HERITAGE - 13: 'Big X' and The Great Escape

Roger Bushell - 'Big X', the powerhouse behind the Great Escape wanted to release as many PoWs as possible from Stalag Luft III to 'keep Jerry busy'

Carefree pre-war snap of Roger Bushell - when did his attitude change?
Carefree pre-war snap of Roger Bushell - when did his attitude change? | Source

Hollywood History and The Facts

This is the adventure blockbuster that even 'Lawrence of Arabia' and 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' can't summon a fightback to. It's a dead cert, with a Big Name all-star British and US cast listing that the studio accounts people in Hollywood must have blenched at! Where else do you get Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, James Garner, Steve McQueen and James Coburn amongst others in one showing? And not a female in sight except for the crowd scenes on railway stations!

The story for the film was scripted around the book by Paul Brickhill, a former Australian fighter pilot taken prisoner and witness to the most imaginatively organised escape from a German POW camp days away from safety. Basically Mr Brickhill's book told of Squadron Leader Roger Bushell (translated in the film as Roger Bartlett, played by Richard Attenborough), known to fellow POW's as 'X'.

It is a fact he was head of the Escape Committee at Stalag Luft III, a camp deep inside Germany, now Poland, for Allied Airforce officers. His plan to free upwards of two hundred men in one breakout is met by incredulity and sharp intakes of breath. In the film, When McQueen's character, (the fictitious USAAF Capt Virgil Hilts the 'cooler king') hears Attenborough's Sq Leader Bartlett's outline plan the reaction is 'You're crazy. You ought to be locked up!' After a while, incarcerated in a POW camp run by the Germans they would all be crazy - in modern parlance 'stir crazy'. Certainly we see in the 'hooch' sequence a Scots airman make a rush for the wire, to be machine-gunned by humourless guards. There was no hope of the man climbing over two rows of wire anyway. And that is the message of the story, of the grim reality in Hitler's Germany that escape attempts would be dealt with - severely.

Come Friday night, March 24th, 1944 the real 'Big X' Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was one of seventy-six who made it through 'Harry' before the balloon went up. Despite all measures taken by the Germans at this supposedly escape-proof camp - buildin g it on sandy soil that no-one was to be able to tunnel through - a breakout was achieved by imaginative 'engineering'.

At Stalag Luft III three tunnels were dug, two decoys and one proper tunnel, 'Tom', 'Dick' and 'Harry', archetypal British humour. The prisoners' escape left the Luftwaffe camp commandant feeling decidedly 'tom and dick (Cockney rhyming slang for 'sick').

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Squadron Leader Roger Bushell's spitfire after being shot down south of Dunkirk in 1940
Squadron Leader Roger Bushell's spitfire after being shot down south of Dunkirk in 1940 | Source
Wartime Prague, Germans on parade
Wartime Prague, Germans on parade | Source
SS Obergruppenfuehrer (General) Reinhard Heydrich, 'the Hangman' author of the final Solution
SS Obergruppenfuehrer (General) Reinhard Heydrich, 'the Hangman' author of the final Solution | Source

The biggest RAF-led escape of WWII enraged Hitler.

He was so enraged in fact, that he ordered the immediate execution of recaptured POW's. As it was forty-nine of those taken and transported back to the camp along with Sq Ldr Roger Bushell were shot on the way back by their SS guards when they were allowed out of the trucks, ostensibly to stretch their legs. It would have seemed a decent gesture by the Germans, until the click of someone pulling back the safety catch on a Spandau (tripod-mounted) heavy machine gun in the back of a truck told them they had reached the end of the road. The film is fairly true to the story in this respect, whether or not the actual details were adhered to.

These fifty officers had been collected - some in groups - from various points in Germany. This escape plan of Bushell's,was his third, if not to achieve home runs, then to tie down thousands of German troops in the homeland when they were needed on two fronts - soon to be three. The Gestapo had his number, so to speak, and they were going to make an example of him..

