Bert Dowty’s Story
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.
The train arrived in Tours after 2100hrs and I thought of the curfew. The masses of troops and civilians alighted. We could just see Cagnard going through the barrier. All seemed simple, but when we arrived and stood by the ticket collector there were three of the tallest Huns I had seen to date. The heart certainly gathered a few extra beats, in fact thumps by this time. Keeping up tight to the person in front seemed the best way to be unobserved. Through we went, what a relief, and we still had Cagnard in sight, great! Then the next hurdle was the exit where Cagnard was met by another man. The exit from the station I shall always remember, keeping one eye on the men, I nearly bumped into one of the Krauts marching up and down the forecourt. Off I went in quick time following the two men down darkened streets. Suddenly they entered a house. We followed in quick time. What a wonderful moment to be out of sight. At least we hoped no Hun search would take place here. The two men started very fast conversation in French. Could have been double Dutch to me in those days. They appeared to be planning the next move, but I was only interested in a place to sleep, it had been a long day. The man was introduced as M. Fuchs, he was French/Swiss. They both seemed to me to belong to some organisation. Certainly not an escape line as such but may be some French equivalent. Never did find out, but our destination was Limoges, and we were to be met by Cagnards brother-in-law. We slept on that information.
That is all the information we could pick up from the poor English spoken by M. Fuchs, but good enough for us at this stage. Nick would pick up more when they arrived next evening. All day we thought of them on this same journey. God, we hoped they got through OK.
The day seemed very long, Cagnard went out several times. I thought, I hope he comes back. Where would we go from here, on our own? Our silk map was not good enough to show all the places, although Tours was shown. At about the same hour, Nick and Dicky arrived with another man. They had experienced the same ride, troops and ticket barriers.
Next morning we were told we had to catch the 0600 hrs train, so an early rise. Cagnard and the four of us left the house for the station. We made good time arriving just before the train left; I felt better leaving those Huns behind. The train seemed to be for workmen, stopping at every station, but no Krauts could be seen from our compartment.
We travelled a good distance south before we had to alight at the given station; this we did not know in advance. The place was Port le Pils, a small rural station, but when the train stopped, a whole load of Huns descended at the same time. We were not alone. Cagnard made for the exit, the ticket collector stood alone with no guard. We soon were out in the station square in which was parked a single decker bus. The Huns all made for this, and Cagnard followed.
Well, I just could not see us getting through this journey without being caught. Sandy and I both took a seat next to each other, but the seats facing us were taken by two Hun Hauptmans (Captains). If you had seen how I looked with trousers too short, each leg bottom had been extended, wearing an RAF shirt, but carrying my Battle Dress top in a sack bag.
They glanced once or twice, but we clearly had not been sussed. I spent the time mainly looking out the window just to see where we were going, travelling about 10 kilometres I would guess. The bus arrived at our destination, we presumed, but we waited for Cagnard to move. He waited for the Huns to move, then away he went. This place was Descartes. We slowly followed suit and watched him make for a café in the main street. The four of us were at various distances, but stopped until he exited the café. He came out with another man, and then made tracks up the road towards open fields.
Suddenly they turned off the road into a field, walking up the side of a kale patch. Once they were out of sight from the road they stopped. We gathered together to be told that the Hun was guarding the Demarcation Line nearby, the troops on the bus were part of that unit. The instruction was to be on guard for the Hun moving along the line. Some had dogs.
Then we were told that on a signal we were to run as fast as we could to the church in the distance. We could see the spire, estimated I thought 2 kilometres plus, one and half miles away. We were ready, but just as quick he signalled DOWN. Under the kale on a spring morning, the leaves were full of dew, and as soon as we made for cover the leaves spilled the cold water down our necks, making us want to shout, but silence. The guide then gave us a calming moment, as two guards with a dog were passing by. Then the signal to run. Expecting a hail of bullets, I went flat out. If Bannister thinks he passed the 4 minute mile first, I doubt if that was so. I was first at the church and gasped a sigh of freedom.
Cagnard arrived last but we were most grateful for his guidance. He gathered us together and we made for the station. This was a single line, for which he had the timetable already, and he told us to sit, as we had 30 minutes to wait. The train arrived on time, we boarded the one compartment, and settled down for a journey to Chateauroux, arriving in the late afternoon. The exit from the station was somewhat easy, no suspecting guards, Huns, or police. We made for a park to sit down and have some food that Cagnard provided. He outlined the programme. We would have to move on as they would close the park, but were asked to take care not to be observed, even though we were now in unoccupied France.
He left us for a while, as he had to obtain tickets for the night train we were to catch next. When he returned, he took us to a cinema, where we had seats in the stalls, but did not understand a damn word. We even saw the main film twice. But we were rested, and out of sight of possible police patrols.
