Project lessons from the Great Escape
This paper takes the hard-learned lessons from a gritty, down-in-the-mud historical project and applies them to today's projects. It analyzes the project that planned and executed the escape from Stalag Luft III, in an inhospitable and escape-proof environment designed to stop such a contemplation dead in its tracks. In what seemed a hopeless and dire situation, and with limited resources, the escape committee (project team) was able to organize itself and remove each obstacle it faced. The project evolved to where difficult and complex problems were systematically addressed, and ideas and solutions were continuously tested and refined in a determined and resilient project atmosphere. The project is examined from a modern perspective and looks at how the A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth Edition Knowledge Areas came into play 40 years before they were formally defined.
On March 25, 1944, groups of prisoners of war (POWs) began their escape from the Stalag Luft III prison camp near Sagan, Germany. This was the culmination of over a years’ worth of work that involved the creation of three separate tunnels, the procurement of scarce goods, and managing risks from snooping guards to collapsing tunnels. It also required a slew of fake documentation and clothing for the escapees to survive on the outside, developing innovative solutions with limited resources, and staying alive.
While it was not apparent to anyone at the time, the escape plan followed rigorously what we now know to be the nine Knowledge Areas in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth Edition (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2008). For the most part, the project team, led by Roger Bushell (known as the Big X, or Project Manager) effectively managed the project. The team planned their scope in advance; determined an appropriate timeline for escaping; figured out ways to “pay” tunnel workers; managed the human resource costs; ensured a high standard of quality on a variety of deliverables from the tunnels to forged travel documentation; analyzed and addressed risks; and procured items when scarcity was prevalent.
Analysis of the Project
During the Second World War, Allied aircrews suffered horrific losses, where nearly 250,000 men failed to return from their missions. Those who were not killed and lucky enough to survive faced an uncertain future in enemy hands as POWs. This is the story of how a project arose from within their captivity in an almost impossible situation. With everything “stacked” against it, the project should have never passed the planning stage, yet it was not only implemented but it met its objectives under the most adverse of circumstances.
The ordeal of POWs started with a roller-coaster ride of emotions into enemy captivity: from the sudden shock of having to bail out of an airplane at 18,000 feet only hours after being in the safety of their homes, and then trying to avoid injury in a risky parachute jump in the dark. Things just got even 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 flyers 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.
Exhibit 1: Stalag Luft III was located 100 miles southwest of Berlin in a pine forest.
Once in a camp, POWs 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, they were dragged to the lowest of depths so their will to resist was completely broken. Under these dire circumstances, the easiest response would have been to resign to the situation and drift aimlessly through the war in captivity.
Escape Proof—Project Obstacles
The authorities, through the hard lessons of running POW camps, had done everything possible to make the camp fully escape proof to discourage POWs from even thinking about it. From the geographic location in the heart of the Third Reich and well distanced from neutral countries, the camp was located on sandy soil so any sign of digging would be a dead giveaway. Every detail of the camp had been thought through from building the huts on stilts to the burying of microphones beneath the camps barbed-wire fences (at 33-foot or 10-meter intervals) to pick up any underground noises. The trained anti-escape specialists or intelligence officers called ferrets freely roamed the camp.
Track Record of Project Failures
Stalag Luft III was notorious as it was the home of the most active escapers in the Third Reich. But it was a history of failure, the POWs had lost or abandoned at least 50 tunnels in a 30-month time frame much to the dismay of the camp's escape committee who had seen countless escape attempts fail. This was partly due to the lack of governance. Escape was a private enterprise where literally one tunnel could bump into another. This was a dismal and unsatisfactory track record, and POW morale was sagging very low. The escape committee (like a project management organization) could only prioritize the escape plot that had the best chance of success. The only positive was that through the school of hard knocks, the POWs had honed their escape skills.
Lack of Inertia
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?
Exhibit 2: Up to 600 POWs lived in a 60-acre camp.