In one of Britain's most valued war stories the man at the heart of the legend was largely overlooked. In Paul Brickhill's other books, about Wing Commander Guy Gibson in 'The Dambusters' and Douglas Bader in 'Reach for the Sky', the heroes lived on (Bader literally lived on, surviving the war in captivity). Not so Roger Bushell.

Film vs Reality

Do you think the reality of the Great Escape story suffered with Hollywood's presentation?

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Hollywood's version, while true to the essence of the story...

...and the imagination involved in the escape planning stage, largely overlooked the real hero who paid for his daring and highly organised planning with his life along with forty-nine others, executed on the orders of Himmler.

Although Richard Attenborough played his part well enough and despite the flashes of wit and dogged humour, showing the innate ruthlessness and resolve of 'Big X', Bushell is somehow 'not altogether there' in the telling (aside from the physical description of the man not being fulfilled by the actor).

It is Virgil Hilts, aka Steve McQueen, who takes centre stage with his panache and motorcycle stunts. Pure Hollywood.Somehow either Roger Bushell's character eluded Paul Brickhill's story in a cash-starved 1951 or an interpretation of his or any other of the RAF characters' Britishness eluded the scriptwriters. Maybe it didn't translate well into dollars over the counter at the time.

Special Edition paoster for The Great Escape - a character created for the film, Virgil Hilts
Special Edition paoster for The Great Escape - a character created for the film, Virgil Hilts | Source
Stalag Luft III Plan
Stalag Luft III Plan | Source
Dirt cart inside Harry
Dirt cart inside Harry | Source

The man and his background

Squadron Leader Roger Joyce Bushell was a Cambridge man, a lawyer who could speak nine languages. He was an expert skier, a top performer on and off the piste, the fastest of his generation.

He flew with the rising - part time 'millionaire' class - stars of 601 Squadron of the 1930s, led 92 Spitfire Squadron in the battle of France. dicing with death and German ME109's they covered the retreating British Expeditionary Force (BEF) who were making for the Channel ports in the early summer of 1940. He was also involved with British Intelligence.

A memorial notice in The Times recently marked Roger Bushell's birthdate and life with a quotation from one of Rupert Brookes' war poems,

'He leaves a white, unbroken glory,

a gathered radiance, a width,

a shining peace under the night'.

There was a name at the foot of the notice, 'Georgie'.

There is an archive that contains letters from Bushell to his family from when he was incarcerated as a POW. Family diaries and other documents bring forth a fuller 'portrait' that Paul Brickhill perhaps did not have access to before he first wrote his book.

Roger Bushell suffered from claustrophobia and he hated enclosed spaces such as tunnels, even though with his father he had grown up around South African gold mines. He was sent as a boarder to Wellington College in England in 1924 around the time Adolf Hitler's political campaign caused a stir elsewhere. As already mentioned, he did well in languages and excelled at sport. Four years on, his final school report summed him up as being 'of an indomitable spirit'.

By the age of eighteen he was well built, athletic, a little under six foot tall with a mop of thick dark brown hair, bright blue eyes that shone with an electrifying personality. He was raring to go in the big wide world. Finishing law studies at Cambridge he skied for Great Britain, joined legal chambers at Lincoln's Inn in WC1, Central London.

He fell for an attractive debutante he knew as 'Georgie' around this time, properly known as Georgiana Mary Curzon, a woman who would somehow put some form of purpose in an otherwise chaotic time of his life in WWII. Earl Howe, her father, put his foot down on them marrying in the 1930s. however their relationship began again in later years whilst Bushell set about planning 'the big one', the Great Escape.

Another woman in his life was girlfriend Peggy Hamilton. Peggy was a London cabaret girl who dropped him - despite their engagement - on learning of his capture south of Dunkirk after being shot down on May 23rd, 1940.

