Bert Dowty’s Story - continued
Bert Dowty was a Lancaster Air Gunner serving on 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron. A while ago now, February 2013 in fact, we published the first part of Bert’s remarkable story, The narrative covered his RAF training, Lancaster conversion and his early operational experiences. What follows is his account of how he survived being shot down over France and how he initially avoided capture by the occupying forces. Eventually his luck ran out and he was captured. Undeterred, he subsequently escaped from a prisoner of war camp. His story is remarkable.
On the 15th day I had a visitor; well not quite, he was to be a fellow inmate. He had been brought from hospital in Nice after treatment, having been shot. That was the shooting we had heard the night we escaped.
I slowly got his story - a million to one chance. He had been the last of those to escape. When he arrived at the rope it had been badly frayed. leaving only about 7 feet. He was afraid to use it, with a jump of 20 feet to the base of the moat. He thought he would lay low until daylight to find another way out. But when the 2100hrs roll call had been made and 59 could not be accounted for, the Frogs went spare. Guards went in every direction inside and out of the Fort. One he described we all knew very well, had found him in the long grass. The guard took aim with his pistol and to his horror fired. The bullet appeared to have passed through his open mouth, out through the cheek, taking part of his ear lobe with it. Bleeding, he was seen by other guards and then rushed to hospital in Nice. When I first looked at him he had the extra dimple in his cheek, where the bullet passed through. Lucky man!
The next day, after our arrest, Nick and Dicky had arrived. They were caught near Nice, after 37 hours at large. All six back. This was not sods law; we expected to have at least two make it to freedom. Maybe next time. That was the second effort.
As soon as we were released after thirty days, going back to the room was like going to the Ritz. Able to shower was a delight, and to make tea again. That was good!
It was all short lived. We were informed that we were to be moved. The impregnable had been sussed, they had all been reprimanded by Vichy. Ho, Ho! And now to pastures new, what would that hold.? Three escapes in under three months, a total of forty men, someone would be held responsible. Yes, the Commandant was demoted to soldat 2nd class. One more would help the cause, who could we get? Yes, the guard who fired was gone too.
The officers were first to go and we followed next day. This would be something to see, masses of Guard Mobile to guard or was it to protect. The move caused quite a stir. Because the security was so tight there was little chances of a break-out. Now it was dodgy. We arrived at Nice Station, a special train, but to where? We seemed to be heading West, then North. We saw Grenoble marked, then eventually to a camp called Camp de Chamberon Isere. Now this was different; on ground level, but with barbed wire four metres high.
Shortly after arrival it was announced on 11th November 1942 that the Axis powers had taken over Vichy. This meant that the Hun would control the whole of France down the Rhone Valley to Marseille and across to the west coast. The Italians would be responsible for the sector east to the Swiss border. We all thought that would make life a little better. Maybe for escaping as well.
Days passed and no one had found a suitable spot to start. Maps were studied and first thoughts were Switzerland, which was the nearest. But first one would have to get out of there, if you wanted to make for Gib. We had a good idea the escape lines outside were aware of our plight, but nothing positive had appeared.
Suddenly, we were awakened at 0200 hrs one morning to be seeing Italians. Yes! Nearly a regiment of Carabinieri police. They hassled us from our beds, with very little time to collect our personal belongings. This was shock treatment. Outside we were segregated into batches of forty.
They certainly came prepared. A convoy of trucks was soon to arrive and, forty at a time, we were taken to a railway station. A train was already in the sidings, with normal type coaches. The locomotive was already steamed up for the departure. Loading forty at a time, we were soon aboard. The journey was soon under way. Long tunnels were noticed and by daylight we found ourselves in yet another country, Italy.
I remember well the sight of the vines on the hills in winter and then on the plains, all had been wired up and the long feeders from the main plant looking like spaghetti. This was the story taken in by some that they were spaghetti plants.
The journey continued most of the day until early evening, when we arrived at our destination Carpi. We had passed through Turin and Milan, to Ferrara. This area was a very flat plain, with what appeared to be very fertile land. We quickly detrained and then marched about two kilometre to this barbed wire camp which was known as PG 73.
The PG 73 stood for Campo di Concentramento Prigioniero Di Guerra Settanta Tre. We were then allocated to compounds. All our group were taken to the right of the road separating the two compounds. The huts holding one hundred men were made of block bricks with a sort of straw-board roof. During the hot days this kept the hut cooler, but was no insulation for the cold nights.
