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Welsh pilot who dug tunnel in the ‘Great Escape’ has train named in his honour by GWR

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A Second World War pilot who played a vital part in the ‘Great Escape’ from a German prisoner-of-war camp has had a train named in his honour by Great Western Railway.

Wing Commander Ken Rees, from Wales, was imprisoned in Stalag Luft III and helped to dig the tunnel from which a daring escape was made in March 1944.

Among those present at a train-naming ceremony at Swansea station were RAF Air Officer for Wales, Air Commodore Dai Williams, the RAF Queen’s Colour Squadron, and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, David TC Davies.

Second World War veteran, Wing Commander Ken Rees has had a train named after him by Great western Railway. (Image: GWR)

GWR set out to mark last year’s 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two by naming seven of its Intercity Express Trains after remarkable people involved in the conflict.

Highly-decorated spy Odette Hallowes, D-Day veteran Harry Billinge MBE and ‘Cockleshell Hero’ Cpl George Sheard were added to its list of #greatwesterners but the Covid-19 pandemic prevented any further ceremonies from taking place.

Now the train operator is fulfilling its pledge to honour four more war heroes and Wing Commander Rees’ name will feature on Intercity Express Train 800310, forming the 1122 service from Swansea to London Paddington following the ceremony.

A pilot with Bomber Command, Ken was shot down over Norway in October 1942 just two weeks after getting married. He was taken to Stalag Luft III, a prisoner camp designed for captured airmen and the scene of the ‘Great Escape’.

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Ken was a digger on the Tunnel ‘Harry’, the longest of all the tunnels and the one used in the escape. In the 1963 film of the famous feat, Steve McQueen’s character is said to be based on Ken due to his antagonistic attitude towards his captors, a result of his brother-in-law, Sqn Ldr Harold Starr, being shot under his parachute during the Battle of Britain.

Ken, who died in 2014 aged 93, always maintained he had nothing to do with the story that McQueen’s character was loosely based on him.

“He is taller than I am, I’m heavier than he is, he’s American and I’m a Welshman – the only things we’ve got in common is that we both annoyed the Germans and ended up doing stretches in the cooler.

“I didn’t get out and if I did, I wouldn’t have been able to ride a motorbike anyway.”

RAF Air Officer for Wales, Air Commodore Dai Williams, said: “I welcome the opportunity to join GWR to commemorate Wing Commander Ken Rees of Wrexham, RAF Pilot of World War II and part of the ‘Great Escape’.  It will be a privilege to acknowledge the service of this remarkable RAF Officer.”

Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, David TC Davies MP, said:  “It’s only fitting that Wing Commander Ken Rees’ memory is being honoured in this way by Great Western Railway. He was a proud Welshman whose exceptional bravery and painstaking efforts helped 76 men escape from captivity. His heroics have rightly gone down in the annals of history and his significant wartime contribution continues to be remembered.” 

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GWR Engineering Director, Simon Green, said: “We are honoured to be naming one of our Intercity Express Trains after Wing Commander Ken Rees, who played such a critical role as a member of the digging team in the ‘Great Escape’.

“We at Great Western Railway have a long history of naming trains after Great Westerners, the past and present heroes from across our network.

“It is right that we honour some of those heroes of the war effort, remembering the sacrifice, bravery and tenacity that later generations owe so much to.”

GWR is commemorating seven remarkable individuals involved in the Second World War.

Last year it marked 75 years since VE Day by honouring Odette Hallowes, a French citizen who lived in London and on the Devon/Somerset border. Odette became a Special Operations Executive (SOE) and is the most highly-decorated spy of the war.

D-Day veteran Harry Billinge was honoured at an emotional ceremony at Penzance station in October. The 95-year-old from St Austell said having a train named after him would remind people of the fine men who fought on 6 June 1944, some of whom never returned home.

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A week later the family of Cpl George Sheard were present as the ‘Cockleshell Hero’ was honoured at Plymouth station. Cpl Sheard was among a group of young Royal Marines who volunteered for hazardous service planting mines on enemy ships off southwestern France. He drowned in the daring mission, aged 27.

Other Second World War heroes who will have an Intercity Express Train named after them in the coming months are:

  • Wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill, widely considered one of the 20th century’s most influential figures
  • Alan Turing from London, who led Hut 8 at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, responsible for the breaking of German ciphers
  • Tul Bahadur Pun VC of the 3rd Battalion of the Gurkha Rifles, one of only 13 Gurkha’s to receive the Victoria Cross

(All images: GWR)


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