Those watching ‘The Great Escape’ re-run on British television this long Christmas weekend – thinking it was an all American and British affair, here’s some more back of the Chappie gum wrapper trivia – the mastermind behind it was a South African, and the escape had very little to do with Americans.
Here is another great South African (seen here at Stalag Luft III). Squadron Leader Roger Joyce Bushell RAF – AAF (30 August 1910 – 29 March 1944) was an Auxiliary Air Force pilot who organised and led the famous escape from the German prisoner of war camp, and also victim of the Stalag Luft III murders when participants in the famous escape were executed by the German Gestapo.
The escape was used as the basis for the film The Great Escape. The character played by Richard Attenborough, Roger Bartlett, is modelled on Roger Bushell. The story about the “Great Escape” was one of the most famous escape stories during WW2. The Great Escape movie is now an institution in The United Kingdom and the United States. Made famous by the swagger of Steve McQueen and his fictional attempted escape attempts culminating in a cross-country motorbike chase (McQueen’s preferred sport) with Nazi Germans in pursuit.
The backdrop of the movie is however a true story and it involves a South African as its leader and not a plucky Briton.
The Real Story of The Great Escape
In the spring of 1943, Roger Bushell masterminded a plot for a major escape of Prisoners of War from Stalag Luft III. Being held in the north compound where British airmen were housed, Bushell as commander of the escape committee channelled the escape effort into probing for weaknesses and looking for opportunities. Falling back on his legal background to represent his scheme, Bushell called a meeting of the escape committee in the camp and not only shocked those present with its scope, but injected into every man a passionate determination to put 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!”
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 under way. The most radical aspect of the plan was not merely the scale of the construction, but also 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 over 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, Bushell inherited the codename of “Big X”. The tunnel “Tom” began in a darkened corner of a hall in one of the buildings. “Harry”‘s entrance was carefully hidden under a Stove. The entrance to “Dick” had a very well concealed entrance in a drainage sump. More than 600 prisoners were involved in their construction.
Bushell also organised another mass break out, which occurred 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 to the showers for delousing in the neighbouring compound. All but two were later recaptured and returned to the camp, with the remaining two officers being sent to Oflag IV-C at Colditz for attempting to steal an aircraft.
After the discovery of Tom, construction on Harry was halted. but it resumed in January 1944. On the evening of 24 March, after months of preparation, 200 officers prepared to escape. But things did not go as planned, with only 76 officers managed to get clear of the camp. Among those left behind was 21-year-old RAF Flight Lieutenant Alan Bryett, who refers to Bushell as “the bravest man I ever knew”.
Roger and his partner Bernard Scheidhauer, among the first few to leave the tunnel, successfully boarded a train at Sagan railway station. They were caught the next day at Saarbrücken railway station, waiting for a train to Alsace, which had been annexed from France by Germany.
Bushell and Scheidhauer were murdered three days later by members of the Gestapo. This was a breach of the Geneva Convention and so constituted 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 on Hitler’s direct orders.
In an ironic twist Bushell’s executioner was himself executed at the end of the war for his crime (see this story on the Observation Post As they like to say in the military “Karma is a Bitch!”).
It unfortunately was not just Roger Bushell as a South African to suffer this fate, three more South Africans participated and escaped with Roger Bushell in The Great Escape. Lieutenants Gouws, Stevens and McGarr (all South African Air Force) were also recaptured and executed illegally by the Gestapo.
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. His name also appears on the war memorial in Hermanus, South Africa, where his parents spent their last years and where they were buried.
Roger Bushell was born in Springs South Africa on the 30th November 1910. He was first schooled in Johannesburg at Park Town School but later moved to England, and in 1929 he spent his first year at Cambridge University where he studied law. His talents however extended far beyond a career in law, as an athlete he 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.
In South Africa the memory of Roger Bushell lives on in Hermanus. His name is among those on the War Memorial above the Old Harbour, Roger’s parents were living in Hermanus at the time of his death and his parents also made a presentation to the Hermanus High School, in remembrance of their son who (incidentally) could speak nine languages. The two coveted Roger Bushell prizes for character are still awarded annually at the prize-giving of the school. One prize is awarded annually to the student who has shown the most exemplary signs of character during the year and second one is for the school boy chosen by his fellow students as the best leader.
Roger Bushell’s memorial plaque on the War Memorial in Hermanus, South Africa.
Researched by Peter Dickens, with reference and help from Buskruit Burger and Sandy Evan Hanes.