Sandy, Cobb, Miller, and I were in four beds just inside the door, and because we were the only senior NCOs in the hut, we took charge of the men, and allocated the Skilly each midday. This was a difficult task. The skilly came in large containers which they used to cook in on the open fires. It was mostly hot water with a sample of macaroni, and/or rice, with tomato paste, olive oil, and sometimes seasoning. To serve it was difficult too. We allocated starters. Each ten men would take what came from the top, the ten up the hut next day and so on, this then gave the last ten the greater solids from the bottom of the container. This then rotated ten each day. You had to be precise, or you would soon have a riot.
The area of the compound was much larger than we had experienced before, so it allowed us to walk the perimeter each day for exercise, which kept you fit should the escape situation arise again. From this camp it would not be possible to tunnel, the water level was too near the surface.
Life here was much the same, except for the greater urge to escape because of the nature of the Italians. They certainly did not impress us as a fighting force: shabbily attired and far from an impression of a disciplined army. The Commandant was a guy named Ferrara and I guess he was from aristocratic background as the area was named Ferrara.
The British Control inside the compound was by RSMs of any regiment. Royal Air Force was in the minority; I do not think we could muster more than twenty one, mostly aircrew.
We had supplies of Red Cross from time to time, but never a parcel each, so combine-sharing was the order of the day.
We had medical doctors in the camp hospital, which was inside the camp; pity as you could have feigned sickness then escaped, if it had been outside. I only visited it twice, once when I scorched my throat on a clothes line between the huts made from sisal string, and the second when the Red Cross sent a batch of serum for Diphtheria. I went for a jab, that really put you out of action for couple of days. When you finally surfaced you had two days bread ration, but they did not save the skilly. The bread ration was just 200 grams, like a dinner roll. That was per day. And you tell me to diet! ‘Death by Chocolate’ had not been invented.
We had been here just over nine months, when suddenly we saw German Troops arrive. I was Duty NCO that day and near the main gate was parked a Panzer Tank. When I went round I could see the sentry boxes round the camp were now occupied by the Hun. The Italian guards had been rounded up and taken to the new compound that was being built, disarmed and taken prisoner. Next day we found out the Italians had capitulated. YES! THE WHOLE LOT. Wonderful news but what was in it for us? The Krauts were here! Would not shake them off so easily.
Then came the morrow, what a day! First the Hun insisted that we would have to clear the camp refuse. Then they would not let anyone out of the gate to get the mule and cart from outside, only the guy who was on duty yesterday! That was I. So out I went through the main gate with Posten mit rifle to guard me. The Commandant of the Panzer Unit was about 23-24 years old and quite a lot of the troops looked about 17-18.
We harnessed the mule to the cart and into the compound we went. At the gate the guard let me go in unescorted. Surprise! Yes it certainly was, and to our compound collection point I went. I discussed the events with the RSM, and it was suggested we try to get the escapers out. I requested that I make a dummy run to see the layout of the refuse dump. This went well, and it was a question of keeping the guard occupied at the front of the cart. That was to hold the mule, whilst the tailboard was opened to let the rubbish out in a small heap.
After this run all was possible, so I went back to the compound, reported, and plans were made to put a guy in the cart on the floor and place the cleanest refuse over him then fill the cart. All went well, and towards the gate, picked up the guard and away we went. It was important to move quickly to save the guy from possible suffocation. At the dump everything went well, just as planned. The guy dropped just right. Off back to the compound in quick time. When everything seem A1 we were off with the next load. These first guys had been selected having been listed for trying before to escape from this camp. Our lot were down the list.
Everything went well again. One had to be careful as the tower in the far left of the compound was occupied by a sentry. However this drop went well. The guys had been told to wait for some minutes before moving,(a) firstly, to let me clear and (b) secondly, to give the sentry time to look away from the pit.
Back once more, loaded and all was well. Dumped at the pit as before, I was halfway back to the camp when God Almighty, the sentry in the tower appeared to open up on the pit.
Hell! What would happen now? I got into the compound with the mule and cart, no one knew what had gone on. Hoping to load the fourth, it was soon thwarted. The sentry was after me and the cart. We went back outside and placed the mule back in the stable. But it did not end there. I was then taken in to the Commandant. He demanded an explanation. I could only say that I had no idea anyone was in the cart and it must have happened whilst I went back to my hut leaving the cart unattended. I had a serious reprimand and was told I would be sent to Germany. Well that was no hardship as we would all finish up there sooner if not later.
