By: Ben H. English

“Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun… In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick, and Harry. One will succeed!”

-Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, also known as “Big X”.

Stalag Luft III, Nazi Germany, 1943

Many of you have seen the 1963 classic motion picture The Great Escape at least once, and probably more. Some of you might have read the book by the same title, written by Australian Paul Brickhill who was a POW in Stalag Luft III. A very few might recall Goon In The Block, which was retitled The Wooden Horse after the movie of the same name was released in 1950. Both detailed the first escape from Stalag Luft III by three allied POWs in October 1943. This book was written by another former POW held there by the name of Eric Williams.

But it is the story of “Big X” and his fellow conspirators which has held fast to our memories from those dark days of 1944. Perhaps it is because of the sheer audacity of it all; the plan to free not a couple of prisoners, nor a couple of dozen. No, they were going to do quite a bit more than that. They were going to free a couple of hundred from a compound deep in the heart of Nazi Germany, a place specifically constructed to keep them firmly secured and out of the war for the duration.

Stalag Luft III was the flagship of German POW camps. Run by the Luftwaffe, it had the best recreational and educational programs of any of the camps of its type. Because it was controlled by the Luftwaffe, efforts were made to ensure the prisoners were better treated than in other camps. Everything that could be done to make the prisoners complacent was done, while every security measure imaginable was instituted in a classic ‘carrot and stick’ routine.

Yet these prisoners were still soldiers who understood their duty. They still continued to resist, and they still planned and plotted to free themselves. Chief and foremost among them was RAF Squadron Leader Roger Joyce Bushell. A South African, Bushell was an extremely intelligent and gifted man with rare leadership qualities and an iron will. It was he who became known as “Big X”, and who was the driving force behind what was to go down in history as ‘The Great Escape’.

Like all works on the big screen which try to tell such a monumental story, the movie itself was an incomplete portrayal of their efforts. What happened to several different prisoners was encapsulated into a single movie character. Important events were glossed over or entirely ignored, while others were fictionalized entirely. Yet the most important contribution of the film itself is how it manages to capture the spirit of those behind the wire of Stalag Luft III, and what they managed to accomplish.

In truth there were no motorcycle chases and no escapes in stolen enemy aircraft. There were no Hollywood superstars, and no depiction of the coldest winter in thirty years which these men toiled through to make their plan a reality. The doomed fifty souls were not executed in masse on a bright sunny day as depicted; rather they were murdered singly or in twos by the Gestapo by the gloom of cold bare walls emanating despair and hopelessness, or in the seclusion of some other haunting small space. RAF Squadron Leader Bushell, now better known as “Big X”, was one of them.

It is likely that in these final moments they considered themselves failures. After all, they had failed at first in allowing themselves to be captured and imprisoned while fighting a great evil. Then they had failed in previous escape attempts and yet again failed in the one in which they were now paying for with their very lives. They had no real idea if anyone would ever even know where and how they died, or why. Yet they remained true to themselves, their mates and their sense of honor to the very end.

Which makes their story even more heroic and worthy for the memories of free men everywhere.

To the Fifty!…