Roger Bushell, The Great Escape mastermind, was based at Biggin Hill at the start of the war – but the Spitfire pilot had already made a name for himself before hostilities broke out
Sunday 24 March 2019 marked the 75th anniversary of the real ‘Great Escape’ and several special events and memorials have been held on the site of the former German Prisoner of War camp which is now part of Poland.
The escape plan was masterminded by Spitfire pilot Roger Bushell who was based for part of the second world war at Biggin Hill. But it is another fact about Bushell that caught the eye of ski journalist ARNIE WILSON. The squadron leader was a brilliant skier who raced for Great Britain and still managed to ski while a POW!
Arnie and FRANK BALDWIN, the editor and publisher of the My Sevenoaks Community website, who is also the publisher of the Skier & Snowboarder magazine, set about delving into the past and uncovered some little-known facts about Roger Bushell. Here is their story
THE Great Escape film, with the famous Steve McQueen motorbike scene, is a family favourite based on the true story of when 76 service men broke out of Stalag Luft III, on March 25, 1944.
The Luftwaffe-run prisoner-of-war camp for captured World War II allied airmen in Zagan was at that time in the then German province of Lower Silesia, 100 miles south-east of Berlin. The site, which is now part of Poland, was selected because its sandy soil made it difficult for POWs to escape by tunnelling.
The ingenious escape plan was organised by Roger Bushell who spent some time based at Biggin Hill flying Spitfires, firstly with the 601 Squadron during summer camps before the war and then he returned there after hostilities broke out before being sent to Tangmere in West Sussex as the new commander of 92 Squadron. He was shot down over Boulogne on 23 May 1940 and taken prisoner.
During his incarceration, Bushell – whose character was renamed as Roger Bartlett and played by Sir Richard Attenborough in The Great Escape movie – came up with the mass escape plan as a way of frustrating the German enemy as they would have to devote already stretched resources to searching for the escapees.
Originally 200 POWs were to get out through a tunnel dug under the wire, but a miscalculation meant it came up short of the trees that surrounded the camp and only 76 broke out before the escape route was discovered by the guards.
Three successfully evaded recapture but there was a to be a tragic end to the story. Adolf Hitler felt so humiliated by the mass escape that he personally ordered the execution of 33-year-old Bushell and another 49 of the POWs.
In 2017, the exact spot where Bushell was executed by the Gestapo was identified, by the side of a German autobahn. A memorial to him is due to be erected there.
But what many people do not know about Bushell was that he was a brilliant international skier who represented Great Britain, and even had a challenging run in Switzerland’s St Moritz named after him.
Sadly, the run – which today very few people in St Moritz are even aware of – can no longer be skied as it forms part of a protected woodland area. Monika Wüest, a St Moritz PR, explains: “The ‘Bushell Run’ used to be a run from the Sass Runzöl ski lift on Corviglia down to Celerina until around 25 years ago. But because the forest in the lower part was declared a protected area and quiet zone for wildlife, it isn’t allowed to ski down there any more.”
Bushell’s story is brilliantly told in Simon Pearson’s book The Great Escaper, written before his final resting place was discovered in 2017.
Simon, a senior editor on The Times newspaper, writes: “At 15, he was sent to France for two Easter holidays to improve his French. In winter he travelled to Mürren…to learn to ski. The annual holiday in Switzerland and his growing prowess at skiing were a source of great joy.”
Bushell became a tough ski-racer. Simon said: “He emerged as a star of the Cambridge ski team and one of the great characters of the highly aspirational but downwardly mobile Alpine clique.”
He adds: “Sir Arnold Lunn, who founded the Alpine Ski Club in 1908 and the Kandahar ski club at Mürren in 1924, reckoned that as a racer Bushell had more courage than judgement and threw away many races by recklessness. But it would be idiotic to suggest that Roger was nothing more than an attractive skiing tough. He was an exceptionally able young man.” He added: “As a lawyer, Bushell’s methods of cross-examination were as unconventional as his slalom technique.”
Once in an international ski race in Canada, the tip of one ski caught the inner corner of his eye and gashed it wickedly so as to cause a permanent droop, giving him a strangely sinister look (a feature added to Attenborough’s character in The Great Escape film).
Simon Pearson continues: “In the early 1930s Bushell was declared the fastest Briton in the male downhill category. The black run named after him in St. Moritz was apparently in recognition of the fact that he had set the fastest time for the run.” It has also been suggested the accolade was to recognise Bushell’s fostering of Anglo-Swiss relations.
Simon adds: “He also won the slalom event at the annual Oxford-Cambridge ski race in 1931. In August 1932 Bushell was invited to join the part-time pilots of No 601 (county of London) squadron, an auxiliary airforce unit known as ‘the Millionaires’ due to their ostentatious wealth.
“Flying, it seems, had become a natural extension of skiing. They assumed the character of crack cavalry regiments from an earlier era. Two months after joining 601, he graduated with a BA 3rd class honours in law after putting skiing above his studies and being absent for the Lent terms in both his last two years at university.
“In May 1938 Bushell was selected to perform aerobatics at an Empire Air Display. He was the most outstanding of 601’s officers – probably one of the best in the Air Force.”
In his first letter home as a POW, Bushell wrote: “The first snow has fallen and we are being treated to a spell of beautiful weather – clear, crisp days and starry nights. The air is like wine and the snow has that squeaky crunch that makes me so homesick for Switzerland and a pair of skis.”
In a later letter, he wrote: “Our latest diversion – believe it or not – is skiing. 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 me! We went out today in beautiful powder snow, crisp frosty air, a blue sky and all the trees loaded with snow. It was too beautiful for words. And then of course one gets outside the damned barbed wire.”
But for Bushell and 49 comrades, finally getting outside the ‘damned barbed wire’ turned out to be a tragic finale to their lives. The murders were a breach of the Geneva Convention and so deemed to be a war crime. Those who took part in the executions were later tracked down and tried.
The camp was finally liberated in January 1945, by Soviet forces.
Poignantly, only last February (2019), Dick Churchill, the last of the Great Escape survivors, died at the age of 99. The bomber pilot apparently believed he might have been spared from execution because of his surname… in case the Nazis wanted to use him as bait with a powerful potential relative – the British Prime Minister!
His death marked the end of an astonishing era.