The Killing Field, August 2005
Photograph Courtesy of Dr. Silvano Wueschner
Google Maps Coordinates Kindsbacher Straße 49, 66877 Ramstein-Miesenbach, Germany
This is the field where Squadron Leader Roger Bushel died.
Here, near the west gate of the Ramstein Air Base, is where Nazi officers dropped him to his knees in the final seconds of his life.
It has taken me over two years to get here.
Two years of dreaming this man back to life, and searching for the people who might remember him. Two years to learn that with his knees driven into the same earth I am standing upon now, he turned just before the pistol was fired, to get a last glimpse of his executioner. To glare at him. To show his contempt. To renounce his own fear.
I don’t sleep anymore.
I am haunted by this man.
And by that image of him turning at the moment he did, so that the Gestapo agent standing behind him in his long coat, the agent called Dr. Spann, was forced to shoot him in the back. The shot echoed off a church steeple and a ridge of hills that stretched across the horizon as Roger rolled onto his side, drew his knees to his stomach and groaned as he glanced back once again before the second bullet exploded through in his skull.
Here, near Kaiserslautern, Germany, by the side of the road that morning on March 29, 1944, in the last moments, the brightness dimmed from Roger’ Bushell’s blue eyes as his murderer put a lie to all that he had dreamed of being in this world and to the greatness he was so certain was at hand for him.
This place marks the end of his life and the beginning of being forgotten. I know that now. I am both angry and mystified by it.
I stood here at dusk as the cars raced past. Their fabulously engineered engines humming with a certain arrogance that bothered me. I was already disappointed that the place where Bushell perished was marked, not by a monument but by a public toilet of stainless steel and polished concrete. And by yellowed sheets of newspaper caught in the branches of sickly pine trees; by beer bottles at my feet, beneath the ugly, low steel railing that marked the edge of the highway. There was no marker of a man’s death or life or of his struggle in the end. No scent in the air of the Seine River and the warming fields of France forty kilometers to the west of here where Roger was dreaming of that morning—The safe house there where he would lay low for a few days, a week or maybe a few months, before he found his way back to a fighter squadron and resumed waging war against the German bastards who sought to enslave England. There was nothing in this place that recalled the remarkable journey that had brought him here, or his story.
Or of the people who inhabited his story: The family in South Africa who grieved for him. His dear friend who would become the prosecutor in the Nazi war trials at Nuremburg to try to get even in some way for what they did to Roger. The woman in England who pledged herself to him and then stopped waiting for him to return from the War. Or the other woman. The woman in Czechoslovakia who made love to him in the fifth story flat on Stefanikovna Boulevard, just before she turned him over to the Nazis; Roger careful not to pass before the tall windows of that building with so many people milling about in the city streets below as he took her in his arms. Not because he loved her but because she had promised him a way out of captivity and back into the fight. Into the war again.
What could she have known of this man? He would have told her nothing, on the run as he was, an RAF pilot shot down over Dunkirk, a POW escaped from a German prison camp, recaptured and locked in cattle car on a freight train crossing Germany when he sawed through the wooden planks of the floor then dropped below onto the rails to be free again.
She knew nothing of this. He was a stranger to her. His past as unknown as his future. For taking him into her arms, into her bed, into her life, she would be killed by the Gestapo. But not before she unwittingly set into motion one of the great examples of human achievement.
Here is the mystery of life, the puzzling nature of human existence. That what seems to be random and haphazard turns out to be something else entirely. It turns out to be Fate. Or call it Destiny. That a lonely platinum blonde in a cheap dress entices a stranger to take her clothes off and to make love to her. And then, because he won’t profess his undying loyalty only to her, because he can’t love her and take her with him, she betrays him. She hands him over to his enemies for thirty pieces of silver, thereby making possible one of the astonishing enterprises in history. Years later, long after she is dead, it will be called The Great Escape. The story of how 600 prisoners of war in a German camp secretly dug one hundred and thirty tons of earth to build a tunnel thirty feet deep and three hundred and fifty five feet long. How they worked night and day for a year and a half, building a railway in that tunnel, and intricate radio receivers, and perfectly detailed passports forged with stunning precision, and two hundred functioning compasses, and a tailored suit of clothing for each man. Including this one man who pulled her stockings to her ankles and made love to her in her father’s bed in her father’s house.
Because he was already an escaped prisoner when she took him in her embrace, the Nazis shot her up against a wall and took their money back, depriving her of ever learning that this man was the mastermind behind it all. That this man who engineered the Great Escape would come to redefine for men at war the meaning of courage and defiance.
