I've been waiting for someone to write this book for forty-plus years, and Pearson's book does not disappoint.
Inevitably it covers much of the same ground as the three books that - to my mind - introduced Roger Bushell to my/Pearson's generation. Pearson openly acknowledges his debt to those books - The Great Escape (Paul Brickhill), 'Wings' Day (Sidney Smith) and Escape From Germany (Aidan Crawley). But in these books - great as they are - Bushell appears in his final form, a lion already caged, with little information of what formed this great, but arguably flawed leader of men.
Pearson's great achievement is that he shows the making of the man, through the words of those who knew him. Pearson admits that luck played a part - doors opened for him to meet a few survivors of the Great Escape, and at a time when the family was making Bushell's papers available.
It is a scholarly work, with 15-20% devoted to a thorough bibliography and cross-reference to his sources. At the same time, it is a thoroughly readable story, too, capturing the moods of the man through the letters he wrote, and revealing much that was not known (or could not be published) at the time of those earlier books. In that vein, I'd particularly commend the research into Bushell's time in Prague, sheltered by Czech Resistance, as being pivotal in bringing new insight into the man, and the events that moulded Bushell into his final form - the Bushell of the Great Escape.
If you ever read PoW tales, then you'll have got a glimpse of Bushell and wanted to know more. For more than sixty years Bushell's life story was begging to be told, and now it has been.
ROGER BUSHELL: A GREAT INTELLIGENCE ASSET. LET’S HOPE THE GOVERNMENT WILL ONE DAY EXPLAIN WHAT REALLY HAPPENED AND THE ESCAPE’S IMPACT ON THE WAR
An appreciation by Phillip Taylor MBE and Elizabeth Taylor of Richmond Green Chambers
Most people are familiar with the story of ‘The Great Escape’ from the book written by Paul Brickhill which was permitted to be published in 1950, and the later blockbuster film produced in 1963- ‘a good film’ said Sydney Dowse, but a film nonetheless.
What most people do not realise are the surprising efforts made by the government initially to prevent publication of the story, and the continued secrecy surrounding what went on after the escape in March 1944 as D Day and the end of the war approached. Anthony Eden made a statement in the Commons committing the British government to find and punish the murderers of the fifty airmen, including Bushell, involved in the escape.
“The Great Escaper” is the first full biography of Bushell. It’s an uplifting statement of what can be achieved against the greatest odds, and with such sad turns of event thrown in along the way, all of which are unfortunately true. Simon Pearson’s work will remain the definitive account for many years to come until the remaining official papers are eventually released in the middle of this century possibly, if at all, if the public are going to be allowed to see them.
Pearson has produced an excellent, well researched and documented account of a most remarkable man taken from the papers in the IWM Bushell archive now available, and substantial interviews.
What we have with the biography is a much more rounded picture of Roger as a man: a most useful portrait as so few people remain alive who knew him, and after the various smatterings of the story appeared in other books.
Brickhill had much trouble publishing his book at the end of the war. The nobbled, probably fake, dispatches originating from Sweden, printed in “The Daily Telegraph” using most ridiculous aliases like ‘Wing Commander Smith’, have unfortunately assisted the build-up of some silly myths about “Operation 200” or The “Great Escape” as it is now known.
The question really is what the security services still have to protect (or hide) as only two escapers are actually alive as we write this review in May 2015 and disclosure would be historically fascinating to read.
M19 will, we hope, one day open up all the files, especially on the early part of Roger’s imprisonment in Germany as the public should know more about this man and the exceptional people involved, some of whom we have met. The other uncomfortable issue which remains is the lack of a proper award for Bushell and Pearson covers this sensitively.
It is evident to many that Bushell deserved a DSO for the brilliance of this operation (with only the occasional moaner mentioned in the book) but he didn’t get it or any proper recognition for the achievement of “Operation 200”: 3 airmen got home.
What Bushell did for us, now partly explained over 100 years since his birth and 70 years on from the breakout is worth much more than any medal. Unfortunately there are still so many things missing in this story, especially covering its important intelligence aspects, including Bushell’s time in Prague of which there has been some discovery of further information but much more still hidden.
One thing is for sure, the story of “The Great Escape” will not go away. To meet the people involved, and go to the places where these events took place opens up this valiant story to the very hearts of courage and inspiration displayed by the participants and given to many readers in new generations interested in military history… and rightly so.
Like visiting the Moon in 1969, it’s scarcely possible for some to comprehend how “Operation 200” was conceived and conducted unless you have been there: but it was and there’s a museum at Zagan. We will get some fascinating answers one day to complete the generous picture painted by Pearson of this most remarkable and likeable barrister from Lincoln’s Inn.
Thank you… this story is to be continued (one day) if MI9 permit!
An absolutely cracking read. Plenty of background of Roger Bushell with an insight into just what made these men tick. If you have an interest in the lives of those held as POW during WW2 then this is a book not to be missed.
Thanks to the film, most people know who Roger Bushell was and this book helps to make him more three dimensional. He was clearly a bit of a handful and the author has succeeded in gathering together the story of his upbringing. Napoleon said that he preferred his generals to be lucky rather than intelligent and it is very clear that Roger Bushell had just about everything in life except luck. Being shot down on his very first clash with the Luftwaffe rather sums up his war. A strong personality and a natural leader he made his mark and the final tunnel had much about it that was ingenious. It's a very interesting book about a very interesting character who, like so many of his generation, might have done truly great things had he lived.
Everyone knows of "The Great Escape" as a wonderful film, possibly also as a book by Paul Brickhill who had personal involvement in the escape from Stalag Luft III during the Second World War. Most people know that Hitler was so enraged by disruption to his reducing forces that he ordered that 50 escapers recaptured should be shot, constituting murder and breach of the Geneva Convention. This book traces the life of their worthy leader Roger Bushell, (called Roger Bartlett in the film and played by Richard Attenbrough) from his birth in South Africa to his life in England up to and including the War, as well as the Great Escape itself with tragic consequences for fifty men including Roger Bushell. This book is full of this man's incredible courage and daring deeds and explains why the Gestapo had warned him that escape again and you will be shot. In the knowledge of that Bushell was determined to not only escape but to disrupt the German forces as much as possible. His attitude hardened towards the enemy probably in the light of his experiences in Czechoslovakia immediately prior to being sent to Stalag Luft III and the brutality he witnessed first hand meted out to people who helped him as well as the rough treatment he himself received at their hands. An incredible life, and a brilliantly detailed and well researched book, which I could metaphorically not put down.This is a masterpiece of the genre by Simon Pearson. Thank you.