Over 75 years ago, in late March of 1944, a captured RAF fighter pilot named Roger Bushell was shot in the back while in the custody of Gestapo agents Leopold Spann and Emil Schulz.
Under direct orders from Adolf Hitler, Bushell and 49 other escaped airmen were executed after making one of the most daring escape attempts of the War.
For Bushell, that bullet brought a violent, tragic end to a military career defined by both captivity and escape.
Shot Down Defending Dunkirk
Bushell’s early life was fueled by an overwhelming desire to fly.
An auxiliary member of Great Britain’s air force since 1932, he easily transitioned to the role of fighter pilot following Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939.
But the position of fighter pilot was a dangerous one, especially as the German war machine rolled through Europe and cornered its scattered defenders at Dunkirk.
His Spitfire caught in the open over German-occupied France, Bushell’s life as a pilot ended in smoke and fire.
The Escape Committee
After capture, Bushell was interrogated and imprisoned at Dulag Luft, a temporary POW camp created specifically to house a growing number of Allied airmen.
Initially, the life of an Allied POW at Dulag Luft was comparatively good.
Operated by the Luftwaffe, the German air force, these POWs were guarded over by fellow airmen who were either too old or medically unfit to join the war effort in other ways. Camp authorities held themselves strictly to the provisions agreed to by Germany in the Geneva Convention of 1929.
In particular the Conventions stated the maximum punishment that could be handed down to a POW attempting escape: 10 days of solitary confinement.
From his education before the war Bushell was already fluent in both French and German. These preexisting skills, along with the knowledge of the relatively light consequences of failure, started Bushell down the road he would later be defined by.
He collaborated with 2 other interested British airmen: Harry Day and Jimmy Buckley, forming a group known as The Escape Committee to research and develop the skills to make credible and effective escape attempts.
The First Escape
The Committee was primarily interested in the techniques involved in digging tunnels.
The first two they started were failures, ending up flooded before they could be used.
Before they could start on a third, the second tunnel was discovered by guards. When the heat died down, they went back to work on the first tunnel, using better drainage techniques, and successfully extended it to beyond the camp walls.
In June of 1941, 17 British officers used this tunnel to escape Dulag Luft, including Day and Buckley. Bushell escaped at approximately the same time, choosing instead to sneak out by hiding in a goat shed and waiting until nightfall.
Using his skills in the German language, Bushell was able to make it all the way to the Swiss border before he was apprehended. True to the Conventions, the recaptured escapees were punished with 10 days of solitary confinement and nothing more.
Bushell’s second escape would come just 4 months later.
While being transported between camps, Bushell and a Czech officer named Jaroslav Zafouk jumped from their train into the German countryside. The pair escaped to occupied Czechoslovakia, where Bushell was able to successfully make contact with the Czech resistance movement.
Unluckily for Bushell, his successful arrival in Prague coincided with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by resistance fighters. This targeted killing of the highest-ranking Nazi official in Czechoslovakia initiated monstrous reprisals against the populace, as well as a massive dragnet for the killers who had gone into hiding.
While he had nothing to do with the assassination, Bushell was caught by Gestapo agents and brutally interrogated. Later, he would find that the Czech family who had sheltered him had been slaughtered for offering him aid.
The Great Escape
Freshly released from Gestapo custody, Bushell was officially transferred to a new POW camp in Poland, Stalag Luft III.
After considering the efforts of determined allied tunnelers, the architects of this new camp had added a number of escape-resistant features.
The single-story sleeping huts were raised off the ground to make tunneling operations more visible. The yellowish sand underground was resistant to digging. And finally, vibration-sensitive microphones placed at ground level would theoretically detect tunnels as they were still being build.
The Luftwaffe Commandant, Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau, was by all accounts a fair and just leader. Bushell’s captivity was once again subject to the Geneva Conventions. The newly-built Stalag Luft III had a well-stocked library, volley ball courts, a POW-operated theatre, and regularly-received Red Cross relief packages.
But Bushell had faced the savage beatings of the Gestapo. And he had seen those who had offered aid brutally murdered.
His force of will hardened in the fire of this trauma, Bushell’s ultimate goal moved away from just escape for himself. Filled with vengeance, Bushell began to plan an escape attempt that would cause the maximum level of chaos and embarrassment for his captors.
In service of this goal, he envisioned the biggest, most daring escape possible. Not just a couple men, or a dozen, but 200 men escaping all at once into the Polish countryside.
The escape would involve not just 1 tunnel but 3. Three massive tunnels would be dug under the assumption that at least one of them would make it beyond the security fence.
The Great Work
In March of 1943, the British leadership at the camp accepted Bushell’s idea, and began excavation of this massive clandestine work.
In order to conceal the entrances to the tunnels, the tunnelers cut into the supports of the buildings and developed camouflaged coverings to conceal the holes.
In order to avoid German tunnel-detecting equipment, the tunnels went deep, 30 feet below the surface of the camp.
In order to shore up the loose sandy soil, over 4,000 wood bed boards were carefully scavenged from the sleeping huts and used for supports in the tunnels.
From powdered milk tins, they crafted improvised shovels, lanterns and other equipment.
From stolen clothing and paper, they crafted civilian costumes and forged travel papers.
Digging 3 completely separate tunnels turned out to be the right number, only one tunnel was sucessfully finished. The first tunnel was discovered, the second tunnel could not be completed due to a newly expanded construction area that extended the security fence in that direction.
But the last tunnel was a masterpiece. It was electrified with lights, and fresh air was moved through using an improvised air pump.
On March 24, 1944, one year later from when they started, the group was ready to make its break.
Over 200 men were set to escape through the tunnel. Slowly they went through the tunnel, which was approximately 2 feet square and extended over 300 feet. The escape was cut short when a guard accidentally stumbled across the exit point, at which point no more escapees could get though.
By this time, 75 men had made it to the woods outside Stalag Luft III and were now working towards freedom.
“Kill More Than Half”
Freedom didn’t last very long.
Of the 75 escapees, only 3 successfully made it back to Allied territory.
But Bushell’s ultimate plan went far beyond escape. He sought to sow chaos and embarrassment, and on this front the group was wildly successful.
The German High Command was furious. Adolf Hitler was said to have flown into a livid rage after receiving news of 75 POW’s running loose within the Third Reich. He personally ordered than any re-captured POW be shot. The Geneva Conventions that the German military had previously held itself to were cast aside as kill orders passed down through the ranks of the Gestapo.
Worried this disregard for the rules of war would endanger Germans in Allied POW camps, Hitler’s advisors argued for more leniency. But the eventual compromise was little better. Hitler’s final word on the matter, “kill more than half,” resulted in exactly 50 victims being chosen for execution out of the recaptured group.
Bushell was captured only days later, and his escape career was ended by a bullet.
Echoing the horrors faced by the Czechs after Operation Anthropoid, the Gestapo conducted swift reprisals at anyone who had been involved in the escape. Guards who were found to have intensionally or otherwise aided the escape were shot. The Commandant was officially court-martialed, then pressed into combat service on the Eastern Front where he would eventually die.
But the memory of Bushell’s fighting spirit would end up inspiring a generation. And remain for all history as an example of overcoming obstacles in the most trying circumstances.