Roger Bushell was born in South Africa on 30th November 1910. His father, a mining engineer, had immigrated to the country from England and he used his wealth to ensure that Roger received a first-class education. He was first schooled in Johannesburg but was later moved to Wellington, in England, and in 1929 he spent his first year at Cambridge University, where he studied law. However, his talents extended far beyond a promising career in the legal profession. He furthered his interest in the theatre and was up there with the best of them when it came to a party, but he was also a competent athlete and had the honour of representing the University, both as a skier and rugby player. He excelled at skiing and during the early 1930’s he was declared the fastest Briton in the downhill category. He became a member of the Kandahar Club, at Mürren, and had a black run at St Moritz named after him in recognition of his setting of the fastest time down it. During an event in Canada, however, he had suffered a fall which came within a whisker of tragedy when the tip of one of his skis narrowly missed his right eye and opened a gash in the corner of it. The resulting stitches left him with a slight droop in that eye, which proved to be a feature that he could use to sinister effect whenever the need came.
Although he excelled as both an academic and a sportsman, Bushell yearned to fly and so in 1932 he joined the RAF Auxiliary and Reserve Volunteers. He was posted to 601 Squadron, which was commonly referred to as the “Millionaires’ Squadron”, because it was a unit in which wealthy young men paid their way in return for being taught how to fly Hurricanes on weekends and Bank Holidays. Bushell, meanwhile, pursued his legal career with vigour and from the handling of his first case in 1934 it was clear that he possessed a considerable talent to defend the accused. On the military side of the profession he also participated in courts-martial and prosecuted numerous RAF personnel, usually charged with dangerous flying, and such was Bushell’s success rate that it has been suggested that his superiors acted to restrict the number of cases that he dealt with because he was inadvertently having a negative effect on the public relations effort. In 1939, Bushell defended a notorious London gangland boss on a charge of murder and he succeeded in securing a “not guilty” verdict. Delighted with the conduct of his defence counsel, the man in question offered his hand to Bushell only to be told in no uncertain terms that although he was happy do his duty and defend a blatant murderer, he would not shake his hand. Nevertheless, Bushell was promised that he would be helped if he ever got into trouble in London, though it is unlikely that he received this offer with any greater warmth.
Roger Bushell stood 5′ 10″, and he was a heavily built individual. He possessed a charismatic personality, and was warm and friendly by nature, but when the occasion called for it his deep voice and piercing eyes could make him an intimidating figure. Bushell was a natural leader and a bold organisational genius with a knack of making tough decisions in an instant, and so it is small wonder that he went on to mastermind the largest and most extravagant escape of prisoners of war ever attempted.
WAR IS DECLARED
Roger Bushell was a Flight Lieutenant with 601 Squadron when the war began, but he was soon promoted to Squadron Leader and, on 10th October 1939, he was presented with the task of raising 92 Squadron. The Squadron was to fly twin-engined Blenheims out of RAF Tangmere, close to Littlehampton, however at this time the Squadron existed only in name as there were no officers besides Bushell himself and the scant ground crew had no equipment with which to work. Despite this barren state of affairs, he received an enthusiastic welcome from a neighbouring squadron, based on the same airfield, and they invited him to come and get completely paralytic with them for the evening. As soon as he had recovered, Bushell set to work making the Squadron operational, and in a relatively short space of time he had achieved this. Training was carried out with a marked intensity, beginning with aircrews gaining experience in night-fighting over Tangmere, before they were relocated to Gatwick and then on to Croydon.
Bushell was given command of 92 Squadron in October 1939. His promotion to squadron leader was confirmed on 1 January 1940.