About midnight we made our way to the station, where we were to catch the 0020 hrs train to Limoges. This train was coming from Paris. The train arrived nearly on time and we boarded and took up separate compartments. Cagnard checked all was well and off we went. The train stopped at two or three stations on route, but at the last one before Limoges, some activity was apparent. To my surprise, I saw two men handling Sandy up the corridor. Next I saw Cagnard making his way to tell us to disperse to other parts. Nicol, Dicky, and myself tried to open a door to alight on to the running boards of the train but all the doors were locked. We dispersed at this point separately, and I reached a compartment where two nuns were sat side by side. I promptly sat between them and they eased apart slightly which gave me the heart that they knew what was happening. Not a word was spoken between us but I then wished I knew the French language.
Before many minutes had passed three men were going from compartment to compartment demanding Identity Cards. We had none, and so one by one we were taken to the back of the train. Not many minutes passed before we were all together, but not alone, for Cagnard, who had his Northern Identity card, appeared to have a confrontation with the Secret Police. He lambasted these guys in French and it had got quite heated, when one pulled his revolver from under his jacket and warned Cagnard. They took his Identity Card and took down the information, handed it back and warned him to leave the train. Cagnard apologised to us for letting us down. He was told he had done his best and we wished him well. We promised to meet after we were all free. The last I saw of him, he was walking down the platform to the exit, where another man was waiting. The group were kept together and in a few minutes we were surrounded by a bevy of gendarmes, and then taken to a lock-up. It was somewhat laughable the way they conducted the whole show but they could not understand that we would only give number, rank, and name. We were even asked where we came down, and we told them Chateauroux.
That night we found ourselves on the return train to Chateauroux complete with six gendarmes. When we arrived we were taken to a jail and locked up. Some food was provided later. At about 1130 hrs we were taken down the road then across to a hospital, still under full guard, up to the second floor, down a corridor to another short corridor to the left. Facing were two doors at a 45 degree angle to each other. The guard opened the left hand door to push us in, when suddenly the other door opened and who should be there but Miller and Cobb. They had been caught that same night somewhere about 0300 hrs, but at a place some 150 miles apart from us. It really seemed impossible. Miller had been taken to the hospital to have his head cleaned and dressed properly.
The authorities still did not know we were part of the same crew. But that night we found ourselves, all six, heading somewhere south. The train rumbled through the night, and about 0830 hrs next day, found ourselves in Toulouse. With the same guards, we boarded a tram, soon to arrive at what looked like an air force base. They took us into a room and, after half an hour, proceeded to interview us one by one. It was a somewhat unusual interview. They tried to find out about our crash, and then wanted to know what would happen when the war ended. I simply said they would have a rough time for treating us the way they did. Only number rank and name was given and they ended the interview. Strange but true, we were all treated the same. Later we were taken back to the station and caught a train that took us to Nice.
But the fun ended here, for as soon as we alighted from the train, some fifty-odd Guard Mobile surrounded us. We were handed over to them and quickly pushed into the bus unit. The convoy roared away through the town, then up a steep road from which the coastline could clearly seen. We seemed to be covering quite a few miles and the altitude was increasing mile by mile.
Suddenly, the convoy took a left hand turn off the main road, then a sharp turn right up a single-track unmade road, until we eventually arrived at an entrance to a camp. The escort alighted and we were soon out and into the office. Particulars were taken of our number, rank and name. They tried to get more information, but our silence did not go down well with the presumed officer in charge.
A guard was called and with a junior officer, we were marched to what appeared to be a fortress, complete with drawbridge. Large iron doors were opened and we were marched in, and taken to a room. The room had a number of persons in it; we were shown six beds, and told they were for us. The guys in the room were soon to question us after the guard left. It was who, from where, how, and so on. We soon found out all the guys were RAF, except for two Army Sergeants and a Russian Tank NCO. With us, there was a total of 19 men, all NCO’s.
Life for the next few days was somewhat strange after the walking, and travelling of the 17 days since we crashed. But soon we were into the activities. The other side of the drawbridge was occupied by Army chaps who had been left behind at mainly St. Vallery, at the time of Dunkirk. Most were from the 51st Highland Division, about 200 in all. Also we soon found out there were seven officers. In command was Sqn Ldr Whitney. He appeared to be from the famous American Whitney family and had been a sports car and aircraft racing enthusiast pre-war. He was shot down leading a Hurricane Squadron over Northern France in 1941. The officers were housed in another block, separated from the NCO’s.
