Hebburn-born WWII Navigator Honoured with Blue Plaque

Posted by: Kaye Russell on 12 June 2024 15:35

A Blue Plaque has been unveiled to commemorate the extraordinary life of a Hebburn-born RAF officer whose wartime escapades inspired books, TV, film and documentaries.

Flight Lieutenant Dominic Bruce was a British navigator who famously attempted to escape from Germany's notorious Colditz Castle while detained as a Prisoner of War. In one attempt Bruce made an ingenious 'tea chest' escape from the maximum-security prison.

Mayoress of South Tyneside Stella Matthewson is pictured with Squadron Leader Thomas Hendry, of IX (B) Squadron, Dominic Bruce’s eldest son Michael Bruce and Professor Helen Moore, President of Corpus Christi Oxford.
The Mayoress unveiled the Blue Plaque to Flight Lieutenant Dominic Bruce
Michael Bruce
Blue Plaque to Flight Lieutenant Dominic Bruce
Flight Lieutenant Dominic Bruce

Colditz was a prison for those deemed 'incorrigible' and where Bruce was incarcerated from March 1942, following numerous escapes from other prisoner of war camps, including Spangenberg Castle disguised as a Red Cross doctor.

A commemorative Blue Plaque was unveiled at Hebburn Central by the Mayoress of South Tyneside, Stella Matthewson, alongside the Bruce family and representatives from Bruce's Squadron and Corpus Christi College, where he studied after the war.

The Blue Plaque will be relocated to Shakespeare Avenue, where Dominic Bruce was born in June 1915.

The Mayoress said: "It was a pleasure to unveil the Blue Plaque for Dominic Bruce in recognition of his service and bravery. He has a fascinating story which shows his determination and courage and is famed for his escape attempts which featured in books, TV and film. It's an honour to be able to recognise the importance of Dominic Bruce and his incredible story through the South Tyneside Blue Plaque scheme."

Dominic Bruce joined the Royal Air Force in 1935, firstly as a wireless operator, then an air gunner. Following training, in 1936, he joined RAF 214 squadron at Scampton flying Harrow and Virgina bombers.

While serving with RAF No.9 Squadron, Bruce and his comrades fought with RAF Bomber Command in Europe throughout the Second World War, took part in major raids and big battles and pioneered and proved new tactics and equipment. The squadron was prominently represented in The Great Escape film.

Bruce, who was played by actor David McCallum in the 1970s Colditz TV series, was known as the legendary 'Medium Sized Man' (due to his very small stature). In the famous tea chest escape of September 1942, Bruce crammed himself into a Red Cross packing case with nothing more than a file and a 40ft bedsheet 'rope' and attempted an escape from a third-floor storage area window. He was recaptured a week later, 400 miles away, trying to stow aboard a Swedish ship in Danzig (nowadays called Gdansk).

Bruce tried to escape 17 times during World War II.

Bruce served in the RAF until 1946 when he was awarded the Military Cross for his escape attempts, among many other awards. He was the only person in British military history to be awarded both the Military Cross and Air Force Medal.

After the war, Bruce became a student at Corpus Christi College in Oxford, graduating in 1949 with a BA degree reading Modern History. He also completed a War Degree and was awarded a MA degree in 1953, going on to become a further education tutor. In 1989, Bruce was awarded an OBE by Queen Elizabeth II for his Services to Education.

Bruce died in February 2000 in Surrey, aged 84, survived by his wife Mary Brigid Bruce, who later died in June 2000. He had six sons and three daughters.

Dominic's eldest son, Michael Bruce said: "Mr father was a Hebburn lad during a time when Hebburn was a tough place. His instinct for survival was honed in Hebburn and he was a person who always reserved the right to make up his own mind, and do what he thought was right.

"He did well at school and went for a higher school certificate but he had nowhere to go - no money to go to college, so he decided to join the air force and see the world."

Michael added: "My father was awarded the OBE for his work in further education and when he left Oxford he organised further education courses. He always wanted to run his own show. He had a real belief in education as a force for improvement in society, and giving people good quality technical training, proudly allowing people who had not done well at school, an opportunity.

"It's difficult to stand back from one's father who is presented as a war hero to the real man, but he was a person of great ingenuity, saw himself as a problem solver and he certainly brought up a family who appreciated his work."

Each year, South Tyneside Council supports the installation of up to three new Blue Plaques recognising people and places that have made a significant contribution to the Borough's rich history, heritage and culture. One is funded by the Council, the others privately funded.

The contributor of the Dominic Bruce plaque wished to remain anonymous.

Nominations are currently being sought for Blue Plaques to be established in 2025. The closing date for applications is August 2024.

For further information about South Tyneside's Blue Plaque scheme visit www.southtyneside.gov.uk/blueplaques


Last modified: 28 June 2024 13:53