Great escapes of ‘The Dodger’
THE story of John Bigelow Dodge, aka “The Dodger”, is so extraordinary that I am amazed it has not been properly told before. Dodge, scion of two rich and distinguished US families and Winston Churchill’s cousin by marriage, was the model for Steve Mcqueen’s character in the movie The Great Escape. Although Mcqueen’s motorcycle-borne escape attempt was fantasy, Dodge’s real life was stranger than fiction and his escapes no less dramatic.
Johnny – as his admiring biographer chummily calls him – was brought to England by his pushily ambitious mother. When war broke out in 1914, Churchill wangled his young American cousin a commission in his own private army, the Royal Naval Division. The RND was staffed by officers whom Churchill knew personally, including “Oc” Asquith, the prime minister’s son, and the poet Rupert Brooke (whom Johnny helped bury). They went to war at Churchill’s impatient orders in the abortive defence of Antwerp and the bloody fiasco of Gallipoli.
Though wounded, Johnny survived these Churchillian disasters, and later the Somme and Passchendaele, with his unquenchable cheery optimism undimmed. After the war he travelled to the wild Caucasus, ostensibly seeking trading opportunities, but almost certainly, Tim Carroll believes, as an MI6 spy. Twice captured by the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka, Johnny narrowly escaped execution and returned to England, unsurprisingly after his experiences, a convinced anti-communist.
This conviction propelled him into politics. Perversely, he tried to become a Tory MP in London’s staunchly Labour East End. Twice failing, he settled down to making money in the city as a stockbroker, and starting a family with his American wife, Minerva.
He was spared humdrum domesticity by World War 2. Although in his mid-40s, he enlisted at once and was attached to the 51st Highland Division which capitulated to Rommel near Calais in 1940. Johnny discarded his boots and swam out towards a British ship on the horizon. However, the ship sailed away, and he returned to captivity after a 11km swim.
Barefoot, Johnny’s feet were cut to ribbons, and he was transferred to a Dutch hospital barge, from which he made the first of the attempts that would make him the war’s ace escaper. Recaptured, Johnny charmed himself into the hands of the Luftwaffe, who regarded him as a gentleman and treated him accordingly – with plentiful food and drink and excursions to carouse in the congenial company of the camp commandant. But his persistent escape attempts finally got him into the more spartan Stalag Luft III in Poland, along with Roger Bushell, organiser of the Great Escape.
Determined escaper though Johnny was – he even briefly got away from a train transferring him between camps – his inability to speak German was a handicap once on the right side of the wire.
Joining the team constructing the three tunnels – Tom, Dick and Harry – he was excused digging because of his height and age, but organised concerts to disguise the sound of tunnelling. With his usual luck, when recaptured Johnny avoided the fate of Bushell and his 50 fellow escapers shot on Hitler’s orders. Instead, he was sent to the “VIP block” of Sachsenhausen concentration camp, but even tunnelled out of there, evading capture for almost a month, holed up in a barn until found by a farmer.
It seemed that Johnny’s luck had finally run out. He was returned to Sachsenhausen and chained to the floor of the “death block” awaiting inevitable execution. He was saved, however, by his Churchill connection. As the war approached its end, the SS were desperate for a deal with the Anglo-americans allowing them to hold off the Russians in the east.
Johnny was entrusted with a peace message to take to Churchill. He was caught in the Allied air raid on Dresden in February 1945, but survived even this and reached London to deliver his message – which was rejected.
After the war, Johnny was awarded the Military Cross in recognition of his escaping career.
He died in London in November 1960. Great Escape expert Tim Carroll has done a superb job in tracking down a mine of entertaining information on this unjustly forgotten figure. Johnny’s greatest escape, it seems, was to avoid the attention of posterity. — Nigel Jones
When recaptured Johnny avoided being shot on Hitler’s orders’