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William McDowell was born on 21 September 1911 in Rawalpindi, then in British India, now part of Pakistan. His father, William Alexander McDowell, had served with the Black Watch regiment in the Boer War before being posted to India. McDowell senior had been demobilized in India and had joined the North Western Railway as a fireman/driver in the Punjab, but when war broke out in 1914 he was recalled to the Black Watch. He was travelling by train from Rawalpindi to Karachi to board the troop ship to take him to the war front when he contracted a fatal dose of ptomaine poisoning.
The young William went on to spend most of his life in India, returning there to work in the motor industry before serving with the police and then rising through the ranks to join the Diplomatic Service. While serving during the time of partition he witnessed first hand the atrocities of both the Muslim and Hindu populations. He spent the next 27 years in the Diplomatic Service, with spells in Nigeria at the height of the civil war, Ceylon, Cyprus, Argentina, Turkey and finally Holland. Along the way he had to deal with murders, suicides and bureaucratic incompetence and spite. He managed to shoot his own foot off in a hunting accident. Other adventures included being kidnapped by tribesmen and surviving a dramatic plane crash, two car crashes and a near drowning in a canoe.
When he was sent to the high passes of the Himalayas to find out where Russian refugees from the revolution were coming through, he was snowed in by bad weather for three months. He only survived only by killing and eating a hibernating black bear which was sharing his cave.