It had taken me a long time to get here from Chicago, from my life where I am an attorney. My life, hectic and passing too quickly just like yours. I have always been a most reasonable man, plodding along through my responsibilities with my head down, not prone to obsessions or exaggerated ideas. I had struggled for almost two years to fit my research of Roger’s story into the small spaces of my ordinary life. A week’s vacation spent in Cape Town. Another in Poland. A long car drive to Quebec to the place where Roger skied as a Cambridge undergraduate. I searched for him everywhere, taking my small steps forward, and then falling back, wondering where all of this would lead in the end. What I would know of this man, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, when I finally came to the end, was that I knew him better than any other person I had ever known.
There was frustration at almost every turn. Even finding this place in Germany had been difficult. I had taken three wrong turns off the A6 Autoban before I found the right place, the place that matched the artist’s sketch. In my coat pocket, I had the sketches by the Royal Air Force Special Investigation Branch Team, and the transcript pages from the Nazi war crimes trials that convicted Bushell’s executioners. Two pages that identified the exact place where he was shot. Now I felt strangely like I had been here before, and was returning after a long absence.
My mind turned to another place, to another field.
Returning. To a field in Zagan, Poland where I had stood in March 2004. In the empty forest where the tunnel emerged on the far side of the barbed wire fence surrounding Stalig Luft III. A famous place. It was winter. The trees were stripped bare. The ground was still frozen. Dead branches snapped beneath my foot steps. I walked through the forest on March 24, at eleven pm, exactly the time the first men had emerged from the tunnel that night in 1944. I had wanted to be there at that exact moment, to try to feel what Bushell might have felt. I retraced the route from the tunnel to the railroad station half a mile north of the camp. The BBC was there to mark the 60th anniversary of The Great Escape. I met a few of the men from the prison camp. And one survivor of the escape, Jimmy James, who had spent two years there. He didn’t know much about Bushell, which surprised me. Two men living in a prison camp for two years, building a tunnel together, a tunnel that could just as easily have turned out to be their graves. But no one knew Bushell. He had walled himself off from everyone in that camp, which was not his nature to do. But in the prison camp he had been appointed by the senior British officer to organize and execute this escape plan, and so he was alone at the top. In his civilian life he had been a barrister, but here he was the judge and jury. He alone decided if a man had the strength of will, the courage, the patience, to be in on this secret escape plan. He made enemies here in this field. He left some men behind. Men he decided were not up to the requirements the escape. Of his dream.
I am back in Germany now.
One of the men Roger had chosen, died here in this field with him.
I took the transcript pages from my pocket again and held them to the light. The stick figure sketch that could have been drawn by a six year old child has the title: DESCRIPTION AS BREITHAUPT SAW THE TWO VICTIMS AND THE GUNMEN. KRIMINAL SEKRETAR SCHULZ ON THE LEFT. THEN BUSHELL AND BERNARD (IDENTIFIED AS ENGLISH PILOTS) THEN DR. SPANN.
A short distance away, were the Gestapo car and the driver, Breithaupt, who would be the witness.
I read the transcript pages again, word for word again, in the fading light of dusk. This is Schulz speaking, Schulz who would in time be hanged for his part: “I put the handcuffs on the rear seat of the car, took my pistol out of its holster and walked around the back of the car. At that moment I heard shots fired and Dr. Spann shouting, but I could not tell what he was shouting. I saw both officers falling to the ground and I then fired a single shot at the taller of the officers. I could not be sure if my shot hit, but the two officers fell forward to the ground. The smaller one fell face downwards, and the taller one fell sideways and dropped on his right side and slowly turned over on his back. He drew up his legs and made a groaning sound, and I could see that he was in great pain. He did not speak, and I lay down on the grass close to him, and taking careful aim, I shot him through the left side of the head.”
I folded the pages and turned towards the highway where a single car caught my attention. One car racing past all the others. Distinguishing itself in the heavy traffic. I smiled. That would be Roger, driving faster than the rest of them. Insisting on being out in front. Roaring through the last light of the day. More than anything, he loved speed and despised moving slowly. At age 3 he took his mother’s car for a spin. During his years at Cambridge he had raced his MG through the streets of London, that car he loved, a disgraceful little hardtop that had cost him ten pounds British Sterling. The petrol attendants shaking their heads. He loved that. And then in the south of England learning how to fly Tiger Moths out over the Cliffs of Dover. Those flimsy bi-planes that appeared to be held together by strings and canvas. He pushed them harder than they were meant to be pushed. I stood on that field too, the old grass runway at Duxford air base in England. I saw the rolling hills and the ancient stone walls and the enormous hangers large enough to hold a zeppelin. The place where Roger trained to fly., and where the townspeople sent their children out of the room each time Roger began cursing on the wireless. The grounds crews shaking their heads. Muttering his name after every hair raising landing. Bushell.
