A Storyville Documentary: The story of the mastermind behind World War II's Great Escape, Roger Bushell, who became 'Big X' on his return to the PoW camp Stalag Luft 111.
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FIGHTER PLANE ENGINES ROAR
As soon as the battle started,
about four or five of them fell on me
and oh, boy, did I start dodging.
My first I got with a full deflection shot from underneath.
He went down in a long glide
and I went into a spin,
as two others were firing at me from aft.
I pulled left and up.
I then saw a Messerschmitt trying to fire up at me
so I went head-on at him.
We were both firing and everything was red flashes.
I killed the pilot because suddenly he pulled right at me
and missed me by inches.
I went over the top of him
and, as I turned, I saw him rear right up in a stall
and go down with his engines smoking.
He was out of control and half on his back.
My engine was badly shot-up
and caught fire.
I turned everything off.
The fire went out and I glided down.
There was a lot of glycol and I couldn't see anything much.
I turned the petrol on again.
The engine ran for a little while
and then everything seized
and a lot of fumes and smoke came into the cockpit.
So I prepared to land, undercarriage up.
This I did successfully,
only to get a knock on the nose, which bled like a pig.
The old girl burst into flames
and, as you can imagine, I moved pretty quickly.
I'd landed just East of Boulogne.
I thought, of course, I was well behind our lines.
And then, to my rage and astonishment,
a German motorbike came round the corner
and I was taken prisoner.
Please ask Hollis to send me the standard law books, like Salmond,
and also all the quarterlies, so I can keep my hand in.
A cheap set of Shakespeare would be grand.
I was three years old
when Hitler personally ordered the execution
of my uncle, Roger Bushell.
Throughout our childhood, he gazed down on us,
he smiled at us,
he winked at us, and we winked back.
Every summer, we spent our holidays
in my grandparents' house in Hermanus,
a small fishing village on the South African Cape coast.
my sister and I would play or laze about in my grandfather's study
while the elders slept.
My grandfather instilled in us a love for Britain.
He read us Rudyard Kipling.
We grew up believing that the British were best.
We read about Roger
from Paul Brickhill's book The Great Escape.
But what we longed for most
was that he would walk through the gate
so we could leap into his arms.
But this he never did.
My uncle, Roger Bushell,
masterminded the Great Escape of World War II.
In 1963, Hollywood made a film about it.
This time we'll dig straight down 30 feet before we go horizontal.
-That'll rule out any question of sound detection.
-All right, Roger.
Roger Bushell's role as Big X was played by Richard Attenborough.
We're going to devote our energies to sports and gardening,
all the cultural pursuits.
Hold onto yourself, Bartlett, you're 20 feet short.
What do you mean, 20 feet short?
You're 20 feet short of the woods.
My mother and I attended
the premiere of the film in London.
I was 22
and I sat next to Wing-Commander Harry Day,
who was Roger's senior commanding officer.
They were together as prisoners throughout the war.
Tods met Richard Attenborough afterwards
at the sort of reception they had
and he said to her, "I was wrong in the part, wasn't I?"
and she said, "Yes, frankly, you were.
"You weren't a bit like my brother."
And, of course, they changed his name to Bartley or something,
which annoyed me intensely,
but they did it apparently to...
safeguard themselves against any criticism from the family
so I suppose one has to accept it.
Squadron Leader Bartlett,
if you escape again,
and be caught, you will be shot.
In all those years we spent in my grandfather's study,
we never found the meticulous records he made of Roger's life.
Only very recently, we found them all in one place.
youth into manhood, photographs,
small notes and wry comments,
all sealed away for two generations to keep tragedy at bay.
My grandmother's diary begins it all.
For a week after his birth,
he lost weight steadily
and one night, his life hung by so slender a thread
that the nursing sister, a Roman Catholic,
implored me to let her christen him.
Roger Joyce Bushell,
I baptise you in the name of the Father...
After she had said the lovely words,
she laid him in my arms.
Drops of holy water still lay on his queer wrinkled forehead.
All fear for my beloved little son left me.
I knew that he would live.
He was my mother's brother.
He called her Tods.
They grew up on a gold mine
at West Springs on the South African Gold Reef.
They did everything together.
If it was bird-watching, my mother was sent along the branch first
to see if it would break.
My mother's dolls were burnt at the stake.
Roger could spit a phenomenal distance.
They had one small dog called Rubbish,
because he was found on a rubbish heap
and they had a much younger sister called Elizabeth.
Like many boys at the time,
Roger was sent to senior school in England.
He only ever returned to South Africa once or twice.
I suppose because we didn't see so much of him
he was sort of glamourised.
Stuffiness and being hide-bound by rules and regulations
were not his scene at all.
He did cock a snook at authority.
When he left Wellington, the headmaster wrote that
he really didn't think he could teach Roger anything more
and he suggested Roger went to West Africa, you know, in the Services,
and my father wrote and said that he thought he knew a bit more about
West Africa than the headmaster did, and no son of his was going there.
And that's when he went to Grenoble.
Roger was 15 when he first skied at Murren
but, even in those days, he counted in any company.
In 1931, aged 20, he won the Langlauf at Scheidig Oberland.
In later years he was one of the great characters at St Moritz.
And the uncrowned king
of the fashionable Italian skiing centre at Sestriere.
Sometimes, as a racer, Roger had far more courage than judgment
and threw away many races through recklessness.
In an attempt to overtake Frank Campbell of McGill,
he fell on a swift downhill run,
broke both skis
and lacerated his left eye.