It was just five more days before we were off. Sandy and I were off on the train. Miller and Cobb were not detailed and so stayed behind. They had talked of hiding in the roof structure.
We marched to the station, and then the Huns brought out the Italians from captivity, gave them a rifle and a bandolier of cartridges, so they could be used again as guards. The whole show was being organised by the kraut Feld Gendarmery (Field Police). This time the train consisted of just plain cargo wagons marked ‘*8* Cheval *40* Hommes'. Loading the forty men took place and amongst the krauts sentries were some Italians. The train took some time to load, then the doors were locked, but we could not see by which method through lack of windows. The train started to move we were off to the fatherland.
It was clear from the outset that escape was only going to be possible via the floor boards. But how and when? It was only going to be possible when the train was stationary, or just as the train was stopping.
The only light came through two slotted cutouts with bars fitted and it was just enough to see some of the station names as we passed. Our route seemed to be taking us north via Verona, and Bolzano. It was in the sidings of Bolzano, where we made some headway in the floor boards. An Air Raid was in progress, so I guessed the lads were having a go at Milan that particular night. We had some cause for concern as the guards may not have been able to unlock the doors quick enough to make a hasty retreat.
The urgency made us continue in haste on the floor boards. We made a small opening, but then the train started again, and shortly afterwards the sound of the air raid all-clear was heard.
By early morning we arrived at another station, this time it was the Brenner Pass. We were to see something funny here. As soon as we stopped the guards came along the train and opened the doors on one side and stood guard. Then all the Italians used from Carpi to help guard us, were told to drop their rifles and ammo by the track side. Then the Krauts took them all to the last two wagons, and took them prisoner as well. The crafty bastards.
But we had the last laugh when we reached to the next camp. We travelled through Innsbruck, Munich, eventually arriving at Moosburg. This was a march from the station to the first Stalag VII A. What a dump, but we had to make best of it. It was here we had the last laugh: those Italians were taken to the next compound. We were able to poke fun for at least a week, each time we had time to do so.
The highlight was seeing the Russians in another compound, taunting a kraut dog handler. He later let go of the dog, which ran towards the Russians who promptly ran inside their hut. The dog followed them inside. The guard was getting quite concerned when his dog did not re-appear and he went for help from, we presume, another dog handler. On his return he saw the skin of the dog on the barbed wire. The Russians would have eaten the dog. The Russians were treated like scum by the Krauts.
We were documented here and given phoney Red Cross forms to fill in. Sandy and myself were recorded as members of the Pioneer Corps; we were in khaki battle dress, so there was no problem. The reason being was that the RAF and the Paratroopers were to be taken off to Dulag- Luft, an interrogation camp. We just did not want to go!
Our stay here was short and after three weeks we were off again. Another journey on the wagon express, this time for two days arriving at Altengrabow, thirty or so kilometres East of Magdeburg, Stalag XIA. This camp was an old Cavalry Barracks and our rooms were the old stables complete with mangers. Large doors hung from runners some twelve feet from the ground. No heating of any type could be found. On one side we had other compounds, but the other side was to be explored.
We arrived late in the evening, and made a simple bed on one of three tiers of wooden boards which stretched the whole length of the room along the manger. The other side was exactly the same, ie some six hundred men. We were one hundred to each run, or shelf.
Next morning seemed to be my lucky day, I was exploring round the camp, Sandy was still in bed, as we had not had an early roll call, when on the other compound wire a guy approached me to find out who we were and where we had come from. He only spoke in French, but was in-fact a Belgian, a Walloon, a native of Liege. When he found out we had no food as yet, he said, “Wait there I will be back in ten minutes.”
He returned with what appeared to be a small sack bag. Making sure no guard was looking, he pushed the bag though the wire. He then said he worked in the compound in the Camp Post Office, and informed me that I would be able to get there if I went with a party to the cook house at mid-day. I took the bag back to the room and showed Sandy. We had a feed of bread, margarine, hard tack biscuits and some coffee - but that was ersatz type. When I told Sandy about the post office he was all in favour. So later, out I went to the cookhouse, explored the area and found the post office. This chap was there along with three others. They invited me in and I sat down. Then I was given a drink of tea and the Belgian asked where we had come from. He was surprised to find out that we had been in France. I told him that was where my small amount of French was learnt. Having a limit of time, I said I would have to leave for roll call at 4pm. He said if I was to come back in the evening, I would be able to eat with them, and stay until morning when the party came to the cook house for hot water. I would then be able return with them to the compound. I discussed with Sandy and he said he would cover for me if the Krauts turned up in the night.
