The Greatest Escape by Neil Churches

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

What if your father told many tales of the Second World War, but somehow the real story was elusive, with three obscure years?  What if he was sworn to secrecy, but you are intensely curious about the events that took place in those malignant times?  This was the dilemma facing Neil Churches. So he decided to undertake his own research and write a book about it.

Trawling through war records and many obscure sources revealed not just a story of the largest prisoner of war escape, but it allowed the son to reconstruct a picture of his father that invokes heroism, leadership and fear.  Moreover, it occurred at a time in the war when historic events were taking place – the German advances through Greece, the surrender of Italy and the allied advances after D day – and each of these had direct ramifications for Neil’s father and his military mates.

The meticulously reconstructed story is largely set in the Balkans, beginning with the rout of the Allies in Greece in 1941. Private Ralph Churches is caught up in a disorderly retreat to the south and is forced to take to the water as they run out of land in the Peloponnese.  A desperate attempt to row a tiny boat over 100km to Crete is thwarted by German soldiers and he and his compatriots begin a long three years as prisoners of war. After stints at transit camps in Greece and Austria, they arrive in Slovenia.

The accounts of the various camps and journeys are predictably harrowing, although some of their circumstances are surprisingly benign. But they remain at the mercy of the Reich and Ralph has no desire to stay that way. He is a serial escapist, but leaving a camp is one thing, finding a way to a “safe” country is quite another. Punishment always ensues and he realises that without an organised escape line, freedom would be fleeting at best.

Most of his captivity was spent at a camp in NE Slovenia where Ralph “found a measure of peace. They were well fed, away from danger, away from death” [p129].  Though not an officer, his recently acquired skills in spoken German see him gaining influence as an interpreter and later being “promoted” to the important role of shop steward – the prisoners’ representative who deals direct with the captors. The Germans officially title him Herr Vertrauensmann, but to the PoWs he is The Crow – an irreverent reference to his South Australian heritage.  He is effective in the role and works closely with the camp commandant, for the mutual benefit of both sides. One can’t help thinking of Hogan’s Heroes without the slapstick.  This pivotal role becomes instrumental in the subsequent escape.

Unbeknown to the prisoners, Slovenia is transforming. Partisans have a few successes and many failures, but are gradually gaining ground, with some help from the British and Americans. Towards the end of the war, they gain sufficient territory to establish an escape route for their allies – a circuitous corridor through mountains and forests.  This is the opportunity that Ralph and a few trusted PoWs have been dreaming of, if only they can establish contact.  Without spoiling the story, it is fair to say that Ralph, this mere private from Adelaide, who could easily have escaped with just a few comrades, plays a general’s role in hatching a daring escape plan, selling it to the partisans and helping over 100 men to flee.

One of the most fascinating themes is the fluctuating fortunes of Slovenian partisans – who lived on the edge for many years and who ultimately were the reason that the escape could occur.

“The situation was far more fragile than anyone knew. The Partisans had escaped destruction many times, but it would take only one slip for the entire movement to be wiped out. In this tiny corner of Europe, the Slovenians had joined the war at a time when Europe stood on the brink, and although victory in much of Europe now seemed assured, in Slovenia it was perhaps not. There was still such a long way to go.” [p244].

The war narrative is complemented by contemporary photographs of the camps and some of the PoWs, as well as heart-warming accounts of post-war visits to Slovenia and reunions with former Partisans. The level of detail in the book is impressive and rarely tedious. The fact that most of the soldiers were ordered not to reveal their secrets, makes the reconstruction all the more remarkable. For a first book, it has a lot to offer the reader as both an historic account of a remarkable liberation and an enthralling re-creation of day-to-day reality for PoWs and Partisans alike.

The Greatest Escape

(May 2022)

by Neil Churches

Pan Macmillan Australia

ISBN: 978 152906 034 8

$34.99; 368pp

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