Patrick Boniface examines the lives of history’s most daring wartime captives.
Roger Joyce Bushell was born on 30 August 1910 in Springs, Transvaal, in South Africa. His parents had moved to South Africa to pursue business interests in the mining industry. Roger received a first-class education there until the age of 14, when he transferred to Wellington College in Berkshire, after which he studied law at Pembroke College, Cambridge.
As a teenager, he was something of a ladies’ man, with his broad smile and winning charm. He excelled at sports, particularly skiing, and won the slalom event at the annual Oxford-Cambridge ski race in 1931. He also had a gift for languages and became fluent in French and German: languages that became extremely useful during his time as a prisoner-of-war.
Learning to fly
In 1932, he satisfied his desire to fly by joining No.601 Squadron Auxiliary Air Force. The squadron was known as ‘The Millionaires’ Mob’ due to the number of rich young men who paid their way solely to learn how to fly. Bushell was promoted to Flying Officer on 10 February 1934. Two years later, he was made Flight Lieutenant.
His legal career also took off around this time. He had become a barrister at law, and was called on to defend a number of RAF incidents, including the so-called ‘Battle of Barking Creek’, during which two pilots ( John Freeborn and Paddy Byrne) were court-martialled after a friendly-fire incident.
In October 1939, Bushell took command of No.92 Squadron; he was promoted to Squadron Leader four months later, on 1 January 1940. On 23 May 1940, he successfully damaged two Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighter aircraft, but was then shot down himself and captured by German forces.
Bushell started his time as a prisoner-of-war at the Dulag Luft transit camp near Frankfurt, where he began a career of escape attempts. Soon after his arrival at Dulag Luft, he joined fellow prisoners Wing Commander Harry Day and Fleet Air Arm pilot Jimmy Buckley in forming an escape committee to coordinate all future escape attempts.
Bushell’s first escape attempt was in June 1941. He hid in a goat shed in the camp grounds before cutting through a wire fence and escaping into the night. This escape attempt ended with his capture at the Swiss border, within sight of freedom. He and the other 17 escapees from the attempt were sent to Stalag Luft I. Bushell was then moved on to Oflag X-C at Lübeck, where he worked on an unsuccessful tunnel project.
His second escape took place on the night of 8/9 October 1941, during a train journey to Oflag XI-B at Warburg. When the train stopped at Hannover, Bushell and Czech pilot officer Jaroslav Zafouk jumped out and disappeared. The pair made their way to Prague and made contact with the country’s underground movement. Bushell and Zafouk were hidden in safe houses, but they were discovered after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in May 1942.
‘Tom’, ‘Dick’, and ‘Harry’
After having been interrogated by the Gestapo, Bushell was taken to Stalag Luft III, at Sagan, in October 1942. At this prison, Bushell quickly took over the escape committee and became known as ‘Big X’. His treatment by the Gestapo had enraged him, and, in revenge, he devised a major scheme that would shame the German authorities: he planned to get 200 prisoners out of Stalag Luft III. The legend of The Great Escape was born.
Bushell told his fellow prisoners:
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.
More than 600 prisoners were involved in the construction of the three tunnels, and many ingenious ways of hiding their activities were devised. The escape began on 24 March 1944, after months and months of detailed preparations.
Bushell had planned for 200 officers and men to escape through the winning tunnel, but only 76 were clear before the escape was discovered by the German guards. Bushell and his partner, Bernard Scheidhauer, were among the first to get away. Following the break-out, the Germans launched a major manhunt in the region of Sagan. Bushell and Scheidhauer were picked up at Saarbrucken railway station the next day as they waited for a train to Alsace.
Three days later, on 29 March 1944, Bushell, Scheidhauer, and 48 other escapees were gunned down by members of the Gestapo, including Emil Schultz. This massacre of the PoWs took place under direct orders and was in express contravention of the terms of the Geneva Convention.
The Great Escape
John Sturges’ classic 1963 film The Great Escape made heroes out of the men who dug ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’, and ‘Harry’ under the eyes of German guards. The film is a fictionalised version of the real events and bears only a scant resemblance to reality, but has nevertheless become a legend.
The escape from Stalag Luft III is remembered mostly as a heroic failure: fifty of the escapees met a murderous end. One of those immortalised in the movie, but under a different name (‘Roger Bartlett’, played by Richard Attenborough), was Roger Bushell.
This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.