Richard Attenborough as Roger Bartlett, aka “Big X”, RAF Squadron Leader and escape artist
Sagan-Silesia (now Żagań, Poland), Spring 1944
Film: The Great Escape
Release Date: July 4, 1963
Director: John Sturges
Wardrobe Credit: Bert Henrikson
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Today would have been the 100th birthday of English actor and director Richard Attenborough, born August 29, 1923 in Cambridge. One of this prolific stage and screen actor’s best-known roles was leading the ensemble cast of The Great Escape (1963) as Roger Bartlett, aka “Big X”, the Royal Air Force officer who organized the mass breakout from Stalag Luft III.
Bartlett was based on real-life RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, whose birthday was only one day after (and 13 years before) the actor who portrayed him—born August 30, 1910 in Springs, Transvaal, South Africa. Bushell pursued his secondary education in England, first at Wellington College before studying law at Cambridge, where the athletic scholar distinguished himself as a champion skier. A skiing accident scarred Bushell’s left eye for the rest of his life, represented in The Great Escape by a scar painted over Richard Attenborough’s opposite eye as the fictionalized Roger Bartlett.
“He was a big, tempestuous man with broad shoulders and the most chilling, pale-blue eyes I ever saw,” Paul Brickhill described Bushell in his excellent 1950 chronicle The Great Escape, which formed the basis for the film of the same name. “After it had been sewn up, the corner of his eye drooped permanently, and the effect on his look was strangely sinister and brooding.”
The adventurous Bushell yearned to fly and was commissioned as a Royal Air Force officer in 1932. He continued practicing law, defending fellow RAF fliers including Paddy Byrne, with whom he would eventually be imprisoned at Stalag Luft III. After England entered World War II, Bushell was given command of No. 92 Squadron and promoted to Squadron Leader (OF-3). In May 1940, Bushell was leading his squadron against their first enemy engagement and damaged two German planes before he himself was shot down, crash-landing his Supermarine Spitfire fighter in occupied France. The downed Bushell was quickly captured by the Germans and transferred into a prisoner-of-war camp for Allied airmen. “If the Germans had realized what a troublesome man they had caught, they would possibly have shot him then,” Brickhill editoralized.
After his participation in two escapes, Bushell was transferred to Stalag Luft III in Lower Silesia (now Poland), where he led escape operations, including the construction of three tunnels—nicknamed Tom, Dick, and Harry. On the evening of March 24, 1944, Bushell was one of the 76 airmen who escaped from the camp. Though all but three successful escapees were recaptured within days, the escape served to effectively rattle Nazi German leadership, who retaliated by murdering fifty of the recaptured airmen, including Squadron Leader Bushell. His gravestone is inscribed:
A LEADER OF MEN. HE ACHIEVED MUCH, LOVED ENGLAND AND SERVED HER TO THE END
In addition to Richard Attenborough’s birthday being only a day apart from Bushell’s, the actor was born at Cambridge, where Bushell studied law in the early 1930s. Both men served in the RAF during World War II, when Sergeant Attenborough the future filmmaker was seconded to the newly formed Royal Air Force Film Production Unit, filming from the rear gunner’s position to record footage for propaganda films.
As the war was ending, Attenborough began his career on stage and screen, considered the sixth most popular British actor (by box office standards) by the end of the 1940s. A new chapter of his career began in 1952 when he originated the role of Detective-Sergeant Trotter in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. He expanded to directing with Oh! What a Lovely War in 1969 and received the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director for his 1982 epic Gandhi. Younger audiences may best recognize Attenborough as the dinosaur park-building visionary John Hammond in Jurassic Park (1993) or as Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street (1994). Attenborough died five days before his 91st birthday on August 24, 2014.
What’d He Wear?
Paul Brickhill wrote that the real Squadron Leader Bushell arrived in camp wearing “tattered old battle dress.” Indeed, while Attenborough’s costume for most of The Great Escape is the same Commonwealth-issued battle dress as worn by many of his fellow officers, Roger Bartlett’s elevated position is visually communicated to audiences by his authoritative trench coat—a garment with a historical provenance deeply rooted in British military history.