Knowledge Areas for Project Management
The arrival of Roger Bushell—arch escaper—changed all of this. In April 1943, Bushell met with the escape committee and expressed the reality of a poor track record in the camp and the disparate approach to escapes to date. “We've all dug tunnels in POW camps scattered all over Germany. In East Compound we dug, lost or abandoned at least 50 tunnels.” (Burgess, 2004, p. 14)Bushell was determined to change this losing situation. The relocation of POWs to the north compound would give them a fresh start and a new opportunity, an incentive to rethink strategy, and approach to escapes.
Bushell delivered the following impassioned speech to the escape committee, which had the seeds of a project charter: “In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick, and Harry. One will succeed.”(Burgess, 2004, p. 14)
Bushell's primary objective was to cause disruption in the Third Reich by taking out 200 POWs—a massive return on investment for a project. The escape committee immediately understood the implications of this project as it was a massive scale up on previous attempts with a few POWs at a time.
The project needed a well thought-out plan, flexibility, innovation, precise communications, and quality work in all parts and phases of the plan. Bushell knew by experience that a well-designed plan had a high chance of success. The plan to escape followed the requirements of the nine Knowledge Areas in the PMBOK® Guide—Fourth Edition (PMI, 2008) using unwritten communication for the entire project.
The project's approval united the POWs’ efforts into building three tunnels rather than “burrowing like bunnies all over the place.” (Wilson, 2000) The team planned their scope in advance; determined an appropriate timeline for escaping; figured out ways to “pay” tunnel workers; managed the human resource costs associated with the project; ensured a high standard of quality on variety of deliverables from the tunnels to forged travel documentation; analyzed and addressed risks; and procured items when scarcity was prevalent.
The preliminary project scope defined the number of tunnels to dig, the tunnel depth and length, intelligence and security required to prevent detection, the quantity of forged passes, civilian suites, compasses, and maps as deliverables. Bushell also developed and managed an overall project plan that included:
- Initiating the idea, approach, proposal and return on investment;
- Planning and designing with high-level blueprints;
- Engineering, constructing and preparing the tunnels for escape; and
- Implementing the escape.
In project management, the primary tool to describe a project's scope is the work breakdown structure (WBS). Bushell did not define this on paper but he carried it in his head to maintain secrecy. Observations on Bushell were that: “He had a mind like a filing cabinet, and that was one of the reasons he was so brilliant at organization” (Brickell, 2004, p. 26)
Exhibit 3: Squadron leader Roger Bushell, the project manager.
Bushell successfully planned the scope with the escape committee based on their previous experience. They had a shared vision of how the project was to be defined, verified, and controlled. The scope included a simple WBS where the deliverables were defined in measurable terms, such as 200 forged passes, 200 civilian suites, 200 compasses, and 1,000 maps. Daily verbal communication between Bushell and his department heads ensured that scope expectations were aligned and verified. Numerous obstacles were met with solutions that maintained scope alignment. For example, the disposition of sand under theater chairs maintained the project's secrecy.
The preliminary project scope was very much influenced by the availability of resources and any restraints on these. The conditions inside the camp itself made the project very dynamic and this had to be considered by Bushell when defining the scope. The captors could be somewhat unpredictable and take actions on a whim. For example, POWs could end up in the “cooler” (solitary confinement) or worse—be moved out to another camp—and certain privileges could be removed like access to Red Cross parcels. Routines were often changed to try and catch POWs off guard. Similarly, prevailing conditions outside the camp could prevent Red Cross parcels from getting through into the camp.
The scope was also defined by the calendar and the seasons. For example, tunnelling in the winter was a challenge as any sand dispersal on the ground was not possible. Also in the spring, the thaw of heavy snow accumulation could have a significant impact on any tunnel, with the weight of the melt bearing down on it. Summer traditionally was escape season as any other time was not conducive to surviving in the open without shelter. Therefore, the scope of the project was driven by seasonal windows.
Bushell knew that “known” constraints would dictate the scheduling of activities for the project, notably the length of the project timeline and seasonal constraints:
- Bushell paid most attention to the risk of discovery. The shorter the timeline, the less likely the project would be discovered.
