Big X: Squadron Leader Roger Bushell

Text by Divan Muller
Roger Bushell was not an ace, but his actions had a tremendously disruptive impact on wartime Germany. His name may not be known to many, but he was the mastermind behind one of the most famous events of World War II.
Wing Commander Bob Tuck and Squadron Leader Roger Bushell (right)
Early life

Roger Bushell was born in August 1910 in Springs, South Africa. His father, a mining engineer who had immigrated to South Africa from England, may have been concerned when he noticed young Roger could swear in three languages at the age of six. Bushell attended school in Johannesburg up to the age of fourteen when his father, intent on providing his son with a good education, sent him to England. After he had finished school, Bushell studied law at Pembroke College, Cambridge and became a barrister. At the same time, he excelled at skiing and represented the Oxford-Cambridge team internationally. He also became fluent in French and German.

According to well-known author and historian Paul Brickhill, "In his early twenties he had been British ski champion, and once in an international race in Canada, he had come swooping downhill like a ‘bat out of hell’ and taken a bad spill over a boulder. The tip of one ski caught him in the inner corner of his right eye and gashed it wickedly. After it had been sewn up, the corner of his eye drooped permanently and the effect on his look was strangely sinister and brooding."

Flying career

From a very young age, Bushell wanted to be a fighter pilot. He joined the Royal Air Force's (RAF) 601 'City of London' Squadron as a reserve force pilot. His unit was often referred to as the 'Millionaires' Mob', because of the number of wealthy pilots who had paid for their training with the RAF. As a barrister, Bushell often defended airmen in court, most notably John Freeborn and Paddy Byrne. He successfully defended these two pilots after their involvement in the infamous Battle of Barking Creek, a friendly fire incident which resulted in the first fatality of a RAF pilot. In late 1939, Bushell was given command of 92 Squadron, which was equipped with Spitfires.
By May 1940, the Allies were beginning to lose the Battle of France. German forces tried their best to prevent Allied troops from reaching Dunkirk, from where a large-scale evacuation would take place. The situation on the ground was dire, while RAF airmen did not have an easy time in the skies above. On May 23, Bushell led a formation of twelve Spitfires over the English Channel. The flight was intercepted by forty German Messerschmitt Me-110 heavy fighters. Five of those had their sights set on the leading Spitfire, flown by Bushell. This was the first time the squadron had seen combat, but even so, Bushell managed to shoot down two Me-110s, before his aircraft was damaged to the extent that its engine caught fire. Bushell glided the Spitfire and force landed in a French field. He thought he had landed in Allied territory, but, much to his surprise, he was arrested by German soldiers and made a prisoner of war (POW) at Dulag Luft, along with other airmen who had been shot down.
A Spitfire which was used during the evacuation of Dunkirk - Alan Wilson

As a senior officer, Bushell was immediately made part of the escape committee. After helping to coordinate a number of escape tunnels from Dulag Luft, Bushell escaped by clipping wires. He fled to the Swiss border while pretending to be a ski instructor, but he was captured only a few metres away from freedom. The Germans sent Bushell to the Stalag Luft I POW camp, but this time he escaped by pulling the floorboards of a railway wagon apart. He fled to Prague and was given shelter by a family who formed part of an underground resistance movement. A young lady, who was a member of this family, wanted to marry Bushell. He declined her offer, as he was already engaged to a girl in England. Infuriated, she notified the Gestapo of his whereabouts, who then executed her family and sent Bushell to the infamous Stalag Luft III. Ironically, the fighter pilot, who had become a seasoned escape artist, then received a 'Dear John' letter from his fiancée. (Of course, a ‘Dear John’ letter is a letter received from one’s partner, advising one that their relationship is over.)

At Stalag Luft III, Roger Bushell assumed command of the escape committee and was given the codename ‘Big X’. He immediately began planning 'Operation Escape 200', the most ambitious escape in history. He organised no less than 600 captured air force personnel and coordinated the digging of three tunnels, named 'Tom', 'Dick' and 'Harry', in what would later become known as 'The Great Escape', upon which the Hollywood movie with the same name was based. Years later, archaeologists discovered a fourth tunnel, named ‘George.’ Bushell’s leadership gave hope to fellow POWs and in his own words, “made life hell for the Hun.” The story of how the three tunnels were simultaneously dug is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say it was an enormous operation which had to be intricately planned to the finest detail. As it happened, the guards discovered ‘Tom’ in August 1943. By then, Bushell had already helped 26 officers to escape by other means. Bushell’s plan of having 200 men escape during one night was never fully realised, but on March 24, 1944, 76 men escaped through ‘Harry.’ It was the largest escape from a POW camp in history, a great source of propaganda for the British and a massive embarrassment for the Germans. In the end, only three of those men made it back to England. The rest were captured. Hitler was furious and, despite the Geneva Convention, personally ordered the execution of fifty of the escapees. This became known as the ‘Stalag Luft III murders.’ Two days after this mass execution, Bushell, who was the fourth person to escape through the tunnel, was caught and shot by the Gestapo at the age of 33.

After the war, a RAF Special Investigations’ Branch Team (SIB) was assigned to hunt down Bushell’s killers. One of the two killers, Dr. Leopold Spann had been killed in an air raid on Gestapo Headquarters in Austria, while the other, Emil Schulz, was a prisoner of the French. He was handed over to the SIB Team, which brought him to England where he was ‘tried’, convicted and hanged.

According to Wing Commander Herbert Massey, “Roger Bushell’s name will forever last in my memory as one of the greatest men of his generation. He was an outstanding leader of men, quite fearless and he had a very fine brain. I say those few words as the senior British officer of Stalag Luft III and virtually Roger’s commanding officer.”

Bushell was never decorated. He was never able to report his kills and was subsequently only credited with ‘damaging’ two enemy aircraft. Had he not been shot down, Bushell could possibly have become a Battle of Britain ace. However, it seems Bushell contributed more to the Allied war effort as a prisoner, than he could have done as a fighter pilot. Not only did Roger Bushell shoot down two enemy aircraft, he embarrassed his captors, gathered intelligence, discouraged and infuriated Adolf Hitler.

A special thank you to the staff of the South African Air Force Museum at Air Force Base Swartkop for their assistance in writing this article.