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Ralph Churches
Archive number: 1094
Preferred name: The Crow
Date interviewed: 01 December, 2003

Served with:

2/48th Infantry Battalion

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    In service

Ralph Churches 1094

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Transcript

Tape 01

01:00:39:00

So Ralph, if you could just go through what we just discussed, the brief history of your life.
Okay. Well I was born in November 1917, the last of a family – I was

01:01:00:00

the eighth member of the family and the youngest. It was a pioneering Mallee farm. Life was tough. It was a healthy life and I got my primary education in three one teacher schools scattered around the place and my secondary education at Adelaide High School where I

01:01:30:00

matriculated in 1933. And in due course I was appointed a junior clerk by the State Bank of South Australia where after a couple of years in training at head office in Pirie Street as it then was, I was transferred to the Renmark Branch and then subsequently to the Wudinna Branch on the Eyre

01:02:00:00

Peninsula. I was there for three years. In June 1940, I enlisted in the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] and quite the same time, I married Ronte. And five months later

01:02:30:00

I sailed in the Stratheden for the Middle East. It was in the 2/48th Battalion. We trained in Palestine. Camp was near the village of Dimra but at the end of January 1941 for some reason or other

01:03:00:00

I was – temporarily seconded was the term – to Corps Headquarters. With them, I was in the first dash up the desert against the Italians. But I was still with them when the Corps Headquarters went over to Greece. It was there, after a campaign of about four weeks, I suppose, I was captured

01:03:30:00

by the Germans while with three other men trying to row a boat to Crete. But anyway, this German patrol picked us up and eventually we were perhaps two months in cages in Greece and then we were put in a cattle wagon train and taken up into Central Europe and it turned out that

01:04:00:00

the base was the small Slovenian city of Marburg. Marburg an der Drau as it was then. And put to work at various jobs and finished up on a road making job. All along I had tried to learn some German and I became quite fluent in German and was elected by my fellow

01:04:30:00

prisoners of war in this camp as their camp leader and so that I remained for two years. In the meantime from the road building job we were transferred to a railway re-ballasting job and it was there that a railway line snaked through a bit of lonely country, it was there we made contact with the Slovene partisans.

01:05:00:00

We managed to get them to raid the job and the whole team of some ninety odd men escaped to the partisans. I was of course their leader. I’d done the negotiating with these partisans and they were used to me being the leader anyway. So we eventually marched a very difficult march down to

01:05:30:00

where the base where the British and Americans had liaison officers and eventually they – I think after about five days – they arranged for us to be flown out from there to Italy. And from there I was – it took two months, but I was repatriated and arrived back in Australia in November 1944.

01:06:00:00

And so Ronte and I picked up the threads after a gap of four years. I decided that I’d carry on in the army, which I did. Actually I stayed there again for – well saw the year out – I was discharged in

01:06:30:00

November 1945 having received the British Empire Medal for gallant and distinguished services as a result of leading this escape. And I was promoted sergeant. But at that stage I elected to be demobilised and went back to the bank. But I found after

01:07:00:00

fifteen months that bank work wasn’t what I wanted to do. Principally because it was so poorly paid. So I took an agency with the Prudential Insurance Company for the whole of York Peninsula as their representative. It turned out that I was very very successful. I built a successful business but it was at that stage

01:07:30:00

that we in 1950 odd we were sufficiently prosperous but still childless, so we adopted a little girl and she became our daughter and of course it was almost in the book that our eldest son, Stephen, arrived nine months

01:08:00:00

later. There was a gap then of – that’s right, time was getting on and the Prudential Insurance Company offered me an executive position in the Adelaide office which I accepted and we moved to Adelaide. Bought a nice home in Tusmore.

01:08:30:00

Somewhere along the track there – it was in, yes, 1957 – that another big English company, Legal and General, offered me the management of a South Australian Branch. But there was no organisation here. As manager I

01:09:00:00

had to create it. So I created their South Australian branch and somewhere along the line son number two arrived. So we became a compact family of five. Then I was sufficiently successful here in Adelaide that Legal and General offered me the managership of New South Wales. So we transferred to Sydney and we

01:09:30:00

lived in a very pleasant suburb there, of Northbridge for some eighteen years and nine months. And up came retirement and to the great surprise of all of Sydney side management, I elected to return to Adelaide. That was a blow to them. So back to Adelaide we came. And that was in

01:10:00:00

1979 so it’s now a little over 24 years since we’ve lived in this pleasant little cottage. And that’s about it.
Did very well. Thanks, Ralph. So that was a good concise history, let’s get into the nitty gritty. What are your earliest memories, Ralph?

01:10:30:00

Oh yes I remember the old farm quite clearly. Can remember our neighbours. I have a recollection I put somewhere between three and four years of age. I see things that I’ve since found out I could have only been three and four. I remember – my mother was a

01:11:00:00

driving force. She was a forceful lady. And she was very keen that we should all do well in life. She insisted – soon had me learning to read. Long before I was at school. I was very eager to go to school. Actually, the family had moved from Mallala to this pioneering farm down in the Mallee.

01:11:30:00

I guess there must have been financial imperatives or something because looking back in history, a rather drastic move to move as a farmer from Mallala to a pioneering Mallee farm. But my mother I can remember I was reading my older siblings’ school primers [literacy texts] long before I started school. I remember it. I could have only been

01:12:00:00

a bit over four years of age when I was reading the number one primer. And so by the time I started school – well actually I only had – school opened in September. It was a new school opened up so I only had three months in Grade One. So that was a school – the name of the railway siding where the school was

01:12:30:00

built was Kulkami. There’s nothing there now because the railways are no longer used. They’ve all fallen. I supposed there would be the traces of a railway siding still there, but the school has long since been demolished. Actually I was called back there about ten or eleven years ago to unveil a plaque that they’ve

01:13:00:00

got marking the site where it stood. Apparently I was the most distinguished old scholar that they could find. But then the family moved on from that farm. I think possibly because it wasn’t big enough you see for a family. I had three brothers quite a bit

01:13:30:00

older than I was – quite a bit older. Probably it wasn’t big enough. But then strangely we moved south to a little township called Walpeup on the Pinnaroo line. There is still a general store there, or was ten years ago when I was last through it. And a few scatter of buildings of one thing and another.

01:14:00:00

But the school wasn’t there. I went to a school that has also been demolished in the Hundred of Allenby. It was called Allenby School. The postal address by the way was Lameroo because that was the only thing worthy of a the name of a town within miles and miles and miles. And so while we had

01:14:30:00

moved house, moved home, the address was still Lameroo. I was born in the Lameroo Hospital, you see.
How old were you when you moved, Ralph?
That was in 1925. I would have been just seven and a half years old. Just. But strangely enough I don’t know just how this happened because the farm we then moved to was smaller than the one we’d left.

01:15:00:00

So I don’t know just what my father’s thinking was in this. But we were only there a couple of years and he took up another scrub farm. It was (UNCLEAR)ed land. At South Parilla. Parilla is a little township between Lameroo and Pinnaroo. But our address then became Parilla.

01:15:30:00

But there was a hitch here that – it was too far – it was nine miles from the nearest school. So my eldest sister was married to an ex Light horseman from World War I – Jack Bowden – who was a farmer up at Maitland on York Peninsula. And

01:16:00:00

they had just produced a baby daughter, but my eldest sister – indeed my, I was very much a pet with my two elder sisters who were of course very much older than I was, I think seventeen years and fifteen years respectively – and so my elder sister

01:16:30:00

volunteered and her husband to take me to do my final year, my grade seven year, with them up on York Peninsula. I’m a great demolisher of schools, am I not, because the Kulkami school is out, Allenby is out, but I think the little school I went to called Kainton or Glory On The Hill because there was a

01:17:00:00

Methodist Church alongside it at least fifteen years ago the school was still there but looking very shaky. It was unused – no longer used for anything. So that’s where I did my final year. But there was a sting in the tail of all this, because we were now well and truly, the Depression was 1929, things weren’t very good

01:17:30:00

in the farming line at all and newly cleared Mallee was not really a good place to prosper growing grain. So my mother made it clear to me I had one of two choices. I could either win one of the ten scholarships of thirty pounds a year for two years

01:18:00:00

and thus finance myself for two years at high school in the city, or I could come home to the farm and presumably work as an unpaid farm labourer. So there was a lot hanging on 1929 my examination results. But anyway I’m very happy to say that I made it. I won one of these scholarships for

01:18:30:00

country kids. And that was sufficient – thirty pounds – my mother arranged to board me with a lady on South Terrace – corner of Brown Street and South Terrace as it was then. And from there for two years I went to Adelaide High School. I was,

01:19:00:00

I didn’t do brilliantly. But I was sort of in the top echelon anyway. I did sufficiently well to get good reports. But then of course the two years run out and all I had then was an Intermediate Certificate. I wanted to matriculate at least. The weather might break and I might yet get to university. But there weren’t the scholarships kicking around then.

01:19:30:00

There were no Commonwealth scholarships or anything like that. Fortunately I had made friends at high school with a family and they took me for a year as a non paying guest. For a year. Wonderful people. They were English people. But the mother of the family,

01:20:00:00

she was already in ill health. She didn’t last the year I was there, actually. She died of cancer. But a lovely woman. They were from Lancashire. They were very lovely people. But so that got me – I managed to get my Leaving Certificate. I passed in five subjects. But somehow or other

01:20:30:00

I didn’t do myself justice. The Leaving was supposed to be matriculation but my results, although it gave me the Leaving Certificate it wasn’t of matriculation standard. But another very kindly family took me as a non paying boarder for another year. Very, very lucky. I seem to either attract sympathy or

01:21:00:00

whatever. But they too were a marvellous family. They had two quite young kids, a boy and a girl. Anyway this time I really put the icing on the cake. I got another four subjects with a top credit in history. But that didn’t do anything very much for me.

01:21:30:00

So I spent the following Christmas holidays, I’d take a cast around Adelaide for who might employ me. Because the idea of going back to the farm – much and all as I loved my family – the idea of unpaid farm work seemed a little arid to me. More than a little arid. I had to do something about it. So I copied down the names

01:22:00:00

of any firm that looked as if it might have use for a clerk. That was all I was qualified for. I naturally applied to the Education Department. They offered me seven and six a week as a junior teacher, but that was all they could offer me. That wasn’t going to fly. So anyway after the January holidays I came back to town

01:22:30:00

and moved into a household into which one of my brothers had married. So they were my sister in law’s family. They were all very hard up. Everybody was on the dole. Such dole as there was. I mean, they were single blokes, they were getting seven and six a week. That was about what they had to live on. But they were nice people. They were English. They were Cornish people.

01:23:00:00

They were very nice people. But the obviously couldn’t support me without me paying them. So during the school holidays I’d written – I think from memory eighty three letters of application. Each one accompanied by two hand written copies of character references. It took up quite a bit of time. And even though postage was – it was only tuppence –

01:23:30:00

it cost quite a lot of money too by the standards of that day. But that produced no result at the time. Nobody came rushing for my services. What could I do? But down there on the corner of Gover Street and O’Connell Street, there was a friend of the family running a shoe repairing business. And he was a nice – he was English too, he was

01:24:00:00

a Yorkshireman. And he was an electrician by trade, but he couldn’t get any work as an electrician, so there he was as a shoe repairer. I walked in there one day and there he was reading a paperback novel by candlelight. And he said, “G’day Frank. What’s the candle for?” He said, “They’ve cut off my power.”

01:24:30:00

I said, “I see.” He said, “Well there’s no work about.” I said, “Look, I’ve got a bike. What if I were to go out canvassing for shoe repairs for you?” He thought that was a bit cute or a bit …. “Well,” he said “I can’t pay you anything. I can only pay you commission.” I said, “Right. Let’s do a deal.”

01:25:00:00

So we did a deal. I’ll get twenty percent of all the work that I brought him. And this is North Adelaide – believe it or not – I got a great big wicker basket that I could balance on the handlebars of my bike. Away I went doorknocking for shoe repairs. And I earnt – I made twenty five shillings in the first week. Gracious me!

01:25:30:00

Innocence is a wonderful thing. I thought I knew a lot of things. But one thing I didn’t know was the courtesies of calling on the mansions of North Adelaide. I didn’t know what a tradesman’s entrance was. So I just used to go and knock on the front door. I can remember one place they actually had a butler who answered the door in full morning gear.

01:26:00:00

“Yes, boy. What do you want?” So I told him. And he said, “Yes, I see.” Well actually it wasn’t bad because he didn’t approach the household, his fellow staff members. So gradually I built up a round. And for about eight months. And I was making on average three pounds a week which was very good money for a

01:26:30:00

seventeen eighteen year old kid. Seventeen I think it was. My landlady loved me cause I was able to pay her fifteen shillings a week board. And everybody was happy. And then along came a letter from the State Bank. This was September 1934 inviting me to come in for an interview. So I went

01:27:00:00

duly on the day, in the best clothes I had. There were twelve of us lined up and there were only two jobs going. I thought, oh well, you know, this is a – but no! I got the job! I don’t know why I was so pleased about it because the pay was twenty five shillings a week. But somehow or other I think

01:27:30:00

I thought of my mother. I’m sure she didn’t think very much of me pedalling a bike around North Adelaide picking up shoe repairs and delivering them back. Whereas country people in that day had an inordinate respect for bank people. Because they handled money, they were supposed to be extremely well paid. Well I don’t think things have changed much. Anyway I took this job and so in due course

01:28:00:00

I still stayed with the same family. But then my father decided that he was old and my mother was – well, when I say old, they were getting in their sixties a bit too old for heavy farm work. So they retired to the city and for the last two or three months – what would it be, 1936 I was able to stay with my parents

01:28:30:00

who were living just down the road from here at Flinders Park. But then I was transferred to Renmark and so it started all over again. Very little in the way of pocket money because by the time I paid twenty five shillings a week board or something like that out of about thirty, thirty two shillings a week it was fairly hard going. But then in

01:29:00:00

after a year or so there I was coming home – five of us had gone down to the city over the Australia Day weekend to see the test match and I was there, but it was a very old fashioned car with a soft top. Soft top that you could put down and drive as an open car, if you wished. But on the way home of course

01:29:30:00

there weren’t the sealed roads that there are now, the car got into a skid at Blanchetown and rolled over and I was in the Waikerie hospital for six weeks. In pretty poor shape. But anyway I recovered. I was discharged from there but I couldn’t go back to work. I was all disoriented and so forth.

01:30:00:00

It was about for two months. I was there with my parents without any pay. But eventually I got back to the bank and they sent me over to Wudinna on Eyre Peninsula. Wudinna is quite a respectable township now. But then it was a dusty little railway place. I suppose the total population of the town itself wouldn’t have been more than seventy if that.

01:30:30:00

And there I worked as a junior clerk. There was the manager, teller and myself as the ledger keeper. Again it was – fortunately everybody pretty well was as hard up as I was, but it was a very tenuous sort of an existence. At that stage I was earning the glorious sum of two pounds ten

01:31:00:00

per week. Five dollars in today’s language. Well by the time I paid thirty five shillings a week for board, that was at the local hotel, the lady across the road did my laundry for me for four shillings a week. So that left me just precisely eleven shillings to pay football club, cricket club and tennis club

01:31:30:00

subscriptions and things like that. And not much for anything else. Shilling for a dance somewhere – those country dances. But I played – I was very keen, not particularly brilliant athlete – I played football for Wudinna and I also played cricket.

01:32:00:00

It was through cricket that I met Ronte, because they were thirty-five miles out of town, she had three big brothers who played cricket for her team out there. It was September, I remember, 1937 … yes.

01:32:30:00

I think June 1937. And Ronte was out in this dusty little paddock that was a cricket field with a concrete strip in the middle of it. And she and her sister – Ronte was the really interested one, but the two young ladies attended the cricket match because there wasn’t much else doing round the place. What else was there to do? But Ronte was the scorer, and if necessary she acted as twelfth

01:33:00:00

man. Although they were very simply turned out [clothed], I was sort of immediately attracted. They were two very very – I don’t think at that stage I would have called them beautiful – but they were pretty. They were very nice looking.

01:33:30:00

And I think I must say that I really felt that somewhere along the line Ronte was going to figure in my future. I don’t know how else to put it because thinking of romance on fifty bob a week just wasn’t, you know it wasn’t a goer. I could not afford to be interested in girls. But somehow or other we did meet up from time to time at local dances

01:34:00:00

and so forth. We got to know each other. I’ve always been a church goer – I was brought up in an atmosphere of religious tolerance. Every bloke with his collar turned back to front had to be very highly respected. And I might say, down there in the mallee

01:34:30:00

my mother was the only keyboard player for miles around so all of these reverent gentlemen when they favoured this area – perhaps once a month there’d be someone turned up to run a service in the little galvanised iron building that acted as a school, a church and a dance hall, and my mother – I still have vivid pictures of standing beside her as she pedalled the little harmonium

01:35:00:00

there and played the hymns for the congregation such as it was. Very vivid memories. In Wudinna, the Church of England wasn’t represented so I went along and joined the Methodist church there and became a member of the choir. I had quite a decent sort of a bass baritone voice. And actually in due course at the tender age of twenty one

01:35:30:00

sort of it was a custom that you couldn’t have a choir mistress, you had to have a choir master, so I became the choir master of the Wudinna Methodist Choir. It turned out that Ronte’s mother way out in their circle of the woods – thirty five miles out on the Kimba Road – she was virtually the Methodist Church. They had a little masonry hall there that the same as the one being dance hall, school and church all rolled

01:36:00:00

into one. And it was Ronte’s mother who was responsible for seeing that everything was prepared there although it was seven miles away from them. But another duty was imposed on her of course. Ronte was the middle peg of a family of nine. But with all these big families there was always a room at the table for an extra one. Nobody noticed an extra one or two at the table. And so

01:36:30:00

it became Ronte’s mother’s job to have the reverend for lunch on his monthly forays out into that area. But there was no musical instrument in this little building of theirs, so the reverend asked me to tag along to lead the singing. So of course I became involuntarily a guest of Ronte’s family for

01:37:00:00

lunch on the fourth Sunday in the month or whenever. It’s a regular thing and so I got to know the family quite well. I was received among them. By that time I think the family accepted that Ronte and I were just a bit interested in each other for what that was worth. But I – her brothers, well they were great big blokes.

01:37:30:00

One of them was six foot three. Another six foot two. And he was, he was quite a boyo. He was quite seriously the most handsome man I ever personally knew. He was the eldest son. And Shorty, only six foot tall, he’s still alive actually. My brother in law, Tom. But they were very, very, you know, really nice people.

01:38:00:00

And jolly good cricketers and all this sort of thing. And so it happened I was – the years went by and the more the years went by, the more I was shocked at what was happening in Europe! When was somebody going to stop this fellow, Hitler? To me it seemed outrageous what he was doing.

01:38:30:00

But nobody seemed to care very much. But I had a word for everything then as I still do now and I used to talk my head off, you know, jump up and down. And I remember writing to my mother in 1933 while I was still at high school when Hitler got power in January 1933 saying what bad news it was, but nobody else could see it. And then when of course Munich came along

01:39:00:00

I was ashamed to be – well you see Australians still thought of themselves as British in those days – and I was ashamed of my nationality, that bowing down to the demands of this mongrel. I just couldn’t get it. The war duly started and fortunately it was a “phoney war” [war had been declared but nothing was happening] for six months, wasn’t it? It started in September 1939. I think

01:39:30:00

a lot of the early enlistments were blokes who were unemployed and were sick of being unemployed. I would say almost the majority of our first overseas fellows, the sixth division, were probably people out of work. But unfortunately when one paints oneself into a corner as I did it’s very difficult because I – well I suppose because I’m small – I’m smaller

01:40:00:00

now than I’ve ever been for a long time, but I was only five foot seven and a half. And I’ve always detested violence. I don’t like messing around hassling and wrestling and that sort of thing. To me it’s childish. The idea of being a soldier – never in your nelly. It wasn’t for me. But of course along came – the “phoney war” stopped being phoney and

01:40:30:00

became fair dinkum. Didn’t it? In May course he’d cleaned up in the east. Hitler had made his peace with Stalin so he was safe in the east, so he could afford the big lunge in the west. So the war became very very serious. And whether it was conscience or what it was but I felt that the whole little town and district of Wudinna was

01:41:00:00

looking at Ralph Churches.
Interviewee: Ralph Churches Archive ID 1094 Tape 02

02:00:43:00

Ralph, can you just go back a little bit? You’ve talked at length about your mother and you haven’t said much about your father. I just wondered what kind of man he was.
Oh he was very genial manner. I loved him very much. But he wasn’t nearly the forceful

02:01:00:00

personality that my mother was. My mother was a very determined, very purpose driven woman. Actually as one grew up one learned not to cross her path. When she said to do something it was rather smart to do it. No, my father was a very genial man, very very popular. He was a – he loved sport. He had

02:01:30:00

been a very good cricketer in his day, but no he loved sport. In the clay dirt of the Mallee wherever we went he’d carve out a tennis court, string some wire netting across the middle of it and so forth. We all played tennis. Yes. I remember my mother much more as a driving force. I,

02:02:00:00

actually he was forty-seven when I was born and it took him a long while to wake up. Well, really he never woke up to the fact that I was grown up until I came back from the war with something of a record behind me. Although he didn’t survive my homecoming for, it was for only a couple of years or something like that, he was intensely proud of me. And well

02:02:30:00

actually I had a very good relationship with all my siblings. I can remember as a little tacker resenting siblings four and five. They used to bully me a bit. And I used to give them lip I suppose. But no I grew up in a very loving family, very happy. And of course I felt so much at home in among Ronte’s folk, you see. Again the same

02:03:00:00

story. A big family, very good relationships and so forth. And I perhaps according to cartoonists and humorists that oddity that had a very warm affection for his mother in law. She was a lovely woman. Really was. And I think when I became her son in law, the affection was returned somehow or another. Lovely woman.

