The greatest escape of WWII happened as an afterthought …

After escaping with six other prisoners of war, Ralph Churches went back for his mates, more than a hundred of them. Aided by the Slovenian partisans, they were later airlifted from behind German lines to Italy.

Australian Lance Corporal Churches had attempted to row a boat from Greece to Crete to avoid capture when the Germans invaded. Caught by a naval patrol, imprisoned, transported by rail and then interred in Maribor – in what is now Slovenia – Churches was “auctioned off” to work with a local German farmer.

Determined to escape, Churches learnt German so he could hatch his plan. The illiterate son of his employer mimed what Churches read to him phonetically from the Nazi press. He then persuaded a local official to continue his schooling. Grammar, dictionaries and lessons followed. Churches became a model of German education. Even a Nazi Party official was delighted at the purity of his German.

His fellow prisoners elected him to negotiate with the Germans. And the Germans were happy to have him as their “vertrauensmann”, their “man of confidence”.

Ralph Churches in PoW camp at Ozbalt, Slovenia during WWII

Nicknamed “the Crow”, the South Australian – known in Australian slang as “crow eaters” – Churches built up a formidable system of bribes and bartering. Fellow prisoners pooled chocolate, coffee, soap and cigarettes to help the Crow bribe the Germans.

Maribor in Slovenia was a significant railhead to the southern Russian front. Churches’ camp colleagues worked re-laying rail track destroyed by Allied bombers and Partisans. Churches plotted to make contact with the Partisans. Eventually, one of his co-conspirators, Englishman Les Laws, slipped away from a rail gang and made the Partisan connection.

The Partisans, who regularly traded rescued bomber crews for supplies, agreed to do the same for Churches, Laws and their five POW cabin mates.

Sometimes you are given the chance to do something good, and you know that if you don’t do it, it will hammer you for the rest of your life …

Ralph Churches

Readying for the escape, Churches resigned as camp leader and resumed work duty. Soon, all was ready. Churches and his team slipped quietly away from their rail gang into the awaiting protection of a nearby Partisans who took them to the nearby town of Lovrenc.

In Lovrenc, it was a party. Drinking, music, dancing. All was well, and the escape route organised. But Churches couldn’t leave his other mates. If the Partisans could exchange downed bomber crews for supplies from the Allies, how much more for a hundred prisoners?

The next day – after a bloodless Partisan ambush at the rail worksite (about 70 escapees), the accidental liberation of a reluctant group of nearby French prisoners (20), followed by the freeing of a further English-speaking group (10) – Churches crew of six escapees grew to about 100. After 285 gruelling kilometres, they made it to a Partisan airfield, where Allied Dakotas airlifted them to Bari in Italy. It became known as The Crow’s Flight – the greatest escape in the history of WW2.

To Churches’ wife in Adelaide, a telegram: “ESCAPED, SAFE, WELL.”

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