Part Five - Other European "Free Men"
Chapter 2 - Yugoslavia
In the end-notes to his book "A Hundred Miles as the Crow Flies" K1, Ralph Churches of the 2/48 Inf Bn AIF who was captured in Greece, lists the 12 Australians and 9 New Zealanders who were among the hundred-strong group he led to freedom through Slovenia.
Australians who escaped were:
QX8000 Stanley Broad 2/15 Inf Bn
VX3548 Lesley C. Bullard 2/6 Inf Bn
VX36694 William G. Bunston 1 Aust Postal Corps
NX9186 Kenneth Gordon Carson 2/4 Inf Bn
SX5286 Ralph F. Churches 2/48 Inf Bn
NX26868 John Ernest Douglas 2/4 Inf Bn
VX29769 Donald M. Funston 2/32 Inf Bn
PX10 Walter Gossner 2/15 Inf Bn
NX1499 Alan Hambly Mills 6 Div Supply Column
NX5373 Kenneth Burke Rubie 2/4 Inf Bn
VX29281 Arthur Douglas Shields 2/8 Inf Bn
VX6534 Arnold Edward Woods 2/8 Inf Bn
New Zealanders who escaped:
L.W.C. Anderson 24 Bn
J. Hoffman 7 A Tank Rgt
P. Hoffman 18 Bn
A.G. Lloyd 25 Bn
R.C. McKenzie 26 Bn
C.J. Ratcliffe 19 Bn
G.M. Rendell 24 Bn
P.G. Tapping 25 Bn
H. Turangi 28 Bn
The group also included 8 French, with the remainder British.
In his book "Irregular Adventure" E15, Christie Lawrence, a young English officer of No. 8 Commando who was captured in Crete, was also aware of the volatile internal conditions of Yugoslavia. He recognised that the Croats and Slovenes almost unanimously sought independence from the Serbs. With an Australian officer from the 2/8 Inf Bn - Lt Ronald Houghton Jones - Christie Lawrence jumped from the train taking them to Germany and joined up with Mihailovitch, the former Yugoslavian Minister of War and his "chetniks".
Ralph Churches had joined Tito and his partisans and operated in Slovenia. In numbers, the Slovenes were the smallest of the three major Slav peoples. The Croatian "ustashi" were more pro-German, but all factions - communists, Chetniks, Serbian Royalists and Croats - equally knew that Yugoslavia could not by itself defeat the Axis Powers and when liberation came, it would have to be from outside the country itself. That strategically the Allies did not think it beneficial to commit resources to Yugoslavia and decided to abandon Allied landings on the extensive coastline, left the final military solution in the Balkans to the Russian and Bulgarian interests.
While most of the Australian and New Zealand POW in Yugoslavia had been caught in Greece and/or Crete, Ron Jones was recaptured by Italians and finished up in Campo 78, Sulmona from which he eventually joined the British officers on the "Moosburg Express" and by escaping from that train, was among those who finally reached Switzerland.
As in Italy, not necessarily all POW who stayed behind enemy lines joined partisan groups operating in their particular area. Some who did joined purely as a matter of survival as food was difficult to get and the partisans knew their local district and were accepted by its people. Many POW left when they got the chance. Some were prevented from leaving, particularly so in the Balkans, and some managed to link up with British Liaison Officers, who were being infiltrated to weld the partisans into an efficient underground army.
AIF POW Escapers - Yugoslavia
The following list is not all-inclusive nor specific as regards individual activity while in enemy-occupied territory. It combines those who were "shepherded through" Yugoslavian territory en route to Allied occupied Italy, and then back to the U.K. as well as those who planned such routes as part of the on-going assistance to the various partisan groups fighting the Axis there.