On 5th March 1940, 92 Squadron traded in their Blenheims for 12 Spitfires, and with these they removed to Hornchurch. Neither Bushell nor those under his command had ever flown in combat before, but on 23rd May they received orders to patrol the French coastline in support of the retreat to Dunkirk. The 12 Spitfires flew to Boulogne, and from here they followed the coastline to Dunkirk via Calais before returning in the same direction. They had been briefed to expect considerable fighter harassment, and over Picardy this threat materialised in the form of six Me-109’s. One of the Spitfires was lost during the opening exchange, after which any sense of discipline was lost amongst the inexperienced pilots as they threw themselves into the attack from all directions, clogging up the radio with their chatter no matter how many times Bushell ordered, “Shut up!”. The engagement was brief, and the remaining 11 Spitfires returned to England, having shot down 4 of the Messerschmitts. During this engagement with enemy aircraft Bushell was credited with damaging two Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighter aircraft of ZG 26 before being shot down himself, probably by future ace Oberleutnant Günther Specht. The lost pilot and aircraft were immediately replaced and at 2pm on the same day the Squadron were ordered into the air for a repeat performance. Taking advantage of this momentary respite, Bushell had lectured his men to maintain both formation and radio silence in the event of attack. As they were about to leave the French coast for home they were pounced upon by a very large flight of up to 40 Me-110’s, but the twin-engined German attackers were not able to capitalise on their advantage because Bushell ordered his pilots to hold formation and draw their opponents in by circling wide to the left before breaking rapidly to the right and getting violently in amongst their pursuers. In spite of their initial discipline the intercom was soon jammed with every voice except that of the flight commander, however Bushell was in no state to lead at this point because five Messerschmitts were on his tail. His manoeuvres succeeded in bringing one German aircraft into his sights and he shot it down, and possibly one other, but his Spitfire had taken fatal damage in the action and Bushell found himself trailing smoke and going down. To extinguish the flames that had developed, he switched off the engine and went into a steep dive, but the fires returned as his Spitfire glided towards a grassy field. Bushell made a safe landing, and he was under the impression that he had come down in Allied territory and so it wouldn’t be long before someone picked him up. This proved to be an accurate assessment, but the motorcycle patrol which appeared were of German origin. Although their Leader was a Prisoner of War, POW number 621, 92 Squadron fought on in the skies above and shot down 17 of the Me-110’s.
Norman Frank’s book on the Dunkirk Air Battle contains an eyewitness account by 92 Squadron pilot Tony Bartley which gives an idea of what that air combat was like. He wrote:
“The Squadron took off again after refuelling and rearming and ran into trouble as soon as we hit the beaches. A swarm of Heinkels approached like a gaggle of geese. Above them in attendance, followed a cloud of 109’s and 110’s. I didn’t know how Roger proposed to attack this armada, and I thought of Henry V at Agincourt. Perhaps because it was not far from us.
“Suddenly Roger’s voice broke the RT silence, ‘Pabby, take on the high cover. Bob and I will take on the bombers. Over.’ I scrambled for altitude after Paddy, and then suddenly we were in the missile of it. They came down on us like a swarm of angry bees. I ducked a stream of tracer and turned in behind a Me110. He had a shark’s jaw painted on his nose. I aimed with eight guns. He turned over and went straight down. I watched him hit the ground in a burst of flames. My first Hun … I felt sick. I was then milling in a mass of aeroplanes, twisting, turning, climbing and diving in pursuit of one and other. Suddenly my port wing was drilled with holes. Paddy came up on my left wing with five Me110 on his tail. I attacked the Me110s and another five attacked me.
“I heard Roger swearing on the radio as he plunged into the bomber force. None of his section returned.”
Foreman’s book on Fighter Command claims does list two Bf110 as damage by Squadron Leader R Bushell off Boulogne at 17:20 and Franks in his book on Fighter Command losses does record Bushell as being shot down in Spitfire N3194 in combat with Me 110s and that he was taken prisoners.
Bushell was sent to Dulag Luft and he soon made his administrative powers felt. Lieutenant Commander James Buckley, of the Fleet Air Arm, had established the Escape Committee at Dulag Luft, and following his first meeting with Roger Bushell he quickly recognised his potential and appointed him as his deputy. Bushell’s training as a lawyer served him well, and throughout the Summer of 1940 he interrogated every new prisoner that arrived at the camp. This very thorough debriefing served to fulfil a number of functions, first to collect the latest news from home and also to find out what questions that the Germans had asked them, but above all they were asked to vouch for prisoners already at the camp whom they had known in England, just to be sure that none of them was an infiltrating agent. During the course of these interviews, Bushell appeared to be rather an intimidating person, largely due to the intensity of his gaze, but once the ordeal was over, he immediately became much more pleasant, relaxed and welcoming.
Of all the various methods of escape, Bushell evidently favoured tunneling, because whereas the over-ground techniques were dangerous and could succeed in breaking out just one or two men, a well-built and disguised tunnel had the potential to accommodate many more with a much higher degree of safety. Bushell put a team together and began work on a tunnel. Unfortunately, their efforts proved to be little more than a harsh lesson in the realities of excavation. It was a dark, dirty and extremely uncomfortable affair, but the camp also stood on a high-water table and not only were they digging mud but the tunnel flooded so often it had to be abandoned, only two metres short of its objective. A second tunnel was started, but this was discovered by watchful guards and no further efforts were mounted during the remainder of 1940.
