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Roger Bushell’s life story is a great escapism

THE GREAT ESCAPER: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ROGER BUSHELL By Simon Pearson. Hodder and Stoughton. $32.99.
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Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, stories of key people and dramatic wartime events are still coming into sharp focus for the first time.

One of these people, about whom little was known until recently, was Roger Bushell, mastermind of what became known as ”The Great Escape” of British POWs from Stalag Luft III in 1943.

One of the prisoners involved in the planning of that breakout was Australian author Paul Brickhill, and he wrote a bestselling book called The Great Escape about Bushell and the whole enterprise.

Sadly many people today only know the story because Hollywood turned it into a silly American ”epic” with actor Steve McQueen making his bid for freedom on a motorcycle.

Many years ago I read Brickhill’s The Great Escape, together with his other bestsellers, Reach for the Sky and The Dambusters.

One day when I was visiting a convalescent hospital in Sydney I met Brickhill, who was a patient, and chatted with him about his books. He had no other visitors that morning and we had a long yarn. He showed me the proof copy of his latest book, The Deadline (1962), which had just arrived from Collins, the publishers.

He knew Roger Bushell in the POW camp and I wish I had asked him more about his memories of the Great Escape. Like Bushell, Brickhill had been a Spitfire pilot, shot down and taken prisoner in North Africa.

It was, in fact, only two years ago that Bushell’s family donated his personal papers and diaries and letters to the Imperial War Museum. Now at last it became possible to research the life of an almost-forgotten hero.

The author, Simon Pearson, is chief night editor of The Times and his journalistic skills help to make this a most readable book.

Bushell was born in 1910 into a wealthy British family in South Africa and was educated in England at Wellington College and Cambridge, where he studied law. He was passionate about athletics and skiing and fluent in French and German. This biography gives a glittering picture of his expansive London social round in the 1930s.

Gradually the shadows of Nazi expansion closed in and Bushell, who loved flying, joined the Auxiliary Royal Air Force. He was appointed to command 92 Squadron in October 1939 and made squadron leader soon after.

It was in May 1940 that the so-called phoney war came to an end and Bushell experienced his first (and last) combat. As he wrote to his parents from Germany, he was shot down near Boulogne on May 23 in a big battle with Messerschmitts. ”I got two of them first so I have done something to win the war,” he wrote.

Now Bushell and many others found themselves in captivity. His thoughts constantly turned to a young lady named Peggy Hamilton whom he planned to marry.

Allied to that was his other passion, which was to escape and get home. A fellow POW wrote: ”Roger was the organising genius of all our escaping exploits.”

His repeated escapes from various camps shows that ”genius” was not too strong a word. He was truly ”the great escaper”. There burned within him a deep hatred of the Nazis and a determination to regain his freedom, and to make life difficult for the Germans in the process.

Roger Bushell made three escapes but was recaptured each time. The first was in June 1941 and he was recaptured within a few metres of the Swiss border and freedom. The second was while a train carrying the prisoners stopped at Hanover during a transfer to another camp. Bushell and another POW were able to spend some time in ”safe houses” in occupied Prague. But in the manhunt following the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, architect of the Holocaust, in May 1942, they were rounded up by the Gestapo.

Finally came the so-called ”Great Escape”. Bushell planned three tunnels, known as Tom, Dick and Harry. These were to allow up to 200 men to get away and 600 men were involved in construction. The result was a tragic failure. Only 76 officers finally got clear of the camp, far fewer than Bushell had envisaged, but it was still the biggest British breakout of the war, and Bushell was the mastermind. Of the 76 who got away, 73 were recaptured.

The highest levels of the crumbling Nazi regime, under the orders of Hitler, decided that 50 of the escapees should be executed, including Bushell.

He was shot by the Gestapo. He is buried in the Poznan Old Garrison cemetery in Poland. After the war his murderers were executed as war criminals.

The life and death of Roger Bushell shows an unshakeable determination to challenge Nazi tyranny no matter the cost. His commanding officer said that Bushell was one of the greatest of his generation.

Robert Willson is a regular reviewer.

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