It appeared, before we arrived, four NCOs had escaped but had been captured after a couple of days. They were taken to police HQ and interrogated. Whilst a police officer left the room for a moment, another entered and asked why were they were not at the rendezvous? They did not know what he meant. He replied if and when escapes occurred, escapees should proceed to the rendezvous. They would then be picked up and taken to safe houses. It appeared the officers had been given this information from outside sources, but not informed the NCOs, or the remainder of the camp. When these four were released from solitary confinement, they confronted the officers, to find out if it were true. It was then agreed that all information in future would be shared. Shortly afterwards, Whitney faked a sickness in his ears, and was taken to Nice Hospital as an in-patient, but overnight was helped out by the Escape Line and he was away.
Our crew after a few days of confinement, found out we could write home. When we were first arrested we had the escape money on our person, which was confiscated but we found this was credited to us in the camp office. The French interpreter, a civilian, was a little bent towards us and we could advise him to send telegrams, which he sent from Post Office Nice to UK via Geneva.
The first I sent home was to say we were safe. The second I sent to Edna, informing her that I was safe, but to also confirm my promise to be engaged on my birthday which was soon to arrive on 20th May. At age 20, I felt suddenly older than my years. Little did I realise at this time, I would see 21 in Italy, 22 in Poland, and 23 by the time I arrived back in UK. If one knew it was to take three years out of your life, you could not blame them for what they would do. But they did not because they lived day to day; next year was far away. Thank God they did not think that way.
Replies came fairly quickly: love and best wishes from home and confirmation from Edna to approve our engagement. A further telegram to advise buy the ring. These Express Letter Telegrams were a wonder seeing we were at War. It then made one think what else was possible. Escape was always in the mind. We had all sorts of projects in line, but it had been agreed the first contenders would be Nabbaro and Hicky. These two guys were the force behind the first escape.
Since Whitney had gone, Capt Bennett took command. This was a Nom de Plume - his real name was Higginson we later learnt, because he had fallen foul of a Kraut in the north and had lost an article with his real name on. He was somewhat better to deal with, and it was agreed that should Nabbaro and Hicky be given access to make escape possible, they should take officers as well.
Nabs and Hicky were soon in on a project to get out via the bakery chimney. But the very night planned to go the ‘Frogs’ walked in on it. The two then went into the cooler for 30 days.
Suspicion was kept cool, but an idea had been sown. In future only select NCO’s were in on it. At this time the Army side had a QMS who was also allowed to keep a German Shepherd dog. He was suspect number one. He had until recently the confidence of Whitney, but this had changed, so maybe he now felt vulnerable on his own. None of the Army NCO’s had a good word or backed him. But a suspect he was. Nabbaro kept the next project very close, but the same thing happened within sight of finish. But no one was caught this time.
Life continued daily: wake-up, breakfast if you had any, a skilly at mid day, and supper of mint tea. The days at 660 metres high were very good when it was sunny. You could wash your clothes and lay them on the stone walling outside your room. They would be dry in 30 minutes, no ironing in this life. But some days you were in cloud as a low pressure passed through. Activity was confined to a courtyard about 75 by 60 metres. The top of the fort was covered with soil and grass grew; this was good to lay on and sunbathe, lucky lads.
Sanitary conditions were normal French Style of the forties. At night you were locked in, and dustbins were used for toilets. One night Miller brought in some liquor, obtained by a guard for cigarettes. This type of barter always took place in a Kriege (POW) world. I think it was Nabbaro’s third 21st birthday. Next morning Miller was seen with his arms in the dustbin. He had lost his two front teeth, which were on a plate, when he had been ill in the night. I suspect the whisky marked ‘Irish’ was, in fact, watered down fuel of some kind.
Soon the silent activity started again. Nabarro and Hicky were at it, but things had to move fast as there was talk of officers being moved to Italy. Why? Nobody could find out. The NCO’s became more active. Would it happen to us? But we could not get in on the current plans. Nabarro’s time came in August . Everything had been planned. Those two plus three officers were to go. Nabarro, Hicky, Bennett, Hawkins, and Barnett.
At the appointed hour they were gone, a god-only noise of singing had been laid on to cover any noise from the escapee’s activity. Later it was clear that they had made their escape, with no activity from the Frogs. Not until roll call next morning were they missed. Then all bloody hell was let loose: parades, counts, name checks, and so on. Life was changed for a day or two. Then news inside: did they clear the area? Did they make it? And so forth, all very exciting times. But the spur was to get the next one going. Plans had been muted and a feasibility study completed. Work started as soon as the break out was old hat. This needed a real sense of trusting, because it would be started in the Army part and could only be worked on during the day. The QMS was taken care of and made to be one of the escapees. He was advised his only chance to survive I guess.
