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great escape veteran dies

The Times

Great Escape tunneller Eric Dowling dies aged 92

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Eric Digger Dowling, who forged passports, made maps and helped to dig the one tunnel that the Germans did not discover before the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III, has died, aged 92.

On March 24, 1944, 250 prisoners lined up to await their turn to crawl through the tunnel to freedom. Many of them were equipped with documents that had been forged by Mr Dowling, who learnt to speak five languages fluently during his three years in the prison.

The prisoners were due to get out via a tunnel nicknamed Harry - the other two, Tom and Dick, having been discovered by the guards. But the tunnel fell short and the escaping men were forced to make a dash across open land. The 77th was spotted by a sentry, who sounded the alarm. All but three of the 76 were swiftly rounded up and 50 of them were executed on the personal orders of Hitler.

Mr Dowling, an RAF flight lieutenant who was navigator of a Wellington bomber, was imprisoned in Stalag Luft III in occupied Poland after his aircraft was shot down in April 1942.

Although he was not among the 250 prisoners chosen by lot to take part in the Second World Wars biggest break-out which was made into a film starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough - he played a vital role in the preparations. His son, Peter Dowling, said: His main job was forging documents and copying maps. He was known for his neat, meticulous handwriting. He was also involved in digging the tunnels, which is why he was called Digger.

The tunnellers worked in cramped conditions 30ft (9m) below the surface to escape detection by listening devices. The tunnel that Mr Dowling helped to excavate was barely 2ft square and, because of the sandy soil, was in constant danger of collapsing.

Mr Dowling, a father of two, died in his sleep in a nursing home near Stoke Bishop, Bristol, on the eve of his 93rd birthday.

His son, now aged 60, who lives in Easton-in-Gordano, Bristol, said: Many of the men who were in the camp with him, and all the ones he kept in touch with, are now dead. But he never forgot the seven friends who were among the 50 escapers who were shot by the Germans. He later created a commemorative booklet showing where each of them had been shot around Germany.

Mr Dowling was not impressed by the 1963 film The Great Escape, based on the book by another former prisoner, Paul Brickhill. In particular, he thought that the famous scene in which McQueen leaps the wire fence on a stolen German motorcycle was well over the top. He also resented the fact that the movie made light of the hardships that were endured by the diggers.

His son said: He was a fountain of knowledge about the war but he didnt think much of the Steve McQueen film. The film left out a lot of the reality of digging the tunnels. He wasnt one of Americas greatest fans and said it wasnt like it was in the film at all and that the scene with the motorbike was rubbish. Parts of it he acknowledged were quite realistic, but then he felt it turned into something that was completely untrue. For someone who was actually there, that was upsetting.

RAF Wing Commander Ken Rees, 87, who was the last escaper in the tunnel when it was discovered, knew Eric Dowling during his time in the camp. He said yesterday: I knew him quite well because he was one of the digging team. On the night of the escape I was just nearing the exit in the tunnel when I heard the shot and I knew it had been discovered.

Its quite surprising that I can tell you about him because it was such a big camp and there were about 15 huts in North Compound and he wasnt in mine.

Mr Dowling said that his father often told him about good times in the prison camp as well as the hardships that had to be endured as supplies of food dwindled and then ran out while the Soviet forces advanced.

His father spent the remainder of the war in the prison until its evacuation in January 1945, when prisoners were forced to march through the freezing Polish winter to other camps inside Germany.

After the war, he stayed with the RAF and was sent to Norway to investigate aircraft crash sites.

It was while he was in Norway that he met his wife, Marie, with whom he had two children.

Later he went to work for British Aerospace in Filton, Bristol, where he put his skills to work procuring parts for the Concorde project.

His son now regrets that he did not spend more time talking to his father about his wartime experiences.

He said yesterday: It was something I dont suppose I ever really told him myself, but I certainly was proud of him.


Flight Lieutenant

Status: Offline
Posts: 40

Very interesting artcle and sorry to lose another veteran of ww2, The book I'm reading at the moment is 'Under The Wire' William Ash, also an escapee of various POW camps including Stalag Luft 111, a very good read, i can recomend it.

As with all events, the film industry does over glamourise them, do you know in the film steve mcqueen whilst trying to avoid the germans on his motorcycle, was a good rider and stuntman, he also played one of the german riders, so he was chasing himself

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