March 2016 marks 72 years since iconic Great Escape mastermind, Roger Bushell’s death. But who was he and why is he so significant in South Africa’s history. We take a look at the legend whose name can be found on the war memorial less than a kilometre from finglobal.com’s offices.
Roger Bushell was born in Springs, Gauteng, in 1910. The son of a wealthy mine manager, he was sent to private preparatory school, Mountain View, in Johannesburg in 1917. Other famous names who attended school include Harry Oppenheimer and members of the Cullinan family. Roger spent most school holidays at his grandparent’s house in Fernkloof, Hermanus, which still stands today.
Following his graduation from prep school, Roger went to England and attended Wellington College as well as Cambridge University. He was a successful barrister in London for several years until World War II, when he immediately enlisted in the Royal Air Force.
Life in the army
Roger had not spent a long time in the air-force when his airplane was shot down over Calais behind enemy lines. He was captured by German soldiers and became a prisoner of war. He swiftly made an escape from a low-security prison, but was recaptured shortly thereafter. He made his second escape from a train taking him to a higher-security establishment and reached Prague where he was aided by a Czech family who hid him for 8 months.
His relationship and subsequent breakup with the family’s daughter led to his betrayal, recapturing and subsequent assassination of the entire Czech family by Gestapo.
Following this, Roger was interrogated and tortured before being sent to a maximum-security prison. But Roger proved highly resilient, immediately planning a large escape and creating an escape committee known as Big X. Roger masterminded the historical event dubbed ‘The Great Escape’. The escape plan included the digging of three tunnels, forging of papers and money manufactured in prison as well as the acquisition of realistic German civilian and military outfits.
Though the Big X had originally included 600 RAF officers and had projected the escape of 200 POWs, only 76 of the prisoners escaped when German guards caught wind of the efforts. Enraged, Hitler ordered the recapture and execution of all escapees. 73 of the escapees were subsequently recaptured, of which 29 were executed on the spot.
The death of Roger Bushell
Roger was one of the escapees executed on the spot after being recaptured. But he seemed to have snubbed the Germans even during his execution. He was first shot by senior Gestapo officer, Dr Spann, who then ordered civilian officer Emil Schulz to complete the execution.
Memorial and aftermath
During Roger’s ordeal, his parents had moved to Hermanus and settled down there without the slightest inkling as to what their son was going through.
After his death his name was added to the War Memorial in Hermanus near Old Harbour, even though he had never lived there himself. Two Roger Bushell prizes for character are awarded at Hermanus High School each year commemorating Roger’s tenacious and unconquerable spirit.
Several books and films have been made about Roger Bushell’s life and the Great Escape.