The escaping season resumed in the Spring of 1941, but the Escape Committee had not been idle over winter and had invented methods of drainage to deal with flooding difficulties. The first tunnel that Bushell had dug had yet to be discovered, and as soon as it was realised that it could be salvaged and repaired the escapers returned to their task, amongst whom were now men with whom Roger Bushell would plot at Stalag Luft III, including Wing Commander Day and Major Johnny Dodge. Bushell hoped to pass 18 men through the tunnel.
In May 1941, the tunnel was ready for use, but Bushell did not go down it. Instead he had spotted another opportunity for escape and asked to have a 24-hour head start on the other escapers on the undeniable grounds that he, with his fluent knowledge of French and German, was the most likely to make a home run. In order to maintain the secrecy of the tunnel, he proposed to escape over-ground by making use of the camp’s goat. Billy the Goat, as he was known, lived in a hut in the exercise field, an area which was outside the camp and the wire. Bushell had observed that the guards were casual at best concerning the numbers of men who entered the field and of those who returned, and so over the previous week he had accompanied the football players out so that he could sneak into Billy’s hut to dig a shallow dip in the earth, in which he could lie and be covered by straw and not be noticed unless he was trodden upon. The only downside to the plan was enduring the appalling smell, but one prisoner predictably added, “Oh, I’m sure the goat won’t mind that.”
The plan was agreed. On the eve of the tunnel escape, Bushell went out into the exercise area as usual and got into his hole, where other prisoners laid thin strips of wood over the top of him and then a scattering of straw over the top of that. Bushell lay there, quiet and motionless, and endured the stench of the goat and its faeces for the six hours until it was dark enough for him to leave the area. His absence had not been noted when the other prisoners returned inside the wire, and it was very easy for fellow conspirators to cover for him at roll call using tried and tested methods. Once it was suitably dark, Roger emerged from the straw to find himself staring into the face of the goat, who was fortunately more concerned with chewing his feed than with violently defending his territory, as Billy was prone to doing. Quietly, Bushell left both the hut and the camp behind him and headed in the direction of Oberursel. He was wearing a civilian suit that he had bribed from a guard and carried an amount of German money and passable papers, which reinforced his rehearsed story that he was a German ski instructor on leave from the Army. Although he was fluent in German, he spoke it with the Swiss accent that he had acquired from his pre-war skiing days, but to cover up any suspicions that his voice might betray he decided to act as if he were slightly drunk.
Bushell walked the streets openly and, hiding behind a newspaper that he had bought, caught the train from Frankfurt to Tuttlingen, via Darmstadt, Mannheim, Heidelberg and Karlsruhe. From Tuttlingen he boarded the service to nearby Bondorf, but he arrived at his destination a little too early to be inconspicuous and so passed the time with his newspaper in the waiting room until the rush hour commuters crowded onto the platform. He then strolled into the centre of the town and stopped at a cafe to refresh himself with a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. Whilst strolling about, Bushell came upon a bookshop, from where he purchased some maps and a guidebook, which he hoped would cement his appearance as a tourist, having guessed that tourism was still an acceptable pastime in war-torn Europe.
Bondorf was but 10 miles from the Swiss border, and for the final leg of his journey Bushell concluded that a stroll through the countryside was called for. He was certain that his escape was not a mere formality and during the day he wandered into an area of woodland, where he sat with his back against a tree to decide how he should approach Switzerland. He knew that the escape from Dulag Luft would not take place until nightfall, after which all ports would be alerted to the threat of escaping prisoners. There were two options open to him; to cautiously make his way cross-country and sneak across the border at night, or to adopt the cavalier approach of simply passing through the border post as if he were a normal tourist. He had heard rumours that the border posts in the area were not watched so closely and so he decided to play the tourist to the end. Bushell walked through the border village of Stühlingen without giving rise to any hint of suspicion amongst the locals. The border post was indistinct and seemingly unmanned, so he decided to cross it, but within mere steps of freedom a German voice cried, “Halt!”. A large German border guard emerged, holding a pistol aimed at Bushell in one hand while the other accepted his papers. Not in the least intimidated, Bushell hoped to bluff his way out of the situation and so explained his tourist aspirations, but unfortunately the guard happened to be a more shrewd individual than most, and when he took Bushell to the police station to check his papers there was clearly no alternative but to give himself up. Tragically, it was later discovered that if Bushell had decided to cross the border at only 200 yards of either side of the village, he could have passed into Switzerland without the slightest hindrance.
