Ian Busst: A mad bugger's war

Ian Busst is 95 and lives a quiet life in Melbourne. But, in this time of commemoration, a new book details his extraordinary life as a young Australian soldier amid the terrible battlefields and prison camps of World War II.

Anzac Hostel is a retirement home for veterans and war widows nestled behind an Italianate mansion in Brighton’s Kamesburgh Gardens. As such, the hostel is a repository of lived experience from Australia’s military past. Every resident has a story to tell. 

But very few of them could claim to have lived a war more vigorously than Ian Busst. 

He meets me at the front door, shaking my hand with a firmness that belied his age – he turns 96 in October. We had lunch at the Brighton Yacht Club, a short distance from where Busst grew up. From our table, he could point to the beaches where he re-learnt to walk after being struck down with infantile paralysis when he was six. 

''The sand gave me a soft landing when I tripped over,'' he says.

When it came time to talk about the war, Busst suggested we return to the hostel where his photographs would help him better recall events. So we drove along a section of the same road he had once ridden his bike 16 kilometres to the city each day to work in a chemicals factory. His parents had pulled him out of school when he was 12 to contribute to the family coffers. ''The Depression was biting hard and my father was out of work,'' he says. 

Busst worked a full week – eight-hour days for one shilling, mixing dyes, with a 20-minute lunch break before riding back home. He stayed in that job for two years before he decided to move to the bush. He thumbed rides around Victoria, forking hay and picking fruit. When there was no work, he slept under bridges and survived on the odd stray rabbit that crossed his path.


When we got to the hostel, it  took us five minutes to reach his room. He keeps bailing staff and residents in the corridor for a friendly chat which slows our passage. We spent an especially long time with one of the kitchen staff. 

''One of your best roast lambs yet,'' Busst says of the previous night’s dinner. He later tells me of his dismay when a fellow resident returned her meal because the carrots were underdone. ''I don’t understand that attitude,'' he says. ''Everyone in here grew up in a time when you were lucky to get a meal at all.''

His room is sparsely furnished with just a bed, a chest of drawers, two chairs and a permanently switched off television. His photo album rests atop his bedside table. The photos were taken on a Leica camera that he  carried through the war, a remarkable achievement given he spent over three years in prison camps. 

''I used to hide it [the camera] in the crotch of my pants,'' he says with a grin. ''The guards never bothered to look there.''

The photos chart an experience of remarkable scope. Busst took part in or bore witness to several iconic moments of World War II: the Battle of Britain; fighting in the Western Desert; the Battle of Italy; and the bombing of Munich. 

But perhaps his most remarkable feat was escaping two prison camps – first in a compound in northern Italy and later in Munich towards the end of the war.

''He was alive long enough for me to light his last cigarette and take a message back to his family.''

Ian Busst

Before these daring exploits, Busst was a 22-year-old sapper in the 2/3rd Field Company sent out with his section to destroy an Italian munitions dump near Derna, a coastal town 160 kilometres west of Tobruk. 

British command was adamant that the arms cache should not fall into the hands of the advancing German Afrika Korps. A convoy of 14 trucks set off from Tobruk at daybreak on April 6, 1941. Strafing Messerschmitt fighters set upon them before noon. ''They came in so fast. I had no time to get out of the truck.'' 

He crawled into a space under the back seat, pulling haversacks over himself for protection. He emerged unscathed but the haversacks were shot to pieces. He bolted for the protection of a large boulder in between a strafing run, only to return to the stricken convoy to pull a man clear of a burning truck. It was an act that earned him a nickname that lasted the war. ''They started calling me the Mad Bugger,'' he says, with thinly disguised pride. ''Because I took foolish risks with my life.''

The engineers continued on for Derna, finding the dump after nightfall on the eastern edge of the town. It was, in fact, a network of dumps containing ''weapons, explosives, fuel, bombs and all manner of things spread over a huge area.'' 

The charges were rigged for a delayed detonation to allow time for them to clear out. ''We had driven at least a mile when she went up,'' Busst says. Close enough to feel the earth shudder and to see the resulting explosion turn the desert night into day. 

With the mission complete, focus shifted on getting back to Tobruk. The route they had just taken, however, was no longer an option. ''A group of sappers had been sent out after us to destroy the coastal road between Derna and Tobruk,'' Busst says.

The action, intended to delay General Erwin Rommel’s advance, would require Busst’s section to take an alternative route. They drove along a southern road out of Derna to Michili, a village situated along an east-west road connecting Benghazi to Tobruk. It was a hazardous exercise, taking the convoy across the face of Rommel’s panzers as they rolled across the desert. 

They drove well into the night, lights dimmed so as not to call the attention of enemy aircraft. Eventually they arrived at a passage of road that cuts through a deep desert depression known as the Wadi-el-Fadeh. Standing at the entrance of the depression was a British officer. Relief swept through the convoy: clearly, the Germans had not yet reached Michili. The convoy entered the wadi. 