However, when the rescue team went to pick him up,
he said he intended to go on.
"The team needs every point," he protested.
"They'll lose if I don't continue."
He was was restrained and sent to hospital.
Behind his gaiety and nonsense, which is joie de vivre
and also a touch of joie de vice -
is an unceasing or underlying purpose
and a strong will to carry it out.
Loving as he is, fundamentally,
he will never let his heart completely control his head -
and so, he will grow into a fine man.
My most vivid memory, I suppose, going to dinner at the Savoy
and dancing, and as the clock struck 12 and I became 17, he said,
"Right, now I'm going to show you how people really kiss,"
and I went down the drain and came up for air about two minutes later.
He said, "Well, there you are. Now you know."
You know, sweet 17 and never kissed before,
sort of, which wasn't entirely true, but still.
There were very few people who had the experience that Roger had
on the female sex, I can assure you.
He had many girlfriends, many, many girlfriends.
# Some day you'll come along
# The man I love... #
And, very often, a married one, and a rich one.
I mean, he used to go to the same tailor as Daddy
and have things made up
and then the bills came in, and Father hit the roof.
He'd moved into a world that was completely different
to anything that Benji had been in.
# He'll look at me and smile... #
Benji didn't countenance the fact that Roger was always stony-broke.
He got mad as a snake about this but he didn't realise
that living in London was a great deal more expensive
than living in South Africa, and certainly in Springs.
What Roger never realised was that,
although Benji had a very big position at the mine,
and he had a lot of perks,
he had a car and a chauffeur and God knows how many gardeners
and the house.
Actual cash? I don't think he had all that amount.
He didn't consider Roger needed that amount of money
because he didn't, he didn't need it.
# He'll build a little home
# Just meant for two
# From which I'll never roam
# Who would?#
Skiing and flying were his great loves.
He was a member of Auxiliary Air Force.
He was 601 Squadron and they spent a fortnight, I think, a year,
at various aerodromes doing training
and they'd spend their lives getting sacks of flour or something
and dive-bombing 600.
Very, very full of beans, full of jokes,
but that was all sort of childish fun that went on each year.
But they were very serious about their flying.
"It's that silly ass Hitler again.
"Just back by flying boat from the South of France.
"Address: 601 Hendon.
"Am fighting fit. All love, Roger."
Roger was embodied by the RAF as a squadron leader.
He took a couple of his friends from 601 and formed Squadron 92.
By the time Roger sent the telegram to his parents,
on August 26th, 1939,
Adolf Hitler had already annexed Austria and occupied Czechoslovakia.
Six days after the telegram arrived, German divisions broke into Poland.
This morning, the British Ambassador in Berlin
handed the German government a final note
stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock
that they were prepared to withdraw their troops from Poland,
a state of war would exist between us.
I have to tell you now,
that no such undertaking has been received
and that consequently, this country is at war with Germany.
Roger's Squadron 92 traded Blenheim planes for Spitfires.
Pilots spoke of the clear-cut beauty of the Spitfire
with its Rolls-Royce engine
and that flying them was like an extension of their own bodies,
brains and nervous system.
On the morning of May 23rd 1940,
Squadron 92 was ordered to patrol the French coastline.
Roger was shot down at this juncture,
during the retreat of the British army at Dunkerque.
I remember the telegram arriving,
saying that Roger had been killed.
Well, we were all absolutely devastated.
I went back to Varsity and I was in some show
and the chap who was producing was an absolute darling.
I remember him taking me out for coffee or something
after we'd had a rehearsal
and saying, "Look, don't take it, I bet he's a prisoner of war."
My God, two days later or something, came the news that he was.
He was everything.
Someone once said to me during the war,
"You know you'll never get a husband
"if you keep measuring him up to your brother."
And that was my basic thing.
31st of July, 1940.
My darlings, you will know by now that I am a prisoner of war
and alive and well.
I understand that I had some flattering obituary notices,
so I'm afraid you must have had a bad time.
I hardly know where to start.
As we are only allowed this single sheet of paper,
my news will be sketchy.
I was shot down in a big battle with Messerschmitts.
I got two of them first,
so I have done something to help win the war.
Do you remember how I told you at the beginning of the war
that I knew I'd get through it?
Well, admittedly, I never thought it would be this way.
But I'm convinced now, that all my energies,
bottled up for the time being, are meant to be used later on.
My dear Uncle Harry, my flat, as you know,
I shared with Michael Peacock.
We owed the people a certain amount of rent because, of course,
with the declaration of war,
our circumstances were very much altered.
This letter gives you full authority to act on my behalf.
He and Michael Peacock, they had a flat in Tite Street, in Chelsea.
They shared the car, they shared everything
because if one had the tailcoat,
the other couldn't go out in a tail-coat that night!
They had this wonderful sort of carefree existence
and they had an old girl called Mrs Robinson who was their char,
who must have been an absolute saint the way she coped with them.
But, I mean, trust them to find someone like that.
In 1936, when he was actually working as a barrister,
he and Michael Peacock joined up as juniors in Khaki's Chambers.
I think they did all the sort of minor cases with no money attached.
And they also went down into what was the East End, once a week,
to give advice to people who had legal problems,
for free gratis and for nothing because it was experience,
and quite a few of them got into the newspapers.
He really did have the gift of the gab.
He could talk his way into anything and out of anything
and swore like a trooper at times.
And he had this rather fat chuckle.
I mean, they did their job and they did the job well.
Both he and Michael were very good at law.
