Sydney Dowse MC - one of the Great Escapers

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  1. 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.'
  2. A true English man , an archetypal British officer

    Mad as a balloon, god bless you sir

  3. 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