Work started but it was difficult. One had to work from inside an upturned dustbin to dig a tunnel on the verandah and under a wall at the far end, the other end was the guard room of the Frog Guards, some 25 metres away. A slab was removed tunnelling underneath, each bag of waste soil removed and deposited in the old sewer. Probably this would not be found for years. Work proceeded each day; it was only possible to be in the dustbin for 10 minutes at a time, and then it was moved slowly by two guys on the handles, with the guy inside shuffling along knees bent, with a bag of soil. Try it!. Then after a few days a new method: this entailed two or three chaps washing clothes on a tressle table placed over the hole, which made the digging and the movement much better.
The plan was laid, and as soon as the break through was made, all those going had to be ready. A rope line was made from saved sisal string saved from Red Cross parcels, with strips of blanket twined in to make a rope. The fort had a moat around it, dry but with a good fall to the base of about 8 metres, with 4 metres across the base. Then a wall on the outside of about 6 metres to climb, to be free of the fort itself. But then from this point, a mountainside to descend for about 600 metres to the nearest road on the land side. The road on the side overlooking the coast was nearer but vulnerable.
The escapees would go eight at a time, four Army and four RAF. Each group would have two envelopes to be opened when clear, each would contain addresses for possible safe houses. When outside they would split into fours, one envelope for each group.
The guards on duty inside and on the top of the fort were contained by those not going. Their position was the only likely snag as they were the only ones likely to see a crawling mass up inside rolls of barbed wire. The first went at 1800 hrs, followed each 15 minutes by the next batch. Sandy, Miller, Cobb, and myself joined four Army chaps. I remember the L/Cpl. was in the Signals Regiment. We went through the tunnel. The other side was through the centre of a ring of barbed wire. We kept as low a profile as possible for fear of the guard seeing us. This was, I suspect, 25metres long. By this time we were out of sight of any guard on the back corner of the fort, which was unused. The first guys had taken the rope and tied it to a large bush, then dropped it over the parapet. It dangled almost to within a metre of the moat bottom, some good calculation from whoever was responsible.
The drop was quite eventful; some slight burns from the sisal was expected. Once clear, we had to jump across the base to get the momentum to climb the outside wall. In front of me was Lofty Howath, a Commando from the Nazaire landings. He left the rope, two strides across the base and two steps up the wall and that was the last I saw of him. He got home, only to be killed at the Anzio landings in the Italian war in 1943. All that effort, for what?
Once away, we made our way slowly down the mountain. Very difficult going. The surface was virgin moss, never having been trodden before. We all had to rest. The going was risky, as daylight turned to night very quickly. When we could see at dawn we were very near to a ravine. Had we gone further that night, who knows what would have happened? Before moving off Sandy tossed-up with the L/Cpl. He won and took his choice of envelope and away they went.
We four carried on down to the inland road below, we had to make for our address in Nice. We eventually got down to within 200 metres of the road. We halted there to survey the situation. The road was without cover, and was very busy with folks going to the sea no doubt, as it was a Sunday. We laid in good cover, hungry and thirsty, but prepared for a long wait. Troops could be seen going along in trucks but none alighted to search the area. However we decided to wait in cover, and later maybe the road would be quiet and safer to use. We did not feel it safe to move, as we had heard shots at the fort after we left, so we were very guarded as to what might happen if we were seen. Some could well be trigger happy. We had got so far, caution was now our aim. We wondered where Nick and Dicky had got to; they went in the party 15mins before us.
The day seemed to be very long. Activity along the road was in dribs and drabs most of the time. The troops still seemed to be patrolling the route in trucks but never alighted. We were quiet and well-hidden in the long grass. At around 1700 hrs a wagon appeared on the road below us. Suddenly about twenty Guard Mobile alighted and made for our direction, spreading out and slowly making for the mountainside area. We lay perfectly still in the long grass, the line slowly covered our area. When, without warning, Miller jumped up, a Guard had stepped on him. Holy Hell let loose. Knowing the dangers, we all made ourselves visible. I think we were lucky not to have found them trigger-happy; this is a situation when one may have got excited.
Now re-arrested, what was in store for us? Well to our horror, they marched us back to the fort; yes, up that mountain, but then some of them had to come with us. We arrived at the drawbridge. Those inmates still inside all looking out as to see who was in the party. We were handed over to the camp guards who promptly took us straight to the cooler (prison). Next morning we all went before the Commandant to be sentenced to thirty days solitary for escaping.
We were all glad to get our heads down for well-earned rest after the effort’s of the last 48 hrs. Effort of this kind was hard on our diet. They were long days with nothing to do, except to prevent scorpions from dropping on your bed.
To be continued….
Bert Dowty’s Story