Force History – Vignettes
The Great Escape
SQUADRON LEADER ROGER BUSHELL
THE LEADER OF THE GREAT ESCAPE
Roger Joyce Bushell was born in Springs, Transvaal, South Africa on 30 August 1910. Educated in Johannesburg and at Wellington College in Berkshire, he went on to study law at Pembroke College between 1930 and 1932. As a student, he developed a passion for skiing and captained the Oxford and Cambridge team on a vist to Canada. He was declared the fasted Briton in the Male Downhill Category and subsequently had a run named after him at St Moritz in Switzerland. On graduation from Cambridge, he became a Barrister at Law at Lincolns Inn in London, where he specialised in criminal defence.
In 1932, Roger joined 601 (County of London) Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force, known variously as The Legionaires due to the colourful variety of its members or The Millionaires Mob because of the privileged background of its officers. Although a pilot,with his legal background, he was soon appointed to military cases, prosecuting and defending RAF personnel who had been charged with flying offences. Shortly after the outbreak of war, he was promoted to Squadron Leader and achieved the distinction of being the first auxiliary officer to command a regular RAF squadron, No 92.
On 23 May 1940, Roger was shot down over Boulogne. He crash-landed his aircraft but was soon captured and sent to the Dulag Luft Transit Camp from which he escaped, only to be recaptured at the Swiss Border. He was transferred to Lubeck, then Oflag X-C at Wurburg, in October 1941, and whilst in transit, the train stopped briefly in Hannover. He and his fellow prisoner, Jaroslav Zafouk, cut a hole in the floor of the carriage and made their way to Prague. After 6 months hiding in Prague with the Czech Resistance, Roger was arrested and subsequently interrogated in Berlin by the Gestapo for some weeks in connection with the recent assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by the Resistance.
He was then sent to Stalag Luft III at Sagan in what is now Poland where he took over the role of `Big X’ in charge of escapes. In the spring of 1943, he masterminded what became known as The Great Escape. 600 men dug three separate tunnels, so that in the event that one was discovered, the Germans would think it unlikely that others existed. At the time, many POWs preferred to sit out the rest of the war, rather than escape but Roger rallied and inspired others, when 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 that we can make life hell for our captors. In North Compound, we are concentrating our efforts in completing and escaping in one master tunnel. No private enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long, tunnels will be dug, Tom, Dick and Harry. One will succeed.”
On the evening of 24 March 1944, 200 officers prepared to escape, but just 76 got out before the tunnels were discovered, Only three made it back, one to the UK and two to Norway. The remainder were recaptured and 50 of them, including Roger Bushell, were shot by the Gestapo on Hitler’s direct orders. The Inscription on the headstone of Roger’s grave in Poznan, Poland reads:
A LEADER OF MEN, HE ACHIEVED MUCH, LOVED ENGLAND TO THE END
A Memorial Stone in Roger Bushell’s name was dedicated by the Foundation at the Royal Auxiliary Air Force Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in 2013. A relative from South Africa attended the event.