SOE, MI9, Bruce Dowding & Pat Line

By Peter Dowding (1998)

The following account of the escape and evasion exploits of Bruce Dowding in World War ll France, including his experiences with Pat O'Leary, Dr George Rodocanachi, Ian Garrow and others in Marseilles, was sent to me by Peter Dowding.

Kenneth Bruce Dowding (Bruce) was born in Melbourne Victoria Australia on the 4 May 1914 . His father was John McCallum Dowding (b. 28.11.1880) and his mother Margaret Kate née Walsh (b. 25.03.1880). He had two brothers: Mervyn (b. 1910) and Keith (b. 1912). Bruce was educated at the Glenhuntly State School where he was Dux in 1925. From 1926 to (?) he attended (?) and then, in 1929, went to Wesley College Melbourne.

In 1932 he matriculated with honours in French and British History. At school he was an excellent sportsman and was awarded football colours in his final year. His love of sport continued after leaving Wesley, playing for Old Collegians in football and cricket.

He was employed at Wesley as a student teacher in 1933 and attended the Teachers Training Institute being granted primary registration as a teacher in 1934. From 1935 to 1937 he taught (?) at Wesley and at the same time studied part time for a degree at the University of Melbourne. He passed French studies in each year 1935, 1936 and 1937. During 1937 he corresponded with the Collège Franco-Britannique at the University of Paris, seeking to enrol in 1938 to further his French studies. He took leave of absence from Wesley.

On 12 January 1938 he left Melbourne by train for Sydney, with his brother Keith for company, intending to catch the steamer SS Pierre Lati from Circular Quay, Sydney via Noumea to Europe. They arrived next morning and stayed together at the Palace Hotel visiting Toronga Park Zoo, Manly and Bondi. They caught up with a friend Meg Watson.

At 11 am on 15 January 1938 Bruce left Sydney after saying farewell to Keith and sailed out of the Sydney Heads never to return, but intending to be away for a year. Every week he wrote to his parents and brothers until September 1939 when his weekly letter ceased.

The family then received letters in December 1939, in February 1940 when he joined the Army and June and July 1940 when he was a prisoner of War. After this Bruce wrote a post card on 19 July 1942 to say that he was "absolutely safe" but a prisoner at Stalag Vl/G ( there was no POW number on this post card). It was not until 1947 that the family learned of his fate which was detailed in a letter (27.01.47) from a Father Steinhoffer who had attended his execution and that of nine Belgian and French men on 30 June 1943. [According to some accounts he was beheaded]

Bruce travelled to Paris but visited London in May 1938. He was employed as English tutor at Ecole Norman, Loches, and regularly travelled to Paris to be with friends including a Swedish family Bilder. He wrote that he had decided to stay in France for another year. In late 1939 he enlisted in the Royal Army Service Corps. A friend wrote that he had intended to volunteer from the beginning but it "was necessary for him to wait a certain time". He wrote no letters from September to December.

He was Corporal 131722 Royal Army Service Corps, Boulogne Sub Area, BEF. Bruce was captured at Dunkirk on 22 May 1940. He was a prisoner at Stammlager 6C and Fronstalag 151 at (?) Mont Argis and on about 27 August 1940 tried to escape, according to the Red Cross, from a train taking prisoners to another Stalag. A fellow prisoner later stated that Bruce had hidden in a sewer with two others who were shot and Bruce recaptured. He was placed in a POW prison and escaped (according to the informant Julian Verlest) by leaving with a French worker dressed in the civilian clothes of another worker who remained behind.

It is clear that he made his way to Marseilles and by Christmas 1940 was associating with the members of the escape organisation [Pat O'Leary line]. On the day Pétain visited Marseilles Bruce was having coffee with Norman Hinton and Mme de Ségur. By 1941 he had a code name 'André Mason'.

In February 1941 he was actively engaged in assisting the escape route and was a friend of Donald Caskie. He was responsible for taking prisoners towards the Spanish boarder by train, via Toulouse and Perpignan.

In November 1941 Bruce was in the flat of Dr Rodocanachi with Pat O'Leary, Mario Prassinos, Léoni Savinos, Dupré and Paul Cole, after the arrest of Ian Garrow. Bruce wanted to execute Cole as a traitor. Cole escaped [from a bathroom window while the traitor's fate was being decided and he was being guarded by Bruce Dowding].

Bruce was described as having lived for years in the south of France, spoke perfect French, combined a deep interest in music with the physique of a policeman and had become one of the most active and daring members of the organisation. Others have commented on his French being spoken with an Australian accent.

Bruce and O'Leary went to the [northern] headquarters of the escape organisation in Lille, in Occupied France, to warn of Cole's treachery. There on the 8 December 1941 the Gestapo arrested members of the escape group including the Abbé Carpantier. All had been betrayed by Cole. Bruce kept warning other members of the group and on his third call on 9 or 10 December he too was arrested. The Abbé was taken to Loos Prison Lille. O'Leary later reported that Bruce had been held at St Omer (Nord ) Loos, Lille, then being deported to Bochum in Germany. Verlest later reported that Bruce was a political prisoner.

On 22 June 1942 Bruce wrote to the British High Commissioner for Australia that he was in the best of health at Stammlager Vl/C in Germany. On 19 July 1942 Bruce wrote a post card to his family but with no POW number, referring to his "absolute safety". In September 1942 the War Office reported that he was a POW. O'Leary reported to the War Office that Bruce had been tried and on 1 March 1943 been found guilty of (?) and sentenced to death.

In 1947 the family first had it confirmed that Bruce had been executed on 30 June 1943 at Dortmund. He had been taken to Dortmund jail on 29 June 1943 for the execution. He was cremated 12 July 1943 and interred in an unmarked grave in Dortmund cemetery. Later his remains were moved to a War Cemetery at (?). On 13 September 1946 Bruce was 'mentioned in despatches' for 'gallant and distinguished services in the field'. He was posthumously issued with a Certificate of Appreciation by the Bureau de Recherches sur l'Aide Apportée aux Evadés Allies.

By Peter Dowding – 1998

See also:

Secret Papers: Escape & Evasion World War ll France (1941-43
George Rodocanachi & 'Pat Line' (1940-43)
A Bibliography On SOE/MI9, Escape & Evasion in France
Notes On SOE/MI9, Escape & Evasion in France
Clandestine Warfare 1939-45

I'm most grateful to Stewart Glasson and to Barry of Queensland, Australia, who wrote in 2006 to say that Corporal Kenneth Bruce Dowding's grave/memorial has been identified at Reichswald Forest War Cemetery ref. 55.G.11. He was a member of the Royal Army Service Corp (S/131722) and is recorded as having died on 30th June 1943, aged 29. The fact that he was executed (probably beheaded) is not recorded.

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