Dug tunnels for ‘Great Escape’

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Eric Dowling, nicknamed “Digger” for helping excavate tunnels used in the breakout from a World War II German prison camp that became known as the “Great Escape,” died July 21 at a nursing home near Bristol, England. He was 92.

Dowling played a key role in planning the 1944 escape of 76 prisoners from Stalag Luft III prison, near Sagan in eastern Germany -- now Zagan, Poland. He forged documents, made maps and helped dig three tunnels code-named Tom, Dick and Harry.

The daring breakout was one of the most celebrated incidents of the war and inspired the 1963 film “The Great Escape.”

Over almost a year, prisoners surreptitiously dug the tunnels 30 feet underground, shored up with bed boards. The 300-foot-long tunnel Harry was eventually completed.


Dowling was not among the more than 200 prisoners chosen by lottery to make the escape attempt on the cold and moonless night of March 24, 1944.

By the time German guards discovered the breakout, 76 men had crawled free.

All but three of the escapees were recaptured, and 50 were shot on the orders of Adolf Hitler to deter future attempts.

Dowling was born in southwest England in 1915. Flight Lt. Dowling flew 29 missions as a navigator with the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command. He was shot down in April 1942 and sent to the prison camp for Allied airmen.


After the war, Dowling served as an RAF air-accident investigator and later worked for British Aerospace on the Concorde supersonic jetliner.