An Australian World War II hero

An Australian World War II hero

Ron Cowban

Kenneth Bruce Dowding, who was born in 1914 in Melbourne, travelled to Europe in 1938 to study French. At that time few young Australians would have had the privilege of attending the Sorbonne - the great University of Paris where St Thomas Aquinas had taught theology back in the 13th century.

When the Second World War broke out a year later, Dowding joined the British Royal Army Service Corps and was subsequently captured by the Germans at Dunkirk. He escaped, was recaptured, and escaped again. The Gestapo eventually caught him after he had become a member of the French Resistance in Marseilles.

While in prison, he wrote to his parents and brothers in Australia in a letter dated 19 July 1942:

"Dearest Mother, Father, Mervyn and Keith - Yet another effort to get some news of the prodigal through to you; sufficient to assure you of my absolute safety and perfect health and more especially of my excellent morale and my deep affection for you all. Of this last I trust you have never doubted as you may perhaps have had reason to do, given my own stupidity and egoism. But such is the way of all prodigals - and so is their eventual homecoming and forgiveness, and of course, the fatted calf.

"My sincerest love to you all and please do not worry too much about me Mother."

This letter, submitted by Bruce's nephew, Peter Dowding, a former Premier of Western Australia, was published in The Australian of 3 May 2001 as part of a series featuring letters of interest written over the last 100 years of Federation.

Just under 12 months later, Bruce Dowding would be beheaded by the Nazi authorities.

A second letter, published in the same feature in The Australian, reveals that Bruce Dowding was, in addition to being a scholar and faithful son, also a great, if unknown, Australian hero of the Second World War - and perhaps a saint.

The letter was written to Bruce's parents after the war, on 27 January 1949, by Father Anton Stinhoff, a German prison chaplain:

"Though I gave the names of foreign political prisoners executed in Dortmund to several authorities, I feel obliged to give you some information about the last moments of your son. Just in his case I can do it, as I shall never forget his personality nor his way of facing death.

"It was my duty as Roman Catholic priest at the prison to prepare the Roman Catholics for their end. On June 30, 1943, at 7 o'clock in the evening nine Frenchmen and Belgians were executed; they had been arrested by the Gestapo. Among them was a Bruce Dowding. When I came into his cell he told me he was not a Roman Catholic but he had named himself a Roman Catholic before the Public Prosecutor because he wanted to die as a Roman Catholic Christian.

"He told me he came from Melbourne in Australia and had studied at the University of Paris. There he had learnt to love the Roman Catholic Church but had not yet had an opportunity to become a Roman Catholic.

"Following his wish I prepared him for the confession of his life. Then your son received Holy Communion full of faith and with great love. You know that we Roman Catholics believe that in the form of the bread we receive our Redeemer and that Holy Communion gives us the promise of our resurrection and of eternal life.

"So your son met his death in such a proud and manly, so triumphant a way that the Public Prosecutor was annoyed. The time I could devote to your son was so short that I did not ask him for his family. But I am sure his thoughts were with you in his last hours."

Bruce Dowding was posthumously issued with a Certificate of Appreciation by the French Government's World War II Research Bureau.

We read in the New Testament the story of the labourer who came into the Master's vineyard at the eleventh hour and, further on, about the only human being to be converted, even after the eleventh hour, and who was then canonised by Jesus Christ Himself on Calvary.

In Bruce's case, the final part of the prison chaplain's letter has particular significance: "When I took leave of him we were fully convinced that he would stand before the Lord and find the happiness and peace our troubled human heart longs for. In this hope he went his last way upright like a victor."

These are post-Christian days of doubt, despair, even suicide, especially among Australian young men. Inspiring stories such as this one - of Kenneth Bruce Dowding, a scholar, hero and saintly young Catholic Christian - need to be retold again and again.

Ron Cowban is a Melbourne Catholic writer and former lecturer at Christ College (now part of Australian Catholic University).

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