02:03:30:00

But that’s out that question. Do you want me to get back to where I was?
I do. I just wondered as well listening to what you said before, where were you were hearing about the war?
Oh radio. See radio was at least as pervasive then as television is today. I mean, everybody listened to newscasts, particularly with the war on. Everybody listened in.

02:04:00:00

I well remember Sunday nights in the manse at Wudinna listening to Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of Britain, declare war on Germany followed immediately by none other than Bob Menzies quite illegally saying “Britain is now at war as a result of which Australia is also now at war.” He did not have that right. But

02:04:30:00

right or not, that was it, we declared war on Germany. Odd that, because as my eldest son who is a big barrister PhD [Doctor of Philosophy] after his name and all that, very strict on points of law, yes, it was he could not have declared war without consulting either his cabinet or his parliament. But there it was. As I say, it was in May

02:05:00:00

that.
And what were the discussion around the radio after hearing that?
I think the average person thought, about ruddy time. Chamberlain and the French they made an awful mess of it. A dreadful mess of it. Ceding – just giving him Czechoslovakia, well good as – the Sudeten Lands –

02:05:30:00

that’s where all those early Czech defences were. But the Czechs also had a splendid munition factory turning out arms, but they also had 32 well trained divisions. Now for goodness sake! I mean, well as we know now the German generals were terrified. If the French and English had with those 32 Czech divisions – we’d have given

02:06:00:00

Hitler a very good run for his money in 1938. And mostly the reaction of most people in my circle, well it’s about time, but have we left it too late. Can we stop him? But as I was saying at the break there, I was in this embarrassing situation, I’d painted myself in a corner and there was a sense of guilt, but I felt everybody was looking at this 22 and a half year old

02:06:30:00

sprog going to match all his war talk with action. There’s nothing to stop him. He’s single. He’s obviously very – well maybe they didn’t feel that way, but I felt that way and so I became the first person from Wudinna to enlist.
Did any of your other siblings enlist?
No. Well, the two

02:07:00:00

eldest were married with families. The last one, he wouldn’t have passed medically. Not that there was much wrong with him, but enough to preclude him from enlisting. So righto, I had myself medically examined and so forth, went through the ritual of putting my name on dotted line,

02:07:30:00

but then there was that girl thirty-five miles out of town. That nice family have been so kind to me. Perhaps – and there was a character in the town, he was the local doctor. He was an alcoholic. Lovely fellow and very good physician I might add, but he used to go on benders. But he was a very generous bloke. But he said, “Go on, you’ve got to do the right thing.”

02:08:00:00

He said, “You know you’ve been more than a bit interested in that girl and if you’re lucky, because you’ll never meet anyone more beautiful. You can have my car on Sunday, drive out there and say cheerio, you know tata.” So that’s what I did. I got in the car. It was a little DKW [Dampf Kraft Wagen]. Away I went. And

02:08:30:00

broke the news to the family. They were all there. And one of the very, very few times in our life together, Ronte shed tears. Well that shocked the devil out of me.

02:09:00:00

See my feeling was how mean it would be to go away to a war and take her out of the marriage market place for whatever time I’d be absent. I just didn’t think that was a nice thing to do. So the idea of proposing marriage just never occurred to me. But somehow or other

02:09:30:00

a proposal was made, accepted. But she was three weeks from her twenty-first birthday so I had to ask her father’s permission. Now talking of fathers, he was an entirely different man. The nicest thing I can – well no the most creditable thing I could say about him was that he was a most honourable man. A most

02:10:00:00

honourable. Nitpickingly honest. But he was a formidable man. I remember him, he was only he would only have been round about the fifty mark then but he was already a bit stooped from hard work – a bit stooped and all he still stood about six foot one or two. There was not an ounce of fat on his body, but he was big. He had shoulders … He only had one eye.

02:10:30:00

And he was, he was really a forbidding man. I never did get really under his skin. I never got to really know him well. But I always respected him. So anyway I front up and ask him and yes, he gave his consent, but he clearly disapproved of it. We were going to be married in the city, the Methodist parson with whom I was very close friends at the time, he wasn’t very old either, he got us a ten

02:11:00:00

day special licence. I might say only about three weeks later – yes, it was Ronte’s birthday – I was best man at his wedding. We were in uniform.
What changed your mind? You said that you didn’t want to take her out of the marriage stakes and – ?
It’s all a blur. I don’t know just how it happened, but happen it did.
And how did you propose?
That’s where I say the confusion is.

02:11:30:00

I just don’t remember how it happened. I sort of hit the surface again when I realised I had to front up to the old man. I really – no I have – no I vaguely seem to remember my dear mother in law saying something, “I suppose you two will want to get married.” I seem to remember that. Whether I actually

02:12:00:00

put the question, will you or not, I still don’t – indeed scrubbing right in the depths of my memory I think that happened. It was – yes, I think that’s how it happened. I think my mother in law said, “I suppose you two will want to get married,” and I think I said, “Well,” something sort of “It’s up to Ronte,” or something like that. Oh but

02:12:30:00

you know, that is very apocryphal. I’m afraid it’s quite unreliable.
But it happened.
It happened. That was 63 years ago, wasn’t it? Sixty-three years ago, fifteenth of June. So we – Ronte came down to town with me. We got on the bus and went down to town. Went through the final formalities of enlistment. And we were married from my parents’

02:13:00:00

home in the little Methodist church there on Crittenden Road – tiny little box of a place. I think it acts as a vestry now for a great big cream brick place they’ve got there. That was on a Saturday night. On Monday I went off to Wayville to what they call the RRD, the Recruit Reception Depot. And there I

02:13:30:00

took the final oath on the King’s shilling and issued with a uniform and I went home that night for tea in a uniform. So we were only – that’s right, I was drafted to the 2/43rd Battalion, but I was ahead of most of my cobbers.

02:14:00:00

And so when I found that all my cobbers – early in July 1940 they formed the 2/48rd Battalion and that’s where all my cobbers were. My colleague at the bank at Wudinna, Ted Reeford, he was there. And so I applied for a transfer from the forty third to the forty eighth which was granted and so we did our early training marching down – every time I drive down Goodwood Road to pass

02:14:30:00

Leader Street I can see our ghosts turning left wheeling out of Leader Street and into Goodwood Road, marching up the parklands and charging bags filled with straw with bayonets and doing all sorts of gymnastics and remarkable things. Commanded by a redoubtable Lieutenant Colonel recently promoted

02:15:00:00

Lieutenant Colonel W J B Windeyer. One of Australia’s leading QCs [Queen’s Counsel] from Sydney. As he told me when I caught up with him after the war, that South Australia was a state under suspicion. They had to find both their commanding officer and their padre from New South

02:15:30:00

Wales. South Australia couldn’t provide them. That was his story anyway. He later of course subsequently became on the High Court Bench. Mr Justice Victor Windeyer.
What did he mean, saying South Australia was under suspicion?
Oh well, words to that effect. They were probably ineffective or something. There were a lot of drongos. And perhaps heathenish

02:16:00:00

because we couldn’t produce either a padre and not very – purely a jest. We found him fairly grim. But actually he had a great sense of humour as I discovered in later life. So there we were at Wayville I suppose. I just forget, a couple of months or something like that. I’d have to read up the books. And then up to Woodside

02:16:30:00

where it became serious. Quite real training. But it was there that I was sent off to a school because they had my records that I was a bit better educated, had a higher level of education than most, and they sent me off to a school for map reading and field sketching. And it was right at the end of that school that we got our orders

02:17:00:00

for embarkation. Well of course before that we’d had our six days embarkation leave.
What did you do in that time?
Oh, we did quite a bit. We spent I think a day or so down at Victor Harbour. Place there was there until recently. I think it might have been demolished now. It was a guest house anyway.

02:17:30:00

And then there was – I might say at our wedding (I get a bit ahead of myself) it was the last time my parents and their eight kids got together. That was the last meeting. I still have a picture of it there. The last meeting of the eight of us with our parents. And I’m very very happy that I’ve still got actually a picture of it.

02:18:00:00

But anyway to get back to the track, where did we spend this embarkation leave, yes, this elder sister – she was an angel of a woman. Oh a very sweet, lovely lady. But she had a weak heart. She’d had rheumatic fever when – don’t hear of rheumatic fever much these days or the damage of it, but then it just knocked out – the rheumatic fever knocked out the mitral valve in a person’s

02:18:30:00

heart. In the victim’s heart. And she was very delicate indeed when she married. She was told she should never have children. Well, she did have this little baby girl who formed a relationship with me that has never really withered. Never really withered. I still see quite a lot of her and her – she’s got a family of

02:19:00:00

boys. Well, they’re grown up actually. Her eldest son is older than my eldest son. But they sort of regard me rather pleasantly as a sort of an older brother who’s no longer with it or something. But they have good taste for wine which endears them to me. And so this sister when at the wedding

02:19:30:00

she got me and said, “Ralph, promise me – now you know you’re going to get six days pre-embarkation leave. Please promise me that you’ll spend one day of that up with us on the farm.” So how could I refuse? I mean, I loved her dearly. She was lovely. I said, “Yes, we’ll do that.” So we did. We had to get one day we had to get on the train and go up and we spent a day

02:20:00:00

and stayed a night and caught the morning train back to Adelaide. But as she said goodbye to me at that little railway station I said, “Well I’ll see you when I come back, darling,” and she said, “Really Ralph, I don’t think so.” That was her farewell. She knew that she was weakening. And indeed she died in the following March. And I didn’t know

02:20:30:00

because by the time that news got to me I was a prisoner of war. I didn’t know till the best part of nine months later. But I was not surprised. I realised the significance of what she had said. So we got this, we had this embarkation leave and only a week later …
Were you worried about leaving Ronte?
Oh no. Not really.

02:21:00:00

I mean, we knew this was inevitable. That was the object of the exercise. We wouldn’t have been married. There was no way we could’ve married if it hadn’t been for me enlisting. No. We always knew it was inevitable. We just accepted that. And so the weekend before that I spent, I had leave home.

02:21:30:00

I used to get I think every second weekend leave from Woodside to come down to our family and so the last weekend she came in to see me off at the train back to Woodside and we sort of knew that was it. I’m sure we did. And that was – yes I remember that quite vividly.

02:22:00:00

Then of course we’d had our embarkation leave. We knew it was any tick of the clock. And so came the morning. We were roused out. Full battle order. And marched. In the interests of security we did not get on at the train at Woodside. We were marched on to Oakbank. Put on the train there. The train didn’t call at the Adelaide Railway Station. It just shunted off down to the port to the outer harbour. And there was the

02:22:30:00

old Stratheden there and taking us on board. That was a Sunday, I remember. Seventeenth of November. And the Stratheden must have felt very ashamed from being a top level cruise, well royal mail ship really.

02:23:00:00

Air mail wasn’t much doing in the way of air mail then. So all these people, we were well down below the water line in hammocks. But if you didn’t like the hammock at night you could get up and sleep in the open on deck. And so we pulled out from the outer harbour that night and away we went. And so we got to Fremantle.

02:23:30:00

Pulled in there. We were there for six days. There was a raider scare on out in the Indian Ocean. But I always remember the extraordinary hospitality of the Western Australian people. I don’t know whether it was the Housewives’ Association or who, but they in every street, every few hundred yards, there’d be a stall there with refreshments. “Would you like some lunch, Digger? Feel like a snack, Digger?” And

02:24:00:00

then there’d be cars waiting, “Would two or three of you care to spend an evening with us?” In their homes. It was simply impossible to buy a drink at a bar. You walked in and say, “Yes I’ll have a beer please.” Put some – “No. The gentleman along the line wants you to have a drink with him.” Quite remarkable. These were little instances – and yet the same – Perth – if you go there

02:24:30:00

transferred in business you’ve got an apprenticeship to serve. My word, you are one of the wise men from the East until you prove otherwise. Until you are absorbed into the golden West. Yes. But to me I’ll always remember that unbelievable hospitality. But anyway eventually away we went. And we pulled in at Colombo. I remember that was a garrison

02:25:00:00

of British troops there. It was a British regimental sergeant major told us about the sights of the place. We had a days leave. I had a ride in a rickshaw. Cobber, I. We went and had some curry I remember, which was hotter than I’d ever tasted before. And on we went.
What were your first impressions of Colombo? I mean, you were a boy from South Australia, you hadn’t been overseas …
I thought it was very exotic. I mean, all these palm trees.

02:25:30:00

And where we paraded was called Galle Face Green. Apart from the heat it looked frightfully, frightfully British to me. There was a sort of, one felt one had to be really pukka [colonial Indian term for ‘Master’] old chap. So really that’s the only time I visited what is now

02:26:00:00

Sri Lanka. It was Ceylon then. So it was all adventure. Strange places and so forth. All a bit glam. And so we eventually then our first next sight of land was the Red Sea, the Straits of Bab-Al-Mandab

02:26:30:00

I think. You could see coast on either side. Eritrea’s one side and Yemen the other side. So up we sailed and we got to – no I can’t – it wasn’t Port Taufiq, but right up at the entrance to the Suez Canal – El Qantara on the eastern side.

02:27:00:00

What is the name of that desert there?
Sahara?
No, no, no, no on the eastern side [Sinai Desert]. It was fought over by – no, it doesn’t – this is where short term memory –
Is it Syria? Are you talking about Syria?
On the Syrian side, but this is on the Suez Canal. It’s in the Bible. Oh gracious me. This is really

02:27:30:00

dreadful, but you’ll have to put up with a lot of this. There’s things I know I know but can’t express.
We can get back to it later.
Anyway it’s all desert until you get up to Gaza. There’s town, quite a famous

02:28:00:00

city right out in the middle of it. Beersheba. The Light Horse made the last cavalry charge in British military history. They charged using their bayonets as swords. They charged the Turks past Beersheba. Anyway there were put on a train and next thing we knew we were up in Palestine and we marched from a railway station

02:28:30:00

out to a little village – little Arab village called Dimra and there we got on with advanced training, training for the desert. Of course, you see the previous December and January Australian troops – the 2/6th Battalion – had been engaged chasing the Italians back out of –

02:29:00:00

The Italians had advanced into Egypt as far as Sidi Barrani and our troops were the spearhead that drove them out of Egypt way back along the North African coast out through Bardia, Tobruk, Derna, to Ben Ghazi and all the way to the border with Tripolitania. Libya being two states, Tripolitania –

02:29:30:00

there’s another mental block. We won’t worry about it. Just dreadful today. And so we knew – And then of course that was about the time that started about the time we arrived in Dimra. That was a great encouragement to us that our blokes had been

02:30:00:00

been successful in action. The fact that the Italians offered practically no resistance, well we didn’t want to know about that.
What sort of training were you doing for the desert?
Manoeuvres, all that sort of thing. How a company battalion, brigade, company, manoeuvres and so forth. Rifle exercises and all that sort of thing.

02:30:30:00

All the things that training involves. Endurance things, building up real physical fitness, that sort of thing. But that was December 1940 and then at the end of January 1941 I was transferred allegedly temporarily – they called in temporary secondment – to nearby Corps Headquarters.

02:31:00:00

Duties as it turned out, correcting maps. You can understand that the existing military maps of the what we called the Western Desert – and yes, the other province of Libya, Cyrenaica, of course. That also occurs in the Bible. The maps –

02:31:30:00

well there wasn’t really much to map really. It was pretty flat. It wasn’t a sandy desert that northern coast. It was stony, pebbles and outcrops of rock and pretty rough stuff. But there were these coastal towns were quite pretty. Indeed, Mersa Matruh, which was the British headquarters at the start of the thing, that is now an expensive beachside

02:32:00:00

seaside resort. They tell me it’s a very expensive place, but I remember it as a fairly dowdy little outfit. But all those places now are – but the mapping really I was attached to a captain there. I don’t know, with a little

02:32:30:00

Chev utility. I think he was a licensed surveyor in civil life. I can’t remember him ever very much surveying equipment. But we drove all over this stony desert. Every little rise or fall was significant because it was a matter of cover. If you’re

02:33:00:00

taking cover even a rise of five or six feet is important. And this is what we were mainly doing. I was there mainly I think my intervention was mainly as a driver as I remember it. But I think I did some figuring too. I have a vague memory anyway. This chap was a wild man. I don’t think a lot of the time –

02:33:30:00

we were well out away from the coast – I don’t think he knew sometimes whether we were out flanking the enemy or not. I don’t really. But then of course enter Rommel, the position to which our troops had advanced at Ajdabiya was getting bombed.

02:34:00:00

These Stukas were coming over. The Luftwaffe was there. But as this happened of course we knew that the Germans were amassing troops on the Greek front here with Bulgaria. And Churchill was determined that we would keep faith with the Greeks. That they were the last toehold of freedom – with Yugoslavia –

02:34:30:00

the last bit of Europe pretty well that Hitler didn’t have under his authority. So we were quite hurriedly withdrawn, Corps Headquarters along with the 6th Division. We were pulled out and sent over to Greece which wasn’t far. Alexandria, just pass by Crete and well landed at Piraeus.

02:35:00:00

And given a frenetic welcome by the Greeks. They really gave us an enormous welcome. We let them down very badly although not that badly. We were only there to fulfil a pledge. I didn’t know the full story at the time, but I just knew what the German tactics were and I just knew that two divisions

02:35:30:00

of infantry, the New Zealand 1st Division, our 6th Division, some British artillery and ancillary troops and so forth, some clapped out tanks from the desert – very few of them – no air force. Common sense said that this was the King’s horses, the King’s men, marched up the hill and they marched back again. Except that

02:36:00:00

we were going to be pushed back. But anyway with this Chev ute we got pretty well near to the Greek front out then he invaded first of all Yugoslavia. Well Yugoslavia, that was a joke. I mean, there was no cohesion. There were six different countries melded in unwillingly into a federation and it just fell over like a pack of cards.

02:36:30:00

Then of course came the Germans were able to advance, not only through Bulgaria, but through Yugoslavia.
So where were you positioned? Were you right on the border at this stage?
I had been up there. But as of course once the Germans attacked the Corps Headquarters was naturally withdrawn some distance from the front line. You don’t have your Corps Headquarters right at the front line. You’re asking for trouble if you do.

02:37:00:00

But Ronte and I went back there in seventy-two. We had a look over the place. But it was a rabble. We were defeated from the air, we were defeated by tanks. We left the coastline, a road down the coast because it was boggy and allegedly impassable to tanks, but nobody told the German tank commanders that was so and they got through all right. We put up a defence at the

02:37:30:00

mountains, but it was never a hope. We were just bombed out of it. You see, they had soldiers had been training for six and seven years. They were old sweats. They’d rampaged over Europe. Anyway I got down

02:38:00:00

to the coast at Corinth. I knew that Athens had already fallen. I had to get down to the coast somewhere about Corinth – you know Corinth is an isthmus, just a little neck of land joining it to the Peloponnese Peninsula in Greece. I knew the

02:38:30:00

lay of the land, but when we got down there by that time a wounded Australian, a lame Australian had latched himself onto me. This was really one of the odd bits of bad luck. I don’t know that I’d have done any better without him, but he was certainly no help. He was of French extraction – surname was Reynard – Reynard Fox.

02:39:00:00

Gaston. Gaston Reynard. He was French extraction but he was in the Australian Army. He’d enlisted in Australia. But somehow or another he got injured in a bombing raid in London. And how the blazes he got into active service in Greece I’ll never know. But anyway we got along and we just in the fading light of the evening as we got to the Corinth Canal there was a bridge over it.

02:39:30:00

Down over flew some nice big German Pasture planes and dropped a company of parachutists to seize the bridge. So we weren’t going to get over that bridge, were we? But what we did, when it got nice and dark I went down and walked up and down this canal and at long last

02:40:00:00

we found a dinghy and we rowed across. Will it got out of the canal. It was coastline actually. We got across the canal and the paratroops, nobody followed them up. They were just holding the bridge. So we were able to get around them.
Interviewee: Ralph Churches Archive ID 1094 Tape 03

03:00:39:00

So Ralph, just going back in time a little bit to a few details, your time in Palestine, at that point in time what did you and your fellow soldiers know about what was going on in Europe?
Oh we were well informed, quite well informed

03:01:00:00

but – you know about the – well there wasn’t much doing in Europe at no help in sight but Britain just had herself and her dominions, loyal dominions I might say, and that was all. Russia was all sewn up,

03:01:30:00

the Yanks were still very, very neutral, I mean Roosevelt was doing his best to nudge them along but they weren’t being nudged along. Their war hero Charles Limburg was, thought Hitler was hot stuff. Well as I would tell any Yank that wants to get big about how they won war, I said “Yeah, you were Pearl Harboured into it, weren’t you.”

