Of all the stories that belong in this blog, the Great Escape is probably the ultimate. The story itself is amazing, the biggest POW escape in history, and was the subject of a classic movie and even better book (Seriously, if you haven’t read The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill, do it. It’s everything the movie is and more, and perhaps the only book I’ve stayed up all night reading, even though I knew the ending.). Such a story doesn’t happen, though, without intriguing people, and there are innumerable fascinating details to the story which never made their way into the movie, or were only mentioned in passing. Don’t be surprised, then, if the Great Escape becomes an event that is referenced multiple times during this blog, starting today.
There is a bit of controversy surrounding the historical accuracy of The Great Escape movie; some point to Steve McQueen’s motorcycle race, Donald Pleasance’s character going blind, and the airplane theft as evidence that it’s just another Hollywood dramatization of a true story. Others note that, not only was the tone remarkably similar to that of the book, and not only did the makers of the movie consult with one of the escape’s chief planners to ensure it was as accurate as possible in both content and appearance, most of the events in the movie did happen in real life, though the timeline and number of characters was condensed in the movie. One of the film’s strongest points was Richard Attenborough’s portrayal of Roger Bartlett, based mainly on real-life “Big X,” Roger Bushell.
In the days of the World Wars, flying was still relatively new and dangerous, especially since the various sides had relatively equal technology. It was, in a sense, a new frontier. One effect of this is that took a certain kind of person to become a pilot back then, and many of the people who joined were already fascinating and accomplished. Roger Bushell epitomizes this. Best remembered for the escape, itself, he spoke English, Afrikaans, Kafir and German fluently, was the fastest skier in Britain in the 1930s and a Cambridge educated lawyer before joining the RAF.
Born in 1910 in South Africa, he moved to England for school when he was 14. Fastforward to 1929 and Bushell was enrolled in Pembroke College, Cambridge and was competing with the university ski team, as well as the Kandahar Club at Mürren. He was widely considered the fastest skier in Britain at this time, with his particularly bold style of skiing. Evidently he simply pointed his skis directly downhill and went, swearing the entire way. It worked; he held the speed record for the flying kilometer at St. Moritz, and had a run named in his honor there. In an international race in Canada, however, he crashed, and his ski tip caught the corner of his right eye, nearly killing him and leaving him with a distinctive scar.
In 1932, he joined the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, and in 1934 became a lawyer. In perhaps his most noted case, he successfully defended a leader of the London underworld from a charge of murder. The verdict was passed, and his client went to shake Bushell’s hand. He met the response, “No, thank you. I don’t shake hands with murderers. I only do what I’m paid to do.” “Fine – but if you ever run into trouble in this city, just mention my name and you’ll be ok.” He never used the favor.
When WWII broke out, he became the first auxiliary air force officer assigned to form a new squadron, 92 Squadron, which later became “Hawker Hurricane fighters.” He was shot down leading his squadron to the beaches of France to cover the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force; though he had managed to extinguish the fire from the gunshots and to regain limited control of his Hurricane, he unknowingly landed behind enemy lines. He was found smoking a cigarette by the remains of his aircraft.
He was initially interred at Dulag Luft, where he was appointed to the escape committee. Bushell was, along with other organizers of the Great Escape, one of the few “permanent staff” prisoners at Dulag Luft, whose main purpose was to serve as a transfer point for new POWs. They turned the initial problem of a constant turning over of the prisoner population into an opportunity by using their tunnel digging and escape attempts as ways to teach and give experience to new POWs. Who knows how many escapes he influenced with this information.
Eventually, a tunnel at Dulag Luft was completed, and Bushell made his way from the camp to the Swiss border. Since he skied and spoke fluent German, when stopped by a local townsperson, he pretended to be a ski instructor on his way home from a nearby village, supposedly “drunk” to disguise any variation in accent. Though he was nearly convinced, the man said that he had to be checked by the police just to make sure. Roger ran but was caught.
A few escape attempts and some Gestapo interrogation later, Roger began planning the Great Escape, and the rest is history.
For more information on Roger Bushell and the Great Escape, read The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill, which is a perfect combination of informative and engaging, and A Gallant Company, which, though it is not quite as captivating a read, contains a tremendous amount of information about the escape and escapees.