Back at Dulag Luft, the tunnel escape went ahead as planned and it was a success, however within 24 hours most of the participants had been recaptured.
Roger Bushell did not return to Dulag Luft but was instead dispatched to a camp at Lübeck, where there were about 50 RAF officers with some representatives of the British Army. Conditions at the camp were far from satisfactory, with very little heating, poor quality food and low levels of hygiene. Understandably, Bushell wanted to get out of the camp at the earliest opportunity and so he organised the digging of a tunnel, but this was abandoned when the prisoners were informed that they were all to be moved to a more satisfactory Oflag at Warburg. There was little despair at this news because all of the prisoners knew that they would be transported via rail, inside of cattle cars, and as trains were an ideal platform from which to mount an escape, Bushell began to make preparations for his first taste in a year of life beyond the wire. He teamed up with a resourceful Czech fighter pilot by the name of Jack Zaphok. The plan was for both men to wear civilian clothes under their uniforms, break out of the slow-moving train, and then make their way to Czechoslovakia where they would contact the Resistance in the hope of being smuggled out to either Turkey or Yugoslavia.
There were guards inside the cattle cars, but they gathered near to the door and so it was not hard for Bushell and Zaphok to work out of their sight, behind some other prisoners who suddenly felt the desire for a game of cards. One of the men in the carriage had provided them with a knife that he had notched to act as a saw, and so they took it in turns to cut away at the wooden floor, a slow and arduous process that left all of them with cut hands. Their efforts were rewarded, however, and they cut a big enough hole for them to squeeze through. They first waited for the train to slow down, whereupon they dropped out onto the tracks below, and then dangerously rolled off the railway line in between the carriage wheels. Five men got out in this manner; the other three went their separate ways and were later captured. The train showed no signs of acknowledging their absence, and so Bushell and Zaphok, who were both carrying excellent forged papers and wore civilian clothes beneath their uniforms, caught a train heading for the Czech border. They made it to Prague, where they stayed with a married couple in their apartment whilst Zaphok attempted to contact the Underground.
All seemed to be going well, but again bad luck conspired to ruin Bushell’s hopes. He had arrived in the capital at the same time that Reinhard Heydrich, “The Butcher of Prague”, was appointed Reichsführer over the country, and proceeded to carry out his work with customary ruthlessness. British Intelligence seized upon an opportunity to deploy two Czech paratroopers to Prague with orders to assassinate Heydrich. They succeeded in inflicting fatal wounds upon him, but as might be expected there were vicious Nazi reprisals for the loss of this esteemed members of their establishment. In excess of 1,000 civilians were herded together and massacred, their only crime being that they were Czechs. Having heard the appalling news on the radio, Bushell knew that he and Zaphok must leave immediately, if only because their presence placed their hosts in grave danger. Unfortunately, every street was so closely watched that any kind of movement was now impossible, and before long the Gestapo kicked down the door and arrested everyone in the house. The couple who had sheltered the two escapers were executed, while their son was sent to a concentration camp.
Bushell never saw Jack Zaphok again, who after his interrogation was sent to Colditz. Bushell, however, was taken to Berlin for a closer examination. The Gestapo were not prepared to listen to his claims that he was an escaped Prisoner of War, but instead they suspected him of having a hand in Heydrich’s assassination and were determined to set him up on a charge of sabotage. One can only assume that his interrogation was not a sedate and pleasant affair, but Bushell maintained his story and it eventually became clear to the Gestapo that he was telling the truth. The precise circumstances of his release are not known, but it believed that influential members of the Luftwaffe, who knew, respected and even liked Bushell, had heard rumours of his detention and were beginning to make enquiries. The Gestapo did not wish to risk coming into conflict with the honourable Luftwaffe and so they returned Bushell to their care. Before he left the Gestapo, he had been assured him that if he escaped and fell into their hands again then he would be shot, and as was later pointed out to him by Group Captain Massey, the Senior British Officer at Stalag Luft III, this was no light-hearted threat because the Gestapo had committed so many atrocities during the war that one more would hardly alter their fate. Bushell, however, was determined to escape again and would not allow himself to be caught for a third time.
Bushell did not speak to anyone about his ordeal at the hands of the Gestapo, but from his manner thereafter and the language he used whilst writing letters home, it is clear that the experience had left a profound mark upon him. He had spent time in Germany before the war and was no enemy of either its people nor its culture, but this awakening he had received had filled him with an absolute and burning hatred of everything that the Nazi regime stood for.
