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Sydney Dowse: 'Great Escape' survivor

Shot down in 1941 flying his Spitfire while on a photo reconnaissance mission, Sydney Dowse, after his capture, made a number of escapes and was then sent to Stalag Luft III. He was among the men who dug the tunnel from which the escape of 76 prisoners took place in 1944, the mass breakout which was immortalised in the film The Great Escape in 1963. After 14 days of freedom, Dowse was captured and sent to the "death camp" Sachsenhausen, from which he also escaped – albeit for a short while. Although he endured four years of captivity, his ebullient spirit was never diminished.

Sydney Dowse was born in Hammersmith, London in 1918 and educated at Hurstpierpont College in West Sussex. In 1937, looking for adventure, he joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve where he learnt to fly. In September 1939 he was called up and soon completed his flying training. Bored with flying Ansons on submarine patrols, Dowse wanted action and after converting to the Spitfire, joined the reconnaissance force which was observing the movement of German Capital Ships.

On 21 September 1941 he had been monitoring the progress of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau when he was shot down over Brest. He managed to bail out but hurt his leg on landing. After treatment he managed to escape from the hospital, only to be caught on the Dutch-German border. He was sent to Stalag IX C, but by shuffling along with a working party he managed to escape and travelled by train to near the Belgian border. Sensing that the train would be checked by guards, he decided to walk the rest. The conditions were appalling and he was overcome by exhaustion and eventually arrested.

He was then sent to Oflag VI B and soon became involved with tunnelling. Spotting his determination to escape, the Germans transferred him to Stalag Luft III at Sagan. There, an escape committee under the chairmanship of Sqn Ldr Roger Bushell decided on a clear strategy, the building of three tunnels named "Tom", "Dick" and "Harry". It was always sensed that Harry would be the most successful, as it was being dug to emerge into the forest on the north side of the camp. When not digging, Dowse charmed a gullible clerk in the census office into providing his chums with documents and clothes.

It was decided by Bushell that 24 March 1944, a moonless night, would be the date for the escape. Over 500 men, many of whom had worked on the tunnel, wanted to escape. But Bushell limited it to 200. Dowse joined the first 30, all of whom spoke German. Once they had crawled along the tunnel, which was a meagre 2ft by 2ft, and 336ft long, difficulty was found in breaking out because the trap-door was frozen.

When the escapers broke through, they found the exit was 25 yards short of the forest. This slowed everything as the watchtower was close by. But within four hours, 76 men had escaped. Dowse had teamed up with a Pole, Krol, and intended to head with him for Poland where, with the help of the resistance, he planned to make his way back to England.

After a tough 14 days, and with the Polish border in sight, they were discovered in a barn and recaptured. Dowse was interrogated in Berlin and sent to Sachsenhausen. His fellow escapee Krol was one of the 50 who were taken to a field and executed. This murder of fellow airmen outraged Dowse.

Using the only tools available, a spoon and kitchen knife, he was one of the five who broke out of the camp, having dug a 100ft tunnel. They were caught after a few days, interrogated and manacled to a concrete floor. They were released after five months of solitary confinement and, with the Allies pushing ever forward, they were moved to Dachau. Dowse was liberated by the Americans in May 1945. After recuperation he was released from the RAF having been awarded an MC for his courage and persistent determination to escape.

Interviewed many years later this lively and dapper man, who possessed an indomitable spirit, said of the Great Escape: "What drove us was freedom, just freedom. Even if we didn't get to England we could be free for a few days. Planning an escape was something to do. Plus the fact that we caused havoc for the Germans."

His passion for life stayed with him to the end. He had an interesting career in the Colonial Service, kept in touch with Great Escape survivors, had many adventures and retained a love for rugby and the Harlequins.

Max Arthur

Sydney Hastings Dowse, pilot and civil servant: born London 21 November 1918; MC 1945; married; died 10 April 2008.