Busst could make out the undulating crests of the sand dunes rising up either side of the road, dimly outlined against the starry sky. Otherwise it was inky black. That was until the truck ahead exploded. ''At first, I thought the truck had struck a mine,'' he says. ''Then I heard machine gun fire and shouting voices.'' 

The shouting was in German. It was an ambush and the man at the entrance of the wadi was a German masquerading as a British officer. 

As Busst was led away, an enemy soldier leant towards him and said: ''For you, the war is over.'' 

But Busst’s war was anything but over. The prisoners were sent to Tripoli before being shipped across the Mediterranean, passing through several prison camps in Italy. He ended up in a windswept camp near Trieste called Campo 57. The camp’s Italian commandant, Colonel Vittorio Calcaterra, presided over a brutal prison regime. 

A fervent Fascist, he hung an extract from one of Mussolini’s speeches in his office that read: ''The English are cursed, but more cursed are those Italians who treat them well.''

Calcaterra delighted in doling out random beatings, clapping prisoners in irons, condemning them to solitary confinement for extended periods and reducing their rations.  

After 18 horrific months in Campo 57, Busst transferred to a labour camp near the village of Vercelli in northern Italy. He ploughed the rice fields that surrounded the camp compound six days a week for six months. ''I was elated. It was like being back home on the land.'' 

But thoughts of making a break were never far from his mind. He saw it as his, and every Allied soldier's, duty. He thought the timing was right. Fascist Italy was ripping itself apart and camp security was becoming lax. 

On a July morning in 1943, Busst and nine others leapt over the barbed wire fence that surrounded the compound. The escape went largely unchallenged, the guards only firing a few warning shots, evidently unsure as to whose side they were on at that time.

The 10 men escaped into a large maize field before regrouping in a nearby village. Seven decided to head north for neutral Switzerland in the hope of being granted sanctuary. Busst headed south for Allied lines with two other men. ''Switzerland was closer but we wanted to get back in the fight.'' 

They began an 800-kilometre odyssey down the Apennine mountain range. Italian partisans hid them from German patrols and sheltered them from the elements. 

Help became scarce as they approached the Gustav Line, the German front across mainland Italy. Fatigue, hunger and illness eventually forced two of the party to surrender. But Busst forged ahead, making it another week on his own, before being recaptured a day’s march from the Allied position. ''It was heartbreaking,'' he says. ''But there was no use in feeling sorry for myself.'' 

He was sent to a labour camp in Munich, a city soon to become one of the most dangerous places in the world. 

The Allied bombing campaign through 1944 practically annihilated the city. Busst was detailed with other prisoners to save civilians caught up in the raids. Often he would be required to enter burning buildings and navigate his way across unstable rubble. ''We did it willingly. These were innocent people caught up in the war.'' 

It was devastating work, often involving the rescue of grievously wounded women and children. But nothing affected him more than the sight of a fellow prisoner ripped apart by a high-calibre bomb. ''He was alive long enough for me to light his last cigarette and take a message back to his family,'' Busst says, choking back tears. 

After the violent death of his friend, Busst decided it was time to go. A Polish guard, who bore a grudge against the Nazis for being forcibly recruited into the Wehrmacht, orchestrated the escape. 

While carrying out rescue work in Munich, Busst slipped away from his party and waited at a designated street corner. At the appointed hour, a long-hooded black car drove up and a man told him to get in. ''He never told me his name,'' Busst says. ''He just told me to do exactly as he said.'' 

They eventually arrived at a mansion where the basement was a meeting place for a resistance cell. Ultimately, the escape attempt was thwarted when word came through that the network of safe houses along the escape route had been compromised. The only course of action was for Busst to break back into the prison camp. 

He was driven back into Munich, waited six hours outside the camp, before leaping into the back of a supply truck that was taking provisions inside. Five months later American soldiers liberated the camp. 

Busst would eventually return to Australia two days before VJ Day: five years, two months and 22 days after his embarkation. 

He ends our conversation reflecting on a photo that was taken of him just prior to his return to Australia. It captures him before a barracks in the Munich camp just after its liberation: the battle-hardened veteran and ex-POW of World War II. Despite everything, his smile remains undimmed. 

He married shortly after the war, fathered three children and acquired 45 hectares outside Numurkah with the help of the Soldier Settlement program. After 10 years working the land, he answered an advertisement for a truck driver before he took up work as a carpenter. 

 He returned to civilian life grateful for having survived the war, raised a family and experienced life’s vicissitudes with relentless optimism.

Ian Busst closes his photo album, sees me to the door of the hostel and shakes my hand. 

I watch him waving cheerfully as I drive out of the carpark. Seventy years after the war, the Mad Bugger is still smiling.

Tom Trumble is a Melbourne-based writer. His book about Ian Busst  ''Tomorrow We Escape'', is published by Penguin Australia.