03:02:00:00

Also Rommel was advancing through the desert?
Oh well that is – oh yes – well that was of course – that didn’t happen while I was training in Palestine, they knew the British were in the Issenent [?] and then of course I was transferred to Corp Headquarters and we were away practically straight away. We went up to the desert following the advances

03:02:30:00

of the British Forces. I don’t know whether they were called the 8th Army then, they became the 8th Army. And they were, the commander in chief was a brilliant – I think a lieutenant general by the name of O’Connor, General O’Connor. Subsequently, when Rommel hit back, O’Connor was captured. He was trapped on a side road.
So where were you going, you were behind the British troops going up towards

03:03:00:00

Syria or?
Yes, no, no, no, no along the north – westward along the north coast of Africa. That’s where the action – of course I forget you’re so young – yes of course you wouldn’t have a clue.
So you’re going westward…
What I suppose, what 1970 vintage or something like that, yes. Oh the war was a long, long way off, yes. Yes, I’ve been a little unmindful of that, that you simply just don’t know things that I

03:03:30:00

take for granted. No you see, we should have a – well you should have a map and could go on television. See you’ve got to get the picture. This internal sea, the Mediterranean, middle of the land sea, far and west end Gibraltar, east end you’ve got the Levant that’s in what we used to call Palestine, Syria,

03:04:00:00

Lebanon and so on, that – a straight strip of country at the far end and just round the south east corner is the Suez Canal, just round the south east corner is this strategic dynamite. Without the Suez Canal, Britain was in a hopeless position. She was to get to India round the Cape, I mean, well for awhile

03:04:30:00

she just had to do that when the Canal was under threat from the air, the Germans got close enough to be able to bring their air force to bear. So you’ve got to imagine then this coastline, North Africa goes roughly west – westward, you got – until you get to the Libyan border you’ve got Egyptian territory which is – Egypt is purely

03:05:00:00

the Nile Valley the rest of it is useless, hopeless you know it wouldn’t grow feathers on a chook, you know it’s so hopeless. So you’ve got an – I can’t think in miles probably – from Alexandria – Alexandria to the border I would think something like 150 miles and hen you get into the Province of Cyrenaica, Libya has two provinces, Tripolitania with a capital

03:05:30:00

Tripoli, and Cyrenaica had a capital Benghazi. So Cyrenaica abuts on to Egypt and this north coast – actually there’s a plateau of land juts into the Mediterranean in an area between the towns of Barce and Benghazi. Benghazi we might –

03:06:00:00

when I was there was a city of about 40,000 people. But the area, there’s this a bit of a bulge of Africa, bulges out into the Mediterranean and it’s quite fertile country. Oh the Italians, Mussolini made quite a colony of it. There were Italian farmers there growing mainly fruit, vegetables, grain crops. Quite an area of land there. It was so strange, it was a higher country

03:06:30:00

a bit higher country, I recall but then all of a sudden it stopped and you were down among the stones and rubble, dirt and dust of the Sahara country. But that’s the picture you’ve got to get. Now, you go up along that butt end to Turk, up there you’ve got what, you’ve you got this Sinai

03:07:00:00

Desert, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria then you hit Turkey. Turkey, the biggest part of Turkey of course is part of Asia. Then you turn corner and then you hit – in European Turkey and then you’re into Greece and so you’re on the northern Mediterranean, you’re on Greece what was Yugoslavia, Italy, France Spain and that’s your picture

03:07:30:00

of North Africa.
So when you were in Palestine…
Yes.
What were you duties at that time? What were the Australian troops doing at that time?
Well we were vigorously training, might be – we might just have platoon exercises, a platoon is 3 Sections of 10 men each. A platoon with a lieutenant as a commander, might just be out doing platoon exercise or

03:08:00:00

3 of the – 3 platoons to a company, roughly a 100 men, you might be doing company exercises. Or you might even be the whole battalion, battalion exercise. Or you might join up with your fellow battalions, the other 2 battalions and have a brigade exercise. I think, I can only recall one of those.

03:08:30:00

But they were well scripted exercises with assumptions of what – of where the enemy was and so forth. I… I don’t… I don’t know you know just helpful these exercises were but that’s – we were all quite I think keen and conscientious about it…
Did you engage the enemy in that period of time?

03:09:00:00

Oh no, no, no. No, I never – well actually I never fronted the enemy until I was looking down the barrel of two – the barrels of two Spicer sub machine guns. We knew about – when we were dashing about North Africa with this chap, with this bloke – with this captain in the ute, we started to hear

03:09:30:00

of our troops being bombed – bombed by the Luftwaffe [German Air Force] and a General called Rommel had arrived at the – no longer just the Italians who were a bit of joke and mind you I’m disparaging the Italians at all, they were very common sense fellows. They – we talked – well I talked to – there were literally hundreds of thousands of Italians

03:10:00:00

they just wouldn’t fight. Actually their officers, a lot of them could speak very good English, “Well look if you want to scrap over these rocks and rubble here, be my guest. But you know, I’ve got Mum and the kids home and we’re not interested. I mean we know you’re civilised people, we’ll get back after the war, but we’re not fighting. It’s Mussolini’s idea and we’d – ” I have no doubt –
These are stories you’d heard about the Italians?
Oh well, darling,

03:10:30:00

I hadn’t heard, I was there, they were there back in cages back in Egypt. I mean, or even not even in Egypt, not even in the civilised part of Egypt throughout the Desert we had them in cages. They were quite a problem.
Sorry, Ralph, we’ve just got a camera problem.
Oh am I messing up again, am I?
No, no...

03:11:00:00

Just lighting – sorry still recording…
No I don’t know how many, I would say we would have a least – we had 200,000 Italian prisoners and fortunately you see and sure they had their stores, we would’ve captured their stores

03:11:30:00

but we had to beat the – beat the Arabs to it. The Arabs, they were dread… well in those circumstances they didn’t consider – they didn’t consider it thieving. Well consider it dishonest, they had to live and there was all this material obviously more than we needed and … but it was quite a quarter mastering problem

03:12:00:00

to feed a couple hundred thousand which we were duty bound to do. Either that or turn them loose.
So you used to talk to the Italians?
Oh I got – yes, I got – I on one occasion got to talk with a group of these prisoners, yeah. They were doing earth works or something like that, keep them occupied. Think – I wouldn’t doubt that they were digging up the desert – digging a trench in the desert and another lot

03:12:30:00

filling it in just to keep them occupied. But I remember yes, talking to Italian, I think lieutenant or captain something like that and that was a general sentiment. You know we will live to get home to ‘Mamma and the Bambinos,’ yeah. And, I you know, a lot, I think our old – my old mates think of the Italians as cowards, I don’t. I have no doubt about it, I think if they were fighting for the defence of their

03:13:00:00

homeland, I’m sure well actually some of their professionals, really well known Regiments Berseliria and a few of those they could fight as well as any German could. And… we… but as I say, all we heard that there was this man Rommel who had been the genius behind the break through into France, was now – they had formed a special

03:13:30:00

unit, the Afrika Korps and Rommel was the head of it. And that indeed, some of our forward troops – forward bases were getting bombed but no sooner that happened and we were off to Greece.
And also what did the troops know if anything, of what was happening to the Jewish people in Europe? Was there any information coming out?
Not that I recall,

03:14:00:00

not that I recall, no. Before, like well… well before the war I mean there were Jews fleeing from Hitler. I mean France and Britain were full of them and of course with a big Jewish influence in America, a lot of them got to America. Strangely enough, one shipload of them from Hamburg were shipped across the Atlantic to land

03:14:30:00

in America and the Yanks refused to receive them. So the Jewish influence, the strong Jewish influence failed to operate or something and eventually they found themselves back at Hamburg, meat and drink for Adolph Hitler – that was very tragic. But no we didn’t – no I don’t think it was a big item, it was more what was happening in North Africa that was close to us – we were following that and of course

03:15:00:00

radio was in its hay day those days I mean although you didn’t have satellites and all that sort of thing. The listening in, in Australia from – to London was still a bit static-y and sometimes was impossible. But, no, radio was – I mean there was plenty radio news.
Did you have anything to do with the French Foreign Legion?
No, no never had

03:15:30:00

any association with the French ‘til later on in the story. But then as I say, over to Greece in the ship, a bonny ship called the Edinburgh Castle. And landed as I say at – in Athens, we were marched and parade down their main streets and that sort of thing – cheering crows and all that sort of –
Was that a dangerous trip, sailing over to – ?
Oddly enough, yes,

03:16:00:00

it had quite a lot of danger because you’re fairly – if you look at a map, you’re fairly close to a big Italian naval base at Taranto. It wouldn’t have been more than a couple hundred miles distance. Now, but of course the British Navy, their Mediterranean fleet was always kept fairly strong but of course… the Mediterranean was that full of submarines from both sides, they –

03:16:30:00

wonder they didn’t have collisions underwater. It was hunting ground for subs you see. But, anyway, the Italian fleet did come out to chop – they knew these troop ships were making for Greece and they did come out to – you know for a kill but the British fleet out of Alexandria, oh, gave them a thrashing.
So this was

03:17:00:00

before you set sail?
No, just – we had already got to Greece but I had only been I think about the same – the night of the same day that I set foot in Greece this sea battle took place because the little bits of Greek I can remember was a – was a naval battle anyway there was a Greek word for it, was stolos and they –

03:17:30:00

Greeks gave us a resounding welcome and of course then this sea battle happened and what was left of that section of the Italian Navy limped back to port at Taranto. Actually our… ill fated cruiser the Sydney was in that battle. Yes, the Australian cruiser the Sydney took part in the battle.
But you had no incident on your way to Piraeus from Alexandria on the boat – on the ship that you were on?
No, no, no

03:18:00:00

no, we didn’t expect to of course we believed in the magic of the Royal Navy, I mean that was a – Brits didn’t have any great reputation as soldiers but by Joe, as sailors they were unmatched. And no, never crossed our – no not at all.
So you get to Athens and the Greek people welcome you…?
Yes, yes and we’re there and then oh I think we were in Athens –

03:18:30:00

we were camped at a suburb, well a very thinly populated suburb called Glyfada, it is now a very fashionable suburb of Greece and it’s got a beautiful 18 hole Golf links. Where our tents – we were living in tents but we had leave and yes, the Greek were very hospitable so…
I must’ve been quite different from your time in Palestine so

03:19:00:00

what were you first impressions of Greece?
Actually Greece in a lot of ways was not much different from North Africa. It’s a pretty arid, rocky, ancient sort of a countryside. In its own austere way it could be very beautiful. You see even down the Peloponnesus Peninsula,

03:19:30:00

you’ve got snow capped mountains that are snow capped all the year round. Olympus up the north of Greece of course that’s one of the great famous mountains of Greece. Greece is not a very fertile country, shall we say – shall we use the word ‘doer’ and the Greeks have learned to live with it. They get a living out

03:20:00:00

of it and, but they grow desert things like grapes. They make wine and so forth, things that – olives, that sort of thing. And they’re river valleys, valleys that rise and mountains further into Europe flow down to the sea there well along those river valleys there are fertile plains where they grow most of their food stuff. And of course they’re always great fishermen.

03:20:30:00

They are noted sailors, good sailors and so forth but no, as I saw the Greeks, I like them. I was – and of course being thinking of myself as a scholar I always had a bit of a yen for Greek mythology and so forth so I was able to sort of blend in a bit with their mythology which to some extent

03:21:00:00

they still respect. What I didn’t understand of course, was the spoken Greek of today, is as far removed from the capital – classical Greek is pretty well a foreign language. But the trick is, that’s the way it’s spoken

03:21:30:00

a literate Greek today he can still read Classical Greek and understand it but if spoken, if it was spoken he wouldn’t. It’s a bit like Italian and Latin. It’s a lesser divergence, I mean modern Italian scarcely relates to Latin at all, it’s a bit of a broad way but the two Greek languages their alphabets have survived.

03:22:00:00

And, but even Greek – Modern Greek, well it’s like English it’s changing all the time you know.
Were you able to converse in Greek at all?
Oh, what I was orig – oh yes, I wasn’t bad at it. There were plenty of bookshops there where you could buy Greek-English, English-Greek dictionaries. But the thing was of course, I didn’t want the Greek in their Greek alphabet, Cyrillic alphabet,

03:22:30:00

so I was able to find places where they did it phonetically. And so I did quite well – one of the things I can remember, kalimera was ‘good morning’ and kalispera was ‘good evening’ I used to – just as an aside, it’s one of my habits when I travel overseas before I enter any country I make sure that I can say good morning, good afternoon, goodbye,

03:23:00:00

excuse me, and count up to ten. That’s please and thank you and count up – that’s excuse me and count up to ten, I find it makes life very easy, much easier than it would otherwise be. You don’t have to do it in Europe now because practically every country in Europe teaches English as a second language so there we are. But no the Greek people – and I – from memory think we were there a best part of a week. Quite a time, I remember I got quite familiar with

03:23:30:00

Athens, I – when I went back in 1972, the place seemed to be quite a few modern commercial buildings but there was still these ballet skirted Evzones standing guard at the President’s quarters and one thing and another.
It must’ve been very impressive as a young – to have been such a young man and to have seen the Acropolis for the first time?
Oh yes, yes I loved that, loved that.

03:24:00:00

It’s really it’s in the course of modern industrial Athens, it’s absolutely poisoning the thing. It was in reasonable shape when I say it. In 1972 it was reasonably restricted but I was able to show Ronte round but now I don’t believe you’re allowed up in the Acropolis at all the smoke and industrial acid and so forth is really knocking the thing down.
That wasn’t the case when you first saw it?
Oh no, no,

03:24:30:00

you thought you know cuss the silly sods that you know using it as a powder magazine in one of their wars with the Greeks and that’s – today – or the 1940s, had it not been for the war 400 years before when it was used as a munitions magazine, got blown up, that was so perfectly built it would’ve been pristine. It’s a beautiful – it really is –

03:25:00:00

the Parthenon and the various other classical monuments they’re a joy, as I saw them, they were – I believe they’re sort of being propped up now, things are different but anyway we…
You had a week in Athens to explore about –
Yeah I think – from memory that is – yes we got on quite good terms there but then we were put on the train and the train took us up

03:25:30:00

to… to a town, yes… Elasson, Elasson yes. And, then we went by trucks out, right out, the foot of Mount Olympus to a little village called Gerania, ‘Gerania’ –

03:26:00:00

just spelt like our geranium, Gerania, I remember it well. And it had a little church, it was only a little scatter of a village, and it had a little church there it wasn’t the classical Orthodox Church just looked like one of our village church buildings. It was mostly – but it did have a tower on it and I was fascinated because on top of that tower there were two stalks,

03:26:30:00

a pair of storks had their nest. And the old – and the father stork would go hunting and when he flew in with some food, the mother would stand up in the next and with her bill ‘clap clap clap clap clap clap clap’ saying thank you to the boss boy. And eventually yes, little heads popped up over the top and I was fascinated by this, but of course it’s a sign of good luck to a

03:27:00:00

village if a stork – it was right through Europe it was very lucky if a stork built a nest in your village.
How long were you in that village?
I think – I think perhaps a week – from there that I – we made with this captain with this Chev ute we made forays up into the country were our fighting divisions were to be implanted.

03:27:30:00

That’s all very vague to me now, I just remember names, there was a –
You were going up with him in the ute to map the area before – ?
Well correct maps, more or less to check – we didn’t do much mapping it was correcting. I think with the Egyptian maps of the Western Desert they were reasonable but they didn’t quite show the detail we wanted. And, so I remember, I remember a rugged place the Serbia Pass,

03:28:00:00

oh place right on the border but we were only there an hour or so and then we’d be off somewhere else and then of course, came the deluge and we – we moved back to Gerania and our Headquarters moved back to Elasson where we were – from thereon it was – the retreat speeded up.

03:28:30:00

We were at Elasson probably 2 or 3 days, then we pulled back to Larissa which was quite a big inland town. Larissa, but everyday I think headquarters seemed to be on the move and we weren’t doing much surveying at all if any, I don’t really remember it seemed the panic was on.
So the troops hadn’t even had a chance to come through?
Oh the troops were well and truly there. Oh yes, the Germans took a

03:29:00:00

hell of a lot of our blokes prisoner up there. Look I’m sorry, but I’m not getting you in the picture at all.
Yes you are –
I mean, we couldn’t have been up there with the Chev ute if we didn’t – hadn’t had a screen of infantry in front of us. Infantry and artillery of course they were up there – up there but we were there obviously surveying full back positions for them. But, but of course the whole thing was quite hopeless they

03:29:30:00

had – I think they had 2 armoured divisions, I don’t know how many infantry divisions they had but I think they had 2 armoured divisions. We had one brigade of worn out tanks. They had, oh you name it, in the way of aircraft and numbers but we didn’t. I never saw one British aircraft the whole time I was in Greece, no. So, gradually over – then you saw – on our

03:30:00:00

left, you see the Greek Army was on our left. They had been successfully fighting the Italians, very successfully fighting the Italians on the Albanian front but they just couldn’t cope with the Germans so they just requested the British to withdraw their forces.
Just so I am getting the picture clearly, you’ve got the Greeks fighting on the left front in Albania.
Yes.
You’ve got Australian troops who were –

03:30:30:00

Australian and British, yes.
– up north, in the northern part of Greece up near the border of Yugoslavia?
Yes, and Bulgaria mainly.
And Bulgaria.
You see you’ve got to realise there’s a great salient where the second city in Greece, Thessaloniki, ‘Thessa-lon- iki’ as they call it, we call it Salonika, there’s a salient goes right round the corner, there’s a bit of Greece,

03:31:00:00

a narrow band of Greece stretches along the Aegean coast, east of the main part of Greece and that borders on Bulgaria, you see and that’s where he had unlimited troops. And the Yugoslav that was more modern because he hadn’t had Yugoslavia in his possession until March, and we were (talk UNCLEAR) – about April.

03:31:30:00

I vividly remember in this – , that’s right I was no longer with the bloke in the ute, I was just a sort of an orderly running messages and I was – oh it must’ve been 2 o’clock in the morning. I had to – I was called to take a message, a written signal from the intelligence section to the

03:32:00:00

divisional brigadier who was really in charge of the operations. I must’ve – and I realised now I was carrying this order that we were evacuating. And I remember it was the 25th of April, would you believe and for the first time in my life I heard a cuckoo sing, “Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo,”

03:32:30:00

and I remember it was – so then everything seemed to disappear. I mean it just – the day I woke up there was a sergeant major he said, “You’ll have to be on security duty, name two other blokes,” and every time we left a camp site there had be people going around making sure there were was no documents,

03:33:00:00

no papers, no anything, no intelligence, left around, so I was nominated for that. And I realised then that there was nobody left. So all I could do was walk out on the main road and flag the first friendly car I saw. And it was a major with his orderly or something, so he said – so there was two of us – “Leap on,” he said “you’d better stand,” – in those days cars still had running boards, “stand there as

03:33:30:00

air sentries because,” he said, “we’re likely to get,” you know he said, “the road’ll come under attack.” Well of course it had been under attack. There were bomb craters – you didn’t have to look very far, bomb craters alongside the road, all over the place. And sure enough we hadn’t gone very far and it was evening time and there was the old saying, beware the Hun in the Sun and in no time over came a Mess – [Messerschmitt] didn’t know he was there

03:34:00:00

until bang, bang, bang he was firing – firing from his aircraft and shooting the place up. Well the only thing to do was jump out of the car and take shelter. Well I’ll never forget, I jumped into this bomb crater and it was of recent manufacture. Very, very recent, it was as hot as an oven, it was burning hot, it really was. And so off went this aircraft, did

03:34:30:00

a circuit and of course he knew where the refugees’d be. They’d be in bomb craters. So there he was going up and down machine gunning these bomb craters. He was just missing me a bit because what he was doing was hitting clops of earth, big hard clops of earth and there’s all this stuff coming down on me. But I could hear this ‘zit, zit, zit zit, chit chit’,

03:35:00:00

I was frightened. It took me awhile, what the hell is going on here, there was dirt showering all over me, it’s not a bomb no it’s a damn machine gun. And, it’s a funny thing you know I couldn’t help thinking back to my farm days when we used to go out shooting rabbits with little .22 rifles, shooting rabbits, for their skins and for sport

03:35:30:00

and so forth cause they were verminous you see. This is your punishment for all those poor little bunnies you knocked off just for fun well he’s having fun with you so… And, but…
Did you think your number was up?
No actually, I was always an optimist, I was frightened but somehow or other no, no. The Lone Star over there I was always going to get back to her. Oh yes. There

03:36:00:00

was one exception though, I’ll come to that later. And…
So you’ve been machine gunned, you’re hiding in the crater – ?
Yes, they flew away, I mean they couldn’t stay in the air very long these Messerschmitts, about you know by the time the left base and so forth well perhaps quarter an hour before – I think they only had – could only carry enough fuel for about half an hour in the air. So he flew off and we got back to the car which fortunately was undamaged and away we went again but this sort of thing

03:36:30:00

repeated itself day after day and we’d catch up then…
Ralph where were the – just so I’m clear again, did troops pass you coming back through?
Oh of course the infantry, what was left of them, they had priority they moved down past through us yes, oh yes, well that’s only common sense. These highly trained – now they’d been in the desert so they were war hardened soldiers, too

03:37:00:00

valuable, they had priority. The Germans captured quite a few of them. I was in prison with quite a number of them but the working bulk of them yes they came, retreated through us in trucks.
What state were they in?
Alright, well they were breathing, you know – I mean what do you mean what state were they in?
Well I mean were there a lot of injuries, a lot of wounded?
I didn’t – I didn’t do a census dear, I didn’t have time.