- The seasons had a critical impact on the project as in December to April the night temperatures were well below freezing and heavy snow lay on the ground.
- In reality, escape was very difficult because of the ability to survive in the harsh environment. The POWs would have very limited access to shelter, water, and food and would have to carry most of these necessities on them. So the summer was escape season.
- Sand dispersal and concealment was not feasible on snow-covered ground as it would be a dead give away to tunnelling.
- Tunnels could not be kept open indefinitely through the year as the spring thaw could bring the tunnel down.
Bushell was also aware there were “unknown” constraints that could dictate the scheduling of activities and impact the activities. Notably:
- Suspicion in “illicit” activities would surface in an increase in the number of hut searches and their intensity.
- Discovery of one tunnel would likely shutdown all tunnelling activities (3 tunnels were planned) until things cooled off.
- Close, cramped quarters and primitive hygiene and sanitation meant colds, flu, or more serious infectious diseases could spread rapidly through the POW population, affecting POW availability for the project workforce.
- Changes like the slowdown in the delivery of Red Cross parcels to the camp and POWs would affect food supply and the ability to keep the POWs going.
Exhibit 4: Close, cramped quarters where 22 POWs lived in a small room.
The escape committee defined the principal activities as:
- Tunnel engineering,
- Sand removal and dispersal,
- Construction of escape aids, and
- Preparing escapers with identities, adequate documents, disguises, clothes, roles, cover stories, and rudimentary language capabilities.
The first two activities were closely dependent on where the latter impacted the former as the rate of sand removal, dispersal, and concealment dictated the rate of tunnel engineering. In simple terms, there was no place to store sand so it could not be accumulated in any quantity. The scale of the problem was only well understood through experience in previous tunnelling efforts.
Estimating the activity resources was determined by experiences from previous escapes. For tunnel engineering, the size of tunnels dictated the rate of digging. The small tunnel face, which was 2 ft by 2 ft (61 cm by 61 cm)) could be dug by only one man at a time, as part of a two-man team. The overall size of the tunnel engineering team was relatively small (up to 12 tunnel engineers), so labor was readily available, and the team was highly skilled. The type of soil (sand) was easy to dig but required specific engineering tools (spades), and most important of all materials in great quantity to shore the tunnel up. The bigger problem for Bushell was the ability to remove, disperse, and conceal the sand that was based on a number of factors such as soil composition, and the seasons and climate.
In estimating the duration of activities, the soil structure dictated the rate of digging, and this was on the critical path. Closely correlated to this was the rate of sand removal and dispersal as well as conditions that impacted this rate, for example, the ferrets would be on the lookout for traces of the easily distinguishable sand.
When Bushell developed the schedule, constraints like the climate dictated the tunnelling season begin right away. In controlling the schedule on a daily basis, Bushell determined the efforts put into all the project activities so he could readily move staff around as certain activities slowed down as they came under pressure. Bushell could adjust resource availability to remove or better accommodate these constraints.
Being POWs, the men did not have money to buy materials or equipment. But every week parcels arrived for the POWs via the International Red Cross. Camp rations ran at 800 calories per day, which offered far less than the optimum 1,200–1,600 calories recommended for a normal healthy adult. These packages supplemented the meager camp food and were the property of the POWs. Bushell had to appeal for donations to use in the project, and survival outside of the camp that required survival rations for several weeks.
Exhibit 5: Typical foodstuffs that were found in a Red Cross parcel were used for the project budget.
Bushell put the donations under the control of the supplies department that influenced their use as a currency to procure goods from the guards, or traded for local currency. High demand items like chocolate and tobacco were used for bribing the guards or to acquire necessary goods that the POWs could not manufacture.
Figure 6: The supplies department managed Red Cross parcel donations as a budget for the project.
The POWs were allowed to build a theater because the authorities thought it would keep them preoccupied. The POWs used the theater to their advantage by tricking the Kommendant that they needed a camera and film to record their plays for posterity. Resourcefulness was a necessary trait for the POWs and they certainly were creative with their ideas.