I think he was quite liable to go out most of the night,
and come in and have to be in court at nine o'clock the next morning.
And thank God they did.
Poor Mike, I'm afraid, is dead.
Michael Peacock was killed three days before Roger was captured.
Life here is very peaceful and we are extremely well treated.
I had a delightful birthday party
with whisky sent over by the Kommandant,
who is a charming fellow.
I have many books, all the old classics
and have a whole set of Shakespeare, which is a great joy.
And several parcels of popular games like backgammon, chess
and those absurd puzzles have arrived from Harrods.
I have all that's necessary to bodily comfort,
only that devil, the human mind, makes one go crazy at times.
Something of greater value beckons him on
and the image of it shines in his curiously dilated pupils.
At times only a rim of brilliant blue shines around them.
Were his goals solely a material one, I'd be anxious.
My dear Uncle Harry.
I would be grateful if you'd get in touch
with Miss Peggy Hamilton,
9 Wellesley House, Sloane Square, 8469.
We were going to get married, if I'd not ended up here
and we are going to get married as soon as this bloody war is over.
I've written to Cox & Kings
and told them that I wish my pay be made over to her.
My account at Barclays bank is overdrawn
but I have a life insurance to cover it.
My darling Mummy, your letters are the greatest joy.
Please don't think they're boring.
Letters are wonderful things when you're a prisoner.
I'm so glad Peggy Hamilton wrote to you.
She is, I'm quite sure, the only person in the world for me
and I know that you will adore her.
I want you to buy a lovely diamond
which I'll arrange to pay for out of my pay.
Send it to her and tell her to have it made into a ring.
While I'm a prisoner, it's probably the only time
I'll have enough money to buy her something really good.
It drives me almost frantic, with London being bombed,
to feel that Peggy is there, nursing, in the middle of it.
One is liable to become vague, I find,
so shut away from the world are we.
Papers and the wireless bring the war into perspective for a moment,
but the context is an artificial one
and we carry on in our community in splendid isolation
from the struggle and tragedy of it all.
The first snow has fallen.
The air is like wine and the snow has that creaky, squeaky crunch
that makes me so homesick for Switzerland and a pair of skis.
We went out today in beautiful powder snow,
crisp fresh air, blue sky
and all the trees loaded with snow.
It was too beautiful for words.
Believe it or not, we bought skis through the canteen
and use Red Cross boots and go out on the local hills
with the German officers.
You can imagine what it does to us.
And then, of course, one gets outside the old barbed wire.
Life is like a jigsaw puzzle.
We fiddle with the pieces, put them this way and that,
try to fit one with the other, but it's of no use.
They will only go one way and, finally, we have to find it.
I am the first of the family ever to take this journey across Europe
to find out as much as I can about Roger's dogged life,
of escape and captivity.
The exhilaration of getting outside the old barbed wire onto skis again
inspired Roger's first escape.
While he and Wings Day and others
placated the German Luftwaffe at Dulag Luft,
they were simultaneously digging a tunnel to get out.
The others agreed that Roger would leave
the day before the tunnel attempt.
Roger outlined his plan to hide in a goat shed overnight
before catching trains south to the Swiss border.
With his fluency in German, he set course for Switzerland,
travelling by day in a civilian suit
bought from one of the guards at Dulag Luft.
I was able to engage in brief conversations and navigated
with the aid of guidebooks purchased from shops along the way.
I went to Tuttlingen by express train
and from there to Bondorf by suburban line.
From Bondorf I reached, on foot, the point I was making for,
just a few kilometres from the Swiss border.
Things had gone almost too well,
so I sat down for two hours and made myself generate caution
for the last decisive stage.
I had the alternatives of waiting for nightfall, with all its problems,
or by bluffing it out by daylight, and I chose the latter.
Roger discovered that he'd been only 100 yards from the Swiss border
at that moment when he paused to consider.
Alas, in the border village of Stuhlingen,
he was halted by a guard.
Pretending to be a drunken but amiable ski-instructor,
and speaking German, he was being conducted towards a check point
for an examination of his papers when he broke loose and bolted,
dodging bullets into a side street which, alas,
proved to be a cul-de-sac and he was run to earth within minutes.
Escaping meant punishment
and Roger was sent to Stalag Luft II on the Baltic.
Starkly different from Dulag Luft.
June 21st, 1941
My darlings, I've changed my address.
Apologies for not writing last month.
I left the camp without asking,
having decided it was so long since I'd seen my friends.
Ghastly bad luck stopped me literally right at the last moment.
I was within 100 yards and could have taken a girl's school across,
when I paused.
Almost all of the old crowd from Dulag have collected here.
Yes, the next time I saw him was in the summer of 1941,
after the Dulag Luft tunnel, through which about 18 or 20 escaped.
Now, previous to that, we thought they were...
just having a good time down at Dulag.
There were permanent staff
and they were enjoying the fruits of the German occupation of France,
and captured British stocks and so on,
and they got a very cold reception when they came in through the gate
but, of course, when we heard that they had dug a tunnel and escaped,
the attitude changed entirely.
Letters are our only link with the real world.
One writes not knowing what number of people read them
and one tries to pretend the complicated machinery of censorship
does not exist.
I still have not heard from Peggy.
All my books left at the last camp.
Splendid of John to subscribe to my parcels.
The best would be cigarettes.
Several shops like Harrods know the ropes.
Actually, in this camp, we have had no parcels.
You'll be speechless to hear that I got on the scale at 12 stone 4 lbs,
26 lbs lighter than on arrival.
