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Vincent Parker

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Vincent Parker
BornVincent Wheatley
February 11, 1918
County Durham, England
DiedJanuary 29, 1946 (age 27)
Northumberland, England
Resting placeHarrogate (Stonewall) Cemetery, North Yorkshire (Section H, Row N, Grave 1)
NationalityBritish/Australian
Flourished1930-1940s
Known forWW2 prisoner-of-war magician

Vincent 'Bush' Parker was an amateur magician most known for using his magic skills to help Allied prisoners-of-war escape from captivity during World War Two, including from the Colditz Castle POW camp.

Biography

Born in a colliery village in County Durham, England, in early 1918, Vince Parker was adopted by relatives after his mother died. He emigrated with them to Australia aged nine. There, in a one-class school on the outskirts of Townsville, North Queensland, a classmate showed him a card trick. From this humble introduction, Vince became hooked on magic.

He self-taught himself magic from books such as Professor Hoffman’s Modern Magic. And he was inspired by magicians who visited Townsville’s theatres, like master card magician DeForrest and Italian-born Chefalo and his troupe of midgets. As a teenager, Vince performed a stage act locally. Local newspaper The Townsville Daily Bulletin reported him to be “an artist of earnest consideration.”

After leaving school, Parker took a part-time showman/promoter job at the city’s department store. One day, a visiting magician, probably Chinese magician Long Tack Sam, caught Parker’s act. The performer recognised Vince’s potential and offered him a job as a magician’s assistant.

Aged 18, Parker left Townsville to join the magician’s touring company, learning the art of magic on a tour of Eastern Australia

In 1938, with World War Two looming, and in a major pivot from the world of the stage, Vince travelled to England to apply to be a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot.

While he prepared to pass the RAF’s entrance tests, research suggests that Vince worked as an assistant for the famous Australian illusionist The Great Levante. Levante operated a large-scale magic show called How Tricks? which toured the variety theatres of London and the provinces of the UK throughout the 1930s.

Twenty-two-year-old Pilot Officer Parker qualified as a Spitfire fighter pilot on 6 April 1940, after a year of training. Three days later, Hitler’s forces began their invasion of Western Europe. In turn, the RAF’s newly qualified pilots were hastily despatched to frontline units.

Vince Parker fought in the Battle of Britain from May 1940 until 15 August 1940, when he was shot down over the English Channel in a dogfight with German aircraft. A German military speed boat picked him up from the sea, and he became a prisoner-of-war (POW).

As a POW, Parker became known as an active escaper and was involved in almost 20 escape attempts from four different POW camps, including Stalag Luft III (famous for The Great Escape). He was the first Allied POW to escape from Stalag Luft III but he was recaptured after being 'on the run' for five days. This escape marked Parker out as a serial escaper and troublemaker. In response, the Germans moved him to a special camp, Oflag IVC, otherwise known as Colditz Castle.

While a prisoner, Parker found plenty of time to develop his magic skills and enjoyed having a captive audience to perform for. POW veterans who knew him often talked of his light-hearted side as a cardsharp and sleight-of-hand magician. Parker’s magic, according to those locked up with him, was mostly informal close-up magic, card tricks and sleight-of-hand. But he almost certainly performed magic in the various revues and shows put on in the camp theatres.

However, Vince Parker’s contribution to the community of Allied POWs in Colditz was much more significant than using conjuring for entertainment. Using his knowledge of escapology and lock-picking, Vince perfected the manufacture of improvised keys and their covert use, becoming Colditz’s ace lock picker. By the end of his captivity, he claimed to have made over a hundred keys and to be able to unlock every door in the castle.

Despite many attempts, ‘Bush’ Parker never escaped his German captors. He remained a POW for four years and eight months, three of them in Colditz. Liberation come on 16 April 1945, when American forces advancing towards Berlin captured Colditz town. Finally, Vince Parker achieved the freedom he so desired.

For his escape activities while a prisoner-of-war, Parker was mentioned in despatches on the orders of King George VI.

He died on 29 January 1946, during a routine flying exercise, when his Hawker Tempest fighter crashed.

Awards and Honors

  • British War Medal 1939 to 1945
  • 1939-1945 Star (with Battle of Britain clasp)
  • Mentioned in Despatches

Quotes

  • "He was an outstanding hero among his fellow prisoner." Don Donaldson, British POW in Colditz

Further Reading

  • The Colditz Conjurer: The amazing true story of Vincent 'Bush' Parker, Battle of Britain pilot and prisoner of war magician (2022)[1]
  • 'Bush' Parker: An Australian Battle of Britain Pilot in Colditz (2002)[2]