TOM, DICK AND HARRY
Bushell was sent to Stalag Luft III, and as his reputation was widely known he was quickly brought on board the Escape Committee. At the time of his arrival, this considerably effective group was headed by Lieutenant Commander James Buckley, whom Bushell had served under at Dulag Luft, but in November 1942, he and other acknowledged trouble makers were sent off to Oflag XXIB in an effort to disrupt the escapes out of the camp. Bushell had only just arrived when he found himself in command of the Escape Committee.
During the initial months, Bushell channelled the escape effort into probing for weaknesses and looking for opportunities, but in the Spring of 1943, he announced the most ambitious escape plan of the war that would utilize all the hard-won experience that he and his fellow prisoners had acquired during their captivity. He planned that three very long and deep tunnels would be dug, codenamed “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”. The simultaneous digging of these tunnels would become an advantage if any one of them were discovered by the Germans, because the guards would scarcely imagine that another two could be well underway. The most radical aspect of the plan was not merely the scale of the construction, but the sheer number of men that Bushell intended to pass through these tunnels. Previous attempts had involved the escape of anything up to a dozen or twenty men, but Bushell was proposing to get in excess of 200 out, all of whom would be wearing civilian clothes and possessing a complete range of forged papers and escape equipment. It was an unprecedented undertaking and would require unparalleled organisation. As the mastermind of the Great Escape, Roger Bushell inherited the codename of “Big X”.
Falling back on his legal background to represent his scheme, Bushell called a meeting of the Escape Committee and not only shocked those present with its scope but injected into every man a passionate determination to put their every energy into the escape. He declared, “Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun… In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick, and Harry. One will succeed!”.
From the outset security had been a priority, and as such no prisoner ever asked questions or drew attention to any happenings in the camp which might be regarded as odd. As Roger Bushell himself put it to a group of new arrivals, “If you see me walking around with a tree trunk sticking out of my arse, don’t ask any questions, because it’ll be for a damned good reason.”
During the summer of 1943, all of the tunnels were well underway, however it was at this time that the actions of the camp authorities had outwitted the escapers. Up until now the US airmen at the camp had been cramped into the North Compound with the RAF, but the sight of Russian prisoners cutting down trees outside the camp betrayed the intention to build a separate area for the Americans. The South Compound would rob the Americans of the chance to escape through a tunnel on which they had worked, and this was felt by all to be very bad form on behalf of the Germans. Kommandant Lindeiner was asked to intervene, but it was clear that the order to separate the USAAF from the RAF had come from far above him and he could do nothing. Bushell decided that the Escape Committee must do all they could to help their American friends, and so he decided to abandon “Dick” and “Harry in order to put the entire effort into “Tom”, in the hope that it would be ready for use before the South Compound was built. This was a risky proposal as increased activity could give “Tom” away, and it was by no means certain that the tunnel would be completed in time. In view of this fear, care was taken to not only employ the best tunnellers down “Tom”, but also to involve the Americans wherever possible so that they could take a lot of experience with them to the South Compound.
As a result, the length of “Tom” increased dramatically, but as soon as the tunnel reached the perimeter fence the Germans began to cut down trees in the very area where the tunnel was expected the open. Bushell was livid. It appeared that in spite of the tunnel being dug far below the surface, the microphone detection equipment around the perimeter of the camp had picked up a great deal of activity which led the guards to believe that a tunnel was nearing completion. Although the guards had an idea where “Tom” might emerge, this information was useless to them unless they could locate the entrance, and so the regular game of cat and mouse between the prisoners and ferrets continued apace. Traces of the tunnel sand were spotted in the gardens, and it was noted by the prisoners that the guards in the watch towers were using binoculars to look for any suspicious signs which might betray the dumping of the soil. Clearly, they were hoping to identify in which barrack the tunnel originated, and Bushell knew that he had to do as much as possible to disguise Hut 123. The number of penguins, who wandered about the compound and disposed of the tunnel sand, was greatly reduced so as not to draw so much attention to 123, but as a result this slowed the digging effort. The guards carried out several raids on various barracks, and in spite of a definite and targeted search of Hut 123, which lasted for five hours, nothing was found. There was a debate as to whether progress on the tunnel should be halted until the heat cooled off, but as “Tom” was only 16 metres short of completion, the digging cautiously crept on. However, the hut was searched again, and due to a complete accident, the entrance was discovered, and the tunnel was destroyed with explosives. Faced with the cruel loss of “Tom”, Roger Bushell gave the order that “Harry” should be reopened and pushed into the woods.
