Greek campaign veteran Ray Churches was one of 2065 diggers to become a prisoner of war in 1941.
The memory of being awoken by two blond German soldiers armed with Schmeisser submachine guns will stay with the 93 year old forever. “They had heads like cubes… they were a bit scary,” Mr Churches told The Australian.
Despite the best efforts of Australian, British, New Zealand and local troops, the Nazi invasion of Greece, which began on April 6, 1941, left the troops completely defeated. With massive aerial superiority, the Germans achieved victory in just three weeks.
“The Greek campaign was utterly stupid and hopeless,” Mr Churches said. “The New Zealanders and Australians had no air support and we were lined up against God knows how many Germans,” he said, adding, “we just got cleaned out.
It was an absolute waste.” Recently discovered photographs in the albums of World War II veteran Pat “Sydney” Hughes show the Germans using their aerial strength in an attack on the Greek market town of Ellason on Easter Saturday, 1941. Mr Churches was taken by train to Stalag 18D in southern Austria, now Slovenia.
After 18 months as the camp leader and with two failed escape attempts behind him, he wandered off into the bush during a routine exercise walk on August 31, 1944. A guard followed and when Mr Churches offered him cigarettes, the guard took them, then turned and left.
Another six POWs joined Mr Churches and together they set off to find the partisans. The next day, on the insistence of Mr Churches, the escapees returned to the POW camp to free their 70 mates left behind.
“A decent leader doesn’t walk out on his blokes and I thought, ‘What the hell, if the partisans can get seven of us out, they can get 100 of us out’,” he said. Guided by the partisans, Mr Churches led the group on a 14-day, 320 km march through the mountains to an airstrip from where they were flown to freedom in Italy.
Mr Churches returned to Australia on November 17, 1944 and was awarded the British Empire Medal for gallant and distinguished service in the field. He was also promoted to sergeant.
Discharged the following October, Mr Churches resumed his career in banking and insurance. Now retired, he lives in Adelaide with his wife, Ronte, 91, whom he married two days before enlisting in 1940.