VX44744 L/Sgt Arthur Adams 2/3 LAA - Allied Lines
NX4122 George Henry T. Barker HQ Ist Aust Corps - Allied Mission
NX18434 Lt Frank A. Barrett 2/1 Inf Btn - Belgrade, KIA Pacific
WX2074 Sgt Alan Berry 2/32 Inf Btn - Tito
NX2593 Eric Lynn Black 6 AASC - Murdered 15.04.44
NX3814 Walter Jeffry Boon 6 Div Postal - Later Capt, MM, MID
QX8000 Stanley Broad 2/15 Inf Btn - Tito
VX3548 Lesley Bullard 2/6 Inf Btn - Tito
NX13848 Brundell-Woods MM 2/13 Inf Btn - British Mission
VX17575 Sgt Ernie Brough MM 2/32 Inf Btn - Chetniks
VX5102 Stewart Emerson Brown 2/5th Inf Btn - KIA 07.08.42
NX4120 Sgt Charles Stewart Brown 2/32 Inf Btn - Chetniks
VX36694 Bill Bunston 1 Aust Postal Corps - Tito
NX9186 Kenneth Carson 2/4 Inf Btn - Tito
SX5286 Ralph Churches 2/48 Inf Btn - Tito
WX1755 Robert Chipchase 2/32 Inf Btn - BFC
WX5739 Jack Davies 2/28 Inf Btn - Escaped to UK
NX26868 John Douglas 2/4 Inf Btn - Tito
NX2776 Sgt Dyer MM 2/1 Inf Btn - British Mission
WX W.A. Evans - Escaped with Sayers?
VX5330 Percy Robert Evans 2/5 Inf Btn - Chetniks, Recaptured
VX29769 Donald Funston 2/32 Inf Btn - Tito
VX26287 "Bluey" Fraser 2/23 Inf Btn - ?
VX40343 Jack Fullarton 2/23 Inf Btn - ?
VX3965 Bill Gardner 2/2nd Fld Amb - ?
PX10 Walter (Bill) Gossner 2/15 Inf Btn - ?
NX5322 William R. Irvine MM 2/4 Inf Btn - Partisans
QX830 Sgt William Walter Jensen Aust Pay Corps - Recaptured 18A
NX8575 WOII Henry E. Kilby MM 2/1 Inf Btn - via Turkey Partisans
VX11469 S/Sgt Harry Lesar MM 6 Div HQ - Chetniks then BM
VX6683 Alexander Leslie Mansfield 2/1st Fld Wshop - DOI 15.04.45
TX721 Thomas Vernon McOrmond Inf Tg Btn - DOW 18.12.44
NX1499 Alan Hambly Mills 6 Div Supply - Tito
VX37636 George Alex Morley AASC - Escaped to UK
WX9619 "Bluey" Murray 2/28 Inf Btn - Escaped to UK
VX6074 Charles Payne 2/8 Inf Btn - Partisans
WX6813 Jim Paterson 2/28 Inf Btn - Chetniks
VX5347 Syd Price 2/5 Inf Btn - Chetniks
VX9752 Sgt William Howard Reid 6 Div HQ - KIA 07.08.42
NX5373 Kenneth Rubie 2/4 Inf Btn - Tito
VX35920 Ross Sayers 2/6 Inf Btn - Chetniks
VX29281 Arthur Shields 2/8 Inf Btn - Tito
NX1164 Spr Walter H.C. Stielberg 2/1 Fld Coy - Multi-escaper, MBE
WX5924 Bert Tillbrook 2/28 Inf Btn - Escaped to UK
WX5222 Edward Thomas Vincent 2/28 Inf Btn - Escaped to UK
VX10556 Vane Sheldon Williams HQ 6 Div - Escaped to UK
VX6534 Arnold Woods 2/8 Inf Btn - Tito
As senior NCOs, Sgts Alan Berry and Ernie Brough had been taken POW at different battles during the fighting at El Alamein and met up again at the transit camp at Benghazi. They had not been drafted out to working camps from the main ANZAC Concentration Camp No 57 at Gruppignano, Udine, and consequently were among those rounded up by the Germans when they surrounded the camp after the declaration of the Italian Armistice. Two trains were assembled to take some 4,000 Allied POW to further captivity in German controlled Europe. One went to Goerlitz in Poland, the other, a much shorter journey, to Spittal in Austria. Alan Berry and Ernie Brough were allocated to the latter and while they tried to escape en route, did not suceed and finished up in Stalag XVIIIA/Z Spittal/Drau - not far from the Hungarian border.
