Sydney Dowse must be one of the most colourful of modern OJs. During the war he was one of the principal constructors of the tunnel later portrayed in the film “The Great Escape”. He was among those who escaped and was at large for fourteen days before being recaptured on the Polish border. He was then sent to the death camp at Sachsenhausen, where he promptly dug another tunnel to gain a few more days’ freedom. His fellow escapee, a Polish friend named “Danny” Krol was executed with many others on Hitler’s orders; Dowse could only think that he was spared because he was descended from a distinguished German family.
After Hurst he joined the RF Volunteer Reserve in 1937, and was then called up for regular service on the outbreak of war. At first he flew Coastal Command Ansons but moved to join the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit flying Spitfires. It was on one of these sorties photographing the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenhau that he was shot down and captured, shortly after being mentioned in dispatches.
In 1945, after many other adventures, he was awarded an MC for his conduct as a prisoner and released from the RAF as a Flight Lieutenant in 1946. In 2004, he met John Leyton, who played him in “The Great Escape”. Leyton’s comment was: “It was an honour and a privilege. What you did was absolutely extraordinary.”
Clearly a man of means, Dowse divided his time in retirement between his homes in Chelsea and Monte Carlo, and very much enjoyed his Rolls Royce. It was said that he was well known at the Savoy Hotel where he never had to book for dinner, always being shown to one of the best tables! He died in April 2008.
The following obituary is reproduced by courtesy of the Daily Telegraph:
Sydney Dowse, who died on 10 April 2008 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.
Dowse had been in captivity for just over a year when he arrived in May 1942 at Hermann Goering’s “escape-proof” camp, Stalag Luft III, at Sagan. He made two unsuccessful attempts before further efforts by the prisoners were put on to a more formal footing by the formation of an escape committee under the chairmanship of Roger Bushell, known as “Big X”. The committee decided to attempt a mass break-out through three tunnels – known as Tom, Dick and Harry – dug from the north compound to the nearby woods. Dowse had dug tunnels at his previous camps and was soon recruited to work on Harry. The trapdoor to the tunnel in Block 104 was beneath one of the stoves that were in the corner of every room. A 25ft shaft was dug into the sandy soil beneath the block before the tunnel headed for the camp perimeter.
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.
Having walked for 14 days, they were close to the Polish border when a member of the Hitler Youth spotted them. They were arrested, the last to be recaptured. While Dowse was taken to Berlin for interrogation, Krol was handed over to the Gestapo and was the last of the 50 prisoners executed on the orders of Adolf Hitler. (Dowse was descended from a distinguished German family and always assumed that this had saved him from the Gestapo.)
Sydney Hastings Dowse was born on November 21 1918 at Hammersmith and was educated at Hurstpierpoint College. In July 1937 he joined the recently formed RAF Volunteer Reserve, learning to fly at weekends. At the outbreak of war he was called up for regular service and completed his pilot training. Dowse initially flew Coastal Command Ansons on anti-submarine and convoy escort operations with No 608 Squadron. At the end of 1940 he volunteered to join the expanding reconnaissance force and, after converting to the Spitfire, joined No 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU). The high-flying Spitfires spent much of their time monitoring the movements of Germany’s capital ships, and Dowse, who flew many such sorties, was mentioned in dispatches. On September 20 1941 he set off on the familiar route to the Brest Peninsula to photograph the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, but his aircraft was shot down over the French coast and he was forced to bale out; he was suffering from a leg wound and was soon captured.
In December Dowse escaped from the hospital where he was being treated, but three days later he was caught by a guard as he crossed the German-Dutch border and sent to Stalag IXC, at Bad Sulza. By mingling in a working party, Dowse soon managed to get away again. He travelled by train towards Belgium, then continued on foot towards the German-Belgian frontier, where, suffering from extreme exhaustion, he was recaptured. After hospital treatment he was imprisoned at Oflag VIB, where he helped to build four tunnels, through one of which six officers escaped in April 1942. A month later Dowse was transferred to Sagan.After his interrogation in Berlin following the Great Escape, Dowse was sent to the “death camp” at Sachsenhausen, where he found three others who had been spared, among them his friend Jimmy James. Within days of their arrival the men were discussing how to get out.
Undeterred by the threat of execution if they escaped, the four, together with another prisoner, started a tunnel. Dowse and James were the two diggers using spoons and a kitchen knife. It was a massive undertaking, yet they dug a tunnel 110ft long. On the night of September 23 the five men broke out, an event which astonished the Germans who launched a widespread search and placed a high price on their heads. Dowse travelled with “Wings” Day, and a few days later they were captured on the outskirts of Berlin. On their return to Sachsenhausen they were chained to the floor of a death cell and cruelly interrogated. They did not expect to survive.In the event, after five months of solitary confinement, they were released back into the main camp, where they witnessed daily executions. From February 1945 they were moved to other concentration camps with a group of prominent prisoners to be held as possible hostages. They were moved to Dachau and then to the Tyrol, where they were liberated by Allied forces in May 1945. On May 13 Dowse and his comrades were flown back to Blackbushe and a period of convalescence. In due course it was announced that Dowse had been awarded an MC for his conduct whilst a prisoner. He was released from the RAF as a flight lieutenant in January 1946.
Dowse served as an equerry at Buckingham Palace and had a long and successful career as a civil servant. For a number of years in the 1950s, at the time of the communist insurgency, he served in Malaya as assistant secretary to the Penang Settlement. In 1966 Dowse and his colleagues sought compensation for those who had suffered in concentration camps. The Foreign Office claimed that the RAF men were “held under conditions which could not be equated to those of concentration camps proper”. Airey Neave MP, who had escaped from Colditz, led the protests. After an acrimonious debate in Parliament a lengthy inquiry was held, and two years later the Ombudsman found in favour of 12 British servicemen who had been imprisoned in Sachsenhausen, including the RAF men.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary in March 1994 of the escape from Stalag Luft III, Dowse organised, and financed, a memorial service at the RAF church at St Clement Danes followed by a champagne reception at the RAF Club. Seventeen of the survivors were amongst those who attended and, 10 years later, some of them were reunited at the Imperial War Museum, where Dowse met the actor John Leyton, who played him in the film The Great Escape. Leyton commented: “It was an honour and a privilege. What you did was absolutely extraordinary.” 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.”
It is thought that Sydney Dowse married three times, but at the time of his death he was single.