The Greatest Escape of World War II was a secret for decades. Now, a new book tells the heroic story of The Crow’s Flight. And a hiking tour allows travelers to trace the escape route of more than 100 POWs through wartime Slovenia, guided by courageous resistance fighters.
The Crow: Ralph Churches from Australia
Ralph Churches, an enlisted man from South Australia, was one of the unlikely heroes of The Greatest Escape. Captured in 1941 by the Germans in Greece, he and thousands of other prisoners endured brutal conditions in holding camps. Eventually, the Germans put him on a train to what is now Slovenia. Ralph was one of the lucky ones: 10 percent of the prisoners died on the six-day journey.
He ended up in a German work camp near Maribor. Today, Maribor is Slovenia’s second largest city and welcomes visitors to its charming historic center. But it was occupied by the Nazis during World War II. Hitler himself visited the city hall and declared, “Make this land German again.”
POW Life in Nazi-occupied Maribor
Captive Allied servicemen in Maribor were held separately from ranking officers. They could leave the prison camp for work details on nearby farms and rail lines. Ralph’s nickname was The Crow, a disparaging reference to people from his native South Australia being so poor that they could only afford to eat crow.
Red Cross parcels allowed Ralph to regain his health. He set up a black market in such wartime luxuries as cigarettes and chocolate. He befriended Les Laws, a British soldier who was a jazz pianist before the war. They tried to boost morale by putting on musical shows.
They also made several escape attempts. Ralph realized he would need to learn German to get very far and began teaching himself to speak the language. He also learned of the horrifying camp conditions for Russian prisoners, including many Ukrainians. The Germans were starving them to death.
The Flight of the Crow
By 1944, Ralph and Les were even more determined to escape. The book details how the two mates managed to make contact with Slovenian resistance fighters, known as partisans. On August 30, 1944, they carried out an escape plan for seven of the men in their hut, but then decided to go back the next day for the rest of the Allied captives. In all, 106 men.
In the book, The Greatest Escape, Ralph’s son Neil Churches documents the group’s harrowing journey across a war zone to freedom. I interviewed him via Zoom. From his home in Melbourne, he talked about the emotional experience of writing his father’s wartime story of courage. Buy the book at this Amazon link.
WATCH the video and please subscribe to my YouTube channel for updates on hiking tours of the escape route.
Resistance Fighters in Slovenia
Getting away from the prison work detail was only the beginning of a much bigger challenge: getting a huge group of escapees across the rugged countryside without being detected by the Germans. Although they traveled only about 100 miles “as the crow flies,” they had to scramble up and down steep hills in total darkness to avoid recapture. The POWs worn-out work shoes were no match for the rough terrain.
Slovenian resistance fighters were able to move like ghosts, evading the German patrols and local collaborators. They had experience evacuating Allied bomber crews and wounded partisans to an airfield near the border of Croatia. An American working for British intelligence had been coordinating with the partisans for rescue missions along this Freedom Corridor.
Members of the Slovenian resistance risked their lives every step of the way. Getting caught by the Germans was a death sentence, not only for the partisans, but likely for their entire families. The group escorting the escaped POWs hid during the day and moved at night: no talking and no smoking allowed.
Crossing the Sava River
The group had to cross the Sava River near Litija, close to the small town that my Slovenian ancestors are from. Local farmers created a distraction by driving their cattle across the river so that small groups of escapees and partisans could take turns crossing in two small boats.
At that time, my great-uncle’s daughter was part of the local resistance. Her brother had already been killed in an ambush by the Germans. I’ll never know if my cousin Antonija Mohar was among those who helped with the Crow’s Flight, but she lost her life four months after the escape when she was trapped in a barn that was set on fire by the Germans.
The Crow’s Flight to Freedom
Fifteen days after fleeing Maribor, the escapees reached the town of Semič, only to learn that the partisans’ airfield had been destroyed. They waited for a new runway to be cleared. DC3 aircraft flew 103 of the escaped POWs to an allied base in Bari, Italy. They were free.
John Philips, a photographer for Life Magazine, took a picture of the group before they left Slovenia. It’s the photo you see at the top of this post. It could not be published during wartime, and the escape remained a classified secret throughout most of the Cold War.
In the mid-1980s, Yugoslavian and Australian filmmakers produced a documentary about the escape. Released from the secrecy orders, Ralph Churches told his story in a book, “One Hundred Miles as the Crow Flies.” His son’s book adds new details and historical context. It’s a must-read for war history buffs or anyone who likes a thrilling adventure story.
Hiking Tour of The Crow’s Flight in Slovenia
Today, the Freedom Corridor is marked with signs that guide hikers along the route that saved thousands of lives during the course of the Second World War.
Neil Churches has partnered with Slovenian guides to offer package tours. Book a hiking tour of The Crow’s Flight on the website. There are several versions of the walk, adapted for various ability levels.
Hikers on the tour will walk through gorgeous landscapes and historic towns. And, unlike the escapees, they won’t have to worry about hunger or sleeping outdoors in the cold. Slovenian feasts, comfy inns and spas are planned at the stops along the way. Expect to enjoy traditional Slovenian hospitality: farm-to table-food, local wines and schnapps.
Terry’s Travel Tips
Buy the Book: The Greatest Escape is available on Amazon as an ebook, hardcover, paperback or audio book. Stay tuned, there is even talk that a movie is in the works!
Visiting Slovenia: Check out my tips for planning your trip to Slovenia. Hiking tours of The Crow’s Flight are likely to start or end in Maribor or Ljubljana. Check out the hotel choices in Ljubljana or browse the reviews in Maribor on Trip Advisor. Clicking on these links to make a reservation supports this blog at no cost to you. Start planning your own Great Escape!
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