The Branch was delighted in organising the sixth annual SWWE Branch Dinner, held this year at the Hilton Bristol. Following pre-dinner drinks and networking, Martin Gosden, Branch Chairman, welcomed the 65 guests and thanked them for their support, especially those who had taken tables including Arup, BMT HiQ Sigma, and LSC. Martin was very pleased to be able to welcome our guest of honour, Air Commodore Charles Clarke, OBE, who is president of the Royal Air Forces Prisoner of War Association, and Chairman of the Bomber Command Association. Charles is a veteran of Stalag Luft III having been there at the time of the Great Escape, and is a survivor of the Long March. He, together with the late Squadron Leader Jimmy James, provided the inspiration and vision for Project 104 to provide a permanent memorial for the historic events of the Great Escape.
Following the excellent dinner, Martin Gosden introduced our speaker, Squadron Leader Tim Barlow MBE. Tim was the volunteer project manager for RAF Project 104 to build a reconstruction of hut 104 which contained the entrance to the escape tunnel Harry.
Tim started with an introduction about the actual Great Escape on 24/25 March 1944, led by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. He described the challenges of building the 3 tunnels, Tom, Dick and Harry, in the sandy soil, how building materials were acquired, how the soil was disposed of, and the team work required to make the uniforms and forged papers all under total secrecy. Of the 76 escapees, only three actually made a home run, and 50 were murdered by the Gestapo on Hitlers orders. A year later, in March 1945, with the Russians closing in, the Stalag Luft III PoWs were evacuated from the camp and had to endure the Long March west, in temperatures down to -20C. Many did not make it. Charles Clarke, our guest of honour, was one of the lucky ones.
Charles and Jimmy James had a long held vision to create a permanent memorial to the Great Escape and the Long March. In 2004, Tim joined the RAF and his first posting was to High Wycombe as a Training and Development Officer for both RAF personnel and civilian staff. One of his responsibilities was for RAF history and team building. A historical visit to the Stalag Luft III site in Zagan Poland with Jimmy James led to an idea for a project to reconstruct hut 104 as a memorial to the Great Escape and an education centre. RAF and civilian volunteers could provide the resources needed for the construction whilst learning about RAF history and team building.
Tim admitted that he had no idea at the time the scale of the project that he had personally promised to deliver in his spare time. RAF Project 104 was to deliver a 25 M long replica of hut 104, the original was 50 m long, adjacent to the Great Escape Museum in Zagan, Poland. The original site of Stalag Luft III is now very overgrown and is managed by the Polish Forestry Commission, and so it was not practical to build the replica on the original site which is about 500M from the Museum. There is little left to be seen at the site, but the route of the Harry tunnel is marked out in stone amongst the trees.
Tim outlined some of the challenges. Stakeholder management was crucial in getting agreement from the Zagan administration about building the hut. They were very lucky to secure the help from a Polish speaker, Monica Parker, who helped manage the relationships and communications. Diplomatic clearance was also needed for all the nations who had PoWs in the camp to be represented at the opening ceremony for the hut.
Another challenge was who was to build it? 48 volunteers came forward, but none were skilled carpenters, and time was very limited in Zagan. So this limitation dictated that the hut could not be built from scratch on site, but had to be designed and built as a flat pack to be assembled by unskilled labour within two weeks. Powell and Co were chosen to design and build the flat packs.
The next problem was the funding, as the RAF were not able to contribute. The original budget rose from 55K to 70K. The volunteers all put a lot of effort into fund raising, with marathons, sponsor a plank, dinners and many other ideas. Through Charles connections, a Canadian Veterans Association also contributed.
The construction was planned in two phases: block foundations, and the hut assembly. The foundation holes were dug over a week, by a group of Polish volunteers, who were not that productive, and so Tim and a colleague did much of the work. The concrete was poured by a local Polish contractor. 48 Volunteers from the UK then spent two weeks in the Summer of 2008 assembling the flat packed kit.
The official opening ceremony was held on 16 August 2008. Charles Clark cut the official barbed wire ribbon as an RAF Tornado flew overhead.
Tim described how the project has benefited the education of RAF personnel and how visitor numbers to the Museum have increased by around 10,000 per annum, bringing much needed income.
Tim described how work has continued with other projects, which include with memorial stones being placed along the route of the Long March, with 5 being completed and 2 remaining ones planned. Also how a replica guard tower was built in March 2014 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Great Escape, again opened by Charles Clarke. Tim also described the 2011 Channel 4 documentary which undertook some excavation work of the tunnel and some re-enactment activities.
Fund raising is continuing to complete the Long March memorial stones and other future projects, which includes the Battle of Britain Bike Ride to mark the 70th anniversary in 2015 and funding raised by the RAF Spitfires Rugby 7s team, for which Tim is the Coach and Director.
Martin Gosden thanked Tim very much for his excellent presentation which brought the events of 70 years ago to light, and the efforts being made to remember those events taking place now.
Martin summarised that project management is not just about delivering large, complex, expensive, formal projects. RAF Project 104 is an excellent example of how project management principles can be used to deliver real benefit in a less formal way using volunteers. What is essential for success for volunteer projects is to have a very clear vision and mission, which can inspire volunteers to give up their own time to overcome challenges and to deliver the goals. The vision provided by Charles Clarke and Jimmy James inspired Tim and his team of volunteers to go that extra mile to meet that promise to deliver. There are clear lessons that formal projects can learn about the power of vision and leadership to motive teams.
The presentation slides can be seen below
SWWE Branch Chairman