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.
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’.
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.”
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.
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)
Swansea dignitaries mark Armed Forces Day
The Lord Mayor of Swansea Cllr Mike Day and other local dignitaries honoured those who’ve served their country in the armed forces at a special ceremony at Swansea’s Guildhall Rotunda this morning.
Cllr Day along with the council’s Armed Forces Champion Cllr Wendy Lewis, HM the Lord Lieutenant Louise Fleet JP and the High Sheriff of West Glamorgan Stephen Rogers paid tribute to those who have served.
The tributes took place on the Guildhall Rotunda at 11am and also present were representatives from the armed forces, reservists, veterans and local cadet units.
The Lord Mayor said: “Armed Forces Day gives us the opportunity to celebrate our armed forces and give thanks for our serving personnel and those who have served in World Wars and other conflicts and to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for us to enjoy the freedom we have today.”
“Our Armed Forces deserve the respect and admiration of us all and we are immensely proud of them.”
(Lead image: Swansea Council)
Free swimming in Wales to continue for the Armed Forces
On Armed Forces Day, the Welsh Government has announced the continuation of the Armed Forces Free Swimming scheme.
The scheme enables serving members of the Armed Forces and Veterans to swim for free at participating leisure centres and pools, using their Defence Privilege Card.
The Armed Forces Free Swimming Scheme (AFFS) was first introduced in 2016 and represents the continued commitment to provide the Armed Forces community with access to services which meet their specific needs and recognise the service they have given to their country.
Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport, Dawn Bowden, said: “I’m very pleased that we are able to continue to support this scheme which is designed to ensure members of the Armed Forces past and present are able to benefit from the physical, and mental, health benefits swimming can offer.”
Deputy Minister for Social Partnerships, Hannah Blythyn, said: “We are committed to supporting our Armed Forces personnel and recognise how initiatives like this can boost their mental and physical wellbeing. I hope they can enjoy the benefits from this scheme over the next three years.”
Chris Llewelyn, WLGA Chief Executive said: “Local government is proud to deliver free swimming for our Armed Forces personnel and Veterans. We hope that even more people take part in the scheme in the coming year, taking advantage of the significant recuperative and social benefits physical activity offers. There are participating pools in each of Wales’ local authorities; to find out where your closet facility is, visit your local authority website.”
Throughout the 2021-22 financial year the scheme was taken up on average each quarter by 569 serving military personnel and veterans across Wales. The trend shows an increase in uptake as restrictions have been lifted, with the last quarter recording a peak of 879 people benefitting from 2641 visits to their local community swimming pools.
To support the scheme, £45,000 to be issued every year over a three-year period; in 2022-23, 2023-24 and 2024-25.
Free breakfast for Armed Forces as Tesco recognise Armed Forces Day
Members of the Armed Forces will be able to get a free hot breakfast at Tesco cafés across Wales to mark the Armed Forces Day celebration in June.
As a thank you for their service, on Sunday June 26, all serving Armed Forces personnel, around 159,000 regulars and 32,000 reservists, can present their MOD90 identification card at any Tesco café and get a free full cooked breakfast, vegan cooked breakfast, sausage bap or a bacon bap.
All 295 Tesco cafés across England, Scotland and Wales will be offering the promotion – limited to one free breakfast per cardholder.
Ashwin Prasad, Chief Product Officer at Tesco and Director Sponsor of the Armed Forces Network said: “We’re proud to be able to support National Armed Forces Day which celebrates the tremendous contribution that the armed forces make to our country. It’s an exciting opportunity for store colleagues across the country to celebrate. Everyone loves a free breakfast and we thought it was a gesture that showed how much we value members of the Armed Forces.”
Rhys Little, Chair of the Armed Forces Network at Tesco, said: “We’ve got a long history of getting behind those who have been in the forces. We’ve received the Gold award from the Defence Employer Recognition Scheme twice now (in 2016 and 2020), and we were also the first retailer to sign the Armed Forces Covenant in 2014. We also do our best to give anyone leaving the army, navy, or RAF a chance to forge a new career.”
Over the weekend of June 25 and 26, local events will be taking place in towns, cities, and villages up and down the country, and Tesco stores will be holding a nationwide collection for Help for Heroes.
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