Yet a third woman was to figure, Czech resistance fighter Blazena Zeithammelova gave him shelter in Prague following his second escape bid. He had reached the Czech capital at the time Reinhard Heydrich took the German command over the country with a brief to stamp out all Czech insurgent activities. not for nothing was he nicknamed 'The Hangman'. He was in Prague when British-trained Czech SOE agents planned the assassination of Heydrich, author of the Nazis' Final Solution to the Jewish situation in German occupied Europe.

Blazena's former lover betrayed her and Bushell and he was arrested by the Gestapo the week previous to Heydrich's inglorious end. Taken to Berlin he was interrogated over the course of three months before the Luftwaffe had him release into their custody. Blazena was executed.

Sent to Stalag Luft III he was bend on waging war on the Nazis, cursing all Germans with them. As far as he could see there was no real difference between Gestapo, the SS or any other German armed service. Yet h was level-headed about the direction his dislike of the Germans would take him - even if he died in the event.

Roger Bushell the man, as his nearest and dearest, and those around him saw the enigmatic escape leader. Once captured, he saw his duty as escaping, tying down as many of the Germans as it would take to guard POW officers like himself. His greatest gamble led to a mass execution, although it was more widely seen as an event that would go down in history as 'The Great Escape'.

A way out

A diagram of Tunnel 3, 'Harry'. There were three tunnels in Roger Bushell's plan, 'Tom' and 'Dick' were the other two - if you know Brits this is an obvious choice of names
A diagram of Tunnel 3, 'Harry'. There were three tunnels in Roger Bushell's plan, 'Tom' and 'Dick' were the other two - if you know Brits this is an obvious choice of names | Source
Tunnel reconstruction of 'Harry' - power for the lights was taken from the camp circuit, wood for tunnel supports, 'tracks' and 'trollies' from the bunks
Tunnel reconstruction of 'Harry' - power for the lights was taken from the camp circuit, wood for tunnel supports, 'tracks' and 'trollies' from the bunks | Source

Planning the Escape

Bushell was in control of a multinational team of POW's. Over six hundred were occupied at different skill levels in carrying out the plans he set out for the Escape Committee. They became the most expertly led 'army' to confront the Fuehrer's henchmen and land-based armed forces.

The organisation was tightly monitored, sophisticated and a model of modern business and engineering management. 'Big X' briefed fellow POW's,

'The only reason God allowed us this extra ration of life is to make life hell for the Hun'.

One of the last survivors of The Great Escape, Ken Rees said in late 2012 of Roger, 'Bushell was an outstanding character - and we were very keen. We would do anything to disrupt the Germans. We were capable, well-trained - we felt almost invincible'.

Sq. Ldr Bushell had been registered in 1940 with MI9 (British Intelligence wing devoted to the technology of aiding escape from German POW camps and sites such as Colditz). With Harry 'Wings' Day he directed an intelligence operation in communication with London by means of coded letters and warned the Allies of Germany's new secret weapons.

Stalag Luft III metamorphosed into an operational outpost of British military intelligence - unfortunately for Bushell a direct contravention of the Geneva Convention on POW dealings. The Gestapo had warned him in 1942 that should he fall into their hands again he would be shot, but to him that was like a red rag to a bull. He had faced down authority of one kind or another all his life so far, and he wanted to get back to Georgie.

Although a distortion of the facts, the film starring Richard Attenborough as 'X', Donald Pleasance as the 'forgery king' who went practically blind, James Garner his guardian, Steve McQueen as the motor bike escaper who seemed to end up in the 'cooler' all the time, David McCallum the navy pilot and a host of well-known faces who make up the inmates of Stalag Luft III

The Great Escape

Memorial to Squadron Leader Bushell and the other 49 executed officers at Poznan in Poland (formerly Posen in eastern Germany)
Memorial to Squadron Leader Bushell and the other 49 executed officers at Poznan in Poland (formerly Posen in eastern Germany) | Source

Unhappily for him he was caught escaping again.

'He was executed near Posen in eastern Germany, now Poznan in Poland. His father Ben composed the epitaph for his memorial,

'A leader of men,

He achieved much,

Loved England,

And served her to the end'


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9 comments

old albion profile image

old albion 3 years ago from Lancashire. England.

