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In praise of wartime spirit at the camp site and in the office

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When disaster struck during our holiday, my reaction was to 'buy' my way out of trouble.

Step one: assess the situation. A freak gust of wind had severely damaged our large-frame tent, bending the steelwork and snapping several of the connecting joints. Step two: draw up a schedule of replacement parts and source the nearest supplier. Not easy on a Sunday.

Thankfully, my wife was made of sterner stuff and insisted - to the dismay of me and my sons - that we could effect adequate repairs. Using tent pegs, odd bits of wood, nylon cord and thick tape, we set to work under her direction.

Tubing members were bent and hammered straight; new frames and joints were formed and lashed; and soon we were sipping a well-earned cup of tea inside a makeshift shelter while the rain poured down outside.

Days later we joined a group of Venture Scouts and I marvelled at the enormous structure they had built for their barbecue - an enclosure able to accommodate some 60 people. Still smarting from the humiliation of my ineptitude following the storm, I pondered the valuable experiences that were gained by many architects and engineers during the second world war.

People like Sir Andrew Derbyshire who, during operational research for the admiralty, spent time at sea ensuring that equipment supplied for navy use was serviceable. 'Designing weapon systems involves a multi- disciplinary team who must work closely with users,' claims Derbyshire. His architectural career owes much to these early experiences, particularly in areas of brief formulation and post-handover monitoring and feedback.

Stirrat Johnson-Marshall (Royal Engineers) designed inflatable representations of tanks and field guns which were effective in misleading German reconnaissance, while his brother , Percy, was involved in the Far East building numerous bridges. Again, both received valuable experience which they were able to bring to their post-war careers.

Sir Alan Harris, whom I spoke to last week, joined the army's Port Construction Company where he was able to put his considerable engineering skills to good use. Involved in the inevitably rapid repairs to harbours following occupations, he is a mine of information on many types of military construction, from storage buildings to temporary aircraft runways.

I well remember a lecture he gave to the Newcomen Society a few years ago on the Mulberry Harbour. Churchill had briefed on the need to provide piers more than 1km in length which would float on the tides and enable a constant supply of men and equipment following the D Day landings.

From 1942 onwards, 200 pontoons were constructed in 26 sites around the UK, then sunk off the British shores. Just prior to the June landings, they were re-floated and towed to the Normandy coast where they enabled 2.2 million men, 4 million tonnes of stores and 500,000 vehicles to be landed in the period to December 1944 when Antwerp became operational in serving the military's eastward push.

But it was not the enormity or complexity of mind-bending challenges like the Mulberry Harbour or Pluto ('pipeline under the ocean', supplying fuel from the uk to the continent) that Sir Alan most values with respect to his subsequent civilian career. Instead, he places prime importance on the practical experience he gained working in the field. 'Only in the army', he says, 'did I ever handle a pick and shovel.'

As architects, we should not forget the tangible benefits that the likes of Sirs Alan and Andrew, brothers Percy and Stirrat, and their many compatriots gained through military work. While no-one, of course, ever wants to replicate war conditions, the difficulties of providing appropriate, practical, team-working experiences (which are so necessary to the training of architects and engineers) is an ongoing challenge for both our professions and colleges.

And repairing a tent or constructing a temporary shelter should really be second nature to us all - as it obviously is to an old Queen's Guide or a young Venture Scout.

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