Richard Attenborough plays the Bushell-based character “Roger Bartlett” in The Great Escape, the film based on the story.
South African-born, Cambridge-educated, a pitch-perfect speaker of German and French, Bushell turned in his barristers’ briefs for fighter wings when World War II got underway.
But he was not meant to add Knight of the Air to his c.v., for his Spitfire was downed in its first engagement in May 1940. Bushell wound up in German custody, where he proved to possess a preternatural aptitude for escape.
He slipped German custody in June 1941 and made it within steps of Switzerland before a border guard nabbed him.
Nothing daunted, Bushell escaped again in October 1941 and successfully laid low in Czechoslovakia for months … long enough to finally get swept up in the reprisal roundups following the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.
In truth it was a collaborative effort of astonishing scale. Captured soldiers characteristically fled custody, as Bushell himself had before, in ones or twos, or in small groups.
In this camp, Bushell conceived and rigorously managed an industrial-scale operation aiming to bust out more than 200 inmates. “Only” 76 ultimately got out, more than enough for the utter consternation of the Third Reich.
Bushell was going to go big to go home; in fact, his alpha-male code-name among the escape plan’s initiates was “Big X”. Big X mobilized some 600 prisoners to work on three simultaneous escape tunnels, nicknamed “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”. Sunk 9 meters underground to stymie German anti-digging seismographs, the tunnels entailed a complex, months-long logistical operation for disposing of dirt, buttressing walls, pumping air. Nor did the escape plans end at the camp wire: teams prepared clothing, papers, maps, money. Every escaping prisoner had a plan and a cover story.
We had a mapping section which turned out 400 maps of the area. Forged passes, they worked day and night turning out some brilliant passes which passed stringent Gestapo checks later on. They were mostly artists, led by an artist called Tim Whelan who was later shot. The clothing department made very good clothes and suits. Compasses, food, you name it, intelligence of course. And train times, we knew all the train times.
One of the tunnels was found, and one was abandoned, but “Harry” was completed. 102 meters long, it stretched just beyond Stalag Luft III’s outer perimeter, and agonizingly shy of the nearby tree line. On the night of March 24-25 1944, 76 men (Bushell included) slipped out of “Harry” at intervals minutes apart, and into the freezing dark, scurrying into the woods with silent prayers that the nearby guard tower would not throw a spotlight in their direction. The 77th escapee was finally spotted emerging by camp sentries and captured, shutting down the whole operation.
Despite their prepared plans, the runners were very deep within German territory, and in the dead of a moonless night. Successfully completing their escapes would require crossing land on foot in the snow, navigating multiple Reich train platforms without catching the eye of now-hyper-vigilant inspectors, crossing hundreds of kilometers of territory, and passing off accents and forged papers with credible aplomb.
Not many could really manage this: the honor — the duty, as Bushell and many others thought — was in the attempt.
In all, 73 of the 76 escapees in this caper were recaptured within days. (Click here for the stories of the three who actually got away.)
A furious Adolf Hitler personally ordered everyone concerned executed when news broke of the escape, a flagrant violation of the laws of war. His advisors, concerned at triggering possible reprisals, managed to talk the boss down to the nice round number of 50 executions, a … 31.5% less extensive flagrant violation of the laws of war? Germans too suffered the regime’s fury; Hitler was talked off executing the camp commandant, but that guy lost his job. Some workmen from whom the escapees had stolen electrical cable for work on the tunnel were shot for having failed to report the theft.
And the 50 whom the Reich’s leadership had decided to kill* were shot out of hand at various times and places from March 29 to April 12.**
Their somewhat reduced ranks did not much lessen the ferocity of the Allies’ postwar manhunt for the parties involved in conducting it; the “Stalag Luft III murders” were announced in Parliament as soon as May 1944 and became the subject of a dedicated trial in 1947. The convictions in that case led to a mass hanging for war crimes in Hameln, Germany on February 27, 1948.
For his part, Bushell takes his final rest in Posnan, Poland. Although the men shot on this and succeeding nights for the Great Escape are interred at various spots, a monument near the old camp site at Sagan/Zagan permanently honors “the 50”.
* The specific 50 were chosen by Artur Nebe, who would later be executed by the Nazis himself. The selections were heavy on happenstance; while eastern Europeans and the escape leadership were predictably included, many others were in or out by the feeblest of reasons. For example, the Germans are thought to have passed on shooting escapees named “Nelson” and “Churchill” for no better cause than their conceivable relationship to the famous Britons of those names.