Dominic Bruce

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Dominic Bruce (before 9 June 1941)

Dominic Bruce OBE MC AFM KSG MA RAF (7 June 1915 – 12 February 2000) was a British Royal Air Force officer (Flight Lieutenant), known as the " Medium Sized Man"[1] who escaped from Colditz Castle.

Early Years[edit]

Dominic was born on 7 June 1915, in Hebburn, County Durham, England. He was the second of the four children of William and Mary Bruce BEM . Mary (née McClurry) Bruce was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1956 for her services to the care of the sick and infirm and was known as the 'Angel of Hebburn'. His older brother was Brother Thomas (William) Bruce FSC, a member of the De La Salle religious congregation or Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. His two younger siblings were Anne Bruce-Kimber and John Bruce. Dominic's adventures started early in his life when he ran away from home by means of a collier sailing from the Tyne to the Thames. Remarkably on arrival in London he was recognised by a police officer married to his father's sister Anne. He was quickly returned to Shakespeare Avenue in Hebburn. Dominic was educated at and matriculated from St Cuthbert's Grammar School, Newcastle 1927-1935. He was of an adventurous disposition and as an alternative to his formal education he spent some time as an unauthorised visitor to the Newcastle law courts during school time and doubtless would have made a formidable legal adversary in later life should his family had the means for him to pursue a legal career after matriculation.

Dominic married Mary Brigid Lagan in 1938 on 25 June at Corpus Christi Catholic Church, Maiden Lane, The Strand, London WC2.

Early RAF Career[edit]

After joining the Royal Air Force in 1935 he was posted to No. 9 Squadron and became a navigator. In 1937 he was involved in an aeroplane crash which resulted from a badly judged descent which removed the roof of a train travelling on railway lines adjacent to the Handley Page works airfield. On 6 October 1938, while with No. 214 Squadron he survived the crash of Handley Page Harrow bomber K6991 at Pontefract, Yorkshire and was awarded the Air Force Medal (AFM) which was (until 1993) a military decoration awarded to Royal Air Force personnel of below commissioned rank, for "an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying, though not in active operations against the enemy". While acting as a wireless operator for his plane he was knocked out by a lightning strike. Once recovered he alerted his base to the fact that the crew were bailing out. Wishing to get out of an escape hatch he found his way blocked by other airmen who were hesitating about throwing themselves out of the aircraft into the howling darkness. He rushed to the other side of the hatch and jumped. His parachute harness caught on projecting clamps and pulled the trapdoor shut above him. Dominic was now suspended under the bomber and unable to escape further. Realising what had happened his fellow crew members were now galvanised into action raised the trapdoor and were shocked to have Dominic shoot back into the plane like the pantomime Demon King. Not too shocked to eject him again however. Dominic referred to this decoration in his inimitable way as the "Away from Mum" medal.

"RAF No. 9 Squadron fought with RAF Bomber Command in Europe all the way through the Second World War, took part in all the major raids and big battles, pioneered and proved new tactics and equipment, produced several of the leading figures in The Great Escape, as well as Colditz inmates - including the legendary 'Medium Sized Man' Flight Lieutenant Dominic Bruce OBE MC AFM originator of the famous 'tea chest' escape; they became one of the two specialised squadrons attacking precision targets with the Tallboy bomb, and led the final mainforce raid, on Berchtesgaden, 25 April 1945."

Second World War[edit]

While navigating a Wellington Bomber over the North Sea his plane was shot down in 1941 on 9 June. The pilot, Wing Commander Roy George Claringbould Arnold MiD calmly stayed at the controls of the burning Wellington in order to keep it steady and allow the other five crew members to escape. He did this in the certain knowledge that he would die doing so. He was thirty years old and married. Arnold is buried in the CGC cemetery at Blankenberge, Belgium, Row A, Grave 18.[2] The story of his heroic act of self-sacrifice did not emerge until after the war when the crew returned from captivity and could tell their squadron commander. Despite the fact that he could not swim, Bruce baled out into the sea, hoping to allow the current to wash him south towards France and the resistance life lines that had been established there. However, motor launches were quickly despatched from the port and he was picked by the German Navy in the sea near Zeebrugge. He earned membership of the "Caterpillar Club" as a result of this exit from a "disabled aircraft". He was often seen in later life wearing the Club's dark blue tie which had golden caterpillars embroidered on it. After the war Dominic was awarded the Military Cross (MC) for his escape attempts, making him the only person ever to be awarded both the MC and the AFM.