The Germans began by saying to everybody, they said it to me,
"For you, the war is over." It isn't. It's still going on.
You must also never forget that you're on the winning side
and you must remind the Germans of that.
If they know that you speak German you must speak German to them
as often as you can.
You take an air of convinced superiority to them.
This could annoy some of the rear-area Germans,
looking after the prisoner of war camps, very much indeed, of course.
And it was deliberately harped on by men as clever as Roger,
who were good at it.
My second birthday just passed as an unwilling guest in this country.
He very soon made himself felt, if not heard, I mean,
if you didn't meet him, you heard him talking around the compound
or expressing his views of the Germans.
As far as I can see, I am likely to spend one more birthday here
before the war is over.
All my love, Roger.
He escaped again with a Czech pilot seven years younger than him,
I first met Roger in a prison near Hamburg.
We got to know that the Germans are going to move the whole camp
and transport all of us by train to somewhere in Germany.
Roger managed to get some German money
and all sorts of things necessary for escape,
and got some food coupons out of the German guards for some cigarettes.
I had a good plan for an escape route.
By the middle of '41,
anybody going on an air-force raid over enemy occupied territory
or anybody going on a commando raid
had one of Clayton Hutton's escape boxes
in the trouser pocket of his battledress,
which included food for a few days of a sort,
chocolate and Horlicks tablets, water-purifying tablets,
a tiny little water-bottle, a fish-hook,
a little thread in case your clothes got torn, a saw and a compass.
The Germans put 30 of us in one cattle truck with two guards.
It was quite dark inside and we took out our saws
and starting sawing the board on one end of the truck.
There were another four boys and everybody took his turn.
After about an hour and a half of sawing
we managed to loosen the board and took it inside.
Round about midnight, the train came to a large goods station
where it slowed down a bit and we decided to go. We jumped.
After we got to our feet, both of us ran across about three rails
and hid under a stationary train, waiting until our train passed
and to see whether all is clear for us to get up and dash for freedom.
Everything seemed quiet, so we got up, ran back across the rails,
jumped the fence.
We changed into our home-made civvy clothes.
Both of us looked more like two masqueraders than anything else!
We stayed in a field till the day broke out.
Then we found in the vicinity a stream where we washed ourselves
and made ready for our next move.
We knew roughly where we were and went to the station.
There we found a cinema that was open and went inside to hide ourselves
until came the time for us to catch a train to Dresden.
From now on, everything went according to our plan -
to get to Prague,
to get in touch with the Czech underground people,
who would help us to get either to Switzerland
or to some other neutral country.
In Prague, Jarka Zafouk's girlfriend recognised him on a train.
It was in 1941. I was coming back from a date, I think it was.
And there was this man standing on the street car inside
with glasses, moustache and I looked at him and I said,
"Oh, my God, it must be him!"
And that was Jarka and that was how we got back together.
Vlasta Zafouk flew back to Prague from Montreal
to tell me what she remembered of the time
when Roger and Jarka were there in hiding.
I always remember Roger because he made quite an impression on me.
He was really, really something different,
ready to take any chance just to get what he wanted.
Roger would take any chance to get away,
steal an aeroplane,
"We'll do this, we'll do that."
That's where...they went on together very well,
except these little moments
when he got into that mood and he wanted out.
When they came to Prague,
apparently they stayed with Schumberer
but then they had to go out because the people got scared.
Jarka knew Ota and he said,
"Well, I'll talk to my sister and to my father and see if they agree".
And they agreed, and so they went and stayed there.
It was against the law to be in resistance
and the penalty was a bullet to the back of the neck straight away
or get sent off to a labour camp and be worked to death.
Not only for you but for all your family as well.
You put not only yourself but all of your relatives at risk
if you went into resistance.
They stayed in this house on the third floor.
Their name was Zeithammle, Blaza, Ota and the father.
Blaza, she was a very good-looking girl,
..nice, lots of fun to talk to.
And Ota, I didn't see him very much either
because he was in the army
and he came home now and then for a visit,
and later on I think he worked for the Underground.
You had to be so careful because there were so many spies.
Just before the Zeithammle family hid Roger and Jarka Zafouk,
Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler's head of secret state police
and the criminal police,
became the Third Reich Protektor of Czechoslovakia.
Lots of killing, lots of arrests.
You only have to do a little bit of thing, they arrested you right away.
He was hated, absolutely hated.
So how could you fight, you know,
somebody who had all the power really to just crush you
if you tried to do anything?
All universities were closed and everybody had to go to work.
It was Heydrich who had signed and set in motion
what the Third Reich called
The Final Solution to the Jewish Question.
Since Heydrich came, people got more afraid, so we stayed more inside.
In this particular house, nobody knew they were there.
All of us play cards, amuse ourselves as much as we could.
There was no TV that time, only radio.
While 20,000 Jews were being removed from Prague's Jewish quarter,
the people of Prague began to feel uncomfortable in their own streets.
And Roger tried to kill time in the apartment.
Roger, I don't know what he did all day.
I ask him several times.
He said he read.
He read, I suppose, poor Roger,
stuck being alone there all day,
and Blaza looking so good, you know.
They got involved together.
There was a war going on and during the war lots of things happen
which normally probably wouldn't have happened.
And Blaza probably thought she wanted to marry him after the war
and he told her - Roger said, "No, I can't marry you.
"I can't because I am already engaged in England."
Whatever, she got very hurt
and she had a boyfriend before the war.