03:37:30:00

I didn’t, no, I wouldn’t have a clue. Never got to talk to them, I actually never saw, it was done at night, but we just knew our front line infantry and artillery had moved down through us, no. You obviously have – can’t have any idea how war functions. No, no there was no time for pleasant chatter or anything like that, ‘how’re going mate’ or anything like that, no.

03:38:00:00

And so by succession then we started picking up the trucks and things and to our regret what we did as we left a site, left our supply dumps, we just divided the Greeks and help yourself, which they duly did, they had a field day. And we – catch trucks where we could you know

03:38:30:00

I don’t know it was – came to a township I think it was Lebadea, yeah Lebadea, I think, I think it was there I picked up this Lane Bridge fellow and anyway there wasn’t a great deal of traffic and I know walking, walking, walking, we walked and walked and walked and walked and this chap slowed me

03:39:00:00

down but eventually somewhere I called in I found that Athens had fallen – the Germans had – and I was still – according to my reckoning, I did have a map, according to my reckoning I was still 10 miles short of Corinth. A fairly well wooded country actually but anyway we staggered along and we managed to, well

03:39:30:00

I seem to recall in my haversack I had some iron ration and some bully beef and biscuits and managed to survive somehow and I think as I told you earlier, we came to the Corinth Canal but of course that’s steep sided concreted and so we had to walk westward. The parachutists had taken the bridge so there was no way were going to get across the canal by the bridge so we had to – and that’s right

03:40:00:00

this is where we got up to earlier on, isn’t it, yes. We outflanked, this chap and I, we outflanked the parachutists, they just stayed there to hold the bridge ‘til their troops came up and they hadn’t arrived. And eventually we caught up with a British signals unit and hey were – we were able to get a feed there – just as a side, the

03:40:30:00

large gap between an officer and putatively a gentleman and his troops in the British Army was still that wide. I’ll guarantee he wasn’t more than 18 years old, one pip lieutenant, but he was away at least 25 yards or more, oh yes, much more than that, from his troops

03:41:00:00

eating the meal that his batman had prepared for him. The troops – it sort – the egalitarian…
Just leave that there Ralph, sorry we’ll pick that up on the next tape – sorry we’ve just run out of tape.
Interviewee: Ralph Churches Archive ID 1094 Tape 04

04:00:41:00

So can you tell us about – we’ll take it from where you having food.
Yes, that’s right, I got a meal from these British signalmen but with my lame mate, the going was a bit slower so we pressed on and

04:01:00:00

got on – went on and we were informed that somewhere or other – I think it must’ve been an English speaking Greek told us that they were evacuating people from a little fishing port called Tolos, on the – near the top of the Gulf, I think it’s the Gulf of Tolos from memory, no the Gulf of Nafplion because that’s right there was the town Nafplion

04:01:30:00

and then there was the old historic town of Argos and then just on the eastern side of the Gulf of Nafplion was this little fishing village of Tolos. So we got there and we found an English speaking Greek, I think he was a chemist or something in the town, I don’t know, and sure enough there was a destroyer came in. It had to wait till it was quite dark, I mean they couldn’t risk ships, undefended

04:02:00:00

from the air you see, and so they were evacuating people, probably people that they found of some importance because it was limited the number that this destroyer could take and it had to be out past Crete by 3 o’clock in the morning. So it had to be a speedy affair. Well I was there with this lame mate of mine, well I wasn’t, there wasn’t a hope, there just wasn’t a hope

04:02:30:00

of getting, we got in the queue to get down but it seemed no time at all the destroyer gave three whoops and away it went. And that was the last evacuation at that point. So –
Sorry Ralph to interrupt, but do you remember roughly how many people –
No it was never a goer.
So you think they were either officers or?
I don’t know dear.
No idea.
This dreadful pronoun, ‘they’ this vague ‘they’ who are ‘they’?
Who was

04:03:00:00

selecting…
I don’t know, wouldn’t have a clue, I don’t even know that it was selective that’s only just a dopey idea that I conceived myself, you know, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. No, it was – no I wouldn’t – what just went on I know there was a destroyer there and it wasn’t there for very long and having loaded up, whether it was just – they filled the – just everything – very honestly

04:03:30:00

first man in so forth, well that was the case, I don’t know. But I would not be surprised to know that there was not a superior officer there on the gangplank weeding about. As I say, I don’t know but I wouldn’t be surprised because the accommodation was limited. And so, we – by next – by the next morning there

04:04:00:00

were German spotter planes overhead and my Greek informant was able to tell me that German – strong German troops had now crossed the bridge, come over the bridge of the Canal and was nothing to stop and we could expect them in Tolos any time but nothing had turned

04:04:30:00

up by the following day. These dates, it’s right at the end of April, probably April the 30th of something like that. So we waited out that day again this time more dive bombers flying over looking for targets but weren’t finding any, they didn’t drop anything. So that was

04:05:00:00

that day, nothing happened it just passed idly but next morning right we knew it was fair dinkum, with first light Germans were on the outskirts of the village. So I got my lame mate and went down to the shore and picked up a rather heavy dinghy with a couple of oars in it, loaded in my board and I was just pushing it into the water

04:05:30:00

when another two Australians, a lieutenant and a private like myself came along and asked you know – we were just pushing off and a New Zealander turned up and he got on board. I must say, although at that stage, I wasn’t wearing any badge of rank I had actually been given a promotion

04:06:00:00

of one stripe, lance corporal. Somewhere along the line – but the promotion never got out of Greece, it was never official so actually I was – the time I was a prisoner of war I was still Private Ralph Churches, but there I was – because I’d never put – I was too busy ever to put the stripe up, I didn’t have it on my arm. It was, actually I found the stripes months later in great coat pocket.

04:06:30:00

And then I put them up. But anyway, we pushed out into the Gulf and just offshore was, oh a couple hundred metres, there was an island so we got in the lee of this island and pulled into the rocks there. Took of our shirts and just had underclothes on and hope that the Germans spot us would just think we were Greek fishermen which must’ve worked, because as soon as nightfall

04:07:00:00

came – and by now the twilight was getting longer, it was later, the sun went down later, and so the twilight was longer so we had to wait that much longer, so we rowed out into the main Gulf into the water and down the – what was the east coast of the Peloponnesian Peninsula. And fortunately the

04:07:30:00

lieutenant, he was a Sydneysider, and like a lot of Sydneysiders he knew how to handle boats and he found that there was some gear in the boat that would step for a mast. And if we got get a mast, but we didn’t have a mast but we did have long oars, they were quite long oars so we used an oar and somehow strung a blanket up to it and there was a northerly breeze and we scudded along and according to my reckoning we

04:08:00:00

must’ve made best part of 60 miles before first light the next day. And by first light inevitably there were the spotter planes out but we had already pulled in to a sandy – rocky sandy cover, hidden the boat, left one man to keep watch and got some rest, we were pretty weary, so we had some rest. But blow me down, we were thinking

04:08:30:00

of getting going again and the guard called out civvies approaching and there were three elderly Greeks and a younger man came down and the younger man spoke to us in English with a broad American accent. He was – this was not unusual they go – these young men, young Greek, go to American make their money

04:09:00:00

and come back and take over the farm from their ageing parents. And that was exactly what was the case in this instance. And he said “What are you trying to do?” And we said “Well we’re trying to get away from the Germans.” And they had a chat about this and said, “Well you’re doing altogether the wrong thing. They’ve got – already got patrol boats out they’ll just pick you up and you know at night they’ll probably shoot you up but you know you won’t get away.”

04:09:30:00

I said “Well what alternative?” Incredibly hospital these Greeks, what they proposed was to take us and hide us up until submarines, you know until the hue and cry died down, six months time submarines could come up and take us off. Now I just couldn’t – I couldn’t believe this, they were sticking their heads in nooses, why should they?

04:10:00:00

Why should they have any concern for us? We were the big deal, we were coming over to stop the Germans and we’d taken the greatest beating of all time but no, I said “Wait a minute, but we don’t speak Greek.” Okay a lot of our lads you know up there in Albania, fighting that and they got stunned and they’re speechless. We’ve got their uniforms, we just dress you up

04:10:30:00

in their uniforms and we just explain to the Germans when he comes around oh yes, he’s one of ours, but he’s dumb, can’t talk. And this was an amazing gesture on their part. And no but see I was married what I would’ve been registered for missing at least six months. Well I didn’t think that was fair on Ronte, I’d take my chance. That was the consensus of all of us except the Kiwi, he took up the bed and whether he got away or not I don’t know,

04:11:00:00

we’ll never know but anyway he took up their offer but as they left they brought down some food for us and food was scarce. I’ll always respect the Greeks, they’re splendid citizens and they’re splendid people, the Greeks, they really are, heroic people and generous people. Would you believe of course the wind had turned round and it was in our faces so out came the oars and of course my lame mate he wasn’t

04:11:30:00

fit for anything so there were three of us to do the rowing. So we out all next night and we pulled into another cove and you wouldn’t want to know the same thing happened as the day before. The offered us accommodation, they left us food but all assured us you’ll never make it. “Where are you going?” “Crete.” “You won’t make it their patrol boats will get you.” I’m a little uncertain in my mind

04:12:00:00

now, I think three nights in a row, three days in a row this happened, they came down and offered us shelter and food. Now for that reason I will always respect the Greek people for what they are, a very valiant and generous people. But anyway we just rowed on each night and what it was doing to our hands, pulling this oars I was just a mass of blisters and

04:12:30:00

yet you still had to grab those oars and row. Quarter of an hour – quarter of an hour on, quarter of an hour off, there was only the three of us. But any we did this for… I think it was six nights – six nights, I remember passing the most southerly town on that coast, it was a place called Monemvasia, it’s quite a tourist resort now I believe

04:13:00:00

and on we went, and of course the fishermen, the Greeks were carrying on with their fishing and they had acetylene lamps fishing and we had to avoid these damn things we couldn’t be – because and they’d shift – we’d hear a motor going chug, chug, I think it was this 5th or 6th night, I just can’t be certain, there was

04:13:30:00

another noise a real sound of a powerful motor boat, we knew what that was, that was a German naval patrol boat, no doubt about it. And we shipped oars of course, and shut up and they must’ve had a loud hailer and over it came and in German – English, “We know where you are, Mr Englishmens, we come and get you soon.”

04:14:00:00

So anyway right on the most southerly point of the Greek mainland, Cape Malea there was just a little cove, we yanked the boat and we were that weary, managed to yank it up on the rocks and so forth, we hoped out of sight. No watch was set, we were all too dogged tired to bother. So I was asleep in an area with the lieutenant and the other two they were a bit of a distance away.

04:14:30:00

And the next thing I knew it was broad daylight and there was somebody, or people yelling, “Up up up, hands up, hands up,” and I looked and there were two very fair headed young gentlemen in German uniform each with a Schmeiser pointed at my navel requesting me to elevate my hands which I did without

04:15:00:00

argument and I had to kick the lieutenant in the ribs, I’ve forgotten his name now, and say, “Wake up mate, the Germans are here,” get up and rubbed – strange thing Greek policemen wear exactly the same colour uniform as the German Army does, field grey, or did, field grey. He looked up,

04:15:30:00

“They’re not Germans, they’re Greek policemen,” I said, “You’ll better get your hands up or they’ll think you’re arguing the point,” I said, “just look at the boots.” There they were with their little calf length jack boots. So he got up and – but it was – it was quite odd his inability although he said he’d be with the infantry right up forehead where they would’ve seen German soldiers that he should’ve mistake them for Greek policemen.

04:16:00:00

Anyway that was that, they other two they were – they’d been captured and then a prissy little – what had happened there was two patrol boats one going south the same as we had and another had come from the east around the cape and that was there rendezvous was the very little inlet where we were. I don’t think it made any difference, mind you, but there it was. And in charge was a prissy little

04:16:30:00

captain, he was about my height, very trim and slim, very neatly tailored uniform and shiny black – black riding boots. And riding breeches all these German officers, that’s the way they dressed. Up he came and of course the German – English, “Ah, so gentlemen, the war for you is over. Yes.” and smiled broadly at us. Didn’t say a word.

04:17:00:00

He said, “You accept that the war is over for you. You are sad, you are sad, yes but we are civilised people the Germans so long as you behave you will be safe.” And in this nasty little voice, “We will send you home to your loved ones.” That’s all I needed – all I needed

04:17:30:00

with my blasted sore hands and my aching back I found a good defensive is to smile so up went the corners of my mouth but I’ll guarantee my eyes must’ve been like gimlets because I was thinking, “You rotten little kraut bastard. If it’s the last thing I do if I only beat you by 24 hours, you will find that the war for Ralph Churches is not over. I will

04:18:00:00

escape.” I’d never considered being a prisoner of war before. I thought, you know, I had a reasonable opinion of myself, I would be a useful soldier as much in all I hated soldiering and violence generally I’d do the job and there I was a captive. So anyway it was all quite civilised they piled us in one of the northward bound patrol boat and took us back to Monemvasia were a truck picked us up

04:18:30:00

and took us to an inland town of… dear me… oh well it’ll come back. The whole area – oh god – disgraceful…

04:19:00:00

Sparta – township of Sparta after all the Peloponnesus were inhabited in clerical times by Spartans and there was this quite sizable market town off Sparta and there in the school upstairs, in the two storey school building were other stragglers and prisoners so we were taken then of given a reasonable feed. Oh you reasonable –

04:19:30:00

I mean no strike against the Germans it was as comfortable as one could possibly hope. But then the next day, we were piled into trucks and driven over – Greek roads weren’t all that crash hot, in very little – very few Greek roads were sealed in 1941. I might add, and of course these roads had been hit by heavy evacuating traffic. The main

04:20:00:00

evacuation had taken place at the southerly point of Kalamata and that was a general surrender of some 6 or 7 thousand of our troops, that’d taken place 2 or 3 days earlier. So this track was pretty rough, very rough and so we bumped along crowded and we were pretty crowded, I think there were 2 trucks we were pretty crowded

04:20:30:00

and they took us all the way back to Corinth and there they had it wasn’t a camp, it was a cage, a barbed wire cage holding all these – some I suppose in total probably 6 or 7 thousand people. Australians, New Zealanders, British and for some reason or other quite a lot of Palestinians – of course Pales…

04:21:00:00

oh Palestinians and Cyprians, of course Cyprus was still part of the British Empire at that stage and Palestine was a mandated territory from the – so we enlisted troops there but – that was really, really horrible. We were there I think must’ve been 5 weeks. No probably 4 weeks but it was quite horrible. Because you see

04:21:30:00

we’d shot ourselves in the foot telling the Greeks to help themselves to our quartermaster supplies. Greeks, Greece was a poor country but continental armies from time immemorial, when you – if you want to eat you advance, you keep advancing and you live off the country and it’s precisely what the Germans did. Well Greece never had any spare food to feed the German

04:22:00:00

Army, but having fed the German Army there was still the Greek civilians to be fed so you just guess how much food there was left for prisoners of war. Zilch, it was really horrible, very disheartening and of course it was while we were there, the thing we never dreamed of the Germans invaded Crete by air, by parachute. And there were these great

04:22:30:00

Junkers, aircraft, personnel aircraft passenger, would you call them military passenger aircraft full of paratroopers flying right over our camp. We never dreamt – we were sailing to Crete as a safe haven. So the fighting was pretty bitter, maybe that was a slice of luck that I never made it there. Anyway time came and time went and I though you know I was still

04:23:00:00

in reasonably good nick, I mean I came from good solid stock and a lot of people, a lot of blokes didn’t, well I say a lot, quite a few didn’t make it they just – the trials and tribulations and the rationing was too severe and they just died. But among – we used to get a bit of news how things were because these Cypriots of course they spoke Greek

04:23:30:00

and so they’d hang around as near to the barbed wire as they could get and the Greek peasants working outside, they would yell out the news quite loudly in Greek, and so the Cypriots inside would get what the news was still pretty much British news, it was quite reliable news, so we knew what was going on, it wasn’t good news at

04:24:00:00

all because one thing Tobruk had fallen, we’d – we’d defended Tobruk successfully right, but no, now it had fallen. The German – Rommel had advanced the whole way along the North African coast and driven us back, right back nearly to within 20 miles of Alexandria, about 25 mile to

04:24:30:00

Alamein which you may have heard, and that’s where we were in terrific danger of defeat that had only the siege of Tobruk saved us because we were totally disorganised, we didn’t have much of a reserve line at El Alamein at all, and all our forward troops flopping back in thousands back on to this El Alamein line

04:25:00:00

but the one thing stopping Rommel crashing through to his target, the Suez Canal, was Tobruk. You see he had line of communication. That was the only sea port, there was Benghazi was a sea port that was about 400 miles from Alexandria and the only sea port in between and Benghazi and Alexandria was Tobruk and our

04:25:30:00

chaps holding Tobruk deprived him of a port to get supplies in. He had to bring them by road all the way from Benghazi but we had an aggressive – we had an aggressive siege, we attacked his lines of communication from Tobruk and it was – Rommel he dare not go any further until he took Tobruk and he couldn’t take it. But,

04:26:00:00

the second time around, you see eventually, we strengthened up our forces there in North Africa and drove Rommel back, right back to this Ajdabiya place, drove him back all that length of North African coast, drove him back but he recovered and in no time he made this advance again –

04:26:30:00

no I don’t think Tobruk did fall while we were in – while I was in Greece, no it did – no, I’m going ahead of myself. No, no, this time everything was going the Germans way, they were taking Crete they had driven all the way, driven our troops out of Cyrenaica back to El Alamein line where they were just barely holding on by

04:27:00:00

virtue of holding on to Tobruk but so that was our situation but the time came when we were marched – I think quite a long march, the weather was – you see we had blown up a lot of their railway lines and so forth, there were railway lines snaking north up into Bulgaria so they had to load us on trains,

04:27:30:00

in what they called box cars I think, they weren’t cattle – some of them were cattle trucks but mainly they were these box cars with very little ventilation and so we’d go and journey away with these for awhile and then when break in the line, we’d have to get round and march perhaps a few miles where there’s another rail head, load up again. I don’t know what happened to my lame friend in the midst of all this, we just

04:28:00:00

lost contact, I don’t know – no idea what happened to him, but here another amazing thing happened. The train would have to stop at – or at least it didn’t have to but point of fact it did I suppose because the steam trains taking on water and coal or what have you and at all of these stops there would be Greek women waiting with loads of stuff from their gardens,

04:28:30:00

cabbages, carrots, you name it, and there’d be a German line of guards standing there to stop them getting anywhere near the train and these women would run up – you see the Germans for ventilation they’d open the doors of these vans and these Greek women would race up to the line of bayonets and hurl these vegetables over their heads into these vans.
Very

04:29:00:00

brave.
Yes, see that’s why I have such a respect for Greek people, I love courage. These women were quite remarkable. And – because we were, we’d done them no particular service, I mean good gracious me, we’d let them down but there it was, that was the Greeks very loyal friends. Anyway, eventually this nightmare train journey got us up

04:29:30:00

right up to the north of Greece to their second city we call Salonika, Thessaloniki, and there was another barbed wire cage. Now, that was an unhealthy place to be at, I’d forgotten at the time British soldiers were based there in the latter bit of World War I,

04:30:00:00

and they all came down with all sorts of things but malaria particularly. It was, I believe, I think the marshes around there, I think they’ve probably cleaned it up by now but was still a base for malaria mosquitos. I think they call them the anopheles don’t they, and anyway I came down with a load of real malaria and that’s a ghastly thing, you’re sweating hot one minute

04:30:30:00

and shivering the next, shocking. And I don’t know what else was wrong with me I know it was general dysentery and of course it was totally unhygienic. There was – we weren’t getting a living amount of food of any sort and I think – anyway

04:31:00:00

in the midst of July we were put back on – in trains, mainly box cars, ill ventilated just a little square window hole in the top – one of the top corners to let in air and a nightmare four day journey up into central Europe. It was – it was, I remember, well I remember it and if I ever had nightmares that’s what I would remember because inevitably we were all sick,

04:31:30:00

I mean well most of us were sick, it was totally insanitary as you can imagine and – you – blokes were just gently fading out of the picture. They’d stop at some station somewhere, you didn’t know – I remember stopping at what is now the I think – the railway station of – of various

04:32:00:00

Yugoslav railway stations anyway. Nis I remember was one… and but these stations you’d just unload the dead and away – went on again. I remember at Belgrade the capital of Yugoslavia there was a Red Cross Station there and there Red Cross Station had some poor little things there you know

04:32:30:00

just a gesture of help that was all a gesture of help but anyway that’s my only time in my – I’ve always been an optimist, I’ve always thought positively but I didn’t think I was going to make it. That’s the one and only time I just thought about Ronte, but I was going to get home but would I, I started to have doubts. But fortunately, we eventually arrived at

04:33:00:00

a little city that over the years I got to know very well, called – its proper name now is Maribor but to the Germans it – we were now in country that had originally been part of the Austrian Empire. Could I take you back just a bit in history in 19 – see in World War I, Austria was a big a country as Germany, the only – the big difference

04:33:30:00

was that the Germans in Germany were all Germans. The Austria Empire, on the other hand, there were more Slavs, there were Czech, Slovaks, Slavians, Croatians, Serbs, not Serbs but there were a lot more Slavs in the Austrian Empire than there were German speaking people, so the piece of Varsi, the Austria Empire ceased to exist.