There was one positive aspect to the discovery of “Tom” that helped to brighten a terrible day for the prisoners, and was revealed because the Germans were euphoric in their success, and as a result even the most experienced and cautious ferrets allowed their guard to slip a little. Sergeant Hermann Glemnitz, who was regarded as possibly the sharpest tool in the box, was overheard by a German-speaking prisoner telling a fellow guard that his feelings were that as they had discovered such a huge and well-constructed tunnel, there could not be another one underway, and added that he would be checking up on how many bed boards were disappearing from prisoners bunks in the future. The man who overheard this at once informed Roger Bushell, who naturally ordered that the bed boards, used to shore up the tunnels, were to be plundered before Glemnitz could count them. Many of the 2,000 boards that were collected were hidden down “Dick”.
Work continued, and by February 1944 the tunnel was nearing completion, but the guards knew that something was afoot. In a desperate effort to foil the escape, they selected 20 men whom they believed to be ringleaders and moved them on to another camp, however they only succeeded in picking out four key workers, and amazingly Roger Bushell was not amongst them. Escaping the attention of the guards did not happen by chance, indeed Bushell had gone out of his way to make himself look as inconspicuous as possible. He kept a low profile about the camp, and also made a point of participating in rugby matches and displaying numerous cultural leanings. He took up language classes and began to learn Russian, Czech and Danish, and he also took to the stage. In the early days of 1944, he had approached the acting community in the camp about lending them his strong voice and natural acting talent, and as such was welcomed with open arms. Such a good actor was he that he prepared for the lead role of Professor Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”. The word was deliberately put about that Bushell was no longer an escaper and instead spent all of his time in the theatre, and this assessment was accepted by even the more cunning ferrets at Stalag Luft III, so much so that they crossed him off their list of possible escape masterminds. As the play was due to open at the end of March 1944, the approximate time that “Harry” would be complete, Bushell took care to inform Ian McIntosh, his understudy, to learn the part of Henry Higgins very thoroughly as he might not be available to do the honours himself.
Although the three tunnels had been his main effort, Bushell oversaw the planning of numerous opportunistic escapes which involved just one or two men, though he did not participate in any himself. One day, Bushell announced that he had a plan to march a group of escapers out of the front gate, in broad daylight and in full view of the goons. He decided that the Germans would discover a louse because the effect of this find was most predictable. So terrified were the guards of an outbreak of lice, their procedure was to immediately evacuate the infected barrack, and not only de-louse it but also all of its occupants. The de-lousing block lay beyond the wire, outside of the camp, and so with impeccable timing, Bushell planned that when two German guards entered the camp to collect the prisoners from the barrack, two prisoners dressed in guard uniform would escort 22 men out through the main gate. The plan worked beautifully and once they were clear the men scattered into the woods however all were recaptured.
Bushell’s other responsibilities including overseeing elements of intelligence gathering. Every conceivable detail about the terrain beyond the wire was gathered and analysed, and for each country that an escaper might pass through there was one man in charge of the collection and distribution of all information relating to that country. Bushell was the acknowledged master of everything German, due to his ability to speak the language as well as his extensive knowledge of the country from his pre-war skiing days.
THE GREAT ESCAPE
On the 24th March 1944, “Harry” was declared ready for use. Unfortunately, the weather was not in the least ideal as the ground was covered with six inches of snow and it showed every likelihood of getting worse. Winter conditions were not the time to make an escape, especially for the many “hard arses” who would not have the comforts of a train journey but would instead have to travel cross-country with a trail of their footsteps mapping their progress.
At 11:30am, Roger Bushell strolled around the exercise area with Wing Commander “Wings” Day, thinking hard about whether to give the order to go. Although Bushell was prone to instant decision making, this was a decision like no other. If the escape was postponed for the night then it would have to be postponed for a month, because the day was a Friday, and they could not even leave the escape until Saturday night because no trains ran on Sunday. If the escape was postponed for any longer than the weekend then the advantage that came with the darkness of a New Moon would be lost and there would be a delay of one month. Morale amongst the prisoners would slump if this happened, and it should not be forgotten that it was perfectly possible for the guards to discover “Harry” during this delay. It may have seemed to be sensible to abandon the attempt for another month, but the tunnel diggers knew that the April downpour would put pressure on the structure of the tunnel and the strain could collapse. At length, Bushell made up his mind and insisted that they had to proceed, regardless of the risk. The order was passed around and immediately the team of forgers stamped Friday’s date on all of the papers.