When the party went over for hot water at 5pm after Roll Call, I slipped out with them and then to the post office. I was made welcome, but had no idea that even more French, Belgian, Dutch, and a Serb, all came for Dinner. Ten plus myself, eleven in all. I was introduced to all but none of them could speak English. Never mind, the food was good. First time for a long time that I sat at a table with a knife and fork in hand. It appeared these guys were out on working commandos as they described it, and were able to bring in food from the farms they worked, or even other factories with a food content. The others were all friends in a group. This way of living was good as you would have variety and volume. They had all been POWs since Dunkirk in 1940.
My continued stay was at their request. All I had to do was get out of our compound each afternoon after roll call, and they did the rest. At night I slept on the tops of two tables put together. They provided the extra blankets and they always said in the morning when I left “see you tonight”! Sandy was OK as he had my bread ration in our compound, but not my midday skilly, as I needed something at midday.
This came to be normal each day, and in the five months in this camp I only once missed getting out to the post. Some difficulty occurred. My only night of fear was when I was sat down one evening at the table tucking in, when there was a knock at the door. It turned out to be the Oberfeldwebel, a large man with a typical RSM-type look about him. Apparently he had just returned from the Russian Front with frostbite. In a kennel the other side of our compound he had a German Shepherd dog that would howl all the time during an air raid. They found the dog dead one day.
The Oberfeldwebel was not a bit concerned that they had an extra man in the post. I just kept my head low and never looked up, and after about twenty minutes he departed. That was after they gave him a tot of Schnapps. Phew! Near thing!
Life continued very much the same each day, the walks did not produce much hope for escape as the compound was deep in the middle of a garrison complex. We were taken to bathe each week. This was about 2 km away and still inside the camp. We used to pass the convoy of parked caravans, which housed the ‘Ladies of Leisure’ who travelled around with SS units, keeping the lads happy at the front line - and at other times I guess. All the ladies had fur coats, but then it was winter. We had a tussle or two with the troops, the guys would whistle, and by god that upset the troops. Hungry lot POWs.
The bath-house was always suspect and great care was taken by us to ensure only water came out of the jets in the shower. Yes! We had intimations of the use of gas chambers, but never any concrete proof. It was quite clear that this was not the place from which to escape. We could also hear each day a sound like the Gaumont British Lion roar, but found out that they were calibrating Tiger Tank 88mm guns. We had this confirmed by the lads who came to the post office at night.
In early March 1944 some 500 of us were detailed because we would not work for the Germans, to be taken to another camp. The day arrived; I had discussed with Adelin Thomas, the Belgian, the prospects of letting him know where we had gone. I would write to him as Dowty THOMAS, and he would reply Thomas DOWTY. This way we could fool the Hun into thinking that we were brothers, this was the only way allowed. We were all marched to the sidings at the other side of the camp.
The train was there, all wagons fit for British POWs, ie ‘8 cheval 40 hommes’. But the conveying was not the same. This time it was 21 men to each wagon, handcuffed to a chain one metre apart, and then boarded in one third of the wagon, the other two thirds occupied by seven guards. Well this presented a new challenge. How to get out of this situation? Then one saw a six inch nail in the wagon side. I guess it had been used for a hanger. Slowly it was prised out of the woodwork. Carefully the work continued and, one by one, the handcuffs were opened without one guard being aware. Now only the Hauptman (Captain) had the key, and more was to come.
We seemed to be travelling east, passing south of Berlin with another air raid in progress. We wondered if we were the target for tonight. All passed well although the train was held up for at least three hours. We made our way east again and on the morning of the third day we arrived. The station was marked Toran (THORN). Yes, we were now in Poland. The de-training was a big laugh; the Hauptman, wagon by wagon, would unlock the handcuffs. He arrived at our wagon and we each held our cuffs in the hand with the chain. The first guy then presented his to be opened. He was unlocked, then we all trooped out, each dropping them on his jack boots. A near-riot took place. He was livid, to say the least. I don’t think he ever forgot that. I know when he saw any of us afterwards he would lamblast at the top of his voice, “Englisher Swinehound,” or something of that nature.
