Joining the legion of Croydon’s heroes is the mastermind of the famous Great Escape, Big X.

Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was stationed in the borough during World War II.

Born in South Africa in 1910, Bushell was something of a maverick. The former champion downhill skier was a criminal barrister in London by day and trained as a combat pilot during his spare time.

When war broke out he was called up and became the commanding officer of the 92 Squadron, which was based in Croydon.

He was shot down behind enemy lines during his second combat mission in May 1940. His short but remarkable career as a pilot was over but his career as an expert escaper began.

The 30-year-old escaped from the clutches of the Germans twice before planning the escape from Stalag Luft III – on which the famous film The Great Escape was based. His character was played by Richard Attenborough renamed as Roger Bartlett.

Bushell was a prisoner of war (PoW) in Dulag Luft where he was put in charge of questioning the new arrivals to make sure that they were not German spies. He also joined the escape committee and was soon promoted to deputy chief.

He dug two tunnels during the summer of 1940. One of them was discovered and the second became flooded. Before he could complete the third, he managed to seize an opportunity to escape by hiding himself in the commandant’s goat hut and then walking off.

He passed himself off as a Swiss tourist until he reached the Swiss border where an alert guard discovered that his passport was fake and he was recaptured.

Back at the PoW camp 24 men managed to escape from his completed tunnel but most were recaptured.

He began to dig a tunnel at his next PoW camp – where he was again on the escape committee – but was thwarted when the prisoners were moved before it was completed.

Bushell showed again how resourceful he was when he managed to cut a hole in the train with a fellow Czech prisoner while they were being transferred and jump out while it slowed to climb a hill.

They headed for Prague but were recaptured after the German governor was murdered in Zapok and the Gestapo moved in and arrested anyone who looked suspicious.

Bushell was assumed to be part of the British secret service and involved in the Reinhard Heydrich assassination. He was brutally tortured until the Gestapo finally realised he was an escaped PoW. They released him but told him that they would kill him if they came across him again.

He was transferred to Stalag Luft III where he was put in charge of the escape committee and masterminded the ambitious escape that would go down in history.

The whole camp became involved in the plans with 76 men eventually escaping out one of the tunnels on March 24, 1944. Bushell, code-named Big X, was arrested just two days later.

The hero’s luck had finally run out. He was picked up by Gestapo agent Emil Schulz and shot in the back of the head. Of the 76 men that escaped, 50 were shot on Hitler’s personal orders.

q Roger Bushell is just one of the RAF legends written about in a new book Heroes of Fighter Command by Rupert Matthews available from for £10.99.