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Tales of derring-do


In a senseless war that lasted four years and took millions of lives, it was rare for individuals to stand out amid the carnage. But some managed.

Meet Hector Fraser dougal, a corker of a Canadian with more tales of derring-do attached to his name than you could shake a First World War riding stick at. You think Steve McQueen's motorcycle ride was heroic in The Great Escape? After his shelled Sopwith Camel was shot down behind German lines and he was taken prisoner, Mr. dougal made at least three dramatic escape attempts.

During one dash for freedom, the story goes, he saved the life of fellow escaper William Stephenson, who later became the legendary spymaster Intrepid, by tossing him over a stone wall as the pair fled a furious, gun-firing farmer who didn't appreciate his ducks being pilfered. When their capture appeared inevitable, Mr. Stephenson impersonated a German officer and ordered Mr. dougal returned to prison. As he was marched away, Mr. Stephenson made good his own escape.

It was a typically audacious dougal stunt that yielded the largest and most vivid of the First World War artifacts sent in by Canadians to The Globe and Mail - the huge German flag that flew over the grim, fortress-like PoW camp at Holzminden, where guards did their best to contain the fighter pilot.

Mr. dougal pinched the flag on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, the day the Imperial German Army surrendered. "The prisoners woke up that morning and the guards were all gone," said his son, Fraser dougal. "Some of the prisoners went down to the village to cause a bit of wrack and ruin. But dad wanted the flag. He knew how to get to the roof from one of his escape attempts. So he picked a few locks, went up there, took it down, and kept it." Mr. dougal then managed to lug the bulky flag all the way through Germany, back to England and finally to Canada. When he died in 1960, it was found at the bottom of a trunk full of souvenirs, including grenades, bayonets, old muskets, bombs, diaries, photos, old German money, helmets and his thin, black flying cap.

"This is a piece of work, this is. It went right through the war," Fraser dougal said as he unfurled the old flag across his dining room table in Thunder Bay. The edges fell over the side like a table cloth.

The flag is dominated by a fierce black-and-gold representation of the imperial German eagle, with an iron cross in the top left-hand corner - the state flag of Prussia from 1892 to 1918. Eighty-five years later, the colours are still bright. A red tongue flickers menacingly in the eagle's open beak, on its head a red-and-gold crown topped by a blue cross, while a mace and a bejewelled orb are clutched in its dark talons.

"It was really meant to convey a sense of power. You can see that, even now."

It has become his son's passion to recount, preserve and even relive Mr. dougal's wartime experiences. Mementos are prominently displayed in the downstairs recreation room, and scrapbooks have been put together meticulously. Fraser dougal even organized a trip to Europe three years ago to revisit as many of his father's prison stops as possible. To ensure that the lore remained in the family, he brought along his wife and children, enticing them with newsletters, quizzes about his dad that brought cash rewards and audio tapes describing what they could expect to find there.

More than once during the expedition, he knocked on the doors of unsuspecting Germans, asking if they knew that the places they lived were once PoW stopovers. (Few did.) And on his return, Fraser dougal had a 23-minute video, which he will show this Remembrance Day to the local Rotary Club, and the experience of a lifetime.

"The war. The war. The war. The aura of it has always been with me," he said. "When we found the first place where my father was incarcerated - prison from Napoleonic times - the others found it interesting. But for me, it was incredibly emotional. It was my first face-to-face meeting with the dirt and filth that my father endured. "I felt a real sense of closure, of fulfilment."

His father, a tough, intimidating Winnipegger from a family of carriage-makers and blacksmiths, signed up for the war while still in his teens. Hector Fraser dougal had spent 14 months in the trenches when he was wounded. While recuperating in hospital, he decided the infantry was not for him. According to his son, he told them,

"There are too many people with missing arms and legs. I want out!"

He learned to fly and joined the Royal Flying Corps. "I once asked him why he became a pilot," Fraser dougal said. "He said it was simple: 'I could shoot back.'."

Even in the trenches, however, Mr. dougal was no pussycat. Once, his father kidnapped a piano player so "the boys" could enjoy a bit of a sing-song. Mr. dougal noticed one of the soldiers singing much louder than the others, so he took out his pistol and shot him in the face. Mr. dougal believed the man was a German spy, trying too hard to fit in. He turned out to be right.

In his diary, Mr. dougal nonchalantly recorded a close call on a patrol, 10 days before he was shot down: "Went eight miles into Hunland. ..... Came back about a foot off the ground with machine guns blazing after me, three bullet holes thru my machine. Froze my nose."

As a prisoner, Mr. dougal was forever getting into trouble, whether for insubordination or for his actual escapes. One time, he and flying mate S.G. Williams jumped from a train transporting them between prisons, a 500-kilometre trek from Holland. For 17 days, they travelled only at night, swimming rivers to escape pursuers and raiding farms for food. At one point, Mr. Williams reported, "dougal jumped a six-foot fence with a half-dozen eggs, basin of milk, jam, large pot of honey and many other articles. Everything was intact."

When the two were finally nabbed just short of the frontier, Mr. Williams bolted again. As a guard prepared to shoot, Mr. dougal tussled with him and ruined his aim. His friend lived to make it back to England.

Mr. dougal's last escape effort at Holzminden was typically brazen. He rounded up two ladders, bound them with rope from the camp's flagstaffs, and was just about to project himself on the end of the ladders out a second-floor window and over the barbed wire to safety when he was discovered by guards.

At war's end, he hid the flag from his desultory German captors until arrangements finally were made to have the prisoners sent home. He was no slouch after that, either. He earned money stunt flying for a while; was the first pilot to venture into Northern Ontario; captained an early version of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers; started CKPR, the first radio station in Port Arthur, Ont.; took a leading role in training pilots for the Second World War; and, in 1954, opened the Lakehead's first television station.

Today, dougal Media owns four radio stations, a community newspaper and both TV stations in Thunder Bay. Mr. dougal accomplished all this in spite of permanent leftover pain from his war wounds, according to his son. "He had a brace on his back. His ribs hurt. He was always ill." Mr. dougal was eventually worth millions, but could never get life insurance or a pension because of his injuries.

After all his research, Fraser dougal, a trim, athletic 61-year-old, said he feels closer than ever to his larger-than-life father, who was in his late 40s when Fraser was born.

"I'd been living away from home since I was 13," he said, gesturing toward his lovingly preserved collection of war relics. "For me, all this is my father. ... I wanted to preserve his story. It's part of me, and now, I think I understand him a lot better."

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2003 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.