04:34:00:00

They were allowed to retain the German speaking part with their capital in Vienna, but Varsi, at Varsi the American President Wilson, he had this theory that people speaking like languages should form up as nations. So with that Poland was reconstituted, it been a powerful nation, 300 or 400 years before but gradually half of it had been nabbed by Germany and the other half by

04:34:30:00

Russia and some of it by Austria and then there was Czechoslovakia that was a brand new nation but it had always been, it was Bohemian Moravia, but they were just sort of Slav tribes that were part of the Austrian Empire so going further south then you got into Yugoslavia, Yugo is the word for south, this is the tribes that way back in the 6th and 7th century

04:35:00:00

had crossed the Danube and got the Mediterranean. And so the kingdom, pardon me, kingdom of Yugoslavia was set up under the Serbian kings. There was 6 different people, there was Macedonian, Serbia of course, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia and

04:35:30:00

Montenegro, they were all – they were different nations but mainly they all spoke with the exception of the Slovenes who border on Italy and Austria today, they all spoke the language Serbo-Croat and in the south the Serbs they wrote it with a Cyrillic alphabet, Slovenia and Croatia they were

04:36:00:00

the southern part Serbia and so forth that part of it which was Christian and Eastern Orthodox, Bosnia there were more Muslims than there were Christians anyway but Croatia and Slovenia, they’d been missioned by Rome and therefore their population was strongly Roman Catholic and they wrote – used our alphabet.

04:36:30:00

Bosnia was a bit of a mishmash but all those three they were part of the Austrian Empire. Right, they were part of the Austrian Empire so when Hitler invaded Yugoslavia – he’d already you see 2, 3 years he’d taken Austria in as part of Germany, it was no longer ‘Österreicht’ it was the ‘Ostmarcht’ the Eastern Province and all that was, had

04:37:00:00

belonged to Austria before he’d tried – well particularly this little country that I love so much, Slovenia, the great big river the Sazava cuts it in half flowing pretty well east – west to east. It cuts Slovenia in half, so he said righto that – I’ll take that half and make it part

04:37:30:00

of Austria and I’ll give my mate Mussolini the southern half. But the rest, it was a really a dog’s breakfast, the whole thing. Croatia, the Croats and the Serbs despite being fellow Slavs, despite speaking an identical language, they have fought each other and they’ve cut each other’s throats for centuries. We’ve just had –

04:38:00:00

only within the last 10 years you’ve had an outburst of nastiness there. And of course the Bosnians they’ve always – they never really had a solid rule of their own. They’ve always been more or less ruled from outside either by the Serbs on the one hand or the Austrians on the other, something like that. The Serbs of course had had their own kingdom from

04:38:30:00

the very early 1800s, on until World War I, they were an independent kingdom, so all that happened in 1918, Yugoslavia, or the land of the South Slav was created but the Government was going – the capital was going to be Belgrade and the Serbian Kings were going to rule this new state. Well in no time flat, the Serbs – this King Alexander he set

04:39:00:00

up a dictatorship and the – no time flat, Croatia had an underground movement and as soon as the Germans marched in this was a fascist group and they just allied themselves with the Germans, so that was the state of the game when I landed in Maribor which was the second largest city of this little country we now call Slovenia. So,

04:39:30:00

they had a hospital of sorts in this there again – that was a Stalag, Stalag 18D and among us there were a lot of Yugoslav prisoners in their dove grey uniform still there and that’s – there were British doctors there in the Stalag that had been captured. Anyway, I was treated there for about a fortnight and I was still getting the shakes and shivers with malaria

04:40:00:00

but they cleaned up my digestive problems and so forth. More or less got me on my feet, and I thought they best thing I could do, they were all ready sending out – sending us out in working parties. Now these working parties they called ‘Arbeits Kommando’ now some of them worked from Stalag, Stalag was their camp but most of us were sent in groups, say a group of 10 would go out into a farming area and

04:40:30:00

we’d have our own camp or hut of some sort with one guard and we’d be – there wasn’t any barbed wire or anything like that, it was just a camp, the guard would march us out to our job every morning and collect us at night and lock us up at sundown in our quarters. And so I managed to get myself on a working party.
We might just stop there to change tapes.
Interviewee: Ralph Churches Archive ID 1094 Tape 05

05:00:37:00

And I just didn’t have any particular mates there at all, you see. I just didn’t know anybody. There was nobody there that I’d served with. But a great big hunk of a man with the unlikely name of Hans Steilberg – a great big hunk of a bloke from the back end of Sydney somewhere –

05:01:00:00

he was a most unrefined bloke. He had a mate about my build. They were from an engineering company. They took pity on me because I was so obviously weak. They realised that I had to somehow or other I had to quickly get out on a farm where I could get some decent tucker.

05:01:30:00

So we were drafted into this work – ten of us. But before we went out by train to this working party a marvellous thing happened. We were told to go to a certain building and pick up a Red Cross food parcel. Each. We did. It was unbelievable after the denial for oh, at least eight nine weeks that we’d had

05:02:00:00

no decent food. We each went there and there were these Red Cross parcels all parcelled up. We had no opportunity to open them, but we just tucked them under our arm. We went down to the train and went 25 kilometres north back over the old Austrian border or what is now the Austrian border anyway again.

05:02:30:00

And we got off at a little railway station at a little town called Ehrenhausen and there waiting for us was a big jovial sort of man with a great big handlebar moustache. Now of course in Germany at that time everything was itemised. Everything was regulated. Everything had to have a leader and fuehrer. This

05:03:00:00

chap turned out to be the Ortsbauern Führer. The local farmers’ leader. Bauern is a funny word. Actually literally it means builder. But you have landsbauern, farming. Or industraubauern. So a bauern is normally – well for instance, the opera poet and peasants – Dichter und Bauern.

05:03:30:00

So bauern really means peasant. Most often used since. So he was the peasants’ leader. And I’ll just break off here to remark – I soon found out that their system of land cultivation was much the same as in England. You had your lord of the manor, the bloke who owned the land, and he would have three or four peasant families

05:04:00:00

working land for him. And they got – it’s about the nearest thing we can get to it here is share farming. They would get a share of the crop. But this chap, he actually owned his own land. So he met us and our guard. I suppose a walk for the best part of an hour it dragged on. And it was a long walk for me I know. And we came upon this little

05:04:30:00

building which was to be our home. And waiting for us there were the surrounding farmers or peasants. Some of them were just peasants. One or two were actually cultivating their own land. They were considered pretty wealthy people. Anyway there were ten of us. And I think half a dozen farmers there. So the Ortsbauern fuhrer

05:05:00:00

he had already eyed off my mate Hans Steilberg and not his mate – no, his mate was only my weight. But there was an English sergeant with us who could speak German. So the farmers’ leader he grabbed those two for himself. Then another bloke, he grabbed a couple. Another couple, that was six. Then there were two singles. And that left

05:05:30:00

the other little engineer mate and me. So young peasant came up and he nabbed my mate and it left me. Well I was nobody’s pick. I didn’t blame them. But I did feel awfully ‘nobody loved me, nobody cared’. I was wondering whether – but there was this charming old gentleman with a drooping moustache and a kind look on his face, and I’m sure he took me out of

05:06:00:00

sympathy. He asked me, “Well would you like to come and work for me?” And I said more or less, “My oath I would.” I wasn’t fit to work. I wasn’t fit for anything. Anyway, he was on the same direction as my engineer mate. So he marched us off. At least, his cobber in the next farm marches us off. So there we were. And I found out

05:06:30:00

there was this big two storey house – that’s where the lord of the manor lived, only it wasn’t a lord. It was a very old lady in a wheelchair who was looked after by two spinster daughters. I established that. My bloke, Menhart [?], he was the senior peasant. His cottage more or less was just a

05:07:00:00

vehicle track separating him from the manor house. There we were and that’s where I was to work. After the selection was made we settled – no, we hadn’t opened our Red Cross parcel. But anyway they were served a meal in the middle of the day.

05:07:30:00

Our meals were pretty homely. Meat probably still is a luxury in that part of the world. You might get a meat dish twice a week. They’d starve without potato. I will always remember, it’s amazing in Germany, they have these German Shepherd dogs that we call Alsatians, but you never hear of a savage

05:08:00:00

German Shepherd dog. They’re big dogs. But they’re always called Haus Hund- house dog – and so it was at this place. But the food, I can’t remember what the food was, but pretty basic. Anyway adjoining

05:08:30:00

the house was a bit of a lean to where they kept some light farm machinery and so forth. There was no motors or anything like that. But that’s where they put their scythes and hoes and all their agricultural implements and so forth. I think there was a single furrow plough there. But I noticed a set of scales, platform scales. I thought, this’ll be interesting. Because my enlistment weight was nine

05:09:00:00

stone seven. I got on those scales and weighed myself and I was seven stone five. No wonder I felt a little bit weak. Anyway they were going out to – I forget what they had me doing, but they worked a lot. There was the father, there was the mother, there was the crippled daughter and a not-crippled daughter who was

05:09:30:00

already being chased by a neighbouring young man. The menfolk, there was the eldest son, who was only about 98 cents in the dollar, but he did a service for me. Then there was about sixteen, seventeen year Ferdinand and there was a young school goer – I think about ten year old – Fritzl – Frederick or Freddy. Anyway

05:10:00:00

I settled in. But I think the second afternoon we were out raking up hay – they’d been out scything the grass for hay. You see, for the winter they’ve got to have a loft full of fodder. Because they had working beasts were two huge oxen. They were kept in stalls. And you have to have your fodder in for when the winter comes. That’s what we were doing. And I just collapsed.

05:10:30:00

Fell over in a heap. Passed out. The next thing I knew – I was that miserable that when I recovered consciousness there was a voice, “Iss zere somesings I can do to help you perhaps?” This was

05:11:00:00

one of the spinster daughters, who could speak quite good English. Now I’m lying on a heap of straw up in the hayloft. She climbed up the steps and got to me. Anyway she had some quinine and for days and days after that she doped me

05:11:30:00

up with quinine and I begged her, I said, “Madam, please don’t let them send me back to Stalag. I am sick, but I will recover. I’ve a strong constitution, I will recover. But I won’t if you send me back to Stalag.” She says, “Yes.” Well of course, they were the boss. Mind you, the family which I was with, these Menharts, they were very sturdy Roman Catholics and very Christian in their outlook.

05:12:00:00

It’s a bit of a tangled skein, but they were very kind to me. I can’t say anything else. But of course, long since, from the moment of my capture I knew I was going to escape, but to do this I would have to use my brains. I wasn’t bad at languages, I would learn German. Because that was the spoken language. To escape you’ve got to get information. You can’t get information if you don’t communicate. So I was fairly comparatively rapidly picking

05:12:30:00

up English [he means German]. And with this limited elder son – he couldn’t read or write, but what I soon learned within German, a letter always has the same sound value. So he – I would read the newspaper to him and I’d get a word and he would pantomime to me

05:13:00:00

what it meant. I soon learnt Brand was fire. But the derivative Brandung was surf. All these little quirks you see. I was picking it up fairly well. I was well in front of the blokes with me. But then a niece of the ladies of the manor came down from Vienna for a holiday.

05:13:30:00

She was about eighteen years old. I don’t think she was much to look at, but a very nice girl. This was where I first really bumped into the terror. In these parts, to be seen speaking with one of the English prisoners of war you would have the Gestapo on your tail that quickly, it didn’t matter. And she was terrified that the peasants would betray her if she was seen speaking to me. And I –

05:14:00:00

but she spoke quite good English. But she was anxious to try her skills out speaking to an English speaking person. But she was – but I said, “I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about. They’re very loyal to your people.” Anyway, this was the big help. She got me an English German/German English dictionary. I think I’ve still got it somewhere actually. I think I have. And

05:14:30:00

that was really – I was starting to pick up grammar and syntax and that sort of thing and that was a great help. I made a point of getting on top of ten or a dozen new German words a day. Trying myself out and I was getting along fine. Anyway I soon worked it out I had two or three great big pigs in a

05:15:00:00

little sty alongside the stable where they kept the oxen and they had an old-fashioned English or Scottish thing called a midden. It was a huge pit with a roof built over it and a gutter leading up to the stalls and all the muck from the stall, the styes and that went down into the midden. And come the spring or when there was

05:15:30:00

rain about they had one of these funny little German wagons. You can make anything out of it, it’s a flat top but you could stick wings on it and so on. And on that there’d be a working great huge vat – a cask – and they’d pump out this midden onto this and the oxen would tow it out onto the paddocks, turn on the tap and that was the fertilizer going off. Marvellous. There’s no erosion.

05:16:00:00

As an aside, our British forefathers, you see, they made the great mistake of trying to farm – they couldn’t see that their methods of farming didn’t apply to Australia. They just tore into it, knocked down all the trees and the scrub and stuff. Have you been to Europe? You may recall, you look at a landscape there – every little knoll there’s a clump of trees on it.

05:16:30:00

You don’t have anywhere in Europe, you don’t walk half a mile without seeing a tree somewhere or a clump of trees. So this farm, it was undulating country, hills and vales and there were all these little woodlands. When they did their hand ploughing with their single furrow plough with the oxen towing it what did they do? They towed in rings. Contour ploughing. They never lost any soil. So anyway that

05:17:00:00

was an experience I had, this midden. That was a new thing to me. But of course come the winter the pigs would be slaughtered and cured into bacon. They hadn’t thought of cholesterol I don’t think because all these pigs would be solid fat. They put fat on everything. Breakfast was invariably maize meal made up into a – not a porridge, but a malleable

05:17:30:00

loaf sort of thing. A big platter in the middle. And pig fat, bacon fat melted and strewn all over it. And everyone dipping their spoon into it you see. It was fairly – they were experts. They had good suction. They could suck a mouthful but I don’t think I tried very hard. I made a mess of it. So they got into the habit of serving

05:18:00:00

me separately with my own serve. But I soon got the hang of it. They looked after me very well. Indeed with the rather fatty food they were feeding me I was putting on weight very quickly. But I discovered of course, they grew all their own food. Beans and beans and beans and beans. Spuds and spuds and spuds and spuds. Root vegetables and so forth.

05:18:30:00

It was a big garden. But their cash crop was wine. Grape vines. That was where I first found Riesling. Yes, it’s cost me a lot finding it. Because I didn’t like it when I first tasted it. I’d never heard of it. Because in the days before the war we called that hock. Anyway it’s a very late ripening grape. It was there. It is here. It’s the last grape to pick, the Riesling

05:19:00:00

grape. They were all on hillsides. Before the grapes were ripe I know we had to go and hoe between the rows and kill the weeds and all that sort of thing. But they had great big hefty hoes, but they issued me with a nice little one. They really looked after me. Potter around with this thing knocking off weeds. And then I’d have a basket picking grapes when the season

05:19:30:00

when the grapes were ripe. The two strongest men they carried a huge big pack on their back. You’d come up and down the roads and you’d empty what you’d harvested into that and they would take it up to the press. The press incidentally was in one of the rooms of the manor house. So that’s what we did. I made the acquaintance of the Riesling grape. Realised it’s what we called hock.

05:20:00:00

I didn’t take much stock in wine at that stage. I was a beer drinker mainly. No, I didn’t know much about wine. But I realised this was what we called hock. Didn’t like it at first. They offered me a sample, but after a couple – oh, that’s not bad. But by the time I left there I was yes getting pretty on early addicted to it and I have never lost my liking for a good Riesling.

05:20:30:00

Their Riesling by virtue of the climate is much more delicate than ours. Ours is a very robust wine alongside theirs. But it’s the same thing under different circumstances. Anyway there came a day of great big dark slatey grey cloud blew over the horizon and in no time flat little flecks of

05:21:00:00

moisture. White things were falling on my hand. Bloody snow. I’d never seen it before. And so we got used to snow falling but virtually that was the end of it because it was the winter coming on. It was early November. No more work for us.

05:21:30:00

So it was a rather sad goodbye. Because I realised that they had restored me to health. I was all right. I’d put on weight. In fact, I certainly got back to my 9 stone 7 anyway. They were a very kindly Christian people and I remember them with a great deal of affection – but more of it later. We were loaded up on the march back to the railway station and taken a few stations north

05:22:00:00

to a place called Werndorf where they had a cement factory. There was a quarry up in the nearby hills where you had to quarry the limestone and then send it down by aerial rope way down to the factory at the foot of the hill. Well it was a ramshackle factory. At the camp it was shocking. They had no leadership. I suppose they had at least fifty blokes at the camp. But there was a Sudetenland German –

05:22:30:00

dreadful person with a squeaky voice. He was what they call a Gefreiter. It’s something about the equivalent to corporal. A bit between corporal and lance corporal in English. But you find that with these border land Germans. They’re more zealous even that the worst of the Nazis. And he was running the thing and he was belting blokes around and all this sort of thing.

05:23:00:00

There was no leadership or anything. But anyway he had this squeaky voice. These blokes were dumb clucks. They hadn’t learnt anything in German to communicate or anything like that. So we still had our German speaking sergeant with us. But he didn’t last very long. And so by that time my German was good enough, I had to

05:23:30:00

act as spokesman. But I utterly refused to work in the quarry. I just – he tried to send me off to the quarry. I said, “No, I’m not strong enough. I’ll work in the factory.” All right, I worked in the factory. But it was a ramshackle place with a rusty roof. When it rained it rained and dripped in all over the place. But then by that time I really was fit. I was thinking about

05:24:00:00

escaping. I had brains, but I wasn’t very intelligent really. I was in too much of a hurry. I was half baked. But anyway after about – had Christmas there, that’s right I remember having Christmas. And a dreary Christmas. But these Red Cross parcels of course. I’ll never be able to repay

05:24:30:00

Red Cross for – they were life and death. That’s what differed between us and the people in Japanese hands. The parcels and the post. See it was there I started to get letters from Ronte and my mother and so forth. That I remember that’s where I learnt my eldest sister had passed on. But I got absolutely

05:25:00:00

fed up with this squeaky voiced bloke. We called him Oozy Woozy because he dribbled. I just walked out of the factory. Snowstorm was falling, snow on the ground. I had my greatcoat on. I had actually everything that I owned on me. And I just walked off. My

05:25:30:00

treasures, I might say – Ronte before I left gave me a leather picture frame which I still have with a picture of her in it. That was always in my breast pocket along with a copy – little tiny copy of the new testament, this Jack Bowden who’d been in the 9th Light Horse had carried all through World War I and I was to carry it through World War II. Both

05:26:00:00

of those things were always in my pocket. Never left them. So I just walked out of the factory. There were two guards there patrolling up and down. I just deluded them, walked out on the road and kept walking. I don’t think I was missed until nightfall, by which time I think I’d taken refuge in a barn somewhere. Anyway the next day the cops picked me up. But that got me out of Werndorf. I was court martialled and put in the slammer for three days

05:26:30:00

on bread and water and sent off then to a road building – this was back in Marburg at Stalag and I was sent out on another job south of Marburg road building. I looked much younger than my years those days. I’ll show you a photo. I can remember the old major on this court

05:27:00:00

where I told the – because I escaped from the second job – it wasn’t a matter of escaping in retrospect. I just went AWOL [absent without leave]. I had no plan. I was just fed up and to hell with everything. So I think I was two days out that time. Oh, back to Stalag. I remember the major saying – he was a very kindly bloke. I reckon he was an Austrian actually.

05:27:30:00

“Now young man you’ve got to stop being foolish. This is the second time. You should by rights have – ” Quite decently he told me to stop being stupid or I’d finish up in a punishment camp up in Poland where I wouldn’t be

05:28:00:00

very happy at all. So I was growing up a bit. I thought, yeah well, I suppose I’m pretty lucky getting let off a second time. So this time I was sent out just to a place which is now called Sentil. It was then called St Egydi, plum on the border of old Austria and Slovenia. One side of the border it’s St Egydi

05:28:30:00

On the other side the Spieldfeldtstrasse. Anyway we were about a kilometre south of Egydi. We had this camp with a little creek flowing through it. And it was a camp of about a hundred chaps. The idea was to take out a bend of the highway. The highway from Vienna down to Trieste passing through Slovenia and taking a bend out of the road.

05:29:00:00

It was a good camp. Very interesting experience. So it was there I met up with a great mate. He hadn’t been a mate before. But I thought it was about time I made myself a mate. There was this very tall skinny chap from Tamworth

05:29:30:00

in New South Wales. Farmer. He’d been educated at King’s School which of course you would know is about top of the snob list. Obviously came from a well heeled family. But he had the most awful speech impediment. He stuttered like a machine gun. And he seemed to be a bit of a loner. He was an infantryman. He’d been captured in the battles up at Greece.

05:30:00:00

So we became cobbers. What we did have there, a leader. A New Zealand sergeant. He’d been appointed by the Germans as – their word for it was Vertrauensmann which means a delegate. So a member of parliament is a Vertrauensmann. He’s elected as a man – well you see Vertrauensman – confidence man

05:30:30:00

it translates literally as confidence man. But anyway I hadn’t been there – but I don’t know, my German was getting pretty good. So they had an odd Kiwi there, he was a funny sort of a bloke by the name of Corlander. And his German was pretty good. But he had other fish to fry, he went off somewhere. So I stepped into his shoes as camp interpreter.

