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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Tuesday 20 June 2023

The Greatest Escape

 This is Neil Churches' book covering his father Ralph's extraordinary WW2 escape from a PoW camp in Slovenia. I don't usually go for WW2 escape stories; there are too many British officer stereotypes. However, this is an escape from an other-ranks camp, and it's in the Balkans. While PoW officers struggled to find ways of amusing themselves, the other-ranks were put to work, often in demanding jobs.

Ralph Churches was an Australian soldier sent to Greece as part of Operation Lustre. He had been attached to Corps HQ, initially correcting maps. When the campaign went wrong, being a clerk, he wasn't flown out, so they tried to escape by boat to Crete with some other men. However, they got captured on the coast. 

I didn't realise that the Geneva Convention required PoW camps to be in the homeland of the army that captured you. They were allowed to use basic transit camps, which involved long marches with little food and water. Eventually, they arrived in a permanent camp at Maribor, which had been annexed into the Reich and therefore met this requirement.

Ralph learned some German and became the camp leader. Conditions improved as Red Cross parcels arrived, along with replacement uniforms. This allowed them to organise trade with the locals as items such as coffee and chocolate fetched a high price. The German camp commander collaborated with this system in return for a cut. Ralph had not fully recovered from the march and was nursed back to health on one assignment to a local farm by a kind local family. Working on a farm was a popular duty, but they also had to work in quarries and cement works. Even worse was burying the bodies of Soviet prisoners in what amounted to an extermination camp.

After the Italian collapse, the book outlines the development of the Partisan movement in Slovenia, supported by SOE. They fought German units and the Slovenian collaborators, the White Guards (Slovensko domobranstvo). Ralph and some of the prisoners made contact with the Partisans when the Allies began considering the possibility of mass escapes.

Eventually, they managed to escape from a work detail and, along with 100 other prisoners, were escorted by the Partisans some 100 miles over occupied mountainous terrain to a temporary airfield, where they boarded Dakotas for a flight to Italy. Ralph played a key leadership role, as not all the prisoners were convinced the escape was feasible. When he arrived in Italy, he was interrogated by a Colonel Blimp type who pointed to a map and said, 'what you have done isn't very remarkable... barely covered 100 miles as the crow flies.' Ralph responded, 'it's because they're not bloody crows!'

He was sent back to Australia to recover, but they all had to sign a secrecy declaration. Many years later, he was able to return to Slovenia and meet some of the surviving Partisans who helped them escape. 6.5% of all Slovenians died during the war, including 30,000 Partisan casualties. They tied down some 80,000 German troops. As the author concludes, 'The Partisans gave my father his freedom. To his dying day, he was grateful.'

This is a very different WW2 PoW escape story, and it's well told. It weaves the broader story about the resistance to German rule and the Partisans' role in that conflict. I was in Croatia last month, and seeing how many monuments have been allowed to fall into disrepair or even removed was disappointing. Historical revisionism should not be allowed to forget those who died liberating their country.

Some of my better uniformed Partisans in 28mm


  1. An incredible story. Pretty sure it was covered in a documentary on WWII escapes a few years ago. It seems very familiar.

    1. Well remembered. 1985, 'March to Freedom'. Made by Australian and Slovenian filmmakers.

  2. Your partisans look nice. How successful are they when you use ‘em in a game?

    1. Not very to be honest. We played the Drvar battle several times for a display game and the Germans won every time.