Bushell planned to journey with a friend, a French RAF pilot by the name of Lieutenant Bernard Scheidhauer. He intended to pass himself off as a French businessman, wearing a trilby hat and a dark overcoat, beneath which was the very same grey suit, presented to him by the family with whom he had stayed, that he had worn when he had been recaptured by the Gestapo in Prague.
On the night of the escape, Bushell and Scheidhauer took their places towards the front of the tunnel, which was reserved for those who were considered most likely to succeed. It was whilst they were waiting in the tunnel that Johnny Bull, who had just dug out the exit shaft, reported to Roger that “Harry” had emerged in only the first line of the fir trees and that they were twenty feet short of any kind of cover that would prevent the patrolling guards from spotting them. Without hesitation Bushell announced the solution; to tie one end of a length of rope around the top rung of the ladder and the other about a tree, and that two tugs from the man at the tree meant that it was safe for the man waiting in the shaft to come out. Once the rope had been produced, Bull climbed out of the tunnel and signalled to Harry Marshall, who was number 1 in the queue, that it was safe to come out and set up the rope around a tree. Marshall did this, and when he saw that the sentry was moving away from him, he tugged the rope to signal his escape partner, Ernst Valenta, to come out, quickly followed by Roger Bushell and Bernard Scheidhauer. As Marshall and Valenta disappeared into the woods together, Bushell took his turn on the rope and when it was safe, he signalled for the next man to come out. Safe in the knowledge that the improvised procedure of escape was being passed to each man as he came, Bushell and Scheidhauer headed into the woods.
Again, Bushell favoured the use of trains as the best means of getting away from the scene of his crime as quickly as possible, and so he and Scheidhauer made for the railway station where they awaited the 3:30am service to Breslau. Amongst the second-class carriages on which they travelled were a further six escapers from Stalag Luft III, but naturally none of them made any attempt to acknowledge each other. The train arrived at Breslau at 5:00am, and it was feared that they might arrive to an intense level of security, signalling that the authorities had been altered about the escape, but happily the tunnel had not yet been discovered and so there was no barrier to their progress. The tunnel was eventually discovered, but not before 76 men were already out. Unfortunately, not including the men who were captured at the mouth of the tunnel, Bushell and Scheidhauer were the very first escapers to be recaptured. Early on the 26th March they had reached Saarbrücken without incident, but they were arrested when police inspected their papers and spotted a minor fault in them.
The Gestapo had promised to execute Bushell if they crossed his path again, and they were true to their word. A few days later, Obersturmbannführer Dr. Leopold Spann, the Saarbrücken Gestapo chief, gave the order to type up death certificates for Bushell and Scheidhauer, in advance of their murder.
Before dawn on the 29th March 1944, Dr. Spann, Kriminalsekretär Emil Schulz, and Walter Breithaupt, their driver, collected Roger Bushell and Bernard Scheidhauer from the Kripo prison and drove them in the direction of Mannheim, where Breithaupt had been told that they were to be handed on to the relevant authorities. After they had travelled for approximately 25 miles and were passing through woodland, Dr. Spann ordered the driver to stop, whereupon he and Schulz got out to talk and smoke cigarettes, leaving Breithaupt alone with the two handcuffed men. He was soon summoned to join them and was informed that they had received an urgent order from Berlin Head Office that the two “terrorfliers” were to be killed at once. Bushell and Scheidhauer were let out of the car and were told that they could relieve themselves in bushes a few short steps from the car but were told that they would be shot if they tried to escape. Emil Schulz and Dr. Spann walked to within a metre behind each man, both of them holding a pistol. Facing away from their captors, the two men began to unbutton their trousers, whereupon Dr. Spann gave a signal and he and Schulz simultaneously shot both men in the back of the neck. The bullet that struck Roger Bushell did not kill him, but left him in spasms, requiring Schulz to administer a final shot to his left temple. The bodies were taken to Neue Bremm Concentration Camp where they were cremated.
Of the 76 men who escaped through “Harry”, three men succeeded in escaping. The remaining 73 were all recaptured, but Hitler gave a direct order that 50 of these men should be shot.
Roger Bushell is buried at the Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery (Coll. grave 9. A.) in Poznań, Poland.
