1944: Roger Bushell and others for the Great Escape

On this date in 1944, the dashing Royal Air Force adventurer and prisoner of war Roger Bushell was shot for his key role orchestrating World War II’s most famous prison break — the Great Escape.

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.

By now he’d wound up in Stalag Luft III, a POW camp adjacent the Silesian town of Sagan (today, Zagan, Poland). Here Bushell would author his breakout masterpiece.

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.

Jimmy James

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.

** Meanwhile, Germany menacingly warned POWs that further escape attempts would likely cost a man his life. (Image from this page.)

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20 thoughts on “1944: Roger Bushell and others for the Great Escape

  1. Knowing the depravity of man as depicted in God’s Word (Bible) it is not surprising that a man like “Friedrich Paul Berg” exists. Friedrich Paul Berg’s writings repeatedly contradict his own adamant statements (like most deranged hateful persons). Unfortunately Friedrich Paul Berg has rejected the only one that can change his heart “Jesus Christ” the atoning redeemer of those that believe in Him.

  2. Germany was bombing English cities in WWI and to a greater extent in the Spanish Civil War. It started long before WWII and it started with the Germans… and by the way, what’s this “reluctantly”? Seems like they were pretty keen to me.

  3. Hi, Kevin. Well, you know the saying : You can’t cure stupid. There is certainly no cure for willful stupidity or moral blindness.

  4. Hi Fiz; Yes, any debate in that direction is a waste of time. Very sad.

  5. Kevin and Meagan, I cannot believe such ignorance and stupidity exists and I agree it is best not to bother replying to such a cretin.

  6. CORRECTION: In my second post above, I mistakenly wrote that Rudolf Hess made his flight to England in May of 1940. The flight was made in May of 1941, a year later shortly before Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22 of 1941.

    Hess had naively hoped to end the war with Britain and at no cost to Britain–and perhaps even get the Brits to help Germany in its war against their mutual enemy, the Soviet Union. Hess clearly overestimated the brainpower of Britain’s leadership and of the US.

    Friedrich Paul Berg

  7. I was “saved” from Jesus when I learned how to read. I was saved from the holocaust hoax many years later when I also learned how to think far more critically.

    The main reason why Sullivan and others believe the holocaust hoax is that they want to believe it. It is a form of “group thinking” which bonds them with so many others–and liberates from any guilt feelings for their own moral depravity.and heinous crimes They might not be able to live with themselves just as so many Iraq and Afghan war veterans (criminals) can no longer live today with themselves either. Fiz and Meaghan should light the stove and jump in.

    Friedrich Paul Berg

  8. I think I already have a “saving knowledge” of Jesus, whatever that is. It is all bunk just like Judaisn and Islam and all other religions.

    Do you as a Christian actually eat bits of Jesus” body and drink his blood? That is so disgusting! Shame on you for being so perverted!.

    If anyone was ever gassed to death by the Nazis, let God strike me dead! That is my challenge to God and Jesus and to all the cookoos who believe such nonsense.

    Friedrich Paul Berg

  9. Mr. Berg: We must agree to disagree; until that time, of course, when you stand before God.

    I pray that you come to a saving knowledge of Jesus long before this occurs.

    Deliverance awaits, Berg, if only you will receive it!

    • For those who believe in GOD, no explanation is necessary.
      For those who do not believe in GOD, no explanation is possible.
      Before GOD and the world, I am thankful that I love GOD and CHRIST

  10. My website is easy enough to find. Go there!

    Hitler made many peace offers to the British, even during and after the British fiasco at Dunkirk, which involved no loss at all of any British territory.

    For people like Sullivan, the really good news is that there is no God or else he and people like him would be in big trouble.

    Friedrich Paul Berg

  11. Berg; I just read your post above. I am almost laughing. You have everything upside down. What else can you tell me? The earth is flat?

    Hitler NEVER attempted to stop the war. He was the aggressor in Europe and was dealt with by the Allies.

    To deny such things that are known by all is to present yourself as being very severely handicapped mentally. As such, had you been alive when Hitler ruled, he would have murdered you too.

  12. Dear Mr. Berg: Please don’t tell me you’re one of these Germans who do not believe Hitler murdered 11 million people (6 million Jews, the rest gentiles)?

    Tell me, please, your thinking has not completely shut down.

  13. If the Nazis had murdered people in gas chambers (which in fact never happened), that would have still been humane and merciful compared to what people like Meaghan and Fiz actually did during WW2. If such people want to see real monsters, they need only look into any mirror.

    Friedrich Paul Berg

  14. Fiz, there is no point in arguing with this person. He runs a Holocaust denial website that’s so riddled with inaccuracies it’s not even funny.

  15. It was the British who began the deliberate bombing of German cities and civilian populations long before Hitler reluctantly ordered the bombing of the first Briitsh city, London, on September 7, 1940. The British had already bombed Berlin five times in the previous weeks with major air attacks using eighty bombers in each attack. Hitler offered to end the air war many times but got no response. Rudolf Hess actually flew to England in May of 1940 to try to end the madness with his own physical presence. For his Christ-like act, Hess was rewarded with life imprisonment and was eventually even murdered in prison.

    The real mass murderers were the British and the Americans. And, after their murderous and cowardly attacks on civilian populations, they expected if caught to be treated in accord wih rules of war which they had broken many times over. They had deliberately r-o-a-s-t-e-d as many women, children and babies as they possibly could. Eternal shame on America and Britain!

    Friedrich Paul Berg

  16. Of course the Nazis never bombed anyone in England or destroyed any English cities. Of course not.

    • what a liar that Berg guy is obviously he doesn’t know anyone who was a holocaust survivor, he hasn’t seen the death camp pictures and the thousands of bodies in German graves. He isn’t aware of the Nuremberg trials. If all this wasn’t true, then why did the Nazi war crime criminals RUN? Why did they HIDE? If they were innocent?
      Why did Hitler commit suicide? (Or at least fake his suicide)
      There are lots of holocaust survivors alive even today, tattooed numbers on their arms and everything. Robert Clary, the French-American actor, known as Hogan’s Heroes, Corporal Louis LeBeau is one of those survivors!
      So do we believe a crackpot like this Berg guy, or people who were actually there? No Brainer!

  17. At least the Nazis did NOT simply burn those recaptured “airmen” alive which is what so many of them truly deserved for the mass incinerations of women, children and babies which they had brought about. The Nazis did NOT simply tie them to stakes and burn them or toss them into buildings burning from allied air attacks. That would have been a learning experience. BTW, it was the British who had initiated such attacks on civilians with support from the US.

    Friedrich Paul Berg

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