She called him up and told him everything
and he was the one who gave them away to Gestapo, for money.
I was supposed to work in the afternoon
and the girl who changed with me, came to me and said,
"Can I work in the morning?"
For me, it didn't make any difference so I said, "Fine."
If it didn't happen, I would have been there in the morning with them.
That would have been the end of me.
Jarka told me that Roger got very angry with the Gestapo man
and I think he hit him.
So Roger was beaten quite a bit
because, with his hot temper, he was opposing.
And Jarka, I am sure he got more than he told me.
He didn't like talking about it.
Roger came face to face with Fascism for the first time.
He had been associated with the Czech Resistance
and this enraged the Germans.
We know that he refused to give the names of the Zeithammle family
and that he was severely treated as a result.
There was one rule about being interrogated,
which was universal, which Roger would have picked up,
applied particularly to the Secret Services,
you say nothing at all for the first 48 hours
to give everybody who was in touch with you a chance to scarper.
The father was arrested right away.
The son was arrested right away.
And Blaza was going around with no problem at all.
I never came round this place again.
This is the first time after, what is it, 65 years.
Sad, sad, remembering all the good things
because at that time I was quite happy
in spite of all the misery going around.
Heydrich wasn't only the Reich's Protektor in Czechoslovakia.
He remained also head of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt,
the main German party secret service.
And, therefore, had a lot of secrets locked up in his head
which would die with him if somebody could manage to kill him.
He was, therefore, a legitimate objective for any Secret Service.
About 20 Czechs were sent up to one of SOE's training camps
and two of them were settled on eventually.
They went off into Prague.
CAR HORN BEEPS
HE SPEAKS GERMAN
Orders came from Berlin to shoot
everybody who was under suspicion,
which happened also that Blaza was taken in also.
The Gestapo shot the Zeithammle family.
It is possible that Roger was taken to Berlin
in the very week of Heydrich's state funeral, a time of high emotion,
and the Reich's unabated fury at his death.
HIMMLER EULOGISES HEYDRICH
It was sheer bad luck for Roger that this assassination took place
just two weeks after he'd been arrested.
The Gestapo seemed to think that he was a British Secret Service agent
and that between the time of his escape
and his re-arrest six months later, he had been back in London.
They believe that he'd been dropped back into Czechoslovakia
in a parachute, like the Czech assassins,
to help foment an insurrection at the same time.
I remember as a girl asking my mother
whether what was happening in South Africa wasn't the same evil
Roger had fought against.
She told me I knew nothing about World War II, which was true,
but I was right.
Each generation makes its choice
of whether or not to create and nurture a culture of fear.
This is the infamous Prinz Albrecht-Strasse,
the ruined site of Heydrich's SS Headquarters.
The secret police turned the studios of The School of Industrial Arts
into interrogation cells.
Here the enemies of Hitler's Third Reich were interrogated,
all its political and religious opponents -
artists, musicians, writers and intellectuals.
It is very likely that Roger was interrogated here, in these cells.
The rule was, you're compelled by the Geneva Convention
to give your name and rank or your name and number.
Beyond that, you are entitled to say nothing.
Roger will have had a very difficult month in Berlin,
probably being interrogated alternately
by the hard man and the soft man.
The soft man giving him a cigarette and apologising to him
for the dreadful manners of the hard man,
the hard man bark, bark, barking at him all the time,
threatening him with physical torture, probably not applying it.
Not many prisoners of war were actually tortured.
They would use threats and things like that,
and hope that you were weak enough to fall for it.
They're quite likely to take off your boots and trample on your toes,
which will break quite a lot of people up quite fast
but if you're bloody-enough-minded,
and Roger was good at being bloody-minded,
you can stand up to that.
You were pretty cautious. One knew what was happening.
But you could go along with it, to a small degree
and then divert off, take them off the scent, as you might say.
But there are some things you never admit,
such as what code you're using, if you are using a code,
such as who you were staying with.
You simply don't admit that.
If you showed any fear or anything like that,
you'd have had it, really.
You had to put on a very brave front.
Roger was one of those people whose face is the window of their spirit.
When all was well, there was the light within.
When he was thwarted or wrongly judged,
the light dimmed and he was thought to be morose
when he was actually deeply perturbed or unhappy.
Relations between the Gestapo
and the rest of the German armed forces were often pretty chill.
The Luftwaffe liked to keep its prisoners to itself
and was inclined, if the Gestapo got hold of a prisoner of war
to see whether they couldn't intervene and get him back,
out of Gestapo hands, into a more normal prisoner-of-war environment.
Roger was held for three months.
His release from the Gestapo was greatly helped
by the intervention of two Germans, Uber-Lieutenant von Massow,
an intelligence officer, who had known and liked Roger at Dulag Luft,
and even taken him out to dinner in Frankfurt,
and Oberst von Lindeiner,
a newly appointed Kommandant of Stalag Luft III.
Roger took this same journey with the Gestapo - Berlin to Zagan -
where Goering had built his model camp,
specifically designed to prevent prisoners from escaping,
Stalag Luft III.
When he was handed over, the Gestapo warned Roger
that if he was ever caught escaping again
he would be shot.
Quite a large party of us had come from Dulag Luft,
that was the interrogation camp, in a special train.
We got to the station in Zagan
and out of the train
and were marched up a short distance to the camp.
You could see a wide open space of dirty sand,
a clearing in a pine forest,
a lot of wooden huts, surrounded by an ample supply of barbed-wire.
All I thought was,
"Well, this is going to be home for the rest of the war."
