Sydney Dowse

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Sydney Hastings Dowse
File:Sydney Dowse in RAF service.jpg
Sydney Dowse in RAF service prior to becoming a POW
Nickname(s) The Laughing Boy
Born 21 November 1918
Hammersmith United Kingdom
Died 10 April 2008 (aged 89)
United Kingdom
Allegiance United Kingdom British Empire
Service/branch  Royal Air Force
Years of service 1937–1946
Rank Flight lieutenant
Unit No 608 Squadron
No 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit
Battles/wars World War II
Awards Military Cross ribbon.png Military Cross
mentioned in despatches

Flight Lieutenant Sydney Hastings Dowse MC (21 November 1918 – 10 April 2008) was a Royal Air Force pilot who became a prisoner of war and survived The Great Escape during the Second World War.

Early life and RAFVR

Born in Hammersmith, Sydney was educated at Hurstpierpoint College. In July 1937 he joined the recently formed Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and learnt to fly at weekends. At the outbreak of war in September 1939, he was called up for regular service and completed his pilot training. Commissioned as a pilot officer on 21 October 1940, with seniority from 9 August 1940.[1]

He joined No 608 Squadron attached to Coastal Command flying Avro Ansons on anti-submarine and convoy escort operations. At the end of 1940 he volunteered to join the No 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU), flying Spitfires.

He was mentioned in despatches on 11 June 1942[2] and promoted to flight lieutenant on 21 October 1942, with senority from 9 August 1942.[3]

He was shot down on a reconnaissance mission to photograph the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at Brest, 15 August 1941.[4] He was wounded in the leg and quickly captured by the Germans, becoming a prisoner of war.

Prisoner of war

Early escape attempts

His first escape attempt came on 1 December 1941, when he was recovering from a leg wound sustained when he was shot down. He escaped from a hospital at Stadtroda, however was recaptured three days later attempting to cross the Dutch-German border.[5]

His next attempt was from Stalag IX-C at Bad Sulza on 21 January 1942. He exchanged identity with a Canadian POW and joined in with a work party. He managed to slip away unnoticed when outside the camp. After travelling some distance by train to Werwitz, he continued on foot, through deep snow towards the German-Belgian frontier where he was eventually captured five days later, suffering from extreme exhaustion and exposure.[5][6]

Following a brief period in hospital, he was transferred to Oflag VI-B at Warburg.

At Warburg, he participated in the construction of an escape tunnel, which was completed on 18 April 1942. He, and 34 others (including the legless air ace Douglas Bader and Dowse's later escaping partner Stanislaw Krol) prepared to escape. However, as the tunnel broke the surface, it became clear that it was slightly too short, and the exit appeared in the beat of a German sentry. Six RAF officers managed to escape, but due to the close proximity of the sentry, no one else, including Dowse, was able to escape.[7]

Stalag Luft III

In May 1942, he was transferred to Stalag Luft III at Sagan with a batch of other RAF officers.

Dowse's next escape attempted happened on 30 November 1942, when he, and Flt Lt Stanisław 'Danny' Krol cut through the wire into the centre compound and crawled across that compound using blankets as camouflage. They were in the process of cutting the wire to get out when they were arrested and sentenced to 14 days solitary confinement.[8]

Dowse, who spoke some German, befriended a German corporal who worked alongside Dowse in the camp′s censor office. From this contact, Dowse was able to gain useful information and documents which aided the escape organisation. He was able to 'borrow' a genuine gate pass, which was copied by the camp's forgery department, and a copy was used on the delousing break mass escape in June 1943.[9]

Through this same contact, Dowse was able to gain information about the German secret rocket establishment at Peenemünde. This information was passed onto British intelligence via secret codes written into POWs' letters home.[10]

He also learnt that the Gestapo had plans for Roger Bushell if he were caught escaping again. Dowse warned Bushell, who chose to ignore the warning.[11]

The Great Escape

During his time in the North Compound at Stalag Luft III, Dowse became involved with the construction of the three tunnels intended for a mass escape, masterminded by Roger Bushell, Harry Day and Canadian Wally Floody who was instrumental in the tunnel′s design and construction. One tunnel, code named 'Harry' which Dowse had helped build, was completed in early 1944.

