throughout his life Dowse was passionate about rugby. Both before and after the war he turned out for Harlequins (whose tie remained his favoured neckwear), and at Stalag Luft III, during breaks from his tunnelling duties, he played in the camp's 1st XV. He continued to enjoy the fine things in life - including his Rolls-Royce and fast sports car - into old age, and once remarked: "Once one escapes from [Sachsenhausen], life holds no difficulties."

And I just lurve this bit........ :D
'It is thought that Sydney Dowse married three times, but at the time of his death he was single.'
A true English man , an archetypal British officer

Mad as a balloon, god bless you sir

Sydney Dowse
RAF pilot who was shot down, sent to Stalag Luft III and
took part in the Great Escape of 1944

Sydney Dowse, right, with fellow escaper Jimmy James and
replicas of their escape tools, at a 60th anniversary
reunion hosted by the Imperial War Museum

The death of Sydney Dowse leaves only three British
survivors of the "Great Escape" by Allied air force officers
from the German prison of war camp Stalag Luft III in March
1944. Hitler issued an order that all those recaptured were
to be shot but was allegedly persuaded to reduce the figure
to 50. Seventy-six men got away but only three reached
safety. The 23 survivors of those recaptured were sent to
prison or concentration camps. Dowse was sent to
Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Berlin, from
where he again escaped. In all he made five escape attempts.

As an RAF Flight Lieutenant, Dowse had baled out from his
photo-reconaissance Spitfire of 608 Squadron over Brest in
August 1941, after taking photographs of the German battle
cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst sheltering in the port.
Landing in occupied Brittany, he tried to make contact with
the French Resistance but was taken prisoner and sent for
treatment at a hospital in Germany near Weimar, from where
he made his first escape. Wearing civilian clothes acquired
in hospital, he travelled by train westwards to
Monchengladbach but was intercepted on the Dutch-German
frontier three days later.

Sent to Stalag IXC at Bad Sulza, a camp for captured airmen
near Leipzig, he escaped from there by mingling with a
fatigue party working outside the wire. Again taking a
train, he almost reached the Belgian frontier, but was
recaptured in a state of extreme exhaustion while trying to
cross it in deep snow. After several days in hospital, he
was sent to Oflag VIB, at Warburg.

This was a desolate place, west of the Weser on a plateau
three miles from Warburg station, housing 2,500 officers.
When Dowse arrived, the inmates were still clearing it of
rats and fleas as well as planning a variety of escapes.

Dowse joined in the construction of several tunnels from
Warburg, from one of which six officers escaped in April
1942. Later, in June 1943, an escape, which became famous as
the "Warburg Wire Job" using articulated ladders to scale
the wire, led to the escape of 65 prisoners from this camp
in June 1943. But before then Dowse had been moved to Stalag
Luft III at Sagan, in Silesia, which housed officers of the
Allied air forces.

The camp stood in a pine forest clearing with huts on stilts
to prevent tunnelling. When Dowse arrived it held 900 Allied
airman and was seriously overcrowded. His jovial and
easy-going manner soon won him friends and he was popular
with the more relaxed of the German guards.

He took pains to cultivate the friendship of a Corporal
Hesse who worked in the letter censorship department of the
camp headquarters, which proved useful in gaining
information about the guards' activities such as room
searches. As arrangements for a mass escape through a
300-foot long tunnel were nearing completion in February
1944, Hesse warned Dowse that the officer masterminding the
escape, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, a persistent escaper,
would almost certainly be shot if he was caught trying to
escape again.

The mass escape was to be made through a tunnel code-named
"Harry", work having been halted on two others, "Tom" and
"Dick", dug at the same time as an insurance against
detection. When Tom was discovered, Harry was judged to
offer the best chance of escape and the 2ft-high tunnel,
30ft below the surface, was completed, after two months of
feverish work in claustrophobic conditions, on March 14,

The moonless night of March 24 was chosen for the breakout
by 200 men. The first 30 were fluent German speakers and so
judged to have the best chance of making a "home run", the
next 70 had all worked on one or more of the tunnels, and
the final 100 were taken out of a hat from around 500

As one of the German speakers, Dowse was allocated number
21. He planned to team up with a Polish officer, Stanislaw
"Danny" Krol, and head for Poland in the hope of making
contact with the Polish underground movement. They were both
well prepared and carried a three-week supply of German food
vouchers that Dowse had persuaded Hesse to provide.

The escape was delayed because the exit hatch took longer to
dislodge than expected. Then it was discovered that the exit
was some 25ft short of the edge of the forest which they had
relied on to provide cover from the sentries' watchtower.
Despite these setbacks, the escape got under way at 10.30pm
and shortly after 2.30am 80 men had gone through the tunnel.
Four of these were supervising the exit and dispersal
procedure when a prowler sentry outside the wire stumbled
across the exit hole and fired a warning shot to alert the

Krol had gone through the tunnel ahead of Dowse and
miraculously the two met in the woods beyond the wire. Their
plan had been to catch a train to Berlin then Stettin (now
Szczecin), but the delays in the tunnel meant they had
missed the first one. Not wishing to hang about Sagan
station waiting for another, they decided to follow the line
of the railway eastwards and walk the 80 miles to Poland.

They made remarkably good progress and were within a few
miles of the Polish border on April 6 when a farmer
discovered them in his barn, where they were taking a rest
before crossing under cover of darkness. Disbelieving their
cover story of being Polish workers, the farmer called a
party of Hitler Youth and Volksturm. The pair were separated
with Dowse being sent to Berlin for questioning. Krol was
among those who were subsequently shot.

After being questioned in Berlin, Dowse was sent to
Sachsenhausen where he was reunited with three of the other
23 who had been spared the death sentence. Convinced that it
was only a matter of time before they would be shot, or
strung up on the gibbet visible from the barred window of
their hut, they began to plan their escape.

Unlike in Sagan, where the guards were vigilant for signs of
escape, the Sonderlager prisoners were left to their own
devices. Dowse and Flight Lieutenant (later Squadron Leader)
"Jimmy" James (obituary, January 19) began digging a
120ft-long tunnel from a corner of their prison barrack room
under the nearby fence to an empty compound beyond. Their
tools were a table knife with a serrated edge and two
spoons. The earth dug out was dispersed in the foundations
of the barrack block. Part way through their task the two
were joined by Lieutenant-Colonel "Mad Jack" Churchill, a
Commando who had been taken prisoner on the Dalmatian island
of Brac. By mid-September the tunnel had reached the outer
compound in which a ladder could be seen leaning against the
wall of the camp.

The four former Stalag Luft III inmates and Churchill
crawled through the tunnel and scaled the outer wall of
Sachsenhausen on September 23, 1944, but all were recaptured
by early October and returned to Sachsenhausen and put in
separate cells in the punishment block. After further
questioning, during which Dowse informed his interrogators
that he had posted a letter to the International Red Cross
during his few days of freedom, the five men were returned
to the camp cell block, where they remained until
Sachsenhausen was liberated in May 1945. The following year
he was awarded the Military Cross for his courage and
persistent determination to escape.

Sydney Hastings Dowse came from a well-to-do background and
as a young man he had played rugby for Harlequins. He
enlisted in the RAF Volunteer Reserve as an airman in 1937,
and was commissioned in 1940. He left the RAF after the war
with the rank of flight lieutenant, following which he
worked for the Colonial Service for some years.

He was three times married. There were no children.

Sydney Dowse, MC, survivor of the Great Escape from Stalag
Luft III, was born on November 21, 1918. He died on April
10, 2008, aged 89

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