Gravestone of R.J.Bushell in Poznań, Poland
Bushell was posthumously mentioned in despatches on 8 June 1944 for his services as a POW. This award was recorded in the London Gazette dated 13 June 1946.
After the war an RAF Special Investigations Branch team was assigned to hunt down the killers of the Fifty. The driver, Walter Breithaupt, was arrested and gave a very thorough statement and his evidence prompted the S.I.B. team to track down Dr. Spann and Emil Schulz. Their search concluded that Spann had been killed during an air raid at Gestapo Headquarters in Austria, whilst Schulz was believed to be alive and living somewhere in the French Zone. Further investigation revealed that he was under arrest and using the name Ernst Schmidt, but it did not take much of an interrogation by Flight Lieutenant Francis McKenna to reveal his true identity. The French authorities handed Schulz over to McKenna, who took him back to England where he was tried, convicted, and hanged.
SOUTH AFRICANS WHO DIED AS PART OF THE FIFTY
Lieutenant Johannes Stephanus Gouws MID 103275 SAAF Age 29. 40 Squadron Pilot. P-40 Tomahawk 9 April 1940. Pow Number 116. Murdered on 29 March 1944. Born on 13 August 1919. Parents Mr and Mrs J S Gouws of Bultfontein, Orange Free State, South Africa.
Lieutenant Clement Alwyn Neville McGarr MID 95961 SAAF age 27. Pilot. P-40 Tomahawk on 6 October 1941. POW number 655. Murdered on 6th April 1944. Born 24 November 1917, from Johannesburg, South Africa.
Lieutenant Rupert John Stevens MID 47431 SAAF age 25. 12 Squadron. Pilot. Marauder AH297.14 November 1941, POW number 712. Murdered 29th March 1944. Born in London 1919. Son of Mr and Mrs GR Steven of Cape Town, South Africa.
Below is a colour profile for GR-U from 92 Squadron, from June 1940, remember Bushell was shot down on 23 May 1940, so this is a very accurate representation of what GR-Z would have looked like.
BUSHELL AND THE MOVIES
Bushell was the basis for the character “Roger Bartlett” in the film The Great Escape (1963), played by actor Richard Attenborough.
Bushell has been portrayed by Ian McShane in the made-for-TV film The Great Escape II: The Untold Story (1988).
Published Works and further reading
- Brickhill, Paul 2000. The Great Escape. London, UK: Cassell & Co
- Dix-Peek, Ross 1 February 2010. “The Great Escape and its South African Mastermind”. The South African. Archived from the original on 31 August 2014.
- Durand, Arthur 1989. Stalag Luft III: The Secret Story. London, UK: Patrick Stephens.
- Foreman, John 2003, Raf Fighter Command Victory Claims of World War Two – Part One 1939-1940, Red Kite.
- Franks, Norman 1997. Royal Air Force Fighter Command Losses of the Second World War – Volume 1 Operational Losses: Aircraft and Crews 1930-1941, Midland Publish Limited.
- Norman, Franks 2000. Air Battle Dunkirk 26 May – 3 June 1940, Grub Street.
- Lucas, Paul No Date. The Battle for Britain – RAF May to December 1940 – Camouflage and Markings No. 2, Scale Aircraft Monographs, Guideline Publications, Luton
- Meserole, Mike 2008. The Great Escape: The Tunnel to Freedom. New York: Sterling Publications.
- Pearson, Simon 15 August 2013. The Great Escaper: The Life and Death of Roger Bushell – Love, Betrayal, Big X and the Great Escape. Hodder & Stoughton.
- Rollings, Charles 2004. Wire and Worse. Hersham, UK: Ian Allan.
- Smith, Sydney 1968. Wings Day. London, UK: Collins.
- Thomas, Andrew 2012. Defiant, Blenheim and Havoc Aces, Osprey Publishing.
- Vance, Jonathan F. 2000. A Gallant Company. Pacifica, California: Pacifica Military History.
- van der Stok, Bram 1987. War Pilot of Orange. Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co.
- Walters, Guy 2013. The Real Great Escape. London, UK: Bantam
- http://www.pegasusarchive.org/pow/roger_bushell.htm accessed on 22/11/2019
- https://www.bing.com/search?q=Roger+Bushell&form=IE11TR&src=IE11TR&pc=EUPP_DCJB accessed on 22/11/2019
- http://aircrewremembered.com/stalag-luft-sagan-and-belaria-the-fifty.html accessed 22/11/2019
- “No. 34765”. The London Gazette. 2 January 1940. p. 25.