And here in this field, another name beside his. Bernard. Bernard Scheidhauer, a French pilot, who had dug the tunnel with Roger. And ended up here. He was one of those selected by Bushell. One of those who was not content to sit out the remainder of the war in the German camp where the Nazis placated their prisoners with a camp newspaper, and golf clubs, a library and an ice hockey rink. It was a peculiar sort of confinement meant to drain the fight out of a man. To Roger this was an abomination. Sitting there day after day while his friends died in war. All his life he had believed that his destiny was for greatness. Greatness of some kind. He knew it was out there just ahead of him, and when the war broke out he grew certain that he had been born at the right time and was meant for something heroic in this war. And now he was sitting in a camp theatre run by the enemy watching his comrades perform Gilbert and Sullivan, airmen, men he knew in drag playing the female roles. This was a denial of his destiny. An abomination that drove him to the edge. And the only solace was the tunnel. The Great Escape.
So, Bernard had followed him to this field rather than stay behind and live out the war in a prison camp where the cigarettes were not that great and the ice on the hockey rink was never quite right, but you were safe, and you would make it home in the end to the people who were waiting for you.
Instead he died for following Roger Bushell, who was following his destiny. Instead he became one of the 76 men who escaped that night, emerging from the end of the tunnel beyond the barbed wire fence and then making their separate ways across Europe.
Roger’s plan had been to get 200 out; his mad vision had been to empty the camp in the dead of night so that when the Germans awoke everyone would be gone. That would be greatness!
But it didn’t come to pass. The tunnel, it turned out, was twenty feet short, so that when the first man stuck his head up from under ground, he was in an open field illuminated by spot lights rather than at the edge of the forest where Roger promised they would be. His plan failed that night. A mathematical error Roger should not have made forced over a hundred men, already dressed in their escape clothing and dreaming of the world beyond the prison camp, to remain behind.
They were the lucky ones, it turned out.
Two months after September 11, I began the process to join the Army. I felt like it was the right thing to do. At officer’s training in Fort Lee Virginia we ran through the Civil War battlefield at Petersberg, Virginia, past the crater that marks the tunnel built by Pennsylvania coal miners from General Grant’s army. Another tunnel. Another war. During those weeks, I told no one of this book that had begun to take over my imagination and my life. I thought of Bushell. I had his letters with me, the letters he had written home during the war, and he was on my mind. But I didn’t speak of him, or of my intentions because I was still confused by something. Why had Roger Bushell been forgotten? In the hundreds of books written about the Great Escape, there was barely a mention of him, the man who organized and dreamed it into existence. In the damned Hollywood movie, “the ultimate Tinkertoy sandbox movie,” that became an icon of pop culture, no mention of him. No handsome movie star to play his role. Roger’s father said it best, when he saw Roger’s character on the screen: “Mind you, the fellow in the film is no more like my son than an old boot.”
Why had Bushell disappeared across the years since the Great Escape? There at Fort Lee I tried to answer the question. But it wasn’t clear to me until the end of the day in the field where he was killed. I knew it then. Not to be remembered is one thing. To be forgotten is something else. And the mystery of this, how he could have been forgotten, was part of the story that had its claws in me. A forgotten soldier dead on the side of the road, like so many now in the television images from Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers who had followed someone there to the side of the road, like Bernard had followed Roger to this ugly place. This worthless strip of land. As Roger lay dying here he would have known that he was responsible for Bernard dying beside him. His vision of greatness, his belief in destiny, were to blame for this. As Roger lay dying he may have wondered if the others who escaped with him would meet the same end. If somehow the brilliant vision he had for his life brought destruction to all those men who had believed in him. Of the 76 men who escaped from the tunnel, all but three were rounded up within a few weeks. Fifty were executed by the Nazis. The truth lies in these numbers. In truth then, Roger Bushell’s Great Escape was an exquisite failure. And forgetting him had been intentional.
Why was it intentional? Because forgetting, to those who loved and knew him, was a shield against the poison drops of crippling sorrow. Because forgetting, to the bureaucrats in the RAF, was easier than awarding him a medal. Roger Bushell never received a wartime decoration for his valiant service.
I knew this suddenly, the way you know certain things. And that made me even more determined to resurrect him, and to tell this story of his life.
Written in 2007, with notes I had taken along this stretch of the A6 in 2005.