The Greatest Escape
A gripping story of wartime courage and adventure
Macmillan, NSW: New South Publishing, 2022
Hardback 368pp RRP $45.90
Reviewer: Roger Buxton, February 2023
‘The Greatest Escape’ – with a title like this one might expect another ingenious and heroic story of escape from a Word War II German camp for prisoners of war, but it is much more. Far from being brutal, the guards at Arbeitscommando 410GW, from which the escape took place, had a cordial relationship with the prisoners, and the leader of the escape took the serious risk of suggesting to the commandant - before the escape - that he should seek a transfer, advice that was accepted.
The story begins in 1972 when the then 14-year-old Neil Churches answered the door of his Sydney home to find a stranger asking to see his father, Mr Ralph Churches. Told that he was not at home, the stranger replied, ‘I will wait for him.’ When Ralph returned the stranger produced an old photograph of Ralph in a pine forest with a line of about fifty men strung out behind him. This was The Greatest Escape, the details of which were obscured by the Official Secrets Act for many years. With the relaxing of most restrictions, Neil was able to discover previously-hidden details and to produce this excellent book.
Private Churches joined the Australian Army in 1940, served briefly in the Middle East and was then left behind and captured attempting to reach Crete in a small boast after the evacuation of Greece by British (mostly Australian and New Zealand) forces. In a succession of camps he suffered all the expected horrors of German captivity and witnessed the lethal starvation of Russian prisoners of war before he was transported to Stalag XVIIID at Maribor in Slovenia, and from there to a rather congenial work camp, Arbeitscommando 410GW, where the prisoners worked re-laying a railway and Ralph Churches ran a black market for the benefit of the prisoners.
As he had some contact with local civilians, by early 1943 Ralph realised that he was living in a country occupied by the Italians and Germans, that most civilians resented the occupation and that there were partisans in the surrounding mountains. A tentative meeting with partisans led to a planned escape by a small group that unexpectedly grew into an escape of 100 British, Australian, New Zealand and French prisoners. As their work on the railway was seen as a comfortable way to see out the war, some of the escapers did not enjoy their new situation but leadership by Ralph kept the group together.
Slovenia was in a state of civil war between the Communist partisans and the Fascist supporters of the Germans, and the escapers, escorted by different partisan units, had a difficult and opposed trek across Slovenia before reaching an airfield established in a partisan-held enclave in occupied territory.
Apart from being a very readable story, this book is extensively footnoted, has a comprehensive bibliography and – something unfortunately unusual – has excellent maps. Ralph had travelled extensively in Slovenia and re-established contact with his old partisan comrades, and the author has contacted as many of the partisans and the 100 escapers or their relatives as possible. This book is much above the usual standard and is highly recommended.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.