Spangenberg Castle[edit]

Dominic was first held in Oflag IX-A/H which was a German Prisoner of War camp at Spangenberg castle in Germany. Spangenberg was used as a POW Camp from 1939 to 1945. It mainly contained British POWs and some French Air Force personnel early in the war. Along with Eustace Newborn and Peter Tunstall, Bruce came up with the escape plan now known as "the Swiss Red Cross Commission". The escape attempt which has been described as the most audacious escape of World War Two. Using uniforms found in the castle and suits made from uniforms, the three POWs simply walked out of the camp posing as a German officer (Tunstall) and two members (Bruce and Newborn) of a Swiss Red Cross inspection team. They passed through the castle gate, and then, wearing faked Luftwaffe uniforms which they were wearing under their disguises, headed to an airfield near Kassel intending to steal a Ju 52, which Newborn had flown before the war, and fly home. They penetrated the aerodrome, but were discovered trying to start a Luftwaffe plane aircraft, so they decided to find another aerodrome that was less heavily guarded. After some days on the road, they were challenged by a soldier who had previously worked as a guard at Spangenberg and who recognised Tunstall. Returned to Spangenberg, the three were each sentenced to a long period in solitary confinement. A full account of this extraordinary escape is given by Peter Tunstall in his book "The Last Escaper".

The Prisoner of Colditz[edit]

Photo of the bed sheet rope used in the 'tea chest' escape from Colditz by Dominic Bruce.

Dominic arrived in Colditz Castle which housed a Prisoner-of-War camp for officers labelled Oflag IV-C in 1942 on 16 March. Colditz Castle was near Leipzig in the State of Saxony in Germany. Oflag IV-C was intended to contain Allied officers who had escaped many times from other prisoner of war camps and were deemed "incorrigible". Dominic is credited with the famed "Tea Chest Escape" on 8 September 1942. "Because of his very small stature Dominic Bruce (Flight Lieutenant Dominic Bruce OBE MC AFM KSG MA RAF) was known ironically as the "medium-sized man". He arrived at Colditz in 1942 (after attempting to escape from Spangenberg Castle disguised as a Red Cross doctor). When a new Commandant arrived at Colditz in the summer of the same year he enforced rules restricting prisoners’ personal belongings. On 8 September POWs were told to pack up all excess belongings and an assortment of boxes were delivered to carry them into store. Dominic Bruce immediately seized his chance and was packed inside a Red Cross packing case, three foot square, with just a file and a 40-foot (12 m) length rope made of bed sheets. Bruce was taken to a storeroom on the third floor of the German Kommandantur and that night made his escape. When the German guards discovered the bed rope dangling from the window the following morning and entered the storeroom they found the empty box on which Bruce had inscribed "Die Luft in Colditz gefällt mir nicht mehr. Auf Wiedersehen!"[3] — "The air in Colditz no longer agrees with me. See you later!" The next morning the castle was visited by General Wolff, officer in charge of POW army district 4. He inspected the camp and found everything to his satisfaction. Fortunately for the camp Kommandantur, as Wolff was driven away, his back was turned to the southern face of the castle. If he had turned his head he would have seen a sixty-foot length of blue and white checked (bedsack) rope dangling from a remote window. It was, however, noticed by a hausfrau in the town, who quickly reported it to the duty officer.[4] Dominic was recaptured a week later trying to stow aboard a Swedish ship in Danzig."

19 April 1944 Flt. Lt. D. Bruce British Cut bars on north side of castle, reached wire fence. Detected.

16 June 1944 Maj. R. Lorraine Flt. Lt. D. Bruce "Bosun" J. Chrisp British Tunnel through sewers into German yard detected

"Flt Lt Bruce's conversation with the commando leader Capt Black is retold in "Operation Musketoon" by Stephen Schofield.[5] Operation Musketoon was the codename for an Anglo-Norwegian raid against the German-held hydroelectric power plant in Glomfjord Norway between 11–21 September 1942.

