Inside life of real Great Escape mastermind… Spitfire ace, spy & womaniser who helped 200 tunnel to freedom from Nazis

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IT was planned to be the biggest prisoner of war escape ever, with more than 200 men involved in a mass breakout.

As it turned out, 76 British and Allied airmen fled from the grim Stalag Luft III PoW camp deep inside Germany — and today sees the 80th anniversary of the feat known as the Great Escape.

Dashing hero Roger Bushell was given command of 92 Squadron

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Dashing hero Roger Bushell was given command of 92 Squadron
Richard ­Attenborough played Bushell as an almost boring man but he was nothing like that

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Richard ­Attenborough played Bushell as an almost boring man but he was nothing like thatCredit: .

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Thanks to the classic 1963 film of the same name featuring a cast of stars including Steve McQueen, the epic World War Two story of how the men got out through a 100-yard ­tunnel dug with home-made ­shovels is not forgotten.

But Squadron Leader Roger ­Bushell — the mastermind behind the breakout that so incensed Hitler he had 50 of the ­recaptured escapers killed — has never had the ­recognition he deserves.

Now, eight decades after South African Bushell was murdered on the Fuhrer’s orders, there are new calls to honour the man they called Big X.

Author Simon Pearson says: “Roger Bushell’s life was the stuff of legend.

“A Spitfire pilot with a string of glamorous lovers, he was one of the fastest skiers in Europe and a spy who organised the greatest escape in history.

“He was like a real-life James Bond, and someone who hated ­tunnels, but incredibly he has almost been written out of ­history.

“They even changed his name in the film to Roger Bartlett, and Richard ­Attenborough played him as an almost boring man.

“But Bushell was dashing and ­daring, a powerful man, not quite 6ft, with a thick mop of dark brown hair, a strong, deep voice and striking, bright blue eyes that seemed to shine in the dark.

“He was also a great romantic who loved women.

“The impact of the escape organised by Bushell was enormous but his contribution to the war effort, which went far beyond the breakout from Stalag Luft III, has never been ­officially ­recognised.

Unseen behind-the scenes footage of iconic motorbike jump from classic 60s film The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen

“It is high time this ­omission was put right.”

Born and raised in South Africa, where his English father managed a gold mine, Bushell — who spoke fluent French and German — studied law at Cambridge and went on to become a ­barrister in ­London.

He learned to fly with ­Britain’s Auxiliary Air Force in the posh 601 Squadron known as the “Millionaires’ Mob”, whose rich pilots enjoyed a wild lifestyle.

One of his ­girlfriends was Lady ­Georgie Curzon, an aristocrat’s daughter and distant relative of Prince Harry’s old flame, Cressida Bonas.

During the war, Bushell was given ­command of 92 Squadron — the highest-scoring unit in Fighter Command, with more than 300 kills.

But in May 1940 his Spitfire was shot down during the evacuation of Dunkirk.

He crash-landed near ­Boulogne and was taken prisoner.

He managed to escape German ­custody twice, and on his second attempt he was only caught by the ­Gestapo after the boyfriend of a Czech resistance fighter who ­Bushell had fallen for tipped off the Germans.

Before finally being sent to Stalag Luft III — 100 miles south of Berlin, near the town of Zagan, and now part of Poland — Bushell was told by the Gestapo that the next time he escaped he would be ­executed.

Pearson, the author of Bushell’s life story The Great Escaper, says: “Despite the warning, he was appointed Big X (the project leader’s codename) at Stalag Luft III and recruited 600 British and Allied ­officers to put escaping on an ­industrial footing — with security and intelligence to match.

“They even had workshops forging documents, making civilian clothes, maps and compasses and everything else needed.”

Bushell’s breathtaking plan was for 200 men to escape on a single night, using one of three tunnels, named Tom, Dick and Harry, that would run 300 feet to the camp perimeter, causing major disruption for the ­Germans.

The real-life Roger, dressed in military kit, was fearless

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The real-life Roger, dressed in military kit, was fearless
PoW camp Stalag Luft III was run by the Luftwaffe for captured airmen

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PoW camp Stalag Luft III was run by the Luftwaffe for captured airmenCredit: Hulton Archive – Getty

But Tom was discovered by enemy guards and Dick had to be used for hiding tunnelling materials, leaving only Harry for the mass breakout overnight on March 24/25, 1944.

When the planned time came, all those involved knew the escape was a forlorn hope because the weather was appalling, with freezing temperatures.

Few could have hoped to survive in the open for long — but Bushell gave the go-ahead because the Germans were closing in on Harry and carrying out relentless searches of the camp.

Ken Rees, one of the last survivors of the Great Escape, said in 2012: “We would do anything to disrupt the Germans. We were capable, well-trained and well-prepared. We felt almost invincible.”

In the end, Bushell and 75 of his ­comrades managed to escape before the ­Germans raised the alarm.