Hi Alan. What a sad end for such a man. SS, Gestapo German soldier. Was there a difference one would hope so, yet all we read of this period is murderous behaviour from so many. To pretend we were innocent would be foolish I know but all to often, it seems to have been standard behaviour from the German forces.

Graham.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

Hi alan, fascinating look at the story behind the film, I never really knew who the real people or person was, and yes hollywood did take liberties so to speak! but at least it got the story across, hope you are well? nell


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello Nell and Graham, nice to see you drop by.

There was a difference, we hear every so often, between hardened Nazis and the rank and file. I daresay there were a lot amongst their Wehrmacht, less so in the Kriegsmarine or Luftwaffe, who weren't keen on fighting for Hitler (especially when defeat gaped at them in 1944 when the Great Escape was planned). After D-Day the German troops surrendered in their 000's, but the SS kept up the grind, believing as they did in the 'Endsieg' (final victory) when the western Allies would join them against the Russians. Even the Luftwaffe no longer kidded themselves by this time, but Goering, their head man believed it when he gave himself up to the Americans. There were still some hard nuts in the U-Boat fleet who carried on until the end, but by this time their days were numbered.

Nell, without Hollywood history could not be revamped, could it? They've got to give their actors some work, after all. I think my next Hub in this series will be the real story behind U-571 and the captured Enigma code books.

TTFN


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Well done. No doubt if the movie had been a British production there would have been no McQueen character. Hollywood does that kind of thing a lot, even when the real story is just fine to start with. You've added so much to this slice of history.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

When Hollywood gets its wallets out, miracles happen. Still, at least Stevie added a bit of colour. When 'Sink the Bismarck' was made the Yanks didn't get a look in, even though they stumped up the cash. Funnily enough, when Daryl F Zanuck made 'The Longest Day' the American input was mostly only in cash. The cast list was only about 25% US, as with 'A Bridge Too Far'.


annart profile image

annart 2 years ago from SW England

I found this fascinating and so informative. My grandfather, who spoke fluent German, was an interviewer of German POWs, near Newcastle. He befriended a German officer who had defected and been brought to England, an officer who had been part of the Stalug III staff and deplored the killing of the prisoners in the wood. Granddad provided a lot of information towards our knowledge of what happened in the context of 'The Great Escape'.

My sister and I are still trying to work out how he spoke such good German (High and Low) when he only went to Elementary School. He was always talking about being in the Germans' 'Black Book'! There is a strange gap in this records during that time so we're persevering. A family mystery!

The Hollywood version is entertaining but not terribly accurate I think.

Great hub!

Ann


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello Ann. I only learned rare snatches of my Dad's wartime experiences. He wasn't very communicative with me about it. He usually came out with anecdotes when talking to family at Christmas. My uncle Harold would never keep quiet about his time in the Navy. He rarely saw any Germans except when their ships/subs had gone down.

I only went to Secondary Modern School in the late 50's-early 60's and picked up German from being taken on holiday every other summer to southern Austria (where my Dad had got to with the Royal Engineers after fighting through Italy).

There's another one of my Hub-pages you might like to read, 'Salerno Sally...' about the allied landing in Italy from the perspective of a Chelsea Pensioner.

Enjoy the read,

Alan R L


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 4 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

This hub could be a book. So interesting! I must share it with my soldier husband. One of his favorite movies. He'll devour these details.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello again Kathleen, it is a book - or several books, most notably 'The Great Escaper' - that the movie production was based on. The one big error the producers made was that before the tunnel was completed the Germans moved the US personnel to a separate camp completed due to the numbers of USAAF crews taken prisoner. So the only Americans who could take advantage of the escape were those - as portrayed by James Garner - who'd enlisted with the RAF in 1940.

My own speciality is early Middle Ages. See the RAVENFEAST SAGA SERIES page (linked on the slide show on the profile page)

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