Through the latter half of the 19th century, British outfitters Aquascutum and Burberry each independently arrived at similar designs for what would become known as the trench coat, popularized in the water-resistant gabardine fabric invented by Thomas Burberry in 1879. It was Burberry who submitted a British Army officer’s raincoat design to the War Office in 1901, resulting in its subsequent adoption as optional outerwear. During World War I, the coat was standardized with shoulder epaulets for rank insignia and D-rings around the belt for attaching equipment. The weatherproof garment’s full coverage and protection during trench warfare resulted in becoming commonly known as a “trench coat”.
Though modern marketers seem to apply the nomenclature to any khaki-shaded raincoat, a true trench coat is defined by a double-breasted front with broad lapels, a fully belted waist, and system of storm flaps that redirect rainwater from soaking the wearer. The sleeves are typically of the raglan style, detailed with double-layered epaulets over the shoulders.
Bartlett’s beige gabardine trench coat follows this traditional design, with straight storm flaps across the front and back its ten-button front arranged in two straight columns of five buttons. The sleeves are finished with belted cuffs to be tightened over the wrists, and the large pockets positioned below the belt have button-through closures—all designed to keep the elements out. Bartlett’s knee-length coat has the conventional belted waist, though he wears it rakishly tied like a sash rather than fastened through the buckle.
Bartlett’s peaked officer’s cap has the requisite soft blue-gray barathea wool cover and brim to match RAF service dress. Against the black mohair band, the cap boasts a black patent leather chinstrap and is distinguished by the gilt-wire RAF officers’ badge consisting of crown, eagle, and oak leaf embroidery.
Bartlett distinguishes himself in proper war service dress, the RAF’s equivalent of the “battledress” combat fatigues that the British Army had developed prior to World War II, dyed shades of dark blue to echo the air arm’s service uniforms rather than the khaki uniforms worn by ground forces.
The standard RAF war service dress was made of blue-gray wool serge, with the waist-length blouse fastened with a five-button fly front that officers often wore with the top few undone to show their shirt and tie. The waist hem features an extended self-belt that closes through a gunmetal-toned single-prong buckle on the right side. The two large box-pleated pockets are covered with scalloped flaps that each close through a single concealed button. The set-in sleeves have a single-button closure.
Looped around the blouse’s shoulder straps (epaulets), Bartlett wears his Squadron Leader (OF-3) rank insignia—two sky-blue stripes flanking a narrower sky-blue stripe, each against a black ground. He wears additional insignia over his left breast: the RAF’s padded “wings” patch designated for fliers and the purple-and-white “downhill” diagonal-striped ribbon representing the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), awarded for “an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy”.
As described by the The Angels Star Collection of Film & TV Costumes in a 2007 Bonhams auction listing, Attenborough’s screen-worn war service dress jacket was made by M. Berman Ltd. of 18 Irvine Street, Leicester Square, formerly a military tailor that eventually took over legendary costume house Nathans to become Bermans & Nathans, which would itself be acquired by Angels Costumes in 1992.
Many of Bartlett’s fellow airmen wear their uniforms in various states of dress, but Bartlett—aside from when he’s caught by surprise during the 4th of July celebration—always wears his RAF war service dress with its proper shirt and tie, a swath of black silk fastened in a proper four-in-hand and tightened to the neck. The light slate-gray cotton poplin shirt has a semi-spread collar, front placket, and button cuffs.
Bartlett wears flat-front trousers made of blue-gray serge to match his RAF war service dress blouse. While British Army and Royal Marines battle dress trousers were typically configured with map pockets or dressing pockets over the thighs, several patterns of RAF war service dress trousers were designed more aligned with the formality of No. 1 service uniform trousers, featuring only straight pockets along the side seams and sets of buttons along the waistband to be fastened to tabs concealed under the jacket hem to keep both pieces harmoniously in place when worn correctly.
The trousers have a straight military cut through the legs down to the plain-hemmed bottoms. Bartlett wears his RAF-issued black leather mid-calf flying boots, though they appear neither to be the 1936 pattern characterized by a front buckle-strap over the top, nor the 1939 pattern with khaki vulcanized canvas shafts, nor are they the lace-up 1943 “Escape” pattern boots with black suede shafts.