My darlings, here I am again.
You will, I know, have had a very anxious and trying time
but I also know that you would not have expected me,
in the circumstances, to have done anything other than I did.
I am quite OK.
I wouldn't worry about the photography, by the way.
It was taken on a bad day in winter, in a bad light.
I was also probably in a bad temper
and I don't look any younger these days
but I am very well, all things considered,
and a month of decent, civilised life would put me back to normal.
And I will have one great advantage -
I will be very much wiser.
I am naturally very disappointed to have been caught again
but my spirits are sky-high and you need have no fear
that this life has got me down yet,
or that it ever will, please, God.
Give yourselves all a big hug and lots of love, from Roger.
I met Roger in the camp.
He was shot down long before I was.
I was very fond of him.
We used to have a lot of
what I think was very intelligent conversation anyway.
He might not have done!
But I certainly did.
We discussed everything,
from women to anything else you'd like to talk about.
Shortly after his arrival, von Massow handed Roger a letter
he had kept back until he was among friends.
It was from Peggy Hamilton, to say she had married somebody else.
I only heard about Peggy a couple of weeks ago.
Don't waste any false sympathy on this,
because I find I don't really care a damn about it.
I have told Harry to do what he can about the money,
but if Peggy sticks her toes in, there's nothing I can do legally.
The whole business is a bore and not worth discussing.
Soon after this, Roger addressed the camp in words to this effect.
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 the Hun.
Quite clearly he was a formidable figure on the escaping front,
being what Crocket used to call escape-minded, from an early stage.
He became what was known as X, that is head of escapes,
for the entire camp, a very responsible business.
He was very good as X, very good indeed.
I mean, he had a very clear brain and knew exactly what he wanted
and what he didn't want, and what he expected of us.
And that was very important
because sometimes we wouldn't necessarily know
what we wanted to do and he made it clear what we ought to do.
He took charge and brought order and discipline into the whole process
which, previously, hadn't existed.
I mean, if I decided it would be a good idea to start a tunnel
from here and see if I could tunnel out there
and you decided that you were going to start one there...
They were all digging like bunnies and usually got in each other's way
and Roger said, "Well, there must be a stop to this!"
No private enterprise tunnels allowed!
We will dig three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels,
and the tunnel is taboo.
They will be called Tom, Dick and Harry.
The genius behind Roger's idea of digging three tunnels simultaneously
was that if one tunnel was found,
the Germans would not suspect any others existed.
They set about sinking three separate shafts
from three different huts,
each 25 feet deep and two feet square
and the tunnelling began.
I'm quite sure that Roger, although he ran the whole thing,
I'm quite sure he didn't go down until it was absolutely done,
because he wouldn't even go in a tube if he could avoid it.
He hated being underground.
It was quite phobia with him.
In his role as Big X, his father's mantle fell upon him.
Benjy would have liked him to go into mining
and nothing was going to induce him to go into mining.
He hated the very thought of it.
Now, ironically, his freedom depended on it.
For the first time in his life,
Roger needed his father's advice as a mining engineer.
This was the one thing he could not write about in his letters.
My darlings, only one letter from father this month.
Now, what am I to write to you about?
Hmmm, the weather?
It's dull, like the countryside and our existence.
My fellow human beings?
They're ordinary and, alas, somewhat dull too.
That's a topic worn threadbare in our daily lives.
And a letter should be like a holiday, new world
and new people, like a cinema, enchantment for a short hour or so.
Outside, people are lying about in the sun, and overhead,
the pale blue German sky, so like those pale blue Aryan eyes,
looks down with stolid indifference on us.
Tomorrow I'm 33. Hey-ho!
Lots of love, Roger.
In the early days, breakfast was just acorn coffee,
lunchtime, a watery sauerkraut soup and a few bad potatoes.
So we were pretty darned hungry on that.
People played football and...
but we didn't have the energy to play very enthusiastically.
Roger harnessed the skills of the camp.
He intended to get 200 men out.
Each person would need civilian clothing, official papers,
money, maps, compasses and so forth.
He personally selected the men to run these departments.
He had to be able to get on with everybody,
and he had to be able to detect their weaknesses
and their strengths, which he was very good at doing,
I might say, very good,
and he'd soon let you know, too!
600 people dug the three tunnels.
I had no part in that, mercifully!
I mean I can't think of anything more horrible...
..than digging a tunnel.
The only time I ever got near a tunnel
was we built this ventilation pump.
It was a double-acting pump, two kit-bags, right,
and the operator just sat there, as though he was rowing,
just pumping air down a pipeline
because you couldn't breathe without a source of air
once you were a considerable distance away from the shaft.
You've got all these teams of experts like tailors,
forgers, con-men who bribed the guards.
Escaping was the principle industry, of course.
It occupied most people's time.
Even if you were sanguine enough to know
that your chances of getting out of the camp were slim
and of getting home were almost negligible.
The goons knew perfectly well that there were tunnels
but they just couldn't find them.
You would only have needed one word in the wrong place
and, of course, they would have been found in no time.
Because the Germans were pretty smart.
We might have thought them as idiots, but they weren't!
You never talked indoors, for example,
because the Germans would use microphones and God knows what
all over the place.
Let's go and have a stroll or something like that, you see,
and you knew what he meant.
You only talked when you were on the circuit, walking round.
I've had a number of letters from Georgie Curzon,
an old flame of mine.
She's been busy divorcing her husband
who doesn't seem to have behaved very prettily.
And, now, poor Georgie is turning to her old love for comfort.