05:31:00:00

If there was a difference of opinion which there often was down the road where the job was, I was hauled down to sort it out and see what the blokes – you see they’d mess things up and when the foreman … See, we weren’t working for the German military. We were let out to work for private companies.

05:31:30:00

Firms that could employ labour. And when their foremen were screaming their teeth out because our blokes were messing things up, right, all they’d just look at the bloke and say, “Nicht verstehen,” – “Don’t understand.” And that’d make him jump up and down all the more. So they’d have to come back to camp and haul me out and do the interpreting, you see.

05:32:00:00

So with this I might say it smartened my learning of German up quite considerably. But there came the time this Kiwi sergeant – a really good fellow, a good man, but he was engaged to be married to a girl back home and he got the inevitable Dear John letter [informing that relationship is over].

05:32:30:00

Well if ever I felt a bloke smashed, he really he just went to pieces. He just went to pieces. We were still in the period where there were plenty of young keen Nazis guarding us mixed up with a few older ones and so on. But there were still these keen types that would just as soon kick you or slap you or something like that as look at you. That you were daring to propose that

05:33:00:00

the herren volk, the all commanding German nation – and their Adolf Hitler, you know. That’s where a camp leader was supposed to step in and protest that that was forbidden under the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of prisoners of war to which

05:33:30:00

Adolf Hitler was a party. You had to have the courage to step in and say, “Look mate I’ve got your number. You do that you’re going to go in because there’s an officer comes around, not to mention the Red Cross, not to mention the Swiss Commission. Now you do that again and you’re history. You’ll be on the Russian front quicker than you can say ‘knife’.” I might say, I haven’t mentioned of course it was while we were in

05:34:00:00

Corinth Hitler invaded Russia. Well that really did lift our spirits. Britain wasn’t alone anymore. Hitler had other fish to fry. And of course we started then – any of the German troops, “Look out, you’ll finish on the eastern front. Yep. You’re a

05:34:30:00

candidate. Like a nice icy shower? So this New Zealander he completely gave up his position as camp leader. So I had fellas coming to me, “What do we do about it?” I said, “If you feel strongly about it, there’s the instructions up on the board in German and English

05:35:00:00

that you have the right to select your own camp leader. He hasn’t been elected. He was appointed. Give the bloke a go.” I sort of took his part of it. “No. We’ve had him. What do we have to do?” It’s amazing how ignorant people were. I said, “Look, if you feel like it, how many have you got?” “Pretty well the whole camp.” “Well just call a meeting. Tell the blokes that there’ll

05:35:30:00

be a meeting on this matter at such and such a time at such and such a date. Just get together.” “Yeah. But alright, what do we do then.” I said, “You yourself or whoever you’ll get a chairman and he puts the matter before the meeting and you take a vote on it right?” By that time of course

05:36:00:00

I was the only South Australian there – I had become the Crow. Croweater. See, my fellow Australians call me Croweater. In no time flat, the Poms call me the Crow. I was the Crow for the rest of the war. The cry would ring out, “Where’s the bloody Crow? He’s never here when he’s wanted.” They said, “Well look Crow, you … “I said, “No I’m not don’t look at me, I’m not in.”

05:36:30:00

So “Come on, you get it organised for us.” So at last I got this meeting in the hall. So they look at me, “What do we do?” I said, “You elect a chairman.” They said, “We’ve elected him. You’re it.” So I chaired the meeting for them and I said, “Right, I understand there’s some dissatisfaction with out camp leader. He has been – I suggested he attend, he has not attended this meeting. So therefore those of you who are responsible for this

05:37:00:00

meeting, would you give me a proposition for this meeting to consider?” “Yeah, we don’t want Bill for the camp leader.” I said, “Well it’s not a matter of what you don’t want, it’s what you do want.” And so anyway at long last they said, “Well you say it.” I said, “What I understand is that you wish to elect a camp leader other than the present incumbent. Right?”

05:37:30:00

“Yeah.” “Okay. Now you all heard that. You wish to have a leader other than the present camp leader.” “Yep.” And it was carried unanimously. I just said “There it is, it’s seconded. Any amendment?” “No” Well it’s carried unanimously. I said, “Righto now it’s up to you nominate someone for camp leader and we’ll get this over and done with. You’ve got to have one.” “Oh yes, you’re it Crow. No, look Crow … “

05:38:00:00

I said, “Look, you have got to understand I am a private soldier. I’m getting letters. I thought it was Lance Corporal, but I’m not. I’m getting letters Private R S Churches. Look, you’ve got sergeant, corporals, god knows what, no, it’s someone else’s job. I’m not in it.” Anyway eventually I got talked into it and I never lost the job. I think I handled it fairly well. So I became the

05:38:30:00

leader. And I had the experience then – now what happens when you have bad news? When you’re in active service, you go to your commanding officer, don’t you? They didn’t have a commanding officer. So in that period of my life I read more Dear John letters than I care to talk about. The most extreme case I had was from a laddie who came from Footscray, Melbourne, whose father had

05:39:00:00

run away with the bloke’s wife. Now you see, they had nobody else. Troubles and so forth at home. But the Red Cross was marvellous. You could do all sorts of things through the agency of the Red Cross. For instance, that bloke I got divorce proceedings going and all that had to happened, he escaped with me, all he had to do was sign a couple of papers when he got out there and the divorce was complete. No drama, no fuss,

05:39:30:00

no bother. All that – oh and anyway that was – this place at Sancta Gerdy that took me through to 1942 I got out there and went through I think to September 1943. The Germans decided that we were never going to get the bend out of the road that we were supposed to get and there was more urgent business.

05:40:00:00

The railway line between Maribor and Klagenfurt in Austria, that needed reballasting. It was a bit rocky and rough. So we were taken back to Maribor. The camp was closed down. Very comfortable camp. We actually dammed this creek and made a swimming hole there. We used to be able to go for a swim in the swimming hole. And a very important thing happened

05:40:30:00

while I was in that road camp though.
Interviewee: Ralph Churches Archive ID 1094 Tape 06

06:00:41:00

Yes I think it appropriate to mention here that one of the many wonderful services the Red Cross did for us was looking after our mail. At our end we were issued with a folder. It came out like an accordion. About that long

06:01:00:00

and about that wide. Shall we say, ten inches long and perhaps four inches wide. We had two of those and four postcards a month that we could write out. It went airmail to Lisbon and Portugal and then after it got to Portugal it was up to Red Cross agencies to get it to its

06:01:30:00

destination. But as I mentioned, I started receiving mail from home about December 1941. And I of course learned that Ronte and my mother were receiving their mail. Until quite recently Ronte saved up all the letters I wrote. They’re somewhere out in the shed I think. And they got through quite well.

06:02:00:00

And that knowing just what was happening was very comforting. I can just understand blokes in Japanese hands, that tremendous sense of loss they suffered. No help from anywhere. Whereas we did have contact. And these Red Cross parcels, they were extremely well chosen. Amazing what they could cram into a box about a foot by six inches by six

06:02:30:00

inches or something. Butter, powdered milk, goodies. You see the German rations we would have been getting a meat meal twice a week, which I might say that’s all their guards were getting. And loads and loads of potatoes and sauerkraut. Which

06:03:00:00

of itself is not unhealthy, but awfully boring. But what now – I’m coming now to the idea that I had – the Germans at one stage got very nasty. This came right down from the top. I think probably from Adolf or one of his underlings. They found that the people had been escaping underground by making air tubes out of cans, tin cans. Therefore

06:03:30:00

every time Red Cross parcels came in you had to stand by and there was a tin opener, open every can there and tip it out on a plate. An absolute – well you just think, you empty out a tin of plum jam and a tin of butter slapped on it. You had to empty all these contents onto a plate. Well, the mess.

06:04:00:00

Fortunately it didn’t last for long. It was eventually withdrawn. But it gave me an idea that if we formed ourselves up in groups – twos threes or fours – and in that group pooled everything and right, a tin of butter, well that was more than – you didn’t use a tin of butter a week per person.

06:04:30:00

The whole idea was to surplus stock we could lock up in a pantry. The chief cook would have one key to it and I’d have another, so there was no racketeering. They took a little bit of persuading. I said, “Let’s give it a try.” So we had the most wonderful meals. Our cooks, they – I don’t know whether they were army cooks, but they just developed, came out of the woodwork. We had three cooks for

06:05:00:00

a hundred blokes. And they produced magnificent food, because they had all these ingredients you see. They could – and what we didn’t have from the Red Cross parcel we just black marketed for. Because in those Red Cross parcels there was always one packet of tea and one packet of coffee. Now what Britisher, whether Australian, Kiwi or Pom, is going to drink coffee when he can drink tea? At that stage it was ridiculous.

06:05:30:00

The message was, black market. The central Germans, they’re addicted to coffee. You just couldn’t get proper coffee in Germany. What you could get was roasted barley ground down. Ersatz [imitation coffee]. Yeah, Kaffee Ersatz. With that, coffee, chocolate, lovely toilet soap as against the grotty little grubby weekly thing

06:06:00:00

that the German ration scale allowed. Cigarettes. Oh yes we got a hundred cigarettes a week. The non-smokers, righto, their smokes went into the magazine, into the pantry – good black-marketing stuff, cigarettes. And under the Geneva Convention prisoners of war must have sport or exercise

06:06:30:00

other than work one day a week. Well they weren’t going to supply us with a football ground or a basketball court or anything like that. I just suggest you could always take us for a walk in the country on a nice Sunday afternoon. Well, you see, we’d have a guard – you’d be amazed. It didn’t matter how Nazi the guard was he couldn’t resist the temptation to be able to make himself a cup of

06:07:00:00

coffee. So, “Righto, Charlie, get it straight. This is yours when we come back from the walk. If you just keep your back turned.” So just black-marketed. We were able to get fresh vegetables, all sorts of goodies from the farmers. All manner of things. So we lived very well indeed.

06:07:30:00

You got your own breakfast. You got a cooked – somehow or other – at road camp they came back in for lunch. You got a good cooked meal for lunch and a good cooked meal – the German guards said – we cooked for them too. And they used to look with, oh, drooling at the food we got. But that’s how we did it. But what I did, we got them and then we gave this a trial

06:08:00:00

this business of partnerships, groups. And we made – the cooks and I – we made it work. And within a month it was the accepted thing to do, because instead of just cooking the what we were able to collect on the black market and the German ration scale all this – butter itself, what are you going to do with butter. What you going to do with all manner of things. Milk, skim milk, sugar.

06:08:30:00

And of course, tea. There was no such thing as tea – was a medicinal thing. This worked really well and it became funny, because every time someone with our strength of four blokes going back to Stalag either sick of a job or with sickness, needing hospitalisation or something. And so our numbers had run down and eventually ten had come out from Stalag

06:09:00:00

in a heap. And I’d say, “Righto this is what we have going. Now I know you think it’s a racket. Yeah, you could be right. But as it so happens, you’re wrong. But I wouldn’t allow you to join this arrangement, you have got to volunteer. When you’re ready to join it, you just let us know and it will all be well. But you’ve got to apply.”

06:09:30:00

“Yeah I’m not going to be caught in that.” You could see the look on their faces because racketeering – there was black-marketing and racketeering generally was rife in most of the camps. But it took less than a week, they’d see the food we were eating compared with what the cooks cooked for them. “Yeah, Crow, I think count me in.” At one stage our strength got down to a bit over fifty and Italy surrendered

06:10:00:00

and I got a group of fifty blokes who’d been in the can in Italy. I’ll never forget them you see. Giggle giggle giggle. “No, there’s no need to apologise chaps. Again, you cannot get into this unless you apply.” As I say within a week – well they’d have to be idiots because they saw the way we were eating and there they were still ploughing through their spuds and sauerkraut and what have you. And we always

06:10:30:00

had good food on hand for trading. It worked. But eventually as I say they got sick of us trying to straighten this road out and moved us back into Maribor into a shunting station into a siding there. Where Maribor was a border town for customs duties and so forth, this was they had the customs sheds – well that’s what they called them.

06:11:00:00

(GERMAN) Customs shed. Stores and so forth. And we were housed in that sort of thing. And the blokes had to march down to the railway station every morning, get on this train – two carriages and a steam loco – and clank clank clank across the River Drava on which Maribor stands. A big river. One of the biggest tributaries of the Danube.

06:11:30:00

But there are two traffic bridges across the river there and a railway bridge. My first thought, “Beauty! One bridge less we have to cross, one river less.” Because it had me worried, this escaping thing. Never, never was it out of my mind. I was going to escape. But this time I’d succeed. The working computer, I think of Windows of Opportunity

06:12:00:00

coming down. And I was going to wait for it. I knew it would. We settled in there and the chaps marched down to the railway station every day and at about I would think at a guess twenty kilometres west of Maribor –

06:12:30:00

the train just followed the river Drava along its bank all the way up. And that’s where we worked. I must say of course if you’ve travelled Austria is a beautiful country – this Slovenia is just one peg ahead of it. It is glorious. Beautiful country. You can’t go anywhere without what we would call mountains. Stuff the mount lofty ranges. This is a gentler

06:13:00:00

stop at it except for the big river valleys. There’s some flat land along the rivers, but anyway, this place we were working it turned out was a slow affair because our chaps were awful slow. We had a foreman with a pan face. I don’t think I ever saw him smile. We called him Buster after Buster Keaton, the comic film actor who always had a straight face. A miserable face. And so we called him Buster.

06:13:30:00

And here was this place I suppose for the hills – I don’t know whether they call them hills or mountains, they were quite steep but not very high – it was actually a spur of the alps. It was the last spur of the Alps. They’re called the Karabunken. That came down from the Alps to the lowlands of Hungary, great plains of Hungary

06:14:00:00

really. And this mountainous country. Where we were the only habitation – there was a hydro electric dam across the Drava there. But the only habitation was a railwayman’s cottage way up in the trees. There was forest all round us. Well not – there was the riverside, yeah, there were trees along the river. But all these hills were covered

06:14:30:00

quite heavily with timber. And standing at about ooh perhaps four hundred metres away from where we were working was a railwayman’s cottage. Well you see some people don’t realise that although a lot of snow in winter, it also gets quite hot in the summer, in mid summer there. I mean, things 33, 34 degrees, quite hot. Can get even hotter. And of course drinking water became a problem. I mean, you’d say, well what was wrong with the river.

06:15:00:00

Well there was everything wrong with the river. The river was polluted the same as our rivers are polluted. So the only thing was, enter my great cobber, Les Laws. He gets a mention in the book. He was a very fine keyboard player he was. A beautiful musician. He was a very talented bloke. After the war he took up painting successfully. But he was a beautiful keyboard player and

06:15:30:00

he wasn’t going to have his hands ruined by trying to carry lengths of railway or concrete sleepers or anything like that. He was a good con man. He persuaded the Germans that we had to have drinking water. So they issued him a couple of wooden pails and he had to go up to the railwayman’s cottage and draw water from the well. It was just a constant job going up and back

06:16:00:00

up and back. With these two rather, I suppose five gallon pails of water. The railwayman was absent during the day and there was just this young wife there. I suppose she was not more than twenty years of age and two young kids. They had a three year old boy. Les got to know them reasonably well because he used to take chocolates up to the kids, lollies and so forth from our parcels.

06:16:30:00

And he’d take a cake of toilet soap for her, which was worth a hundred dollars and for any woman with any taste a decent cake of toilet soap was really something. So he was well received there and so on. But something happened – oh I must put this one in – at Maribor.

06:17:00:00

Practically the whole time I was there – soon after we arrived there we got a new commandant. Now for at least a year the guard had changed. Instead of any fresh faced Nazis or even young men, all eligibles were well and truly up the Russian front keeping the Russians out. So what we got for guards were middle aged

06:17:30:00

Austrians. About 45, 55 years of age, from nearby. Because when they went on leave, they didn’t have far to go. They only got a train ride perhaps a hundred miles. So they could even say take a week’s leave. So it was no great expense or anything like that. So we got these Austrians with World

06:18:00:00

War I French rifles. They were our guards. But well I think – well at this stage just to digress a bit. The Austrians. Now you’ve got to remember that Hitler only took them over in 1938. So in 1942 they were only four years. Now this was vital to my thinking, what Austrians and Austrians. Now

06:18:30:00

there is no doubt about it. There were some Austrians that were dyed in the wool Nazis. They had helped Hitler to get into power in Austria. But Austrians as a general rule today are the most relaxed people I know. They’re the ‘don’t give a damn’ people. I used to try the guards. I got on full well with them. I was regarded as a bit saucy and all that sort of thing. They were a bit indulgent with me. I’d say, “Look I can’t understand

06:19:00:00

you blokes. Fancy the bloody Charlie Chaplin bloke who got up there in Berlin, fancy taking orders from him. God!” “Yes, you’re a young fellow.” And they always called mister, mister camp leader. Herr Vertrauensmann yes you’re a bright young man. But you live in an island colony. You’ve got no nation on your borders. Nobody possibly invading you.

06:19:30:00

Well our lovely homeland of Austria every predator with plunder in his eye has marched across Austria. To and fro. But we’ve learnt. Okay, they can march across Austria. When they’re finished they go away. We’ll still stay here. So why shed our blood. Why should we care? Don’t tell anybody, but my opinion is, yes, our present fuehrer, he’ll go too. But we’ll still be here.”

06:20:00:00

That was their outlook. And there was quite a – the Austrians never made any resistance movement, but there were lots of Austrians who didn’t like Hitler. The farm I was on, the old lady and you could tell the two spinsters – they were ladies – and there was this ruffian.

06:20:30:00

Actually the family, the peasant family, very strict Roman Catholics, everything Hitler’d done was contrary to their Christian beliefs. And Hitler well and truly had his eyes on the church at large, but … So these Austrians, they were pretty comfortable. I got to call them by their Christian names, knew about their families.

06:21:00:00

Because about this time I’m talking about now my German was not only correct, but it was colloquial. I knew the slang. I was actually just as comfortable in German as I was in English by that stage. I started on this commandant. His name was –

06:21:30:00

oh well never mind his name – but he was a tubby little man of about 45. He was a World War I veteran. And how he wasn’t picked up in the first round up when Hitler marched into Vienna I won’t know. I have never seen a more cartoon Jew like man in my life. He had a nose, he had the pendant bottom lip, he had pebble rimmed

06:22:00:00

rimmed glasses and the twinkly eyes – really of a caricaturists’ dream of a Jew. But he turned out to be a very nice man. I worked a genuine friendship with him. We just clicked. He was with us right up until we escaped. But he came to me one day

06:22:30:00

and we put on concerts – revues, vaudeville and so forth. This Les Laws, he was a wiz at it. We organised orchestras. Through the Red Cross we had violins – oh yes, musical instruments – flutes, saxophones, piano accordions. Les was a wiz with a piano accordion. But this commandant came

06:23:00:00

to me one day. “Herr Vertrauensmann” – we all stayed on formal terms. Friendly and all as we were. “Herr Vertrauensmann you have some splendid keyboard players. Would you be interested in buying a piano?” Now we actually got paid for this work, you know. We always got paid – I should show you the samples – a thing called camp money, like tram tickets.

06:23:30:00

I think the highest denomination was a five mark, one mark, fifty pennies, twenty pennies, ten pennies sort of thing. But on these things like a tram ticket. But you had no use for them. Well the one thing we did – we could in Maribor there was a photograph studio and we could go and get our studio photos taken and sent home. Beautiful studio photos. Still got them.

06:24:00:00

And we used to march down there on Sundays and get our photos taken. But that’s the only thing really that we could spend money on. And we were awash with the camp money. And I said, “Yeah, well how much money are we talking about?” He said, “Ten thousand marks.” I said, “Yeah I think we can manage that, but … “

06:24:30:00

He said, “I think it would go in the recreation barrack, the recreation room.” I said, “Gee it must be pretty big.” He said, “Well you come and have a look and see what you think.” I said, “Well I think if we’re going to have a look at a piano I better have my mate Les Laws with me. So you better get a day off for him from the employers. Just mark him as sick or something like that.” “Ja Ja.” So three of us walked across town to this bloke.

06:25:00:00

A big house with quite a salon style room. And there was this blasted great concert grand piano. Just one catch. It was wooden framed. Wooden frames meant it had to be tuned before every performance. But it was a beautiful looking thing. Oh yeah. And Les sat down and there was a key there. He played a few scales. Got this key and tightened up this that and the other and sat down. Oh it was brilliant.

06:25:30:00

But he had to keep his foot on the soft pedal. Boom! You know. I said, “Right we’ll buy it.” I forget how many marks, whatever it was. I think I had a thousand marks. No trouble at all to round up. And we paid it. And these camp money,

06:26:00:00

the commandant had the power he could go into a bank and get real money you see. So he was carrying ten thousand marks with him. It turned out this bloke was an Austrian and he could see the writing on the wall. This was 1944 by now. January, February. And he wanted to get back to Austria quick smart because he could feel these Yugoslavs closing in. So he wanted to get rid of his piano. So he got his ten thousand marks. He had to deliver for that.

06:26:30:00

He delivered it round and set it up. I would think we were the only POW [prisoner of war] camp in the whole of Germany with a concert grand piano. I’m always very proud of that. Oh it was beautiful. It was a beautiful sound. And of course with his orchestra Les really set up some – we could produce some beautiful music. And the remarkable thing, this lady here she had the cheek to send me six sheets of music

06:27:00:00

of the latest hits, the latest pops. Now, music not allowed – code. Oh yeah. But this commandant the Londoners nick named Whitechapel after the Jewish area in London. Whitechapel. He just turned his back on it. And I can remember the tune. I can’t always remember it, but they were the hit tunes at the time.