This camp seemed to be built on a desert, the ground was all sand. We were given to understand from Polish civilians, who you would find working in the camp from time to time, that the Panzers trained for North Africa in this region. The huts were nearly new, wooden and housed twenty four persons. It was clear to see, the camp had been recently erected, and gradually it built up in total strength to around 3000. The parade area was like a sand pit and during the day was used for sport, mainly football.
The food was the same kraut trash, black bread, and skilly once a day. cThe Polish workers were useful if you made contact with them, as they were open to barter. We obtained for the first time a radio, small but handy. We could pick up English speaking stations, but not the BBC. I think the price of 50 cigarettes was paid. I know I went short of a smoke for a week.
Then in July we were surprised to see a whole batch of RAF chaps arrive, and guess what? Yes! Crum, Miller, and Cobb were in the party. They were put in the top compound, but we soon obtained the updated news from them. Then we met the three from Garwell’s crew, who crashed at Augsburg. They were Kirke, Dando, and Watson.
Once Crum had settled in he told us his story. On the day we crashed, after we set fire to our aircraft he left to go to the other burning aircraft at the far side of the farm. He had thought it was his pal Beckett. He saw the crash site, but said nothing could have been done. It was in fact Sandford our Flight Commander’s aircraft, they had hit a farm building and caught fire.
Crum then came back to locate us the crew, but by then we had covered our tracks to the wood and he was unable to find us. He hid until dark, then found a hut stocked with hay and slept for the night. Next morning he woke and rested a while, when suddenly a French woman entered for feed for her rabbits. Crum made himself known and she took him back to the house. Her husband was there and seemed to give Crum the idea he was going for help, but within thirty minutes a party of Germans arrived, and took Crum to the base whence the 109s had come. He seemed to have been treated with respect by the Luftwaffe and next morning he was taken away to Dulag Luft at Frankfurt-on-Main. This camp was an interrogation camp for RAF POWs. He spent some 21days there, enduring both the hot and cold treatment, before he went to Stalag Luft III. Later he was transferred to Stalag Luft VI, before he came to us.
Miller, and Cobb, had left by the second train from Italy. The idea of hiding in the roof space was discounted, as the Huns simply went round each hut and machine gunned each roof. They were transferred to Stalag Luft VI, from Dulag, after they arrived from Italy.
Many incidents in the camp happened after the arrival of the RAF. First the camp had a vote for a new camp leader. Dixey Deans won that, thank god. He replaced the RSMs who had command up to then.
One day a unit of Gestapo arrived to search the camp, escorted by almost a battalion of troops. We were all hustled up to the sports and parade area and the search started. Midday passed, no skilly. Some were taken into the large building used for theatre shows and physically searched. The whole search lasted until around 1600hrs. When suddenly someone gave the all- clear. But clearly they had not finished. The POWs returned to their huts. On the way, heaps of loot the Gestapo had retrieved and placed outside the huts, was suddenly pounced on by the POWs and handfuls grabbed. The net result was they had spent all day and finished up with nothing. You can imagine the fall-out after that. We had reprisals for weeks, in the form of extended roll calls mostly. But I am afraid our radio was in that part they got away with, the bastards.
The Russians started the push west and were nearing Warsaw. That made the powers think and soon we had notice that we were to be moved. The move took place in orderly fashion and because we had been informed we were going west, there were no usual upsets as we all wanted to go quietly.
The journey took almost three days and, as usual, the bread and marge ration was issued. The guys were not in an escaping mood, mainly because we would finish in a better position in the west. Since news had filtered about the result of the Great Escape, no one wanted to chance it at this point.
We arrived in the area of Fallingbostel, situated between Hanover and Celle. The camp had the same number Stalag 357. This clearly had been a camp before, but for what reason no one quite knew. Huts were in open compounds, the sections were divided but did not prevent us from going from one to the other. We still finished up with roughly the same guys. Crum and the others were in the compound the other side of the camp, mainly all the RAF from Luft VI.
Down the road it appeared that there was another camp Stalag XI B, some 2 km away. One night, shortly after arrival, we had an air raid warning; then shortly after, an aircraft was heard overhead. About four or five minutes after circling, we heard one god almighty bang. We learnt from news the next morning that a bomb had struck the mess in the camp down the road and many krauts were killed. That news was received with a big cheer.
We guessed the aircraft was a Mosquito on Ranger Patrol. The pilot would know it was a POW camp because the perimeter lights were not extinguished, the rest of the camp being in darkness.
To be continued….