It is over 80 years since the Greek campaign of 1941, yet important firsthand accounts of the campaign continue to emerge. One of these is the recently published book The Greatest Escape, in which tells the remarkable story of Ralph Churches’ war.
The book was written by Ralph’s son Neil Churches, assisted by historian and researcher Edmund Goldrick. Based on the unpublished handwritten account of the war written by Ralph himself, the book has been augmented by research across Australian, New Zealand, British and Slovenia archives as well as field research in the places referred to in Ralph’s diary. I have been fortunate to have read Ralph’s original diary. The publication of the new book brings Ralph’s story to the broadest possible audience.
A 23-year-old South Australian bank clerk, Ralph Churches enlisted into the Second Australian Imperial Force, with the rank of Private, at Adelaide in June 1940. A mapping specialist, the war took Ralph to Greece as part of the Australian 6th Division Headquarters. His service in the Greek campaign would end with his capture following an attempt to evade the Germans.
Most of the book concerns Ralph’s time as a prisoner in the German POW camp at Maribor. Located in present-day Slovenia, the area was annexed by the Nazis to the Third Reich following the occupation of Yugoslavia. It describes the brutal train journey to the camp and the experience of captivity, including work details, one of which brought him to witness the murderous Nazi treatment of Soviet prisoners.
An excellent mimic, Ralph could learn the rudiments of foreign languages with some ease, a skill that would help him in the days ahead. Committed to escaping, Ralph failed on two attempts before succeeding on the third in 1944 with six others, where he would meet up with local partisans.
The most fantastic part of the story is that Ralph with fellow escapee, Les Laws returned to his work camp with the partisans, orchestrating the escape of 106 of his fellow Allied prisoners. The partisans then led Ralph and the escapees on a 160-mile trek across the Slovenia, suffering hunger and exhaustion, all the while pursued by the Germans on the ground and in the air. Despite ambushes and betrayals, 100 Allied escapees were airlifted to safety from a makeshift airfield behind enemy lines. With the help of the local partisans, Ralph planned and led the largest escape of Allied prisoners in WW2. This, indeed, was the greatest escape. For this, he was awarded the British Empire Medal. He returned to the scene of his adventure after the war, meeting with some of the partisans who had helped him and the other escapees.
Most importantly for our readers, the book also recounts Ralph’s experience of the Greek campaign. We read of Ralph’s voyage across the Mediterranean to Greece in March 1941, while the Allied Navy successfully engaged the Italian fleet at the Battle of Matapan off the Greek coast. Arriving in Greece, like many other Allied soldiers, Ralph enjoyed some leave, taking time to visit the Acropolis. Interestingly, his flair for languages drove him to purchase an English-Greek dictionary in Athens, and he began learning the Greek language’s rudiments.
The book describes Ralph’s move north as the Allied forces advanced to meet the looming Axis threat. His first base was at the Australian Headquarters established at Gerania, on the western slope of Mount Olympus, where he continued his work mapping the nearby landscape. It was here that Ralph saw his first snow.
The unfolding of the campaign is rightly described as a debacle, with the Allied forces reeling back south to a successive series of defensive positions in the face of the determined German attack. Ralph experienced the deadly journey aboard Allied trucks, subject to daytime enemy air raids, troops forced to jump from the trucks to find cover. Roads were damaged and needed repair. Eventually, he made it safely to the now Anzac Headquarters at Livadia, arriving on 19 April. After the battles at Thermopylae and Brallos Pass, the Headquarters withdrew to Mandra, south of Athens, their last base before the Allied evacuations began.
Like many other Australian and Allied soldiers, Ralph made his way south across the Corinth Canal and down to the evacuation ports of the southern Peloponnese. The evacuation of the Australian General Blamey saw the remaining Headquarters staff scrambling to make their way south in any way they could. Ralph could make some of the way to Corinth by car – suffering an air attack along the way – and then made his way on foot. By the time he reached Corinth, it had already fallen to the Germans. Still, in the chaos that followed the battle, Ralph crossed the Canal, evaded capture, and eventually reached the evacuation port of Tolo, near Nafplio. The final stages of his journey were aided by a local Greek civilian and his trusty horse cart.
But like many others, Ralph was not to be evacuated from Tolo. Arriving after the last Allied warships had departed and with the Germans advancing close by, Ralph and a few other Allied soldiers – two of whom were Australian, one Lieutenant Jim Forest of the 2/1st Battalion from Sydney – obtained a rowing boat from a local helper and proceeded slowly down the coastline, harbouring in small coves for protection during the daytime, being offered help and sustenance by local Greeks as they went. One night, as they lay quiet and still on their boat at sea, a German motorboat called out but could not locate them. Eventually, however, their luck would run out, and in a cave near Cape Maleas, Ralph and his party were captured.
The book describes Ralph’s journey into captivity across the length of Greece and his experience in the horrible POW camps established by the Germans in old, decrepit, and insect-infested buildings. Sometimes the journey was by truck, others by train, and for miles on foot. He suffered incarceration at the camp at Corinth and Salonika (modern-day Thessaloniki). At Corinth, the local Greek Red Cross and villagers’ intervention somewhat alleviated the appalling prisoner conditions. They were allowed to sell food to the exhausted and hungry prisoners. He describes Greek civilians throwing food to the prisoners in the carriages as they halted at various railway stations from Lamia to Salonika. Fortunately, Ralph’s stay at Salonika was only a few weeks as he was transported by train out of Greece towards Maribor.
I make only two minor clarifications to the book based on my archival research into the Greek campaign. The battle of the Kalamata waterfront was not solely a New Zealand affair but involved Australian, New Zealand and British soldiers engaging German forces. There were two prison camps in Salonika, the main one – Dulag 183 – to the east of the city and the other to the northwest, the Pavlos Melas camp. Ralph spent time at both camps.
Of course, the story of Ralph’s experience as a POW in Europe and his fantastic escape story will be welcomed by all interested in the Allied POW story in Europe. However, the book will also be essential reading for all seeking to learn more about the Greek campaign and the experience of individual Australian soldiers. His account confirms the advance and retreat of Allied forces on the mainland and the desperate escape attempts. Throughout it all, Ralph was keen to write of the essential support he received from the supportive local population during his time in Greece. The book is a welcome addition to any library of the Hellenic link to Anzac.
This new book follows on from Ralph’s earlier book, the publication of the section of his private diary detailing his escape from captivity – entitled A Hundred Miles as the Crow Flies. Ralph’s escape is also featured in the Channel 4 documentary series WW2’s Great Escapes: The Freedom Trails by Monty Hall, also being recounted in the book of the series titled Escaping Hitler and published in 2018.
Details on the documentary series can be found here.
Today you can walk in the footsteps of Ralph, following his escape across Slovenia to freedom, in tours organised by his son Neil. Those interested can find more information at the following websites –
Neil Churches’ The Greatest Escape is published by Pan Macmillan and can be purchased at all good bookshops.
Jim Claven is a trained historian, freelance writer, and published author whose most recent publications are Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed and Grecian Adventure. He has been researching the Hellenic link to Anzac across both world wars for many years, both in the archives and on field trips to Greece. He can be contacted at email@example.com.