Roland Dowlen: Island Scoutmaster and War Hero (Guest Blog)

My thanks to Mike Dawson for allowing me to reproduce this article by Mike and his father Dennis here.

Roland Dowlen

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Photo: Island History Trust Collection

On 12th July 1937 the 22nd South Poplar Scout Troop was formed at St. Luke’s Church on the Isle of Dogs in East London [see note 1 at end of article] and nearly sixty years later, on 9th July 1997, a plaque to commemorate the life of Roland Dowlen was unveiled at St. Luke’s Millwall. Roland was the first Scoutmaster of the 22nd South Poplar Troop. Although he was only to spend two years with the Group he is still remembered by Islanders.

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Roland Dowlen was born Rolando Francesco Perya in Sicily on 12th October 1907, his mother was American and his father Italian. Roland was adopted by an Englishman, Mr W.R. Dowlen [note 2], of 34, St. Petersburgh Place, London, W2. Dowlen entered the Paris, France branch of the Royal Bank of Canada in October 1923 and ten years later was transferred to London, England branch. He became a naturalised British subject in March 1936.

He enlisted into the army on 24th September, 1941. He was fluent in the French language and he volunteered for the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) and trained [note 3] as a Radio Operator with the rank of Lieutenant (Service Number 241045). After his course was completed he was sent on assignment to occupied France aka Francois Antoine Perrier. On 18th March 1943 he was flown from Tangmere Airfield by aeroplane to Poitiers in occupied France. The aeroplane, a Lysander, was flown by Special Duties pilot Squadron Leader “Bunny” Rymills.

The life expectancy of these undercover Radio Operators was just six weeks but Roland worked for over five months in the Paris area transmitting thirty-nine messages back to London. On 12th August 1943 the Gestapo captured him and he was imprisoned initially at 3 bis Place des Etats Unis, Paris. Roland spent eighteen months in captivity in France and Germany during which time he suffered great hardship and severe treatment. He was ultimately sent to Flossenberg Concentration Camp.

Flossenbürg was a German concentration camp built in May 1938 by the SS Economic-Administrative Main Office at Flossenbürg, in the Oberpfalz region of Bavaria, near the pre-war border with Czechoslovakia. Between 1938, when the camp was established, and April 1945, more than 96,000 prisoners passed through Flossenbürg. About 30,000 died there. On Thursday 29th March 1945, on the express orders of Adolf Hitler, Roland Dowlen and twelve of his fellow prisoners were hanged. It was just two weeks before the American army liberated the camp [note 4].

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General view of Flossenbürg concentration camp after liberation by the US Army 90th Infantry Division, April 1945.

On the 9th of July 1997 the Reverend Chris Owen, priest at St Luke’s Church, Millwall, conducted a memorial service to commemorate the life of Roland Dowlen and his contribution to the Island community. Gervase Cowle, S.O.E. Adviser, gave a short talk on the work of the work of these Special Service Operators to the congregation. Then in the grounds of the church we watched as Father Owens anointed a specially commissioned plaque and dedicated it to the memory of the life and death of Roland.

“I don’t think there are any superlatives to describe him, basically he was one of the best men I ever knew. He had a strength of character which inspired respect and loyalty, and in retrospect he was a man that we willingly obeyed and tried hard to emulate.” Thus it was said by one of those former Scouts, Dennis Dawson.

Another incident, which epitomises the stoicism of Roland, was remembered by Mr Kenneth Kneeshaw, also one of the founder members, when he related this occurrence, “At one time the Troop was at camp and one boy from each patrol was designated to cook the breakfast for his patrol. Roland was sitting by the fire where a boy was cooking sausages in a large Dixie lid. Suddenly the contents caught fire. The boy dragged the lid from the fire but in so doing he tipped the hot fat and contents over Roland’s leg. Roland said nothing, he merely rolled his sock down, poured cold water over the affected part and the incident was never mentioned again.”