In that camp they became mates of two New Zealanders caught in Crete and transported to Stalag XVIII as German POW. They were Corporal Eric Baty and Pte Matt Gibson. Eric Baty of the 4 Field Ambulance 2 NZEF, had already made three attempts to escape from XVIII/A - the first through a tunnel, the second by climbing over the perimeter wire during an electricity failure and the third by crawling under the perimeter wire through a drain. (4. page 382-footnote). Eric had become convinced that a successful escape could be made from an Arbeitskommando, where conditions were easier and the guards more lenient. Conditions in these work camps supplying POW for work on railways, in local factories or on farms depended on the individual characters of the German NCO in charge and the civilian owners of small businesses or farms. There the POW worked long hours but in relatively better conditions as regards food and accommodation.
Generally, POW reaction to being sent out to a working camp was mixed!
Some soldiers regarded the idea of working for the enemy repugnant, and many raised their own rank to avoid being sent out to work. Others, correctly assessing that escape was easier and their physical condition better in a work camp, which also offered an opportunity to learn the local language and to mix with supportive civilians, lowered their rank to get drafted out to work camps.
Alan Berry and Ernie Brough were convinced by Eric Baty, who spoke good German, that escape would be easier from an Arbeitskommando and began to prepare their plan. They decided that the best way to disguise their rank, was to to flaunt it. All four hid their paybooks and anything else that might reveal their true rank and when the next parade for selecting draftees was called all wore the three Sergeant's stripes and managed to pretend that they were exempt as they were sergeants and could not be sent out to work. The Germans were suspicious about POW true ranks and when they could not back up their claims by paybook or other evidence, were "unmasked".
Thus they succeeded in being drafted out to a small work-camp, Arbeitskommando 410L, at Spitzendorf near Graz, and from there, together with 8 other English POW, were sent out to work on the Dobel farm near the small hamlet of Settendorf. They were comfortably billetted in an old stone building which was formerly a police station and worked hard for the farmer in order to get fit. A month later, on April 8, 1944, they had no trouble in unlocking the door to their billet while the guards were asleep. As they had been unable to obtain civilian clothes, they travelled at night only, setting a blistering pace the first night in order to get as far away as possible from Settendorf which would become the centre for the search parties and dogs which would inevitably occur when their escape was discovered.
Unfortunately Matt Gibson was not feeling well enough to go with them. The quartet was now a trio, but Eric Baty was the natural leader and Allen and Ernie decided that if it came to any major decision and they disagreed, Eric would have the final say, which both would accept. The river Drau was crossed on an improvised raft and after eight days in severe winter weather, they reached the Austrian/Slovenia border and crossed into Yugoslavia where they met partisan soldiers who guided them to a British Military Mission.
There they teamed up with VX11469 Harry "Mick" Lesar of HQ 6 Division who had been captured in Greece, joined the partisans, and later the Mission as an interpreter. A month later all three were evacuated by air to Italy, reaching Bari on 9 June 1944 (A3 p804 and A4 p382).
Ernie Brough vividly remembers crossing the river:
"When we landed on the opposite bank, we holed up in a deserted pill-box. We, and our escape packs, were absolutely saturated, but Eric had a cigarette lighter which still worked and had some fuel. He managed to get a small fire going. We stripped off and got reasonably dry to resume our march. We were wet to the waist from floundering through deep snowdrifts and sheltering in pine forests when we sighted any Germans or armed men. Our food was exhausted. We were down to a biscuit and a single raisin three times a day. but we still had some cakes of soap from our Red Cross items, and we were able to trade for food. In one case the lady thought she had not given us enough "change" and insisted that we take some local money.
"We continued to head south-west and somehow crossed the border into Croatia. Confronted on our journey by a long rolling green hill with a village on either end of it, we left it to Eric to decide which one we should head for. He chose the one on the left. When we got there, we were able to find a friendly house where we got some food and were put in contact with some armed men wearing a cap with a red star on the front. The name of the village was Banjagalevica and they were Tito partisans. We stayed with them for 6 weeks. They were suspicious of us, thinking we were spies. We were allowed to act as porters and as messengers but were not allowed any arms".