Bartlett wears a plain stainless steel wristwatch with a round white dial, secured to his left wrist on what appears to be an olive-green leather strap. The simple design aligns with the 6B/159 specifications for RAF air crew watches as made at the time by Jaeger-LeCoultre, Longines, and Omega. He also wears a silver-toned signet ring with an engraved monogram on his left pinky.
While assisting with the tunnel work, Roger covers his shirt and tie by donning a navy-blue ribbed wool “woolly-pully” commando sweater. This long-sleeved jumper with its drawstring-corded boat-neck should be familiar to 007 fans as this style was famously recreated by N.Peal for Daniel Craig to wear during his final on-screen act as James Bond in No Time to Die (2021). The style originated among the British military during World War II, when they were first worn by the British Army, SAS, and RAF Bomber Command, so it makes sense that Bartlett would have access to one during his tenure at Stalag Luft III midway through the war.
Bartlett’s Escape Suit
For the escape, Bartlett continues wearing the pale-gray shirt and plain black tie from his uniform, as these are nondescript enough to be convincingly worn with civilian attire.
The most curious aspect of Bartlett’s wardrobe that he maintains are his black leather flying boots. Given the fliers’ impressive resources and abilities, a valuable escapee like Bartlett could have surely been outfitted with more convincing civilian footwear like derbies, oxfords, or even lace-up boots that would be fare less likely to arouse suspicion.
Bartlett dresses to escape in a navy chalk-striped wool two-piece business suit, comprised of a double-breasted jacket and trousers finished with turn-ups (cuffs). His charcoal knee-length overcoat would have been a pretty sophisticated garment for the camp’s clandestine tailors, styled with low-gorge notch lapels (with sporty swelled edges), a single-breasted covered-fly front, straight flapped hip pockets, single vent, and three-button cuffs.
Bartlett completes the look with a black felt short-brimmed trilby that has a narrow black grosgrain band.
In the book The Great Escape, Paul Brickhill recalled that the real Squadron Leader Bushell managed to smuggle in a gray civilian suit from a previous escape. A year and a half after his arrival, he wore it to attempt another breakout:
…Bushell, vivacious and bright-eyed, was talking gaily. A little too gaily. He looked very smart in the gray lounge suit that he’d saved from Prague, a black overcoat (an RAF coat dyed with boot polish), and a dark felt hat he had somehow scrounged through a contact. His papers described him as a French businessman, and, carrying a little attaché case filled with his kit, he really looked the part.
Go Big or Go Home
The Great Escape portrays Bartlett as a complex leader whose skill is often derived from his decisiveness. When Captain Hilts (Steve McQueen) informs Bartlett and his second-in-command MacDonald (Gordon Jackson) that the exit point of their tunnel is twenty feet short of what they anticipated, Mac begins questioning how it could have happened, but Bartlett—knowing that the escape is time-sensitive—quickly cuts him off with “What the hell difference does it make? It’s happened.”
While most of us are lucky to face problems with much lesser stakes than the life-and-death nature of Bartlett’s great escape, I strive to follow his example of not overly questioning or complaining about circumstances beyond my control and merely dealing with the facts as they are.
Squadron Leader Bartlett’s Battledress
Blue-gray wool serge RAF war service dress jacket with 5-button fly front, gunmetal-toned waistband buckle-tab (right side), two box-pleated chest pockets (with concealed-button scallop-flaps), epaulettes/shoulder straps, and single-button cuffs
- RAF Squadron Leader shoulder insignia
- Royal Air Force (RAF) padded “wings” patch
- Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) award ribbon
- Light slate-gray cotton poplin shirt with attached semi-spread collar, front placket, and button cuffs
- Black silk tie
- Blue-gray wool serge flat front trousers with straight/on-seam side pockets and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black leather flying boots
- RAF peaked officer’s cap with blue-gray barathea wool cover and peak with gold-embroidered badge and black patent leather strap
- Tan gabardine knee-length trench coat with epaulettes/shoulder straps, hand pockets, waist sash, and belted cuffs
- Steel wristwatch with round white dial on drab leather strap
- Silver monogrammed signet pinky ring
Do Yourself a Favor and…
What my personal feelings are is of no importance. You appointed me Big X, and it’s my duty to harass, confound, and confuse the enemy to the best of my ability.