Squadron Leader Roger Bushell – ‘Big X’

Roger Bushell in 1939
Roger Bushell in 1939

Roger Bushell was born on August 30, 1910, son of a South African mining engineer.

He was educated at a preparatory school in Johannesburg and then, at the age of 13, took up a place at Wellington College, Berkshire.

Two years later, he spent a holiday in Switzerland and began to learn to ski, a sport in which he excelled.

Skiing and the mountains influenced him in leaving Wellington College early to spend two terms at Grenoble University, where he learnt to speak French and German fluently – these were languages he was to need later 
in life.

In 1929, Bushell went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge to read law.

After university, he was called to the Bar and became a promising London barrister. In 1930, he was invited to join as a pilot No 601 Auxiliary Squadron, known as the millionaire’s squadron due to their considerable wealth.

After war was declared, he flew with No 601 until 
October 10, 1939 when he was posted to RAF Tangmere to reform No 92 Squadron.

The squadron was equipped with Bristol Blenheim 1F night fighters and as its commanding officer, Bushell was the first Auxiliary officer to take up such a post.

The squadron moved to Croydon in December, 1939 and converted three months later to Spitfire Mk1 aircraft.

On May 23, at the time of Dunkirk, the squadron carried out its first sorties over northern France, but on its second sortie 
of the day, Bushell was shot down by a Bf 110.

Fortunately he managed to force-land in a field near Boulogne, but was captured by advancing German troops.

He was initially held at Dulag Luft, near Frankfurt, a Luftwaffe interrogation centre, but managed to escape a few weeks later.

He reached the German/Swiss border, but was captured before he was able to enter neutral Switzerland. Four months later he escaped from a second prisoner of war camp and reached Prague with a Czech RAF pilot. Here he was hidden from the Germans for six months until he was captured again on May 19, 1942.

His Czech lover and her family were later executed and Bushell was suspected by the Gestapo of involvement in the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia.

He was fortunate not to be executed, but was sent, after interrogation by the Gestapo in Berlin, to Stalag Luft 111, a prisoner of war camp for Allied air force officers in Lower Silesia, now Poland.

As ‘Big X’, Bushell took over the escape committee – the X organisation, responsible for all aspects of the camp’s escape 
plan to get 200 prisoners out in 
one night.

Three tunnels, named ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’, were dug, but in September, 1943, ‘Tom’ was discovered by the German guards. Work was concentrated on the completion of ‘Harry’ and on the night of March 24, 1944, 76 prisoners, including Bushell, escaped.

Roger Bushell was captured 
two days later some 500 miles from the camp.

On March 29, on Hitler’s order, he was shot dead by the Gestapo. Only three of the escapees made their way back to the UK, 
but 49 recaptured others were, 
like Bushell, murdered by 
the Gestapo.

The escape from Stalag Luft 111 was the inspiration for the film The Great Escape in which actor Richard Attenborough’s character Roger Bartlett, was based on Roger Bushell, the real ‘Big X’.

This article, written by David Coxon, Tangmere Military Aviation Museum’s curator, is the tenth in a series of monthly articles on the people of RAF Tangmere.

More information on the museum, including opening times and entry prices, can be found on the website www.tangmere-museum.org.uk