I had not heard from her for years.
I jolly nearly married her once.
You didn't know that, did you?
There was quite a bit of falling out and giving up,
people not wanting to do the escape.
They'd had enough, wanted a quiet life.
I wasn't one of them.
I was one of the two leading teams of diggers.
And we just went in there and dug the tunnel. That was it!
My job was digging at the front and then somebody behind me
would be taking the sand away from me.
That would be put on the trolley and the trolley was taken up
and the trolley was brought back again for another load.
We built sort of railway, you might say.
Six inches beneath the top soil was yellow sand.
The sight of this sand anywhere in the camp
immediately informed the German ferrets that a tunnel was being dug.
Peter Fanshawe invented an inner-trouser device
which they filled up with sand as it came out of the tunnel twice a day.
They would then walk to the fence, pull a string,
the sand fell down over their shoes and they'd kick it into the ground.
These men became known as penguins
because if they waddled, they were detected by the ferrets.
The camp is filling up and we're about 1,500 strong.
Newcomers, very optimistic,
especially about the effect of our particular efforts.
As everybody in Stalag Luft III was aircrew,
by definition, they were young and also they were intelligent
because of you were that stupid you couldn't really fly an aeroplane.
Um... And so all sorts of activities emerged,
the theatre being, obviously, one.
# A room with a view and you
# And no-one to give advice
# That sounds a paradise few
# Could fail to choose... #
I've now taken to the boards in the camp theatre
as a fat and worried old stock-broker,
who gets the wind up about the world
and his own affairs at 5.00am, in bed.
It's an amusing play called Apprehensions.
And the girls played are by fellows, some of them astonishingly funny.
# We'll be as happy and contented
# As birds upon a tree
# High above the mountains and the sea
# We'll bill and we'll coo-ooo-oo... #
I had the advantage of being rather a pretty boy
and so I was suitable for female roles.
We did hire special dresses
from some theatrical agency in Berlin or something like that,
which enabled us to look properly dressed.
That's not to say that the tailoring department wasn't very skilled,
it was primarily occupied with producing escaping gear,
not theatrical gear.
# Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington
# Don't put your daughter on the stage
# She's a bit of an ugly duckling
# You must honestly confess... #
We didn't get any propositions, but...
which was a shame, I suppose!
# Please, Mrs Worthington
# Don't put your daughter on the stage. #
In the ordinary mail,
the prisoners watched out for ingeniously hidden devices.
Among the things that MI9 sent in a perfectly ordinary parcel was,
of course, clothes and blankets.
If you looked very carefully at the blankets,
much more carefully than the Germans ever did,
you could see that if you could take a knife to them,
you could cut them down and turn them into an officer's greatcoat,
a German officer's greatcoat.
The locus classicus is the pack of playing cards.
You drop them in a bucket, all the cards come off,
and there's a very detailed map of the frontier of Switzerland inside.
Take the Monopoly board off and there's a map of Germany inside.
All sorts of devices of this sort were prepared.
Thanks to the Red Cross, we're the best-fed people in Europe.
We had quite a comic Christmas with lots of Red Cross food
and home-brewed booze, which had to be tasted to be believed
but which produced the necessary oblivion,
which is all that is required in a place like this.
We're all bubbling over with optimism at the moment and I,
personally, am quite certain we've had our last Christmas here.
It was, indeed, Roger's last Christmas behind the wire.
His prediction about the three tunnels had come true.
Tom was discovered the year before
when it was within 20 yards of the wood.
The Germans did not suspected other tunnels
and Dick was used for storage.
By March, 1944, Harry was ready.
And Harry got right through.
It was 120 yards long with an exit comfortably outside the wire.
The whole venture had taken 18 months to achieve.
200 men were fully equipped and ready to go.
I'm beginning to believe that it can be possible to transfer yourself
to another part of the world or even to other worlds, with your mind.
We Europeans know little about it
but the Indian philosophies appear to put it into practice.
And all the older religions teach it.
And I'm going to do Higgins in Pygmalion.
Lots of love, Roger.
He gave us a talk in the theatre,
a general briefing of what was going to happen.
I think he gave, first of all,
warnings to people to dress properly,
not to be too bulky, not to have great big suitcases
otherwise they'd knock the tunnel down.
All the passes were stamped and rations issued
and compasses and maps and so on.
Roger said, "Right, well, we'll go now!"
Which was the 24th.
My darlings, I am well and full of confidence as usual.
Next instalment next month.
Bless you all, Roger.
This was the last letter Roger wrote,
the last letter ever received by the family.
The tunnel was opened up and the escape began.
When you got to the very end,
where you were actually doing the escape,
that had to be very carefully done.
Then that just went straight up
and we had sort of a ladder to go up and get out.
Oh, it was wonderful.
The fresh air that came in when you opened the top,
it was a wonderful feeling.
It absolutely gushed down.
I came out onto the snow and it was jolly cold.
You had to get across a little bit of open space
before you could get something to conceal you.
I made the wood and I thought,
"Ah, freedom at last, first time for four years."
Roger was the fourth man out of the tunnel.
He chose Bernard Scheidauer,
whose family were in the French Resistance, as his partner.
They moved swiftly through the woods
and arrived at Zagan station, where Roger bought two tickets to Breslau.
100 miles away, the RAF began to bomb Berlin.
Roger was dressed in a well-cut tweed suit with Trilby hat,
a greatcoat and a small attache case.
He looked exactly the part of a prosperous French businessman
and he was in very good spirits
and convinced he was going to get home.
