Remarkable People

ID #5345

Roger Bushell, Great Escape Leader, Springs, Gauteng, South Africa.

Bushell was born in Springs, Transvaal, South Africa on 30 August 1910 to English parents Benjamin Daniel and Dorothy Bushell. His father, a mining engineer, immigrated to South Africa and used his wealth to ensure that Roger received a first class education. He was schooled in Johannesburg after which he went to Wellington College in Berkshire, England. In 1929, Bushell went to Cambridge to study law.

He excelled in athletics and represented Cambridge in skiing. In the early 1930s he was declared the fastest Briton in the male downhill category and had a black run named after him in Switzerland. At an event in Canada, Bushell had an accident in which one of his skis narrowly missed his left eye, leaving him with a gash in one corner. Although he recovered from this accident he was left with a dark drooping of his left eye.

He became fluent in French and German, with a good accent, which was useful during his time as a prisoner of war. Despite his sporting prowess, he wanted to fly and in 1932 joined 601 Squadron Auxiliary Air Force, which was often referred to as "The Millionaires' Mob" because of the number of wealthy young men who paid to learn to fly, often at weekends.

Although Bushell pursued a career with the RAF this did not hamper his attempts to become a barrister. From the outset many commented on his legal ability, particularly in criminal defense. he was appointed to military cases involving RAF personnel charged with various offences. These often involved pilots charged with dangerous flying. In October 1939, acting as assistant to Sir Patrick Hastings, he successfully defended two RAF pilots, John Freeborn and Paddy Byrne, who were court-martialled after the friendly fire incident known as the Battle of Barking Creek. Byrne was later incarcerated with Bushell at Stalag Luft III.

He was given command of 92 Squadron in October 1939, and was promoted to Squadron Leader on 1 January 1940. During the squadron's first engagement with enemy aircraft on 23 May 1940 Bushell was credited with damaging two Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighter aircraft of ZG 26 before being shot down himself, probably by Oberleutnant Günther Specht. He crash-landed his spitfire on German-occupied soil and was captured and sent to the Dulag Luft transit camp near Frankfurt with other captured aircrew.

On arrival at Dulag Luft he was made part of the permanent staff under Wing Commander Harry Day. Their duty was to help newly captured Allied aircrew adjust to life as POW’s. Escape, the duty of all POW officers, was never far from his mind, and, fortunately, he was in good company with Day and Fleet Air Arm pilot Jimmy Buckley. Day placed Buckley in charge of escape operations, with Bushell as his deputy. The three of them formed the escape committee.

The permanent staff of the camp started several tunnels, one of which was completed in May 1941. Bushell was given a place in the tunnel, but elected to escape on the same day by cutting through wire surrounding a small park in the camp grounds. His decision not to use the tunnel allowed an earlier getaway, enabling him to catch a particular train. The date of this escape is not known but it is believed to have occurred in June 1941. Bushell hid in a goat's shed in the camp grounds. As soon as it was dark he crawled through the wire and made his escape but was recaptured on the Swiss border only a few hundred yards from freedom. He was well treated and returned to Dulag luft before being transferred to Stalag Luft I with the other 17 who had escaped in the tunnel (including Day and Buckley).

He was only at Stalag Luft I for a short period before being transferred to Oflag X-C at Lübeck. At this camp he participated in the construction of a tunnel which was abandoned when the camp was evacuated.

All British and Commonwealth Officer POWs were removed from the camp on the 8 October 1941 and transferred to Oflag VI-B at Warburg. During the night of 8/9 October 1941 when their train stopped briefly in Hannover, Bushell and a Czech officer, Jaroslav Zafouk, escaped. They made their way to Prague, Czechoslovakia, and, using Zafouk's contacts, contacted the Czech underground. They stayed in 'safe houses' whilst arrangements for their onward journey were made. However, following the assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich in May 1942, the Germans launched a manhunt for the assassins, during which Bushell and Zafouk were arrested. Both were very roughly treated by the Gestapo. Bushell was eventually sent to Stalag Luft III at Sagan, arriving there in October 1942. He took over control of the escape organization from Jimmy Buckley who was transferred to another camp. He became known as "Big X" of the escape committee that organized “The Great Escape”.

During Gestapo interrogation he witnessed the suffering of many at the hands of the Nazis and developed an intense hatred for them. His planned to strike back by organizing mass breakouts from the POW camps.  In the spring of 1943, Bushell masterminded a plot for a major escape from the camp. Bushell called a meeting of the Escape Committee which shocked those present with its scope but injected into all a determination to 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!"

The simultaneous digging of three tunnels would be an advantage if any were discovered by the Germans. The most radical aspect of the plan was not merely the scale of the construction but the number of men involved. Previous attempts had involved the escape of up to twenty men, but Bushell proposed to get more than 200 out, all of whom would be wearing civilian clothes and needed a complete range of forged papers and escape equipment. It was an unprecedented undertaking that would require unparalleled organization. The tunnel "Tom" began in a darkened corner of a hall in one of the buildings. "Dick's" entrance was carefully hidden in a drain sump in one of the washrooms. The entrance to "Harry" was hidden under a stove.

Tom was discovered in August 1943 when nearing completion, after which construction on Harry was halted. Tunelling resumed in January, 1944 and, on the evening of 24 March 200 officers prepared to escape. But things did not go according to plan and only 76 officers managed to get clear of the camp. Among those left behind was 21-year-old Alan Bryett, who refers to Bushell as "the bravest man I ever knew". Bushell also organized another mass break out on 12 June 1943. This became known as the Delousing Break when 26 officers escaped by leaving the camp under escort with two fake guards (POWs disguised as guards), supposedly to go the showers for delousing in the neighbouring compound. All but two were later recaptured and returned to the camp. The other two were sent to Oflag IV-C at Colditz for attempting to steal an aircraft.

Roger and Bernard Scheidhauer were among the first to leave the tunnel and boarded a train at Sagan railway station. They were caught the next day at Saarbrücken railway station while waiting for a train to Alsace in France. Bushell and Scheidhauer were murdered three days later by Emil Schulz and others from the Gestapo. This was a breach of the Geneva Convention and thus a war crime. The perpetrators were later tried and executed by the Allies. Fifty of the 76 escapees were killed in the Stalag Luft III murders. Roger Bushell is buried at the Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery in Poznań, Poland. He was posthumously mentioned for his services as a POW.  RogerBushell

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Last update: 2014-03-02 21:53
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.10

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