“The Greatest Escape” by Neil Churches (published by Macmillan)

The day an entire POW camp slipped away

Great, greater, greatest .... The film “The Great Escape” from 1963 immortalised the break-out by 76 Allied prisoners-of-war from the supposedly escape-proof Stalag Luft III camp in Germany in March 1944. But greater than great, apparently, was “The Greatest Escape”, the most successful POW getaway of the Second World War when 106 Allies were freed from Maribor camp in Yugoslavia in August 1944. This promises to be a good read.
25. March 2023 8:41

Neil Churches knew that his Dad Ralph had been in the army during the war but that was the extent of his knowledge.  As a 14-year-old living with the family in Sydney, Australia, in 1972, he finally learned that the Germans had captured his father in Greece. Ralph was a POW in a camp in Yugoslavia and, after harrowing times, he and six others escaped and came upon partisans in the woods. He persuaded them all to return with him and liberate his whole camp. Then, a real adventure began as they trekked cold and hungry for days through enemy territory to safety.

Neil Churches relates that the whole episode was bound by the Official Secrets Act, and Dad took seriously the orders not to talk about it – even to his family and even still in 1972. That was the year when one of the Yugoslav partisans, Čolo, now settled in Australia, tracked down his Dad in Sydney after a 25-year search, and the teenage Neil began to understand and learn.

The story came out in fits and starts. Now it made sense why Mum and Dad had taken a three-month trip to Greece, Yugoslavia, Germany, France and the UK the previous winter. Villagers in Greece, for instance, had helped Ralph evade capture by the Germans, and on their grand tour Mum and Dad threw thank-you parties in every Greek village that had sheltered him.

Neil’s parents returned to Yugoslavia for more parties in 1977, and in 1985 when SBS Television in Australia wanted to make a documentary about the escape story, negotiation between the television channel and the Australian Army gave Dad a special release to talk about his experiences. Later, Neil nagged Dad to write his story, resulting in the book “A Hundred Miles as the Crow Flies”, self-published in 1996.

Now, official records have opened a little and more of the story can be written, this time by the son. Research has been carried out at the UK National Archives and those of Slovenia, Australia and New Zealand., piecing together “evidence of a wild adventure” about how “a bloke from the Australian bush charmed his way out of prison, and then went back for his mates”.

Neil Churches with his book, and Private Ralph Churches – Photos supplied by Neil Churches

The tale starts with a fascinating glimpse of life in rural Australia where Ralph had a farming childhood, brought up in an area with a dusty collection of farms, tiny towns and remote churches. He yearned to “escape” and won a scholarship to Adelaide High School, then as a young man became a junior clerk at the State Bank of South Australia. By 1940 he was raging to those around him about the danger of Hitler and the Nazis, resulting in a mixture of idealism and peer pressure that saw him enlist.

Marching practice with broom handles for rifles in Adelaide Showgrounds progressed over a few months to bayonet practice in the local park then embarkation by ship in November 1940. Before leaving, he and his sweetheart, Ronte, quickly married. Startlingly, “During the nights, as they crossed the Arabian Sea, some unpleasant sergeants disappeared overboard.” As a very junior member of military intelligence he corrected maps in north Africa before joining some 58,000 troops being moved from Egypt to Greece, where the fight was against the Italians, and then, from April 1941, the Germans invaded too, smashing through 70,000 Greeks on the Bulgarian border.

Allied headquarters evacuated and Ralph found himself left behind, a straggler, every man for himself. He and three others attempted to row to safety in Crete but while resting up in a cove at night they were found by German soldiers. Conditions as prisoners were dire: no shade or shelter and many had lost their greatcoats and blankets, suffering cold nights. It was hell – Greece was in famine and malnutrition was rising, prisoners marched in pain on split boots, sunburned, weak from lack of food, thirsty, suffering dysentery, covered in fleas and lice with no washing facilities.

From Thessaloniki railway station, more than 50 prisoners were packed into each carriage, an oven with little ventilation and a single toilet bucket for a brutal four-day journey to Stalag XVIIID in Maribor, Slovenia. Again, awful food and while some survived in body, they died in spirit, losing sanity. Ghastly work assignments included grave-robbing so German soldiers could plunder the bodies of wedding rings, necklaces and tooth fillings.

Eventually, Red Cross parcels arrived and contact with home was allowed via postcards. But hundreds of Soviet prisoners were skeletal, emaciated figures with bulging eyes. Ralph was ordered into their shed to collect the dead. “Ralph grabbed a corpse by its hands.  He didn’t notice the frostbite on it. As he heaved, the skin from the deceased fingers tore off. Ralph tipped backwards into the filth that saturated the floor The guards kicked Ralph to get up, but did not shout: opening their mouths would let in the stench. Ralph lurched forwards but continued to dry heave even as he dragged bodies away.”

With his gift for mimicry and language, Ralph taught himself German and was elected camp leader, negotiating on behalf of his fellow prisoners. He was assigned to a farm crew.  He made a couple of failed escapes, such as the time he simply walked off the job, marching out of the front gate unchallenged while the guards were at the other end of the compound. Reflecting on these efforts, he realised they had been motivated by distress, and were unplanned, without provisions and in winter.

He was quickly recaptured. And where to go in a continent almost all under Axis control? Switzerland, the nearest neutral nation, was 500 kilometres of patrolled mountains away. Escapees required excellent skills, forged documents, ample food, money and contacts, which, here, meant the Yugoslav partisans.

Traumatised by the camps and the genocide of the Soviet prisoners, Ralph fell in with Leslie Laws, a British jazz pianist turned Royal Engineer driver. On Wednesday, August 30, 1944, Ralph, Les and five others slipped away while on work detail outside the camp. As hoped, they ran into partisans. But Ralph had an itch in his head – could he persuade them to go back for the other prisoners? They would all arrive at the worksite tomorrow guarded only by a dozen elderly soldiers and a few civilian directors.

The plan was accepted and it worked, but now began the really difficult part – the new escapees were wearing nothing but shorts and a shirt, suffering rainy days and cold forest nights, and they carried no supplies. The column of escapees and partisans numbered nearly 150 on a nail-biting 260-kilometre trek across the mountains, pursued by German soldiers.

Neil Churches, assisted by historian and researcher Edmund Goldrick, gives a gripping account of the remarkable story of how 106 men escaped, with 100 making it to safety, lifted from a makeshift airfield behind enemy lines and flown to an Allied base in Italy.

Ralph arrived back in Melbourne by ship on November 17, 1944.  He was awarded the British Empire Medal. He died on October 18, 2014. And yes, it is a good read.

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