On 24 March 1944 he took part in the The Great Escape through tunnel 'Harry', escaping with Flt Lt Stanisław 'Danny' Krol. He had drawn escape number 21, and was disguised as a Danish foreign worker, equipped with the appropriate (forged) documents and clothing provided by his 'contact'.[12]

They travelled mainly by foot towards the Polish border, but were recaptured just inside Germany on 6 April 1944. They were one of the last escapers to be recaught. Taken to the local Gestapo headquarters they were interrogated, before being separated.[13]

Dowse was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Stanisław 'Danny' Krol was among the 50 recaptured officers to be executed.

Sachsenhausen concentration camp

At Sachsenhausen, he found himself with 3 other survivors of the 'Great Escape' (Harry Day, Johnnie Dodge and Bertram James) and was placed in Sonderlager A (Special Camp A) within the main camp. Here were housed a handful of other 'political' prisoners, including SOE agent Peter Churchill, two Russian generals, various other Russians, Poles, Italians and four British soldiers of Irish origin.[14] Later they were joined by British Commando Jack Churchill.

Dowse and James almost immediately began another tunnel, which was kept secret from all non-British personnel. This was completed and used on the night of 23 September 1944, when Dowse, James, Day, Dodge and Jack Churchill escaped.[15][16]

He paired up with Day, and they travelled by train into Berlin; however, they were recaptured the next night when hiding in a bombed out house.[17]

Placed in the death cells back at Sachsenhausen, all the escapers who had been recaught were spared execution mainly thanks to Day's efforts under interrogation.

In April 1945, after spending several months in solitary confinement he, together with other prominent prisoners, was transferred to Tyrol via concentration camps at Flossenburg and Dachau.

He was awarded the Military Cross for his services as a POW. This award being published in the London Gazette on 16 August 1946.[5]

Later life

Dowse served as an equerry at Buckingham Palace. For a number of years in the 1950s, at the time of the communist insurgency, he worked in Malaya as a rubber plantation manager in the Penang Settlement.[18] After the war, he worked, possibly unwittingly, for a short time as a representative for Bernie Cornfeld's insurance fraud "The Dover Plan" as well as other unsuccessful and/or dubious ventures. He lived mainly on his heroic stories from the war, which were a laissez passer in post-war society.

He married three times, for the most part to women of some fortune but was single at the time of his death. (He married Florence Marion Byers, daughter of wealthy businessman and Liberal, C. Charles Byers, then ran off, in 1968, with "Wings Day"'s wife, to his former superior officer's eternal chagrin.)[citation needed]

In retirement Dowse divided his time between elegant homes in Chelsea and Monte Carlo.

He returned to Stalag Luft III in March 1994, and March 2004 to mark the anniversaries of the Great Escape, and to commemorate his friends who did not survive.[18][19]



  1. London Gazette
  2. London Gazette
  3. London Gazette
  4. RAF Coastal Command Losses by Ross McNeill
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 London Gazette
  6. Wire and Worse by Charles Rollings page 207
  7. Wire and Worse by Charles Rollings page 212
  8. AIR40/2645 Official Camp History – SL3(East) page 50
  9. The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III by Tim Carroll page 123
  10. Wings Day by Sydney Smith page 153
  11. Wings Day by Sydney Smith page 169
  12. The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III by Tim Carroll page 192
  13. AIR40/2645 Official Camp History – SL3(North) page 59
  14. Wings Day by Sydney Smith page 193
  15. Wings Day by Sydney Smith page 210
  16. The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill page 236
  17. Wings Day by Sydney Smith page 212
  18. 18.0 18.1 Obituary in the Telegraph
  19. BBC News

External links