The reality of the event is much more mundane and far darker. For POW airmen
just their initial journey into enemy captivity was a roller coaster ride of emotions.
From the sudden shock of having to bail out at 18,000 feet, only hours after
being in the safety of their billets, to avoiding injury in a risky parachute
jump in the dark. Things just got worse as the next step was to evade capture,
not just from troops but a very unsympathetic and hostile population that saw
them as "terror fliers." Going into hiding and then contacting an "escape line"
happened to just a lucky few. Most were inevitably captured and this is when the
psychology of these airmen was pushed to the limits. This started with the demoralizing
rounds of interrogation, all the time not knowing what had happened to their fellow
aircrew, to being in a hopeless and dangerous situation.
Once in a POW camp they suffered from starvation rations, overcrowding, the
extremes of a seasonal climate, and being incarcerated for an unknown length of
time. Malnourished and under constant threat of diseases the airmen were dragged
to the lowest of depths so their will to resist was completely broken.
In addition, the authorities, through hard lessons of running POW camps, had
done everything possible to make the camp fully escape proof, to discourage escapers
from even thinking about it. For example, from the geographic location, distanced
far from neutral countries, to locating the camps on sandy soils so any signs
of digging would be a dead giveaway. Every detail of the camp had been thought
through, from the construction of the huts on stilts to the burying of microphones
beneath the camps barbed-wire fences (at 33 feet/10 metres) to pick
up any underground noises.
For the POWs, under these dire circumstances, the easiest response would have
been to resign themselves to the situation and drift aimlessly through the war
in captivity. But who could predict if and when the Allies would win. Yet with
very limited resources somehow the POWs in Stalag Luft III organized a project
of staggering proportions. It is not a question of how did a project emerge but
how could it emerge? The answer is complex. These were the hardened escapers,
the finest from all the camps, who had suffered years of oppression. Through the
school of hard knocks they had seen countless escape attempts fail, learned their
lessons, and had honed their skills.
This is the story of true determination of individuals who reach an objective
literally one step at a time. At each step there was a hurdle, some of these seemingly
insurmountable. Yet the POWs took on every problem and doggedly wrestled it till
a solution was found.
In researching this story one of the many surprises was the fact that The Great
Escape encompassed everything we would encounter and do in a typical modern project
today, exemplified by the 9 project management knowledge areas of PMBOK.
This was not something I had expected because the field of project management
did not get established till well after WWII. For example, Cost Management was
a critical knowledge area and the POWs discovered they had one precious resource
in the Red Cross parcels, foodstuffs that had not been seen in Germany in several
years. The Escape Committee put the parcels under the auspices of the "Supplies
Department" who carefully cost budgeted what it was likely to need for the project.
The foodstuffs were used either to encourage POWs to provide their (project) labor,
or bribe/barter with the guards for tools, materials, or goods.
This was verified by Dr. George McKiel (POW survivor) who made comments
that many of the POWs taking part in the escape went on to the business world
after the war and had very successful careers. They leveraged the skills they
had mastered as part of the project and escape.