'Digger' Dowling, real hero of the Great Escape, dies at age of 92

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The Independent Online

He was a master tunnel-builder who helped pull off the "Great Escape", the daring but ultimately tragic bid for freedom from a prison camp in Nazi Germany made by scores of British servicemen.

Squadron Leader Eric "Digger" Dowling who, it emerged yesterday, died last month one day short of his 93rd birthday, was famed for his role in the break-out from Stalag Luft III, which included forging documents and making maps in addition to tunnel construction.

However, while the 1963 film The Great Escape and its theme tune did much to spread the story of how 76 prisoners escaped through a secret tunnel, it left one of the central players in the true story unimpressed. His son, Peter Dowling, 60, revealed yesterday that his father had never liked the film and thought the motorbike scene – which never happened – was "well over the top".

"He wasn't a fan of the Steve McQueen film. He wasn't the greatest admirer of Americans and it didn't go down too easily that one of them should be playing the starring role," Mr Dowling, a retired NHS accountant, said.

"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.

"For instance, he thought the scene with the motorbike was well over the top. A lot of the reality of digging tunnels was left out too."

He said the character in the film who "I suppose comes closest" to his father was Flt-Lt Colin Blythe, played by Donald Pleasence and known as the Forger.

But Mr Dowling added: "It's a ridiculous question to ask who depicted my father ... really the film blends fiction and fact."

The escape plan involved making three tunnels, codenamed Tom, Dick and Harry, with each entrance carefully selected to ensure it was not spotted by guards. The prisoners dug to a depth of 30ft and then aimed for the perimeter and the woods beyond the camp.

Tunnelling was dangerous work and the roofs could cave in without warning. Tom and Dick had to be abandoned, but Harry proved a success.

After darkness fell on 24 March, 1944, the 200 prisoners selected for the escape – not including Mr Dowling – began to leave the camp, at Sagan about 100 miles south-east of Berlin in what is now Poland. German guards discovered what was happening but, by this time, 76 Allied airmen were free. They split into three groups, two travelling by rail and one by foot. However, only two Norwegians and a Dutchman managed to get to safety and the others were captured.

Hitler, Himmler and Goering were all implicated in the decision to kill 50 captured prisoners, including Sq-Ldr Roger Bushell, who masterminded the escape.

Alex Lees, 97, who lives in the Erskine Hospital for Heterans in Renfrewshire with another former prisoner at the camp, Jack Harrison, said many people had been involved in helping make the escape possible.

He had a garden where he grew tomatoes, radishes and cress, while also surreptitiously dispersing soil from the tunnels. "There were people who made disguises, made passes and permits and various things," Mr Lees said.

"They [the guards] were always on the lookout for tunnels, but this particular one [Harry] they didn't detect. This was a masterpiece.

"I was a bit involved and I knew some of the people who died. We were pleased so many got out, but then word came back that 50 had been murdered. That cast a different light on it."

In January 1945, the camp was evacuated because of the Russian advance from the east and the men were marched to a second camp where they were liberated later that year.

After the war, Mr Dowling, who had trained with the RAF in South Africa as a navigator and completed 29 missions with Bomber Command 57 Squadron, married Agnes Marie in 1946, having met her while investigating the cause of an aircraft crash in Norway. The couple also had a daughter, Susan, who is 18 months younger than Peter.

Mr Dowling went on to work on Concorde for British Aerospace at Filton in Bristol. He petitioned Margaret Thatcher to recognise the wrong done to PoWs when their pay was stopped during their time in captivity.

After his retirement, he played cricket for Southmead Hospital CC and tennis for Ashton Court Country Club. He and his wife, who died in 1997, also played bridge to county standard. The residential home in Nailsea, where he moved to in 2003, was renamed Dowling House in his honour. He moved to a nursing home in Stoke Bishop this year, where he died on 21 July.

His son said: "I'm extremely proud of my father and especially proud of his bravery and what he did for his country. My father was happy to talk about his wartime experiences at some length, when he was asked, and wrote down his memories in great detail.

"But he had two memories which caused him great sorrow and pain. The first was when he had to go on a bombing training mission in Ireland. He was supposed to be in the Wellington but missed the flight. The entire crew died and he felt a sense of guilt that he had survived it.

"He also felt angry, more than angry, that Hitler had 50 of the 76 escapees shot. My father was friends with seven of them."