"D -Day" finally arrrived on 4 June 1944, and Allied morale was at an all time high. Bari was now the Mediterranean HQ and an extremely busy port. Most Yugolsavian AIF escapees were able to be repatriated directly to Australia as were Ernie and Allan. Eric Baty went with them and was subsequently awarded the DCM.
Other members of the 2/32nd, among the 5,000 odd AIF POW still in German camps, had many more months to wait for freedom, and were eventually repatriated through the AIF Reception Camp at Eastbourne in England, as were those Australians still fighting on actively with the partisans scattered through Europe.
Acknowledgements and thanks to:
VX11469 Cpl Harry Lesar 6th Div HQ and VX35930 Pte Ross Sayers 2/6 Inf Bn
Once a POW was loaded onto a train to be taken deeper into imprisonment, his mind became more focussed on escape, whilst still in relatively supportive surroundings and with the train itself a symbol of the mobility denied to him in a static, well-guarded camp. Harry Lesar and Ross Sayers had been captured in Crete in June, 1941 and their chances of an early escape receded the further they were moved behind the lines.
With the exception of higher ranking POW officers, the usual mode of travel was the troop-carrying wooden box car stencilled with the designation "8 Horses or 40 men". These prison wagons were of different designs, depending on their provenance, but generally had narrow double doors at either end, bolted and tightly wired externally, a solid sliding door securely lockable from the outside and two small closely grated air apertures high in the corners of one end of the roof. Toilet facilities, if there were any, generally consisted of a large tin in one corner.
Any plan of escape first concentrated on forcing an exit point and then choosing a time when the forward movement of the whole train was slowish, most often on an upward gradient, and preferably at night, when the friendliness of darkness would act against their guards.
Harry Lesar and Ross Sayers managed to force open the steel bars on their ventilators of their carriage using the strength of their legs and the heels of their army boots and managed to drop out onto the track under cover of darkness, with two other Australian POW (Boon? and Price?) somewhere between Zemun and Belgrade in Yugoslavia.
Fortunately for them, they were sheltered by local farmers who later led them to a detachment of Michalovitch "Chetnik" partisans. These however, thwarted an attempt to escape back to Allied Lines through Turkey and kept them in a restricted form of imprisonment in military service for the next six months until they managed to link up with a British Mission, dropped in by parachute to help organise and guide the various groups of partisans resisting the Axis powers.
They served with this Mission for another 10 months and were then evacuated to Bari in Italy and thence back to Australia where they arrived in September, 1944. In Bari, Harry "Mick" Lesar ran into Ernie Brough, with whom he had trained at Balcombe Camp in Australia. Harry Lesar, his mate from Yugoslavian times, Ross Sayers, Allan Berry and Ernie Brough became firm friends.
They all were awarded the MM for their escapes and subsequent service.
Acknowledgements and thanks to Peg Lesar.
A3 "Tobruk and El Alamein", Maughan, page 778.
The Riddiford Group
On December 24, 1943, the following “Free Men” were returned to their units after escaping south to AL in a group headed by Captain Riddiford:
43933 John Alexander Able 25 Bn
25826 Henry Carson 28th Bn
6720 Richard Kendrick 22 Bn
16005 N. A. Gosling 21 Bn
43899 J. A. Illston 22Bn
8076 Sgt H. W. Kimber NZASC
16135 J. Laird 21Bn
6536 J. G. Lugton 27Bn
14139 J. W. Mount 20 Bn
33264 H. Nichol 27 Bn
41631 R. M. Reeve 22 Bn
32992 E. M. Robinson 25 Bn
35921 Bertram Harold Smith NZE
13995 A. J. Svenson 20 Bn
37576 L/Cpl John Homer Wildman 22 Bn
33302 Bruce Vincent Ashe, Div.Sigs, had died in captivity as a result of an accident on 12/03/44.
K3 "Committed to Escape", Daniel Riddiford.