A great escape of WWII happened as an afterthought…
After escaping with six other prisoners of war, Ralph Churches went back for his mates, all ninety of them. With the very organised support of the Slovenian partisans, he then got them airlifted from behind German lines to Italy.
Lance Corporal Ralph Churches of the Australian 2nd 48th Battalion attempted to row a boat from Greece to Crete to avoid capture. Caught by a German naval patrol, disease followed in a disorganised camp in Corinth. He survived a train journey that many others did not. Still feeble, he was “auctioned” off to work to a local German farmer, in what is now Slovenia.what is now Slovenia.
Determined to escape he decided that the priority was to learn German so he could know what was going on. He persuaded the illiterate son of his employer to pantomime what Dad phonetically read to him from the Nazi press. So his pronunciation was rural, but he could quickly get the drift of what was going on around him.
He asked a local official to teach him German so he could understand the Fuhrer’s plan. Grammars, dictionaries and lessons followed. He had a natural gift for language and mimicry. Before long he paraded as a model of what German education could achieve. A senior Party official expressed delight at the formal purity of his spoken German, saying it would never be mistaken for native. Lance Corporal Churches immediately “unofficially” learned as many dialects, accents and slang usage he could from his guards and any locals.
His fellow prisoners elected him as their representative to negotiate with the Germans. The Germans were happy to have him as their “vertrauensmann,” “the man of confidence.” This suited Churches, he did not have to go out and work anymore.
He was the only South Australian (in Australian idiom “crow eaters”) in the camp, so was “The Crow.” Over the next couple of years, he built up a formidable organisation. He persuaded the prisoners of war to pool chocolate, coffee, soap and cigarettes to bribe Germans. With fresh produce supplied by farmers, they were better fed than most of the Germans.
Maribor in Slovenia was a major railhead to the southern Russian front. Churches’ camp colleagues worked relaying rail track destroyed by bombers or Partisans.
The more he heard about these Partisans, the more they sounded like a possible get out of jail. He spent some time trying to get in contact with them. One of the prisoners of war, Les Laws, who got water daily from a farm for the work parties, came to him and said contact established.
Negotiations commenced. The Partisans were trading rescued bomber crews for supplies flown from southern Italy. The Partisans agreed to do the same for Churches, Laws and their five cabin mates. The Partisans were going to give the Germans curry by liberating a nearby town for a couple of days. If Churches and his team were ready, that is when they had to go.
Churches resigned as camp leader and resumed work duty. After a couple of weeks, all was ready. Churches and his team slipped away from work and over the hill to the town of Lovrenc. The remaining prisoners covered for them when they found they were gone.
In Lovrenc, it was a party! Drinking, music, dancing, all very relaxed and casual. The Partisans reassured Churches that all was well and the escape route organised. He spent the night talking the Partisans into returning to the work site. His argument, if you get supplies from the Allies in exchange for a returning downed bomber crews, how much more for a hundred prisoners.
The next day, after a bloodless ambush at the worksite, the liberated prisoners of war began a ten-day march over mountains and rivers. After 350 kilometres, they made it to a Partisan airfield, waiting days for an airlift. Five Dakotas landed at night, returning to Bari on the heel of Italy with Churches and his 100 mates. From there he sent a telegram from Bari to his wife in Adelaide “ESCAPED, SAFE, WELL.”