Human Resource Management
Bushell intuitively knew what major project activities were required to make the project a success, and these were readily reflected in the departmental organization he set up. There were about 600 POWs in the camp. If Bushell could harness the talent and skills and enmesh the majority of the POWs into the project it would give him a distinct advantage, and the ability to achieve all sorts of things thought impossible.
Bushell set up a recruitment system where each POW was screened for their skill sets to determine where they could fit into the project. Once profiled for trades and skills, they were assigned to the departments. Each POW had a primary and backup department assignment so that the POWs could be reshuffled to another department when work was completed.
Exhibit 7: The project activities were readily identifiable in the organization he set up, through a number of departments. This matrix organisation provided flexibility in moving POWs around where needed
The stroke of genius with the system was setting up the departments with similarly skilled POWs with genuine interest in that type of work. They understood the problems at a deeper level and could closely collaborate on solutions. The organizational structure allowed each department to flourish and excel in its delivery.
It was extremely important for the quality of each area of the project to be flawless. Documents and disguises had to be 100% accurate and almost perfect, as they would all come under scrutiny at every checkpoint.
Exhibit 8: A selection of passes and documents from the forgery factory that were indistinguishable from the originals. Quality management was very important.
Quality was also essential for the tunnels in the rigor of the tunnel engineering. To get 200 plus men out, the tunnel had to be at a level of quality that could stand up to all the traffic and activity. If something went wrong inside a tunnel, it could be devastating to the project as well as to the POWs’ morale.
One of the most important areas to plan quality for was the three tunnel entrances. These were the most likely parts of a tunnel to be found, so they had to be exceptionally well concealed. Inordinate amounts of time were spent in planning and coming up with an imaginative way of concealing these entrances, and resources were poured into this early in the project.
Exhibit 9: Tunnel trap door concealed under the stove. For the project, the tunnel entrances were the most important thing to hide and where quality management was very important.
Bushell and the escape committee understood how a few critical areas could completely let the project down, and they were willing to make the necessary investments to protect these.
With the large number of POWs involved with the project, communication was critical. Bushell had to determine his project stakeholders namely the escape committee, department heads, and the ordinary POWs. With the latter, there was a considerable difference in attitude towards the project. Escape was a restless itch for about 25% of the camp population, and only 5% of those were considered dedicated “hardcore” escapers. The other 75% were on the fence, but if convinced would work in support of any escape attempts. Bushell had to proactively work on this group with his communications as it was important to get interest, active participation, and adoption in the project, including contribution of foodstuffs and materials.
Bushell held individual daily meetings with the departmental heads to discuss the progression of their areas in the project. This meeting allowed Bushell to understand issues, critical problems, and potential showstoppers for each department. Later in the day, Bushell would meet with the escape committee to go through the project holistically and review all the collected issues. By this close daily update, Bushell could very rapidly respond to critical problems and showstoppers by putting the best minds to work. All communication was done by word of mouth—nothing was ever written down.
Escaping from a POW camp presented quite a few risks that needed to be taken into consideration. Bushell made sure that all risks were accounted for and mitigated as best as possible. The first major risk involved the guards and ferrets. The POWs had to be very careful not to attract too much attention. They devised a security system through lookouts where if a guard or a ferret got too close, they could close down an illicit activity in 30 seconds. The second major risk involved the sand that was being dug out of the tunnels. The sand was yellow in color and easily visible on the ground. The dispersal department used “penguins,” POWs with long sand-filled bags inside their pant legs, to deposit sand in a manner where it could be easily mixed in with the dirt.
Exhibit 10: Bracing around the tunnel shaft reduced the risk of tunnel collapse.
The third major risk involved the dangers of tunnel engineering, hazardous work where men were risking their lives due to potential risks in:
- Tunnel construction and collapse—Stalag Luft III was deliberately situated in a pine forest and built on sandy soil. The POWs incorporated extensive bracing throughout to prevent collapse.