BBC TV Series[edit]

The BBC screened Colditz (1972–74) which chronicled the lives of the allied prisoners of war held in the castle. One of the characters portrayed was Flight Lieutenant Simon Carter (played by David McCallum) - Flight Lieutenant Carter is a young, upstart, hot-headed RAF officer who enjoys goon-baiting and is very impatient to escape.[6] The fictional Carter closely resembles the real Colditz inmate Flight Lieutenant Dominic Bruce OBE MC AFM KSG MA RAF, the legendary 'Medium Sized Man'[1] from IX Squadron, who was sent to Colditz after escaping from Castle Spangenberg. Bruce was the author of one of the most celebrated of all escapes from Colditz, the so-called 'Tea Chest' escape, a replica of which was featured in the Imperial War Museum's 'Great Escapes' exhibition."

Channel Four Film

Another of Bruce's escapes was used in 'Colditz' — a 2005 British two-part television film produced by Granada Television for ITV, written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stuart Orme. The first episode features a fictionalised account of an actual event when three inmates Dick Lorraine, John 'Bosun' Crisp, and the 'Medium Sized Man', Flt Lt Dominic Bruce OBE MC AFM KSG MA RAF attempted to escape using the castle sewers. In reality the escape team were discovered when they attempted to exit a manhole. The Germans threatened to throw grenades down into the sewer chamber and, as the escapers could not reverse back up the sewer pipe, they were forced to surrender. They were immediately put in front of a firing squad, but unlike the fictional TV account, the guards did not fire. Just before the order was to be given, Bruce lost his temper and approached the officer in charge, Eggers, saying "you can shoot us, but after the War we'll hang you". Eggers stood the squad down. An account of this escape can be found in Reel Five of the oral history version given by Flt Lt Bruce to be found in the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive.[7]

Later life[edit]

His war time service ended Dominic became a student at Corpus Christi College, Oxford in 1946 and graduated with the Batchelor of Arts degree in 1949 reading Modern History. He completed what was known as War Degree (7 terms) and awarded a Master of Arts degree in 1953 (MA).

Dominic served as: Adult Education Tutor, Bristol University 1949-50. Assistant Secretary of the University Committee, Adult Education HM Forces, 1950-53. Further Education Officer Surrey County Council, 1953-9. Principal, Richmond Technical Institute 1959-62. Dominic became the Founding Principal of Kingston College of Further Education 1962-1980 .[8]

Executive and advisory roles and honours[edit]

The Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great (Latin: Ordo Sancti Gregorii Magni,) (KSG), was awarded to Dominic by Pope John Paul II. The order was established by Pope Gregory XVI on 1 September 1831. It is one of the five Orders of Knighthood of the Holy See. The order is "bestowed on Catholic men and women in recognition of their personal service to and support of the Holy See and the Catholic Church, unusual labours, and the good example set in their communities and country." Members of the order have no privileges, except the right of riding on a horse inside St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, a right that has not been exercised recently.

In civic and charitable bodies he acted as:

  • Chairman of the Further and Higher Education Committee of the Archdiocese of Westminster
    • Schools Officer, Archdiocese of Westminster, 1978-80.
  • Committee member of the Association of Principals of Colleges and member of its Regional Advisory Council
  • Chairman of the General Commissioners of Income Tax, Spelthorne Division
  • Education Advisor to the RAF Benevolent Fund.

Dominic was awarded the OBE, Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in 1989 for his Services to Education. The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is an order of chivalry and a national order of merit established in 1917 by King George V.

Dominic Bruce died on 12 February 2000[9] in Richmond, Surrey, England. He was survived by Mary Brigid Bruce (died 15 June 2000) and six sons (Timothy Patrick Bruce died 26 September 2008) and three daughters.

In 2015 his medal group (unique in that he is the only person in British military history to be awarded both the Military Cross and the Air Force Medal) was donated by his family to the Ashcroft Trust for the benefit of the RAF Benevolent Fund and the British Red Cross, the latter having kept him alive in Colditz by the sending of regular food parcels.


  1. ^ a b *Aristotle The History of Animals Part 10
  2. ^ Manchester, Reading Room. "Casualty Details". 
  3. ^ Chancellor, Henry. COLDITZ The Definitive History London 2001 Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-79494-1
  4. ^ "". 
  5. ^ *Schofield, Stephen Operation Musketoon London Corgi Childrens; New Ed edition (19 April 1974) ISBN 0-552-09489-7
  6. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 56693. p. 11146. 17 October 2002
  7. ^ "[iwm_collections:title]". 
  8. ^ *Bradshaw, P., Benjamin, B., Cotterell, A. 1999 KINGSTON COLLEGE A Brief History Kingston Surrey: CDT Printers
  9. ^ Obituary, New York Times

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