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Just before the start of the war the South Poplar Boy Scouts Association held its Scout Week. From June 11th to June 18th 1939 Troops from the East End of London came together to celebrate and promote Scouting. The South Poplar District had R.J. McNeill-Love as its District Commissioner and R.P. Dowlen was a member of its Executive Committee. Throughout the week Wolf Cubs, Scouts and Rover Scouts took part in a range of activities including a concert a Rover Scout demonstration and a Scouters and Rover Scouts’ social held at St. Luke’s Church Hall, Strafford Street., Millwall on Thursday 15th June. The highlight of the weeks events was Arena Display held on Saturday 17th June at St. Matthias Church Grounds. It must have been a spectacle worth seeing as Wolf Cubs, Scouts and Rover Scouts paraded throughout the District and marched to West India Docks Road. Here they formed up and led by massed flags and a band marched to the display arena.

The events in the arena were very much of their time and started with a Trek Cart Display. This was followed by the Wolf Cubs giving their traditional greeting to new Cubs or visitors in the form of the Grand Howl. Later the Rovers gave an exhibition of Highland Dancing and Piping with further displays by the Scouts of Single Stick Work using their staves, Tumbling and Vaulting, the construction of an Aerial Runway and Tent Pitching and Fire Lighting where the 22nd Troop were prominent.

The whole event was rounded off by a Camp Fire at 8:30 p.m.

The plaque was made possible by a very generous donation from The London Docklands Development Corporation and it will serve to remind us all of the great sacrifice that Roland and the men and women like him made during the dark years of 1939 to 1945.  Three of the original members of the 22nd South Poplar Troop were present, Dennis Dawson, Ken Kneeshaw and Percy Soper.  Michael Dawson representing the Scout Association also attended the proceedings. The Boy Scouts ideals, the duties and obligations, that Roland Dowlen strived to inspire in those boys in 1937 are still felt in the movement today.  Scouts will always benefit from the legacy that Roland left with those original Troop members as his inspiration and principles are passed from father to son.

Greater love hath no man than this,
that a man lay down his life for his friends.
(John: 15:13)

Copyright (c) Mike and Dennis Dawson

Images

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Roland House production of ‘Broken Journey’ which was performed in 1938 and involved Scouts of the 22nd Poplar

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Troop Trip to Guernsey August 1939

Troop Trip to Guernsey August 1939

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‘The Scout’ featured the 22nd Scout Poplar Troop on its front page in the October 1938 Issue (No. 1590) and carried an article about the group inside.

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Notes

  1. The founding members of the 22nd South Poplar Scout Troop were Ken Kneeshaw, Walter Gregory, Bob Thompson, Sid Thompson, Victor Judge, Harry Judge, Dennis Dawson and Bob Gregory. Roland Dowlen was living at the East London Scout Settlement, 29 Stepney Green Road, London E1 when the group was formed.
  2. Could be Walton Edward Dowlen of 34 St. Petersburgh Place, London.
  3. For two and a half years during the Second World War, Wanborough Manor, a country house near Guildford, was a training school for a secret organisation, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Roland Dowlen was one of the agents who, having passed through Wanborough Manor, successfully completed their training, were sent to France, and subsequently lost their lives on active service.
  4. Lieutenant R. Dowlen, Royal Army Service Corps, 38, gave his life under particularly tragic circumstances. An accomplished linguist, Dowlen was seconded to the Intelligence Corps on special duty and had been dropped by parachute behind the lines to serve with the Maquis. He was captured while carrying out these hazardous duties and immediately sent to a prisoner of war camp at St. Flossenberg, where he spent twelve months in solitary confinement. On March 29, 1945, together with several other British Intelligence Officers, he was executed. Dowlen entered the bank at Paris, France in October 1923 and ten years later was transferred to London, England branch, enlisting from there on September 24, 1941. – http://www.rbc.com/history/in_remembrance/ww2_list-d.html

 

 

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One Response to Roland Dowlen: Island Scoutmaster and War Hero (Guest Blog)

  1. Linda Owers says:

    A very interesting article, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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