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December 30, 2012

British SOE agent Bruce Dowding was executed by beheading (Fallbeil) during World War II

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, World War II — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 10:52 am

I received the following information yesterday from Peter Dowding in e-mail:

I have an eyewitness account of the execution of my Uncle Kenneth Bruce Dowding – an Australian – at Dortmund on 30 June 1943 together with a number of others who had been arrested and treated as NN prisoners following their involvement in the “Pat Line”.  The execution was by beheading using a Fallbeil such as was used to execute Sophie Scholl in Munich as depicted in the film the White Rose. I believe that many Nacht & Nebel prisoners who were not placed in Concentration camps were similarly executed- not by hanging.

Bruce Dowding was a secret agent in the British SOE; he was a member of the “Pat Line,” named after British SOE agent Albert Guérisse, who was using the fake name Patrick O’Leary.  The “Pat Line” operated an escape line for downed fliers.

The SOE was the Special Operations Executive, a British spy organization, which was established by Winston Churchill and given the mission to “set Europe ablaze.” The SOE carried on espionage and sabotage operations during World War II, as well as operating escape lines to send downed fliers through Spain and back to England.

To the British, the SOE agents are heroes who helped to liberate Europe from Fascism by means of espionage and sabotage, but to the Germans, during World War II, the SOE agents were “terrorists,” operating illegally to help the “French resistance bandits” to destroy factories, blow up troop trains and worst of all, to delay German Panzer divisions from reaching Normandy until it was too late to stop the Allied invasion of Europe.

The SOE supplied arms, money and food for the insurgents fighting the Nazis. It was a secret organization because it was against international law to provide military aid to countries that had laid down their arms and signed an Armistice, promising to stop fighting.

The following excerpt is from an article that was written by Peter Dowding in 1998; you can read the article in full here.

The family then received letters in December 1939, in February 1940 when he [Bruce Dowding] 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]

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 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.

According to Peter Dowding, his uncle, Bruce Dowding, had been put on trial and found guilty, but apparently his family never learned what crime he had been found guilty of.  Strangely, Albert Guérisse, aka Patrick O’Leary, who was in charge of the “Pat Line,” which helped downed flyers to escape, was never put on trial. Or maybe Guérisse was put on trial, but was not convicted. Maybe he was convicted, but the Germans never got around to executing him.

This website mentions that Patrick O’Leary was sentenced to death, but he was not executed, for some unknown reason.  This quote is from the website:

Facing an end in Dachau
Within three weeks London knew O’Leary had been captured. O’Leary took all the responsibility on himself, to prevent further damage. A young member of the Line, Fabien de Cortes, was helped by O’Leary to jump from the train on their way to Paris. Cortes managed to reach Geneva where he relayed what O’Leary had told him about Roger Le Neveu (alias Roger Le Légionnaire, possibly an associate of Cole). De Cortes returned to France and was soon arrested; he, Groome and Louis Nouveau all survived their concentration camps.

O’Leary was tortured to make him reveal the names, duties and whereabouts of the other members of the line. He was put in a refrigerator for several hours and then beaten continuously but did not disclose any information of use to the Germans. He was then held under the Nazis’ infamous Nacht und Nebel procedure in a series of concentration camps, beginning at Natzweiler and ending at Dachau.

Bruce Dowding was also classified as a Nacht und Nebel prisoner, according to Peter Dowding. The Nacht und Nebel classification was used for prisoners who were sent to a concentration camp, but their relatives were never told what had happened to them.  They were made to disappear into the Night and Fog. (Nacht and Nebel in German)  Nacht und Nebel prisoners were not killed, but their relatives assumed that they had been killed because they were never heard from again.

Before the Dachau camp was liberated by American troops on April 29, 1945, the acting Commandant and most of the SS guards left the camp the night before, after turning the camp over to the International Committee of Dachau, which was headed by Albert Guérisse, aka Patrick O’Leary.

The color photo below shows some of the members of the International Committee of Dachau. I believe that the second man from the left, who is wearing a cardigan sweater and an overcoat, is Albert Guérisse, a British SOE agent from Belgium. He was one of five British SOE agents at Dachau, who had survived the Nazi concentration camps at Mauthausen in Austria and Natzweiler in Alsace before being transferred to Dachau.

Prisoners at Dachau after they were liberated

Prisoners at Dachau after they were liberated

Compare the man in the photo above to a photo of Albert Guérisse, taken after the war.

Patrick O'Leary with his wife

Albert Guerisse with his wife

Bruce Dowding and Albert Guierisse were both British SOE agents and both were with “the Pat Line,” named after Patrick O’Leary.  Why was Guierisse allowed to live, and to organize an International Committee at Dachau, while Dowding was beheaded and his body cremated?

Here is what Wikipedia has to say about Fallbeil executions in Germany:

In Nazi Germany, the guillotine was reserved for criminal convicts and political crimes including treason. A famous example of the guillotine being used was on the members of the White Rose resistance movement, a group of students in Munich that included siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl. Contrary to popular myth, executions were generally not conducted face-up, and chief executioner Johann Reichhart was peculiarly insistent on maintaining “professional” protocol throughout the era, having administered the death penalty during the earlier Weimar era. Nonetheless, the Nazis’ use of the Fallbeil was chillingly routine. It is estimated that some 16,500 persons were guillotined in Germany and Austria between 1933 and 1945. This number includes resistance fighters both in Nazi Germany itself and in those countries that were occupied by them. As these resistance fighters were not part of any regular army they were considered common criminals and were in many cases taken to Germany and decapitated. Decapitation was considered a “dishonorable” death, unlike an “honorable” death: e.g., execution by firing squad.[citation needed]

The Fallbeil was used for the last time in West Germany in 1949, in East Germany in 1966.

The Japanese also did executions by beheading, as the photo below shows.

An Australian POW is beheaded by Japanese

An Australian POW is beheaded by Japanese

The photo above shows Sgt. Leonard Siffleet, an Australian POW, who was captured by the Japanese in New Guinea during World War II. He is about to be beheaded with a sword in 1943, the same year that Bruce Dowding was beheaded by the Germans.