Ahead of the escape, he had hinted in letters to his lover Georgie that he would be home soon.

We would do anything to disrupt the Germans. We were capable, well-trained and well-prepared. We felt almost invincible

Survivor Ken Rees in 2012

After the breakout, Bushell, who was then 33, almost reached France before he and a companion were hauled off a train near the border city of ­Saarbrucken after guards became suspicious of their forged papers.

Hitler’s rage then caught up with Bushell, who was shot dead beside the A6 motorway — the first of 50 PoWs who were ­executed in the wake of the escape.

Only three made it home — two Norwegians and a Dutchman — and 23 were returned to captivity in ­Germany.

Eighty years on, military personnel from the Allied nations last week ­gathered at a cemetery in Poland to ­commemorate the heroes who were executed after the escape.

RAF investigators later identified 72 ­Germans who had played an active role in the murders.

The war crime led to convictions for the German officers responsible, and in 1947 21 of them were executed, while 17 were jailed and 11 took their own lives.

Attenborough as Bushell alongside Charles Bronson in The Great Escape

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Attenborough as Bushell alongside Charles Bronson in The Great EscapeCredit: Sky
Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough surface outside the PoW camp in the film

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Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough surface outside the PoW camp in the film
The number is up for Attenborough’s  screen character Roger Bartlett

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The number is up for Attenborough’s screen character Roger BartlettCredit: United Artists

Six were killed in the war and one man — a Gestapo driver turned supergrass — was not charged.

Documents newly released by the National Archive to mark the anniversary appear to show the escapers were given away by traitors.

One of the 26 survivors, Flt Lieut Desmond Plunkett — the inspiration for Donald Pleasence’s character Colin Blythe in the film — said after the war that he suspected the PoWs had been betrayed by two Englishmen in the camp.

After making 2,500 maps for the escape, Plunkett had volunteered to be the “unlucky” 13th man out of the camp.

He was captured near the ­Austrian border and then interrogated by the ­Gestapo but allowed to live.

Like all surviving PoWs, after the war Plunkett was given a questionnaire to fill out.

Roger Bushell’s life was the stuff of legend

Simon Pearson

In that 1945 document, which has only just come to light, Plunkett wrote: “There are two ­individuals . . . whose activities have a direct bearing on the fate of the 50 executed prisoners of war.

“These two persons must be traced, as both are undoubtedly indigenous Englishmen and must be tried for their collaborating activities with the enemy.”

The breakout was part of a bigger operation run by Bushell and his comrades in the escape committee.

Inside the camp they managed to gather vast amounts of intelligence from their captors, including details of the Nazis’ new terror weapons, the V1 flying bomb and the V2 rocket.

The information was sent back to London in hundreds of coded letters, disguised in correspondence between the prisoners and their families.

Secret information supplied by PoWs ranked second only to the Enigma code-breaking programme at Bletchley Park as a source of information on what was going on inside ­Germany — and Bushell was one of the most significant players.

RAF personnel stand behind the graves of those lost in the atrocity committed by the Gestapo following the Great Escape

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RAF personnel stand behind the graves of those lost in the atrocity committed by the Gestapo following the Great EscapeCredit: Forces Net
Steve McQueen starred in the epic World War Two story

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Steve McQueen starred in the epic World War Two storyCredit: Getty – Contributor

Simon Pearson says: “Bushell effectively turned Stalag Luft III into an outpost of British intelligence.

“He was, to all intents and ­purposes, a spy, which is possibly why he received no significant posthumous decorations, and no attention was drawn to him after the war.

“The prisoners worked [gathering intelligence] in breach of the Geneva Convention, which ­governs the ­conduct of war, and it could be argued that the Nazi regime had every right to execute them — if only they had known about their activities.

“Some tried to shine a light on Bushell’s achievements while others condemned him as reckless and the escape as a tragic waste of life.

“The only organisation that knew the full extent of his contribution towards the Allied victory was the British intelligence agency MI9, which handled the coded letters and ­supplied prisoners with escape ­equipment, including German travel passes, often hidden in food ­parcels.

“After the war, MI9 and its successors tried to ensure Bushell was ­recognised for his leadership and courage in captivity.”

Roger ­Bushell was an inspirational leader who probably did more than any other prisoner of war to confront the Nazi tyranny

Simon Pearson

In April 1949, five years after Bushell’s death, the intelligence agency, by then renamed AI9, lobbied for him to be awarded the George Cross, one of the highest awards for gallantry.

Housed at the National Archives in Kew, documents calling for Bushell to be ­decorated posthumously can still be read, but only under supervision because the content is still considered sensitive.

The reasons why Bushell was not awarded the George Cross are unclear, but author Simon believes it is not too late.

Read more on the Scottish Sun

He says: “Roger ­Bushell was an inspirational leader who probably did more than any other prisoner of war to confront the Nazi tyranny.

“Even 80 years on, this deserves to be recognised with a posthumous award of the highest order.”

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