A train came in.
Several escapees hastily boarded it.
The driver was in a hurry.
Des Plunkett tells how Roger, without a flicker of recognition,
walked down the carriage and squeezed his hand,
indicating they were all still in charge.
Back at the camp, 76 men had escaped by 5.00am,
when a guard finally saw one of them, by virtually bumping into him.
A single shot rang out but nobody was hurt.
Hitler was immediately informed.
He flew into a rage
and ordered that every single re-captured prisoner was to be shot.
Cautioned that this would cause an international outcry,
he reduced the number to 50.
The reason to be given
was that prisoners were shot while trying to escape.
This order went out to every Gestapo office in the country.
By 8.00am almost every railway station,
every crossing, was alerted.
It was later estimated that five million Germans were deployed
to find the men.
At Breslau, Roger bought two tickets to Paris.
He and Scheidhauer crossed Germany and arrived at Saarbrucken,
within walking distance of the French border.
Flight Lieutenant van Wymeersch, another escapee,
saw them board the train at Breslau.
Later in the day, he himself was arrested at Metz.
The Gestapo officer was immensely impressed with his forged papers,
but, he added triumphantly...
"You do not have the new special mark.
"Every week, every day sometimes now,
"we add a small special mark to a document.
"You're not the first one to be caught.
"We caught two very clever ones, smartly dressed, in good suits,
"briefcases, perfect French and German,
"business executives travelling to Paris.
"No special mark. We have them."
Roger Bushell and Bernhard Scheidhauer.
In Saarbrucken, the regional chief of the Gestapo, Dr Leopold Spann,
ushered Roger and Bernard Scheidauer into his office.
His secretary, Gertrude Schmidt,
noticed that they were hand-cuffed in front.
A few minutes later, Dr Spann came out.
He ordered her to type two death certificates.
Around 4.00am he rang his chauffeur, Walter Breithaupt,
to pick him up with his deputy, Emil Schulz.
Roger and Bernard were then collected from the Kripo prison.
The chauffeur, Walter Breithaupt, remembers...
Schulz fastened the hands of each prisoner with handcuffs
and sat between them.
The bigger of the two, Bushell, said to Schulz in German,
that this was not compatible with the honour of an officer.
I drove 40km and then turned on to the autobahn towards Mannheim.
Nobody spoke during the drive.
After about 4km to 5km, Spann ordered me to stop the car.
He got out with Schulz.
Both lit cigarettes and moved out of hearing.
They returned and one of them said to the prisoners
that they could get out and relieve themselves.
Spann told them they would get shot if they tried to escape.
I stood next to the car by the driver's seat.
Both prisoners stood about two meters off the road
to relieve themselves.
While Spann and Schulz stood a metre behind them
with their pistols in their hands.
When I found out Roger was shot
was because it was all over the newspaper.
It was reported in the newspaper
that 72 escapees escaped,
that it was quite successful
and that time I heard that nobody made it back but then, after the war,
it was found out that about three or four actually made it.
Hitler's orders were obeyed.
Over the next few days, 50 re-captured men were shot.
We saw a little paragraph in the Voelkischer Beobachter,
saying that Anthony Eden had made a protest in the House of Commons
about these 50 officers who had been shot
trying to escape and he made the protest to the German government.
Well, it could only have been our friends.
You rather wonder why the hell you yourself weren't shot.
That's what Jimmy and I felt, anyway.
Why we weren't shot.
We could have been.
It was just luck.
And it was a nasty shock all round
because they were all prisoners of war
and under the Geneva Convention
were bound to be preserved by the captive power.
And we now know they were shot on Hitler's personal order.
23 were returned to prisoner-of-war camps.
Jens Mueller and Per Bergsland got all the way home to Norway
and Bram van der Stock to England.
True to form, the Gestapo cremated the bodies of the 50 who were shot
and returned their ashes to the camp in caskets.
Roger's brave stance for freedom against tyranny,
for which he was prepared to die, was not lost on us
as we played in my grandfather's study.
In the scramble of advancing armies,
Roger's casket was broken,
so his ashes lie here,
in this place,
in this forest.
My grandmother wrote a poem.
To Roger Bushell, squadron leader in the RAF,
and 49 gallant comrades who died with him.
With bare, earth-stained hands
And their brave hearts
They faced, unarmed, the bestial Nazi rage
Their young bodies fell, riddled with steel
To rest together in a common grave
But with joy their spirits claimed their freedom
From frustration, longing, prison bars
With glad shouts, they fled across the border
To that new life where they can earn God's wage.
They will be paid for service with that peace
Which passeth all our human understanding
With love that has no earthly dross to cloud it
With knowledge woven from celestial strands
And we, left here, who so well knew and loved them
Must rise above the cruel loss and pain
With courage, we must follow in their footsteps
So that, in freedom, we may meet again.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
For the first time, the true story of the mastermind behind World War II's Great Escape is told by his niece, Lindy Wilson. Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was a young London barrister, an auxiliary pilot and a champion skier when he was shot down and captured early in the war. He escaped three times and, in spite of the Gestapo's threat to shoot him if he ever escaped again, Bushell accepted the role of 'Big X' on his return to the top-security PoW camp, Stalag Luft 111.
After 18 months of preparation, one of the greatest escapes of the war took place. Their aim to distract the enemy succeeded, as it was estimated that five million Germans were deployed to recapture the 76 escapees. However, Hitler's rage was uncontainable and he personally ordered a terrible reckoning.