From the Archives
by Roanne Wilcox, Publications Editor
A prisoner of war and unrelenting escape artist, the story of the Artful Dodger — Lucie Rosen’s younger brother John Bigelow Dodge — is a bittersweet tale of perseverance and family support.
Walter and Lucie Rosen, founders of Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in northern Westchester County, NY, were great letter writers. Thanks to Lucie and her habit of saving every bit of correspondence, receipt, bank statement, photograph, and miscellaneous scrap of paper, the archives at Caramoor’s Rosen House — the couples’ Mediterranean-style villa — contain a wonderful collection of documents that chronicle the family’s history from the early 1800s to Lucie’s death in 1968.
During these quieter months at Caramoor, while our spring season is just beginning, we’ve dug into our archives and would like to share with you the story of Col. John Bigelow Dodge, Lucie’s little brother and key figure in one of the most daring escape attempts of WWII known as “The Great Escape.”
Having moved with his family to England after his mother’s marriage to The Hon. Lionel Guest, a first-cousin of the future prime minister Winston Churchill, Johnny became a naturalized British citizen in 1915 and enlisted in the Royal Navy during WWI. Lucie, on the other hand, longed to return to the U.S. and be free of her controlling mother — a story we’ll share in a future post.
Charming and affable, Johnny sought to live a life full of adventure. During the war, he served at Antwerp, was wounded at Gallipoli, and was decorated for his heroism. In the post-war years, he was most likely a spy for MI6 and was arrested by the Russian Secret Police. He became a member of the London Stock Exchange, and spent enough time in the States to fall in love with and marry Minerva Sherman, an American divorcée from North Carolina, in 1929.
His toleration for a quiet home life was short-lived, and although well into his 40s, he re-enlisted in the British Army at the beginning of WWII. In the summer of 1940, when his division was captured by the Germans at Saint-Valery-en-Caux, he began his long journey as a POW, and one of the most noted escapees of the war, earning him the nickname, “The Artful Dodger.”
Duly acknowledged, on both sides, that escape was the obligation of every officer, Johnny continually attempted to escape from every POW camp that tried to contain him. However, at 6’3″ and perennially cheerful, together with his inability to learn to speak German, he was never able to blend in with area locals and was captured after each attempt.
For most of the war, his continued escape attempts were met with leniency. POWs at the Dulag Luft III camp were treated well and allowed packages from family through the American Red Cross. There are several letters from Johnny in our archives asking for books and supplies such as blankets, boots, clean socks, and slabs of chocolate. His brother-in-law Walter Rosen was the one to make sure Johnny had all he was allowed.
Finally, the Germans, irritated at his persistent escape attempts, transferred him to the “escape proof” Stalag Luft III. It was here that Johnny and his fellow officers — Harry Day, Jimmy Buckley, and Roger Bushell — plotted their most ambitious attempt yet by building three underground tunnels. Johnny, nearly 50 years old and with injuries from previous escape attempts, wasn’t able to help with the digging, instead, he created diversions and covered the sound of the work with choir practice in the adjoining hut.
In March of 1944, along with 76 POWs, he squeezed himself through one of the 348-foot-long tunnels and made his way toward Czechoslovakia. All but three of the escapees were captured fairly quickly. Hitler was furious when he heard of the mass escape and originally ordered all 76 to be shot, only reducing the number to 50 when told it would be an outrageous violation of the honor code of war.
Johnny, along with Harry Day, was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Again, they escaped via an underground tunnel. He was on the run for over a month before being arrested by a German farmer and returned to the concentration camp, and this time, his treatment was particularly brutal. Chained to the floor in solitary confinement, he awaited certain execution until his connection to Churchill made him useful to the Germans.
In February of 1945, he was released from Sachsenhausen, taken to Berlin, and asked to serve as a peace envoy to his cousin with a request for a British-German alliance against the advancing Russians. There’s no record this request was ever delivered, but by this time, the tide of war had inevitably turned. Hitler would commit suicide two months later.
Johnny learned of the executions after his release in 1945 and devoted himself to prosecuting the German officers responsible for carrying out these orders. He resumed his business interests and twice attempted a run for office. He also visited the Rosen House at Caramoor with Minerva, talking about business with Walter and spending time with his sister, Lucie. The Rosens only son, Walter Bigelow Rosen, died in 1944 after the cargo plane he was piloting was shot down. In her letters to her sister-in-law, Minerva admitted the war had taken its toll on Johnny, and he would never truly be the same again. In 1960, he died of a heart attack at the age of 66 while hailing a taxi near Hyde Park.
The story of Johnny’s life could easily be a blockbuster on its own. Paul Brickell, author of “The Great Escape” — the book on which the 1963 film was based — had planned to write another book specifically about Johnny before his death in 1991. His interrupted research was continued by Tim Carroll in his book, “The Dodger.” (Start at smile.amazon.com and Amazon will donate 0.5% of the price to Caramoor.)