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World War II hero Eric “Digger” Dowling makes his final great escape at age 92








‘Digger’ Dowling, hero 

of the Great Escape, 

makes his final exit at 

(almost) 93




Son says veteran of Stalag Luft III found

plot of Steve McQueen film inaccurate

  • Thursday August 7 2008


Eric ‘Digger’ Dowling in his heyday.

Photograph: PA/family handout

Eric “Digger” Dowling, the English airman who helped excavate the tunnel but was left behind when the Great Escapers crawled out of Stalag Luft III and into history, has died peacefully a day short of his 93rd birthday.

The escape from the German camp on March 24 1944, through tunnels dug with tools and equipment scavenged from scrap materials, has become one of the most famous in the annals of the second world war, and inspired an equally famous film, The Great Escape – which Dowling very much disliked.

“He couldn’t understand why they hadn’t made it more true to life,” 

his son Peter said yesterday. 

“He said some of the details were very accurate, the materials, how they did the tunnelling, the confined spaces – but they made up a lot of the plot and he didn’t like that at all.” 

One of the most celebrated scenes in the 1963 film, when Steve McQueen charges a barbed wire perimeter fence on his motor bike, was invented.

Unlike some survivors, Eric Dowling spoke readily about his war and, though a modest man, became a local celebrity – but he kept a few secrets to his grave. 

It was only after his death last month in a nursing home near Bristol that Peter Dowling sorted through a lifetime’s letters, diaries, photographs and memorabilia, and was horrified to find a German army revolver and several rounds of live ammunition.

“I phoned the police in Bristol, and they came round pretty promptly. They took the gun away to be decommissioned – but when they heard who it belonged to, they refused to charge the usual fee before they returned it to me.”

“One of my great regrets now is that we didn’t persuade my father to write a book: he had a fantastic memory until quite recently, and I found meticulous records he kept in the camp, including many photographs – I think they must have got hold of a German camera by barter – details of everyday life and lists of every wine he knew about that he planned to taste when he got out. 



He remembered life in the camp and relations with the Germans as pretty good. He was an excellent cricketer, which they organised by county, so he led for the Stalag III Somerset. He was devastated when Hitler had 50 of the recaptured prisoners murdered, including seven very good friends.”

Stalag Luft III, south-east of Berlin in what is now Poland, was intended for downed American and British airmen, but by 1943 usefully included former Polish mining engineers. 

The March 1944 escape was only one of many – the Germans kept a small museum of captured escape materials for training purposes. The prisoners, many trained as designers or engineers, forged passports, passes and identity papers, and made German uniform and insignia, civilian clothes, compasses and maps, and digging tools and ventilation shafts from powdered milk tins.

The plan devised by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was for the most elaborate escape of all, 250 prisoners through three long tunnels called Tom, Dick and Harry – with the entrance to Harry hidden under a hut stove. 

The first shallow tunnels collapsed in the sandy soil burying the diggers. They then dug deeper, shoring with the boards from bunks – survivors remembered sleeping on nets of ropes made of rags, because all the planks had gone. 

The telltale bright yellow soil dug out had to be hidden under the huts, or smuggled in trouser legs and shaken out into the garden plots.

Dowling, born in Glastonbury, became an RAF navigator and flew 29 missions before his plane was shot down and he was captured: his son said his most traumatic memory was not the camp, but a training flight he missed which crashed with the loss of the entire crew. 

He survived the war with no worse than ear damage from the appalling noise in the cockpits, and returned happily to county cricket. 

He became a county bridge champion with his Norwegian wife Agnes Marie and spent 20 years working for British Aerospace in Bristol on the Concorde project. 

He moved into a retirement home in Nailsea five years ago: the owner renamed it Dowling House in his honour. His son hopes that his papers and memorabilia may find a place in a national museum. 



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