06:27:30:00

There was Elmer’s tune and Maria Lena. Oh tunes they’d be too old for you, you wouldn’t remember them. But they were concerto for two. Six hit tunes. They got through. So we had the latest music. And it was really, life was pretty pleasant actually considering it was war time. I think we had a better thing going for us in that

06:28:00:00

confounded camp. You see our rellies at home were allowed to send us a parcel four times a year if they wanted. Well Ronte sent me a beautiful hefty Onkaparinga blanket for a kick off. Which was marvellous because our blankets were no damn good. They were made out of wood pulp. They looked beautiful. Felt all lovely, softly, like – but they had no insulation in them. You could freeze. You could put four or five of them on and you’d still freeze.

06:28:30:00

And we really had a good life I must say at that stage, considering there was a war on we were doing fine. But of course my purpose was escaping. So ever since I’d been in – or even back in the road building days – I used to listen to the German radio and read their press.

06:29:00:00

Goebbels was a very successful propagandist in as much as he knew how to tell believable lies. In all his views reports perhaps anything up to a third – no more than a third of it – would be true. Mostly perhaps only twenty percent, fifteen, was true. Now the mere fact it was true, you sort of swallowed the whole dose if you were a mug, which most of them were.

06:29:30:00

The guards would brag about something in the latest news. I’d say, “Mate, you got to realise when they say that they are pulling back at a shortened front, that’s a nice way of saying that they’re evacuating troops because they can’t resist. Wake up to yourselves.” The news media were talking about these Communist bandits

06:30:00:00

that were marauding the country, killing people and robbing them. In war time it’s a shocking thing these treacherous traitorous knaves and so forth. I felt well if they’re so nasty to the Germans they could be some use to me. So I started – actually of course Yugoslavia’s a total mess. As it turns out I

06:30:30:00

didn’t realise then – I should have, I wasn’t very smart – there was a three way civil war going on there between the Serbs, the Croats and the Communist led partisans. Mostly by the time the partisans were getting on top, the Serbs and the Croats who had hated each other so much they were getting cosy. But it was still apart from fighting the Germans there was a three way civil war.

06:31:00:00

But I didn’t know that at the time. But I was interested in that mob of Titos, these Communists – allegedly Communist bandits. But how the blazes did you get in touch with them. They were very shrewd, very secretive, they were proper guerrillas. They’d move in – bang bang bang. Knock something over. Scatter. Away they’d go. Loot the place, whatever. And away they’d go. They very largely had

06:31:30:00

most civilians on their side, not all. And unfortunately the ones that weren’t with them were against them were sucking up to the Germans. Let’s get back with Austria sort of thing. But I thought, how do I get in touch with these partisans? So one day – I think it was in May 1944. Summer was coming on and I

06:32:00:00

had to go. I’d been there long enough. It was going to be this summer, get out somehow. But the way I hoped to do it was with these partisans. So I said to Les, there in the town, there was no-one much I could talk to. Particularly these Slovenes in Maribor, they were quite rightly scared stiff of being seen talking to me.

06:32:30:00

So I said to Les one day, “That lady up where you get the water, is she German, is she Austrian? Or is she a Slove?” “Oh” he said “She’s a Slove.” I said, “What about … “ I told him. I said, “Look, I’m sick of this. This summer I’m going.” He said, “God stone the crows, old Crow, you’ve got it easy, what the hell … I’m on that same track, but I didn’t think you’d be in it.”

06:33:00:00

So we decided a contract that we’d both share any information that we got. I said to Les, “Check her out. Ask her what she knows about the partisans.” And he did. He said she just backed away into the house and shut the door. That was a nice try. But it wasn’t long thereafter that the blokes – it was about

06:33:30:00

June perhaps early July 1944 – the chaps kept coming back from work with a story of this dopey civvy [civilian] who would come down out of the forest, quite nicely dressed and talk to the guards and the civvy workers and the foreman, but never left without bludging a couple of cigarettes off a some one or other of the prisoners of war, because he knew we had these cigarettes. So they always referred to him as Flash Harry or Harry the Bum.

06:34:00:00

One or the other. But he was there for a while. And I went out, I had to go up for a job usually once a week or something like that and so I saw this bloke and saw him talking. So I asked guards, “What the hell he doing? What’s his business?” “Oh he’s up from Ljubljana. He’s a forest warden. He’s a timber assessor. See all this forest here it’s

06:34:30:00

a resource, timber resource. He’s here assessing it for the commoners.” Anyway it would have been end of July 1944 Les got me in a corner and he came over and said, “Do you know that Harry the Bum?” I said, “Well I’ve heard, yes I know.” “He’s a partisan scout.” “How come?” He said “This

06:35:00:00

morning when I was coming back he met me there where all that shrubbery’s thick and thing, and says in German, I understand you’re interested in the partisans.” Les said, “Yes I am.” He says, “About this time tomorrow, come back.” This Les did and he came back and said that morning

06:35:30:00

got further into the forest with this bloke who happened to be a cousin of the lady, the railwayman’s wife. His name was Anton and he had led Les just a little further into the forest and there were three partisans. As Les said they looked like something out of The Maid Of The Mountains. You wouldn’t remember the play. It was a great hit in the 1920s. But it had

06:36:00:00

bandits in the forest you know dressed up – you know what stage bandits look like, well Les reported that’s what they looked like. But he said they all had funny looking guns. It turned out they were Sten guns which didn’t exist when we went in the bag – a type of sub machine gun. He said they got bandoliers of ammunition strewn over them and he said they got their belts threaded with Mills bombs. But he said they were young, but they’re soldiers.

06:36:30:00

I said, “Well what’s the drill?” He said, “They reckon that they’ll be back this way in about a fortnight’s time. Don’t know where. They’re just from way down in the south of Slovenia. They’re not locals. That’s about all I know.” I said, “Well thanks Les.” So at that time I always had a Sunday morning parade to make announcements,

06:37:00:00

to make requests. One particular request, “Will you please – the British government sends you a brand new uniform every year, a beautiful pure wool uniform every year and you go slobbing off to work, not like British soldiers, but like rag tag bums with home made shorts and home made – I know it’s you’ve got – you can wear that stuff under your uniform.

06:37:30:00

Take your uniform off when you get on the job.” And I was always rousing on them about this. They used to giggle about this. They always knew that was the opening stanza. Because it was, I expected them – I mean, I was dressed formally in uniform. I never slobbed around. And I expected them to do the same. That they should march down giving the locals the idea there was already an army of occupation there right with them in the making.

06:38:00:00

But, no they wouldn’t buy it by and large. So anyway I called the Sunday morning parade this morning and instead of the usual I made the startling announcement that I was resigning my position as camp leader, that I had done my best to represent them and get them a fair go, but when you were working with the enemy it’s getting on for two years, been a strain, the wear and tear

06:38:30:00

is getting at me and I feel in all fairness to everyone concerned that you must elect my successor. But I do thank you all. You’re good blokes and I thank you for the confidence proposed to me da da da da da. And I felt like Judas Iscariot. They elected another German speaker. Very nice Englishman, very good chap. And I handed him over all the

06:39:00:00

Red Cross supplies that we’d hide up in our larder and so forth. Properly registered. Oh, everything there. The head cook could see what he had to work with and so on. And Monday morning there I was dressed up in my uniform and I marched off to work with the rest of them. And the dear old guards, I think if they’d spoken English they would have said, “You bloody Englishmen we’ll never understand you.

06:39:30:00

You’re the boss one day and you’re not pushed out, you opt out.” You know, how funny? But somehow they still couldn’t get out of the habit of calling me Herr Vertrauensman no, I went down there and waited for things to happen. I’d been cobbers with Andy for years. Eight of us in one barrack.

06:40:00:00

We’d all been together for at least two years or perhaps longer. And we were very good mates. But Les Laws for his Red Cross parcel mate, he had Andy Hamilton a Scotsman. I had old Kit Carson. But there was four other blokes. But anyway Les said, “I’ve got to take Andy with me. I couldn’t walk out on him.” I said, “Alright. It’s okay with me. I suppose if two can get away, three can. But if you take Andy, I’ve got to take old

06:40:30:00

Kit in fairness.” “Oh I suppose, yeah.” So the four of us. And we told Kit and Andy. They were straight in like a rat up a rope. But you know among eight blokes, four are adopting a different attitude. We’ve got a secret sort of thing. It’s a funny thing how very hard it is to defend a secret. The other four, they were no time waking up.
Interviewee: Ralph Churches Archive ID 1094 Tape 07

07:00:38:00

So Ralph, you were telling us about now it was hard to keep your secret.
Yes. As I say, four of us were in the joke and four weren’t. But that was the way it had to be. Because one man can keep a secret if he’s very very clever. Very difficult for two. Three, impossible.

07:01:00:00

Four stupid. So no it couldn’t go any further than that. So the days went by. They dragged by. Still nothing happened. No word from Anton, no nothing. But all the time at least Les and I, we were smuggling rations down there, planting them under brush and so forth, hiding them away. I had a

07:01:30:00

haversack actually. My old haversack which I’d taken all through the war and I’d take an item down there and stash it in this haversack not far from the job. The security of course by that time was completely lax. I mean, it was. We had – I didn’t discourage escaping, but I did discourage

07:02:00:00

messing about. I had a map there from which I could take tracings and did take tracings. I had – get the old fashioned razor blades and break them in half. I had a magnet. Bloke could make a rough and ready compass out of them. A bloke had to tell me just exactly where – in escaping

07:02:30:00

the first thing you’ve got to establish is where the hell you want to finish. Not just walk away, that’s easy. Where are you going and how are you going to get there? And unless a bloke could convince me of that I’d just say, “Well you’re on your own mate. God bless you. We’ll put up with the rebound. Security’ll be tightened up. All to no purpose, because you’re not getting away.”

07:03:00:00

Almost invariably I’d change his mind – decide that the comfort he had was better than the possibility of being sent to a punishment camp up in Poland. So then on the Tuesday night, Les

07:03:30:00

came to me and he says, “It’s on.” This was now to be precise the 29th of August. Tuesday. I just can’t remember now, but anyway it was the last days of August. It was the Tuesday night. He came to me

07:04:00:00

and said, “Oh yes, Anton approached me today and said, stand by tomorrow. It could be on.” So somehow or other both of us thought, well if four of us can go, why can’t eight? We’re being sods. These blokes are cobbers. The other blokes are good cobbers. Sort of two great minds thinking alike. By common consent we told them

07:04:30:00

they could be in if we wanted to. Well of course they were in like Flynn. So I remember going marching down the station and the dear old puff puff clank clank clank across the railway bridge. And I said, “Oh well, tata Maribor, see you later.” And sure enough Les went up to the first lot of

07:05:00:00

water. I think he’d been up for two trips up – no sign of Anton and we were all biting our fingernails. The third trip he goes, “Yep. The sign is in those trees right about two hundred metres into the bush.” There was a huge bright green chestnut tree that stood out among the rest of the timber which was – couldn’t miss it. “Be there at four o’clock.”

07:05:30:00

That was the word. Didn’t know anything more than that. Righto, everybody was primed up. But they had to be there. And so I noticed by two o’clock the first bloke pleaded a stomach ailment and was flat out laying there in the bushes and so forth. Nobody took much notice of him. And

07:06:00:00

one by one I noticed they were missing. So I thought, plenty of time. I’ll wait till say ten to four. And when I went to move off, and I did move off and one of the guards starting following me. A young guard that I knew quite well. So I walked on and he kept following me.

07:06:30:00

At long last I went to where my haversack was. I just, hell I’m not going to fall at this hurdle am I? What the hell’s going on here? Just a guilty conscience. I wasn’t using my brains. He wasn’t awake up to anything. He just knew that I was good for a cigarette. That’s all. So I just pulled out a packet

07:07:00:00

of Capstans. There were two left. I said in my brightest folksy German, “Gustl old boy – have a smoke’. Pulled the haversack out. I said, “Up there at the cottage there they’ve got some chooks. Chooks lay eggs, I’m going to have some eggs for tea tonight, gustl old boy, I’ll see that you get a couple. How about that?” Eggs were very tightly rationed I might add. Well he had been on black marketing trips with me.

07:07:30:00

He’d seen me buying eggs before. “Fancy some eggs?. “Danke schön.” He lit up. He got one my fags, lit up and mooched quietly away. I slung my haversack over my back. Walked up towards the cottage, doubled back to the chestnut tree and there they were. Six of them. I made seven. The other bloke wasn’t a starter. He was down working down in a cutting. The usual reason for absenting

07:08:00:00

yourself from work were the calls of nature. If he got a call he had to go down the river side. No use trying to climb the cutting. And he didn’t want to mess it up for us. So seven of us and away we went. And we marched. I was dressed up with everything. It was summertime, but I had even a woolly pullover on under my uniform. I had long johns on. You see, I knew –

07:08:30:00

they did what I hoped they’d do – they’d lead us through very mountainous country at altitudes where it’d get damn cold. And I wasn’t going to be cold. In no time flat I was sweating. Oh dear I was a mess. So I stopped and took my jacket off. On we went. And Anton seemed to be in a hurry. So we, “What’s up?” “Oh I want

07:09:00:00

to get there before nightfall.” It was fairly long summer days. But anyway we kept going and kept going. I suppose after we’d – I reckoned we’d gone six seven kilometres at least and we were out of woodland and getting into meadow looking country with farmhouses about and so on. And still he kept going.

07:09:30:00

And eventually we got onto a decent bit of road. We were marching cross country. Then we got onto what was a well used road. We hadn’t gone very far I suppose. And out steps a bloke, one of these Maid of the Mountains jobs. He was only a young man. But he had a forage cap on his head with a red star on it and he didn’t say, “Wo da]” as he would have had he been a German. He said, “Shtoi”

07:10:00:00

which means, stop, halt, checking us out. Anyway our guide was able to check us out. So we passed on. A few more, another five hundred metres and again it happened, “Stoi.” There was another one armed with these damned sub machine guns. Mills bombs by the half dozen around his waist. And eventually we found ourselves dribbling into a dribbling sort of a village

07:10:30:00

which I recognised from the map I had as – you’ve got to get used to the idea of course, the Germans had reverted to all the German place names that had been before 1918 so the mountains I talk about, the Slavs call them the Pohorje, the Germans called them

07:11:00:00

Der Bachen Gebirgs Jäger. And this place to the Germans was Saint Lorenzen am Bachen. To the Slavs it was Loverence Na Pohorje. And a pretty little village. I’ve got some pictures up there. Quite pious people so there were beautiful little churches. Every village – even wayside things –

07:11:30:00

this place had a beautiful steepled church. The villages are a bit scattery. Anyway he led us to the local inn, Apostoria . There he had found two blokes, obviously officers because they were very well dressed in made over German uniforms. You could see a tailor had been to work at them, their britches and everything.

07:12:00:00

Top boots. And they had two red stripes on each of the lapels. I take it that they were lieutenants. But one was actually an acting brigadier and the other was the battalion commander. And with them they had a chap of no particular rank except that he had a red star here on his sleeve. He was the padre. He was the political commissar.

07:12:30:00

Who had to preach the Communist line to the troops. These troops – really the partisans were just the rank and file. They weren’t politically inclined at all. They had no more time for Communism than anything else. But they were only ever there to kick the Germans out of Slovenia. That and nothing else. Whereas of course following the Tito line they had to be good Communists and so forth and prepare for this

07:13:00:00

Communist heaven that the place was going to be when the war was won. But anyway the guide duly introduced us and so forth and so they said, “Nice to meet you. Want a drink?” There was a bottle or Riesling there so all round we were soon drinking some nice cool Riesling. Nice drop. And

07:13:30:00

so I opened the batting. I said, “Well there’s seven of us. Can you get us to safety? I believe it’s rumoured that you have American and English liaison officers on mission there somewhere, can you get us here or get us to Italy?” “Oh yes, all the time. We’re doing it all the time. No problem at all. Have a drink?”

07:14:00:00

I said, “Seven of us, no problem?” “No, I said have a drink. Don’t you realise we’re doing it all the time. Your airmen shot down over Austria. All they’ve got in their secret buttons they can unscrew them and they’ve got a silk map of Austria and Slovenia. All they’ve got to do is get down here and

07:14:30:00

we never miss. We get them out.” And actually statistically that’s true. They got 353 airmen out shot down over southern Germany or Austria. “No trouble at all. All they’ve got to do is get down here.” Actually the rocky ground and mountains and so forth – time and again there’d be the air force roundel – the roundel of the British, like we have on our RAAF

07:15:00:00

aircraft, painted on stones. If they liked to follow the trail they would eventually reach partisans. Well I thought that was a good idea. Yeah, have another drink. And by now the evening was closing in. It was getting dark. There was a noise going on up the street. Well it was a musical. And they were having a celebration in the village hall.

07:15:30:00

There’s a Cornish orchestra, you might say, floral dance and all that and a lot of stomping. Of course they’re great dancing these clog dancing, what they call shoe platler. And there they were. They were dancing these shoe platlers making a hell of a noise o this village orchestra. I think from memory we walked down there I noticed as soon as I walked in the hall a great big lass,

07:16:00:00

tall as Ronte and big. Partisans uniform with Mills bombs swinging from her waist. She grabbed hold of me and I was still fully clad. She bounced me round that floor. And oh God, five minutes I had to beg off. It was all very pleasant, very folksy and our chaps were as good as home and hosed.

07:16:30:00

These blokes were cocky confident, no problem. Then that damned conscience of mine got me. “What a rotten sod you are. There’s eighty odd blokes back in that camp. Seventy odd of them at least are going to come out and

07:17:00:00

work on that railway line tomorrow. They’ve given you their confidence. You’ve been it. You actually have been acting as an officer for two years. They’ve been doing exactly what you’ve said. You’ve been the boss. You’re bloody well going to walk out on them.” That’s where I thought, come on Ralph, come on.

07:17:30:00

I walked back to the pub. The guide had disappeared. He was a good cloak and dagger man, he’d disappeared. But I got one of the locals, plenty of them there, it was near the Austrian border. Spoke German. I fronted these two blokes. The commissar had disappeared, I might add. And I said, “Just a minute, you’re sure about seven of us?” “Have another drink. Told you, you’re as good as back home.”

07:18:00:00

“Look, you’re very confident. If you can manage seven, could you manage seventy?” No, they didn’t invite me to have another drink. I moved away from the interpreter and had a bit of a confab. And I just had enough – I scarcely speak a word of Slovene or Serbo-Croat now, but

07:18:30:00

when you’re among it you pick up a word or two. And I thought I got the idea they were discussing that if they brought a real coup off it would establish better credit with the Allies who were dropping supplies into them. They would feel that they were honouring the alliance if they could deliver a mob of prisoners of war in one heap. That – I can’t say for certain – but it seemed to me.

07:19:00:00

They came back and asked for details. I explained the train came in at about eight o’clock, disgorged its passengers, guards and civvy foremen and the workers. And then the train choofed off and would call back at somewhere about five o’clock, four thirty in the afternoon and load up again.

07:19:30:00

“What’s the cover like?” So I explained, well you saw the picture, good scrub, low scrub, plenty of cover. “Yes well we’ve decided that we’ll do it, but you will have to accompany us.” They wanted a bloody hostage of course. My German was a bit too good. They were still a bit shady. They wanted a hostage. I knew that. Straight away. I said, “Most certainly, I wouldn’t dream of dragging all your ruffians

07:20:00:00

back there. They’d all jump in the Drau with fright if you all turned up without somebody to smooth them down. Of course I’m coming. Actually we’ll be acting on a front of at least a hundred metres. I think I better get one of my cobbers to come back with me. There’d better be two of us. So alright, they agreed. All set up. We’d have to be up at six o’clock in the morning. So I went back and got my blokes and I told them. Well!

07:20:30:00

Kit of course he stood by me. One of the Poms reckoned yeah why not? But Les Laws – now I wouldn’t knock Les for it. He’s quick tempered. And of course to some extent he had found the partisans. He had some patent rights to the whole exercise and I hadn’t consulted him. I had salved my own conscience doing what I did. He accused me of overtaking, that he had planned the whole thing

07:21:00:00

and now I’d abused his confidence. But he’s quick tempered. I smoothed things. I said, “Look, Leslie, we are old mates. We’re not going to get cut up about this. I am confident that these blokes will get us through. There’ll be a gong in it for somebody, I’m not particularly interested in gongs. You can have the gong so long as I get back to Ronte.

07:21:30:00

Be my guest. I’ll promise you that I’ll do everything I can to give you the credit you deserve.” So that smoothed him down. “Oh yes, well if we’re in together to do this stupid thing, well I’ll be in it yes.” So with that done I felt like making a bit of merry or something like that. So we went back to the dance hall. There were a lot of blokes there wanting

07:22:00:00

to treat us. I think we might have had a few. Anyway I was pretty damn tired and we didn’t have time pieces. We had to ask for the time. It had gone eleven o’clock and we had to be away at seven o’clock in the morning so Les and I pottered off and found a heap of straw in a shed somewhere and lay down and got to sleep. I woke up and it was only just getting light when

07:22:30:00

we woke up. The camp was astir. Yep, they were wanting us to leave at six o’clock. Want to be back at the work site at eight. So righto, we lined up and they had something going at the cookhouse – some sort of maize meal porridge from something or other. You got used to the rough diet with the partisans. We reckoned if they could fight on it, we could march on it.