- Accumulation of bad air in tunnels—in a tunnel of a relatively small dimension (2 ft x 2 ft over a 300-foot length), the static air would steadily accumulate an excess of carbon dioxide. The engineering department constructed a hand operated ventilation system.
The fourth major risk involved the escape itself with:
- Getting through the tunnel and out—the small tunnel dimension posed the risk of collapse.
- Life on the run—being able to survive on the outside for days, weeks, and months had all sorts of challenges. The supplies and engineering departments constructed survival ration and water canisters.
Bushell and the escape committee were very aware of risk and incorporated its management in almost all the activities they undertook. They assessed the risks frequently, especially during the construction phase, and modified the project plans accordingly. For example, this was done by:
- Continually monitoring what ferrets were thinking through contacts with friendly ferrets and reading between the lines. The intelligence branch gave Bushell early warning.
- Devising a system to ensure that tunnels ended up where planned, pointing in the right direction and built at a level depth and right length. Continuous daily measurements helped achieve this.
- Continual and careful scrutiny of the tunnel-by-tunnel engineering for signs of danger and potential tunnel collapse.
Resourcefulness was also critical in the area of procurement. The project needed certain items like tools and equipment to forge documents, design civilian clothes, or for tunnel engineering. Bushell designed a process that determined whether they could manufacture an item first. If not could they “liberate” or “steal” it, otherwise they could procure it. The intelligence department set up a system of infiltration where handpicked guards were entrapped in a web of blackmail. Bushell kept a list of guards he considered a “soft” touch (maliable) and could be readily leaned on or bribed with in-demand items from the Red Cross parcels, like chocolate or tobacco.
Despite the loss of two of tunnels, Bushell and the escape committee were able to initiate, plan, and execute a project that led to the break out of 76 POWs in March 1944. The break out was eventful because many things went wrong on the night including a tunnel well short of the woods (15 feet), a tunnel blackout, and several tunnel collapses. The project met Bushell's primary objective of causing massive disruption in the Third Reich where up to 70,000 troops and civilians were engaged in the search and roundup of escapees. News of the event reached the desk of Adolf Hitler who was infuriated by the event and took outrageous actions despite the protests of his military staff. (Carroll, T. (2005) P.223).
This project should never have even started based on the obstacles it faced—the inhospitable environment and the lack of resources. Bushell and the escape committee, under tremendous pressure, inspired the inmates around them to continue a fight considered lost. They unified them to work on this one project. Through a departmental approach, they maximized their effort and approached their work with a true zeal, and passion. By paying attention to the details (through the nine Knowledge Areas), they were able to steer the project through an almost impossible set of obstacles.
The project leadership provided by Bushell was a catalyst for the project. His style, knowledge, and innate ability to organize provided a comprehensive plan. The plan demanded mental management in all areas to be a success. Determining the plan and how to execute it well in advance provided the POWs with a foundation and goal. The consistency in their project management practices brought the team success with problem solving and remaining flexible. The endless need to innovate just to avoid threats and seize opportunities provided the POWs the challenges to remain focused, and have forward thinking.
Brickhill, P. (2004). The great escape. New York: Norton.
Burgess, A. (2004). The longest tunnel. Annapolis, MD: U. S. Naval Institute Press.
Carroll, T. (2005) The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III: The Full Story of How 76 Allied Officers Carried Out World War II's Most Remarkable Mass Escape (Paperback)
Gill, Anton (2002). The Great escape United Kingdom: Headline Review New Ed edition
Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK®guide) (4th ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
Wilson, P. (2000) The War Behind the Wire © BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/ [Audio File]
Illustrations were used courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Academy Library's Special Collections
Source: An interview that Jimmy James recorded in 2000 for BBC Radio Shropshire, including additional detail from “The War Behind the Wire” by Patrick Wilson. © BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/.
© 2009, Mark Kozak-Holland
Published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, FL, USA
PMI research shows project teams that draw from an array of perspectives and skillsets deliver powerful outcomes.