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16 August 2008

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An emotional silence fell over Zagan, Poland as two years of dedicated hard work culminated in the official opening of a replica of the famous ‘Great Escape’ hut today, Saturday 16th August, in the presence of two of the camp’s original residents.

Prisoner of War at Stalag Luft III Charles Clarke

Air Commodore (retired) Charles Clarke OBE, President of the Ex-PoW Association and Andrew Wiseman were guests of honour at the opening of the replica hut, which has been built at the site of prison camp Stalag Luft III. It is half the size of the original and took two weeks to build but was the result of committed research and fund-raising over a much longer period.

The build team predominately comprised enthusiastic amateur builders from the Royal Air Force, but was supported by four expert Royal Engineers from the Army, and assisted by a Royal Navy Chief Petty Officer. During the two-week build, the volunteer crew was split into teams Dick and Harry – alternating between spending three days building and three days learning about wider stories of World War II at sites in Berlin, Krakow and Auschwitz. As temperatures soared, the sound of hammers and saws echoed through the trees in this usually peaceful location as the hut’s build progressed. Built next to Great Escape Museum in Zagan, it will act as a permanent memorial to the bravery of allied personnel imprisoned in Stalag Luft III during World War II.

Project 104 started two years ago as the brainchild of Dr Howard Tuck, Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) Tim Barlow and the late Squadron Leader Jimmy James MC after a visit to Zagan. Since then the team has raised £60 000 in donations with the strong support of Air Commodore (Retired) Clarke at the Ex-PoW Association. Army Royal Engineer, Lieutenant Colonel Phil Westwood was also brought on board quickly to ensure that the finished hut was built to a high technical specification and will stand as a memorial for years to come.

Project Officer Flight Lieutenant Tim Barlow

Flt Lt Barlow was thrilled to see the fruits of the team’s hard work. He said ‘It feels absolutely fantastic. It’s the culmination of two years of really hard work, which has been over the last two weeks really quite exhausting. It’s a relief to finish it in a way but it’s also really a great honour to have led the team here and to see the finished article’.

“I can’t thank the team enough. The guys have worked really long hours over the last couple of weeks in the heat and they’re unskilled labour. The Royal Engineers under Lt Col Westwood have been brilliant. They’ve told everyone exactly what needs to be done and helped out on the ground and really made it happen.”

For Tim and his team, building a memorial to their military predecessors has huge importance: “We should learn from the past that’s been one of the main parts of the trip. It’s also about paying our respects to people like Charles Clarke and Andrew Wiseman who have come out here with us and given us their time. It’s making sure we remember exactly what they did and that it’s never forgotten.

“I can remember standing with Charles and Andrew back in December 2006 on the site when we were talking about the project – finding the site of Charles’s room and seeing a tear come down his face. It makes my heart flutter and brings a tear to the eye.”

Air Commodore (retired) Charles Clarke OBE, and Andrew Wiseman have been with the building team for the duration of the two-week project, along with Dr Howard Tuck. During visits to historical sites they shared their knowledge and experience to give personnel a unique insight to the period. Andrew and Charles were clearly moved at the hard work that had gone into honouring them and their former colleagues.

Prisoner of War veterans of Stalag Luft III

Charles said: “My original idea was to have the hut on the site of the original Hut 104, but I realised that it was quite isolated so I persuaded the museum to have it here. This room is very realistic they have done a magnificent job. My aim is to arrange for a party of prisoners of war, they are all well aged and many of them are not able to walk, to come over for a few days so they can see this place. It’s worth remembering the support the Ex Prisoners of War Association has given this project both financially and in every way.”

Both men feel the strong bond of former and serving members of the military working together to achieve a goal. Andrew said: “Today is the fruition of a long time of dreams and ideas. It brings back memories, not all of them good – not all of them bad. I have been tremendously impressed by the way the children, as I call them, currently serving in the RAF and the other services – who had never held a hammer in their hand until they came here – worked magnificently in all sorts of weathers. I also find it very touching the way they have looked after Charles and I.

Another key member of the team delighted to see its successful end is historian, Dr Howard Tuck. He said: “I knew we’d get to this day. It’s been an emotional roller coaster at every level from project planning and meetings to trying to raise money and trying to get things translated to Polish, building regulations and visits.

The completed Project 104 replica hut

“It’s emotional for the veterans because it’s very rare that you can deliver something as substantial as this to them. It’s tremendous to give them that as a gift. I’ve been on lots of projects and this one really tops them all. It’s very important that the future generations of the RAF see what their predecessors went through and how they lived and they can learn some lessons for themselves”

In memory of Jimmy James, who died in January, Howard added: “I can almost hear Jimmy actually, He would be immensely proud. The RAF is a big family and you never really leave. I think he’d stand here and he’d have a wry smile. He’d be bursting with pride and perhaps a little intrepid that we were going to make him spend the first night in the hut!”

None of the project would have been possible without the input of the Army’s Royal Engineers, who were on hand to keep RAF volunteers on the straight and narrow. Lt Col Westwood said: “I came up with the concept of the hut and a Royal Engineer draftsman did the design work. We have had a Clerk of Works and Surveyor from the Royal Engineers here on site. Without them we would have been struggling to do it at all.

“The RAF volunteers have done absolutely brilliantly. We had little teach-ins at the start of every day to show them some of the skills they haven’t done before but some of the basic carpentry skills and glazing skills and roofing skills they’ve been absolutely brilliant. It’s their commitment that’s made them good. The morale is fantastic because they all want to be here and volunteered”.

The opening ceremony, the culmination of a multinational effort, saw military representatives from various nations, civic dignitaries, veterans, the local community, plus family members of those imprisoned there during WWII. It culminated with a flypast by a Tornado GR4 from IX(B) Squadron based at RAF Marham in Norfolk. Squadron Leader Jimmy James and James ‘Cookie’ Long, who both took part in the Great Escape were part of IX Squadron. Cookie was one of the 50 personnel recaptured and executed on Hitler’s orders. Cookie’s helmet, goggles and scarf were flown in the Tornado in his honour.

The completed Project 104 replica hut interior

And while the hard work for the hut may seem to be over, the Ex Prisoners of War Association, Lt Col Westwood and Flt Lt Barlow are already moving on to its next stage. Col Westwood said: “We’ve built the hut half-length and would like to do a half-length tunnel. Perhaps not quite as deep or as dangerous as the other one, but to give people a real experience of what it must have been like to go down the tunnel and escape from the other end. I’ve already sketched that plan but we just need a bit of funding.”

As with the original personnel involved in the Great Escape, members of Project 104 are determined to keep going until they reach their goal. Anyone interest in finding out more or donating to the project can do so.

Photographer: Cpl Scott Robertson

Image 1: Prisoner of War at Stalag Luft III Charles Clarke, opens the Project 104 Hut by cutting the barbed wire.

Image 2: Project Officer Flight Lieutenant Tim Barlow at the completed replica '104 Hut'.

Image 3: Prisoner of War veterans of Stalag Luft III Charles Clarke and Andy Wiseman at the original site of 'Hut 104' and 'Great Escape' tunnel Harry

Image 4: The aim of Project 104 was to build a replica of 'Hut 104', this image is the completed project

Image 5: How the room would have looked when tunnel 'Harry' was dug.

For larger images please see the Gallery on the opening of 'Project 104'.

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