Dominic Bruce

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Dominic Bruce
Dominic Bruce (before 9 June 1941)
Nickname(s) The "Medium Sized Man"
Born (1915-06-07)7 June 1915
Hebburn, County Durham, England
Died 12 February 2000(2000-02-12) (aged 84)
Richmond, Surrey, England
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch Royal Air Force
Years of service 1935–1945
Rank Flight Lieutenant
Unit No. 9 Squadron
No. 214 Squadron
Battles/wars World War II
Awards Officer of the Order of the British Empire
Military Cross
Air Force Medal
Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great
Other work Education officer

Flight Lieutenant Dominic Bruce OBE MC AFM (7 June 1915 – 12 February 2000) was a British Royal Air Force officer, known as the "Medium Sized Man"[citation needed] who made several attempts to escape from Colditz Castle.

Early years[edit]

Bruce was born on 7 June 1915, in Hebburn, County Durham, England. He was the second of the four children of William and Mary Bruce. 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 Bruce'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. Bruce 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.

Bruce married Mary Brigid Lagan on 25 June 1938 at Corpus Christi Catholic Church, Maiden Lane, 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. On 25 March 1937 he was involved in the crash of the Handley Page Harrow "K6940" 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 at Radlett.[1][2]

On 6 October 1938, while with No. 214 Squadron, he survived the crash of Harrow "K6991" at Pontefract, Yorkshire.[3] While acting as a wireless operator for his aircraft 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. Bruce 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 Bruce shoot back into the aircraft, though not too shocked to eject him again. Leading Aircraftman Bruce was subsequently awarded the Air Force Medal (AFM) on 8 June 1939.[4]

Second World War[edit]

On 20 January 1941 Acting Flight Sergeant Bruce was granted a commission "for the duration of hostilities" as a probationary pilot officer, with seniority from 8 January.[5]

On 9 June 1941, while navigating a Wellington bomber over the North Sea, his aircraft was shot down. The pilot, Wing Commander Roy Arnold 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 CWG cemetery at Blankenberge, Belgium.[6] 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".

Spangenberg Castle[edit]

Bruce was first held in Oflag IX-A/H, a German prisoner of war camp at Spangenberg Castle. 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 Junkers Ju 52, which Newborn had flown before the war, and fly home. They penetrated the aerodrome, but were discovered trying to start a Luftwaffe 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.[7]

Prisoner at Colditz[edit]

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

Bruce arrived in Colditz Castle, known as officer prisoner-of-war camp Oflag IV-C, on 16 March 1942. Colditz was near Leipzig in the State of Saxony. It was intended to contain Allied officers who had escaped many times from other prisoner-of-war camps and were deemed "incorrigible". On 21 April 1942 Bruce's commission was confirmed and he was promoted to the war substantive rank of flying officer.[8]

Bruce was credited with the famed "Tea Chest Escape". Because of his very small stature Bruce was known ironically as the "medium-sized man". When a new Commandant arrived at Colditz in the summer of 1942 he enforced rules restricting prisoners' personal belongings. On 8 September POWs were told to pack up all their excess belongings and an assortment of boxes were delivered to carry them into store. 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 of rope made from bed sheets. Bruce was taken to a storeroom on the third floor of the German Kommandantur and that night made his escape.[9] 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 commandant, 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 length of blue and white checked (bedsack) rope dangling from a remote window. It was, however, eventually noticed by a hausfrau in the town, who quickly reported it to the duty officer.[10] When the German guards entered the storeroom they found the empty box on which Bruce had inscribed "Die Luft in Colditz gefällt mir nicht mehr. Auf Wiedersehen!"[9] — "The air in Colditz no longer agrees with me. See you later!" Bruce was recaptured a week later trying to stow aboard a Swedish ship in Danzig.

Bruce was promoted again, to flight lieutenant, on 20 January 1943.[11]

Bruce made two further escape attempts in 1944; on 19 April he cut through bars on north side of the castle and reached the wire fence before being detected, and on 16 June Bruce, Major R. Lorraine and John "Bosun" Crisp tunnelled through sewers into the German yard, but were again detected.

Bruce was eventually liberated on 16 April 1945. In October 1946 he was awarded the Military Cross (MC) for his escape attempts,[12] making him the only person ever to be awarded both the Military Cross and the Air Force Medal.

Later life[edit]

In 1946 Bruce became a student at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, reading Modern History, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949. He completed what was known as War Degree (7 terms) and was awarded a Master of Arts degree in 1953.

Bruce served as an Adult Education Tutor at Bristol University, 1949–50. He was Assistant Secretary of the University Committee, Adult Education HM Forces, 1950–53; Further Education Officer, Surrey County Council, 1953–59; Principal, Richmond Technical Institute, 1959–62. Bruce became the Founding Principal of Kingston College of Further Education, 1962–1980.[13]

Executive and advisory roles and honours[edit]

In civic and charitable bodies Bruce also 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.

Bruce was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in 1989 for his services to Education. He was also awarded the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great (Latin: Ordo Sancti Gregorii Magni) by Pope John Paul II.

Dominic Bruce died on 12 February 2000[14] in Richmond, Surrey, England. He was survived by Mary Brigid Bruce (died 15 June 2000) and his six sons 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.

Portrayals in film and television[edit]

In the BBC TV series 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) - Carter was a young, upstart, hot-headed RAF officer who enjoys goon-baiting and is very impatient to escape. The fictional Carter closely resembles Bruce.[15]

Colditz, a 2005 British two-part television miniseries produced by Granada Television for ITV, written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stuart Orme, features a fictionalised account of an actual event when three inmates; Dick Lorraine, John 'Bosun' Crisp, and the 'Medium Sized Man', Dominic Bruce 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.


  1. ^ Moss, Peter W. (August 1975). "Aeroplane Biography No.4 - Handley Page Harrow K6940". Air Pictorial. Vol. 37 no. 8. p. 320. 
  2. ^ "Crash of a Handley Page H.P.54 Harrow I in Napsbury". Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives. Retrieved 27 November 2017. 
  3. ^ "Crash of a Handley Page H.P.54 Harrow II in Kirk Smeaton". Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives. Retrieved 27 November 2017. 
  4. ^ "No. 34633". The London Gazette (Supplement). 6 June 1939. p. 3874. 
  5. ^ "No. 35097". The London Gazette. 7 March 1941. p. 1371. 
  6. ^ "Casualty Details: Arnold, Roy George Claringbould". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 27 November 2017. 
  7. ^ Tunstall, Peter (2014). The Last Escaper. London, UK: Duckworth. ISBN 978-0-71564-923-7. 
  8. ^ "No. 35531". The London Gazette. 21 April 1942. p. 1753. 
  9. ^ a b Chancellor, Henry (2001). Colditz: The Definitive History. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 978-0-34079-494-4. 
  10. ^ Kemble, Mike. "Colditz Castle". Second World Archived from the original on 27 December 2012. Retrieved 27 November 2017. 
  11. ^ "No. 35981". The London Gazette (Supplement). 13 April 1943. p. 1744. 
  12. ^ "No. 37750". The London Gazette (Supplement). 4 October 1946. p. 4991. 
  13. ^ Bradshaw, P.; Benjamin, B.; Cotterell, A. (1999). Kingston College: A Brief History. Kingston, Surrey: CDT Printers. 
  14. ^ Honan, William H. (4 March 2000). "Dominic Bruce, 84, Briton Who Tried to Escape Nazis 17 Times". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 November 2017. 
  15. ^ "Theme Time: Robert Farnon - Colditz". So It Goes... 23 October 2017. Retrieved 27 November 2017.