07:23:00:00

So we took it as it came. And then Les and I set off. There, bless my soul, were the two officers. Each mounted on very fine horses, beautiful saddlery. Of course they’d obviously knocked it off from the Germans. But I thought, how quaint. Communism, how egalitarian can you get? Officers as gentlemen still ride, the troops still march. My lesson in Communism. Anyway

07:23:30:00

the officer couldn’t speak anything, but he made me understand he want to hang right by his left-hand stirrup and guide him. So as soon as we got out of town he said, “Wait a minute. You’ve got to all get in partisan single file.” Already of course with the daylight there were spotter planes out. The little Fieseler Storch German spotter planes.

07:24:00:00

Out looking for us. So he broke us up into ten man sections and we’d dash for cover from one cover to another. And it slowed things down a bit but it was necessary because you had to keep under cover from these spotter planes. They could be on you before you know. This worked alright. We got back to the work site about ten minutes to spare. And

07:24:30:00

the commander hived off I think about thirty blokes as a reserve in case something went wrong and the rest of us got down in the scrub and cover alongside the railway line. The railway line was a little bit below the surrounding ground all the way. So we got down there and we couldn’t at first glance be seen.

07:25:00:00

If you were really having a good look, you’d see us. But we were well down. I was wearing my slouch hat which I’d preserved all the way through. It always identified me when I was downtown. I’d always be wearing my slouch hat. It was pretty tatty by then but it was still holding together. But I remember taking the darn thing off, because it was getting interfering. Just put it alongside me.

07:25:30:00

Anyway, in puffs the train. Yes, everything as it should be – which is a story in itself this. It could have been otherwise, but fortunately for me it wasn’t. The train puffs in. The guards got out. The civvies got out. My blokes got out and started dragging their feet towards the tool boxes, getting a bit strung out. Then the train went “Hoop!”

07:26:00:00

in reverse gear back down the incline. Back it went and as soon as it got round the corner the commandant nudged me and I nodded my head like that. He jumped up and blew a whistle and they all jumped up. They were shouting “Hands up!” in Slovene, German, Italian, whatever. “Hände hoch! Mani in alto!” Well of course the dear poor old Germans, these Austrian guards.

07:26:30:00

It was quite comical really. There they were, rifles slung over their shoulders with their hands in the air. My blokes – actually the first bloke up alongside of me – oh before I jumped up by the way I put my hat back on for quick recognition – was a British regular soldier. I remember, snowy-headed bloke. I can’t think of his surname. I’ve forgotten most of them, but Snowy

07:27:00:00

he leapt up there and he said, “Good on you, bloody Crow. I thought you’d be back.” Officers don’t desert their men. Fair dinkum, he said, “I thought you’d be back.” Because they’d guessed what had happened. And anyway some of the blokes, a bit of a panic and all that. In two minutes it was all over. We were back in the scrub going for our lives. It was well after midday before we stopped.

07:27:30:00

We didn’t stop for a pause or a puff or anything. And the poor old guards, they just weren’t used to forced marching. I think my stocks with them were pretty low. But of course I forgot to mention, I understood that in the war between them and the Germans there were no prisoners taken. None at all. The Germans might capture partisans and torture information out of them, but they would

07:28:00:00

still kill them. There was no quarter given. And I just could not go through the rest of my life – I mean, it’s one thing in the heat of battle sticking a bayonet into somebody’s gizzard. It’s also another one being a party to a massacre. These blokes when all was said and done were more or less cobbers of mine. They had to give me an undertaking that we would capture the guards, march them with us for two days,

07:28:30:00

take their clothes off – the partisans were always short of uniforms – hand them some rags and turn them loose to walk back to civilisation. And I’m very relieved to say that they did. That happened. So I have nothing to search my conscience about. I’m like Hamlet, aren’t I? So we got to – I think it was a very big farmhouse anyway where there was some –

07:29:00:00

that was the first stumble. We had our knives forks and spoons with us but we didn’t have our dixies. They were at the cookhouse a couple of lines down the line, a siding where we dropped the lunchtime cook off to cook our lunch. And so what we had to do was bludge on the partisans, share their dixies with them.

07:29:30:00

Anything so long as it didn’t hold us up. The commander made it clear we had to be cracking because these planes, they were out and about looking for us. And from the mountains – we were all up on the mountains looking down on the roads – there were military vehicles going left right and centre. But anyway we marched off and kept in the woodland, and indeed for most of the march

07:30:00:00

we always marched at night and found a woodland to shelter in by day for a sleep. And we marched till evening time, that’s right, and then we made a camp. And that’s when a whole lot of new recruits from Maribor joined us. That’s right.

07:30:30:00

Among them were a few young civvies that I recognised. But there was one bloke came to me, a middle aged bloke, and he’d been issued with a rifle. And he came to me speaking in German. He was a business man from Maribor. And for some reason or other he tried to keep out of their way, but the Gestapo had been pestering him, quizzing him

07:31:00:00

and one thing or another and he’d been warned the day before that he’d better get the hell out of Maribor, they were going to arrest him. Once you’re arrested by the Gestapo you’re in trouble. So he had decamped, but now he regretted it because they’d just take it out on his wife and kids. What could he do? What the hell could I say? It’s in the future.

07:31:30:00

It’s alright, but things seldom turn out as badly as you think they might. But all the comforting couldn’t do any good. The only casualty on the trip. He blew his brains out with a rifle ten minutes later. There was an awful explosion. That was the only blood spilt on the tour from the whole journey. So

07:32:00:00

we marched pretty well the next day but not at such a vigorous pace, good rests and so forth in woodland and pretty well it’s woodland all the way. And we caught up with another formation. There were about a hundred partisans and here was another formation of partisans about a hundred strong that we’d caught up with. They turned out to be the local blokes that had done the raid on Lovrenc, they were from the south

07:32:30:00

of an area of Slovenia called Belotram and that’s why very few of them spoke German. If they had a second language they spoke Italian. But these were the locals and a lot of them spoke German. Anyway the two clenched fists salute like this. They mingled a bit. It was there that

07:33:00:00

the Germans were defrocked and given some rags to put back on. Ten blokes from the local group that we’d met were detailed off. I didn’t know why at the time. And then the band that had actually raided with us marched off, marched down out of our lives. They marched off somewhere,

07:33:30:00

I don’t know where. So then the local group they too marched on. One or two of them I recognised. They marched off. Ta ta. So we were left with ten men. Their leader was actually a commissar. He was a very dour sort of bloke. I think he was suspicious mixing with the likes of me. It might blight his Communist principles

07:34:00:00

being associated with a plutocracy and capitalism and all that sort of thing. He was very hard to get a word out of. He was a quite nice chap after the war I think. But he always was a bit dour. He never had much to say. But I was given an eighteen year old kid as an interpreter. And he stuck with me for the next ten days. We marched along with these partisans. The big worry in my mind was how to get across

07:34:30:00

the Sava. The Sava is a big river. In point of fact, where we crossed it would have been as wide as the river at Mannum [in South Australia]. So it’s no mean river – how to get across. Anyway that’s in the future. And so we marched and stopped at farm cottages for a couple of times. Always by now in the night time. There’d be a feed for us.

07:35:00:00

As I say it was mainly gruel of some sort or whatever. But whatever it was, we got what the partisans got. I used my iron ration goods as the reward for farmers. A cake of soap here, a bar of chocolate there. So the march went on. But it was on I think

07:35:30:00

the fourth or fifth night out we were marching along and I’d consult with the leader – he had good ordinance maps. I had this clapped out old map of Slovenia and Southern Austria. So I roughly knew where we were supposed to be. And we called at this farmhouse and they gave us a feed

07:36:00:00

of some sort, but they killed a wether of some sort, sheep, and dressed it and gave us two sides. They had poles and two blokes each carried a side you see. Shoulder poles. Fairly heavy. A side of wether. And so they could change.

07:36:30:00

Off we marched. And I remember crossing what we’d call a decent sized creek. But they were mountain fed, snow fed, it was spring and it was flowing pretty strongly this creek It was quite shallow. We were following a bit of a track. Wheel marks. And there was a bit of a fjord there. There was obviously some deeper water, but here it was just

07:37:00:00

water flowing over pebbles and stones. You had to tread carefully or else on these stones you tripped up. Well I didn’t dance very well. I was one of a number who went flat on their face in this cold water. Anyway we marched on, keep marching and dry out. I suppose we marched another couple of hours and then I remember this track

07:37:30:00

led us into – it was moonlight – you could see a dim outline of farm buildings. But we were still in woodland. But we marched out of the woodland back on this track. There was always a lead scout out. Anything, three hundred four hundred yards out in front of us. There’d be a couple out sideways of us

07:38:00:00

making sure we weren’t being outflanked or something like that. Anyway he was going in and he had a torch. Obviously this was a place we were supposed to pick up information or something. He flashed a signal with his torch. No answer. So from way back, you could see quite a bright light of the torch. No answer. And then eventually from the house came

07:38:30:00

“Wer da?” no doubt that was German. Who goes there? Whacko! They didn’t hide their light under a bushel. The advance bloke called out, “Partisan!” Well it went bang bang bang. They opened up on us. There was a rather heavy machine gun was going thump thump thump thump and

07:39:00:00

there were other lighter machine guns. And this was flying around and our lead scout, he opened up and one or two of them had these sub machine guns, they opened up. And of course we all went to ground. Flop. It was an automatic reaction. Flop on the ground.

07:39:30:00

This young eighteen year old, he panicked and he yelled – he was right alongside of me – “Run, run!” And of course they all heard and most of them knew enough German to understand ‘run’. So they got up and ran for their lives. And as he jumped up to run he put his foot fair in the middle of my back and I was completely out of breath. And I’m trying to bellow, “Don’t run! Don’t scatter!”

07:40:00:00

The blokes that could hear me reckoned that all they could hear was “Run! Scatter!.” So I stuck with the leader and the interpreter. Got back into the woodland thinking that’s where most of them with any sense would congregate. And in point of fact they did. But I couldn’t find them. So there I was with the leader of the band, the interpreter, all the

07:40:30:00

partisans pretty well except the lead scout. He’d gone –
Interviewee: Ralph Churches Archive ID 1094 Tape 08

08:00:40:00

Anyway this young Victorian fellow, a big young bloke and a bit of a larrikin as I say. And he came over to me and he said, “Crow, this is no time for bloody whispering. Those Jerries up there in the house …”

08:01:00:00

I might say the commander as we started the retreat bellowed out in Slovenian, “Battalion advance!” And it came out “Battalion na pres,” and he had a pretty good bellowing voice. He said, “Look, those bloody Jerries, there’s probably only a section of them. They think they’re coming under attack by a bloody battalion. What the hell’s wrong with you?” And with that he says, “We’ll get this troop together.

08:01:30:00

Righto! Anybody within hail, hear this! Hear this! Get out of the woodland where we came out. Get back here at the B double or you’ll get left behind because we’re moving off in three minutes flat.” That was the way to go. Salvation. They popped up from here. They popped up from there. Cholo our lead scout he’d been down to another farmhouse

08:02:00:00

and commandeered a seventeen year old there. As he said, mobilised him – to be our guide. We’d run into trouble because we’d gone without a local guide. And the partisans never did that without a local guide. So they kidnapped this young 17 year old to guide us along to the next stop. That was quite all right. Nobody minded. Nobody objected. I’ve been back to the spot since. Met the young bloke actually,

08:02:30:00

twenty odd years on or something. Thirty years on. Away we marched. Unfortunately when it came to account when we got far enough away so we could stop and count I had lost four. I don’t know whether I got it right in the book or not. I’m a bit doubtful. But four.

08:03:00:00

Unfortunately two of them who were particular cobbers of mine. We’d been together since the road building days. Two Englishmen didn’t answer the roll call. And there were two French – oh yes of course, I’ve omitted that. On the second day that we – I had told the partisans because I knew where the working camps were because I was the quartermaster for the Red Cross

08:03:30:00

for the Maribor area so I knew where all the camps were because camp leaders had to come and draw their boxes of Red Cross parcels from me. Completely forgotten all about this. So I was able to tell the partisans that if they were all that confident apart from my mob there were at least nine Britishers – I didn’t know whether they were Australians or what – in a farm camp only about

08:04:00:00

ten mile away from where we were standing in Long Ritz back towards Maribor. They never said whether they’d do anything about it or not, but they did. But on the way there they ran into a camp of ten Frenchmen. French prisoners of war who were very happy, thank you. They were on parole, they didn’t even have a guard. They didn’t want a bail of the partisans, but the partisans – “You’re coming with us.” So there we were from a party of originally –

08:04:30:00

what was the original party, let me see – 87, that’s right. Yeah, 87 from my original camp. We were now a party of 105. So that was up to this point. But unfortunately

08:05:00:00

there I lost four of my Englishmen. One of them was an Australian, that’s right. And two Frenchmen. I think the French were very glad to be re-captured or something. But anyway that was that. I was very sorry about it, but that was the way

08:05:30:00

it was. I think in the book I say I lost four. I didn’t. I lost six. But two of them – one was an Australian – they made it on their own steam going from partisan to partisan. They eventually got there. On we marched

08:06:00:00

and came to another place. There was a courier waiting for us with some news. There’d been quite a scrap not very far away on the road. They’d really taken on a good force of Germans and carved them up and captured quite a lot of munitions and they were very grateful to us because why the original commander had been so enthusiastic about getting us out was the fact

08:06:30:00

that where seven, well the Germans’d just have to cop that. Couldn’t do anything about it. With 70 or 80 everyone in Maribor knew the camp was up there at the railway station and for the whole lot to have gone, that would be really very bad for German morale and German control in Maribor. The people’d say, “Well whacko, the Englander are getting on top of them.” And that’s exactly what happened.

08:07:00:00

The Germans set out for the good force they reckoned the knew where we would be and tried to cut us off. But the partisan intelligence was very good and waylaid them and so they had a great victory and everybody was very happy. Oh yes. They claimed to have captured all sorts of things – motor vehicles and trucks and things and lots and lots. Anyway we marched on and from there on it seems to have been pretty

08:07:30:00

uneventful. Except on the sixth day – we had been going – marching by day marching through woodland and then really – of course what had happened we had got onto the plains of the valley of the River Sava. And of course it was flat land. But the partisans didn’t seem to

08:08:00:00

worry. They marched south, single file, across this flat country, across fields and one thing and another. And they said, “Yes, form up into columns of three like you normally march.” “Righto.” Marched on. So we marched on into a field

08:08:30:00

with a bit of a rise on it and Franj my interpreter says, “We want you to sing [It’s A Long Way To] Tipperary.” What the hell’s going on? Anyway, I was known as a singer so I struck up Tipperary. And we’re going along and it sounded good marching along singing Tipperary. What the hell was going on? Here we were in the middle of enemy occupied territory

08:09:00:00

singing our heads off. How stupid could it get? In broad daylight. So while we were about it we sang Pack Up Your Troubles [In An Old Kit Bag] as well. By that time the reason for it. Here in the middle of this field were a group of about 20 or 30 men, some in uniform, some in civvies. And there am I. I’m leading and so when we got up

08:09:30:00

our leader and the interpreter they did a left wheel, so I bellowed out “Left wheel.” We left wheeled and came to a halt. Righto, they’ve stopped so I called a “Halt! Right turn.” And there we were facing up these … lo and behold there’s a bloke in British uniform with a crown on his epaulets. A major.

08:10:00:00

I don’t know I somehow or other got the idea of – I just forget what his name was – anyway I marched up to him with a slouch hat on and I saluted him. We were very happy to salute, although Australians aren’t great saluters. And he made the comment. He turned out to be a Canadian I think. Cause he had just a slight it could have been a west country or a Canadian voice.

08:10:30:00

“Say, you seem keen on all this salutin’. I was informed that Australians didn’t do much saluting, particularly to English officers.” I said, “No. Major, we only do that on very auspicious occasions. And seeing the first British officer that I have in three years and three months I call this an auspicious occasion.”

08:11:00:00

He said, “Good on you. We’ve heard all about you. Jove, you’re doing well. You seem to have the thing under control. You’re not bad for a Lance, Jack.” I had my stripe on me. I said, “Oh well that’s the way it goes. I’ve been their leader for a couple of years.” And then along comes a little bloke about my build with beady eyes and steel rimmed glasses, obviously rated

08:11:30:00

but he had a little bit of English. His English wasn’t real bad. “Australia, ja ja. You iss a contradiction.” I said, “Contradiction?” “Ja. A democratic monarchy. How can you be one ruler and democratic.”

08:12:00:00

So I had a giggle at that and explained to him it was purely formal, that we did in fact elect. “Ah yes, I understand, I just make joke.” It turned out he was second in command to Tito. He was a Slovene. Of course he was a Slovene. But normally he would have been out in the Mediterranean on the island of Vis with Tito. But he’d come back to the mainland for some reason or other.

08:12:30:00

And he thought this was quite an occasion, the partisans rescuing a hundred Britishers. Something he could brag to the liaison officers about. These Slovenes weren’t mugs. I had quite a talk with him. He seemed a very genial sort of chap. I did know his name too. It occurs in the book. I just forget for the moment. We won’t waste time on trying to recall it.

08:13:00:00

Wait a minute – Edo Kardelj Edward kardelj. That was his name. He was quite a boyo in the post-war Yugoslavia. Anyway we had a talk there and then time came to move on and I was, because I thought, “Where are all the German aircraft?” There we were out in the middle of a paddock in bright sunshine. It was a lovely day.

08:13:30:00

Bright sunshine and 120 standing there waiting for the first reconnaissance plane to bring Stukas out to deal with us. And nobody seemed to care so in due course we marched off again back to single file and by nightfall we struck another farmhouse and I remember it very well because they were a young couple there but they had a wash copper full of gruel for us.

08:14:00:00

But they had two very pretty children, and the youngster was very fascinated by my slouch hat. He tried it on and so forth. But they were very sweet, very civilised, nice couple. And they saw us on our way and so we marched off into the night. And eventually reached a woodland where the commandant

08:14:30:00

- he just – we were dog tired and he had a blanket, he rolled himself up a blanket. The irony was – my blokes as I’d promised they were suffering like hell. Because most of the way we had been in elevated country. Quite chilly. The nights particularly. And there they were in the home made shorts, sleeveless shirts and nothing else. And when they moaned

08:15:00:00

about it, I said, “Oh well didn’t you get a message?” You’ll see a picture of them there as they finally arrived at our destination. Rag tag band. Anyway we all had a sleep. There was no move that day.

08:15:30:00

Then this leader bloke, Sveik as we knew him, he got the interpreter and said, “Well this is the end of the road for us. Just over there a few hundred yards away is the Sava River and another band of partisans will be taking you over and getting you across the river. But they will arrive in due course.” And quite late in the afternoon they arrived.

08:16:00:00

With some rations. We had a feed. Amazing what you can do because it wasn’t what you’d call nourishment but still as I say the partisans fought on it, we could march on it. And anyway there was an English speaker among these new arrivals. So they arrived. So

08:16:30:00

then Sveik our eight day leader – it was eight days he’d taken to get us down to the – actually ten days since we’d escaped but he’d been leading us for eight days. We hadn’t had much conversation, but I was very grateful to him and if he wanted to be a Communist that was his business and so forth. So we shook hands with him and …

08:17:00:00

oh no, that’s right – we were greatly impressed. Back in the paddock where we met the major, that’s right, I could see from a distance he had an officer’s cap on. And I bellowed out “Eyes right,” and saluted as we went past. Then when I stepped up, that’s right, I saluted again. That’s why he thought I was overdoing the saluting. But anyway

08:17:30:00

this party, we shook hands all round and I think it was, yes, wished them well. They were going back to what the Germans call the Bacher mountains and they call the Pohorje. And so cheerio and they marched out, as I think out of my life. That too proved not to be true.

08:18:00:00

So the new lot took us over. They had an English speaker. We had to maintain very strict silence because it was going to be a moonlit night. When it got properly dark at moonlight we would be ferried across the Sava River. But we had to do it very very quietly. The Germans had strong points all around. The

08:18:30:00

local farmers had arranged to cover any noise we might make. They had persuaded the Germans that the Germans had taken all their draught horses, draught live stock and the people south of the Sava needed the livestock to get the harvest in. Of course, this was now end of September, harvest time. Anyway the Jerries fell for this. As it got dark we could hear this horses galloping and

08:19:00:00

chaps on horseback whistling and so on. And a soon as it was dark we marched down, they asked us to march in two columns. So Les took one column and I took the other column. I remember tall reeds on our bank of the Sava River. Lo and behold we got down to the water’s edge and what was there but a dinghy that would take six people.

08:19:30:00

I found out afterwards the deal was the same at the other end. Now with six people on board, the Sava River at that point was very wide, but only out in the middle was it deep. There was a strong current for a few metres out in the deep. Quite a strong current. But apart from that, it was very shallow. So for starters they had to pole us with six blokes until we were aground. And they had to pole us until – they knew exactly where – they

08:20:00:00

slipped the poles, grabbed the oars and hit the current and boy was there a current. It sent us, we were going downstream, actually it was about a hundred metres downstream from where we took off. But we were soon – they rowed like blazes and they got us out of this current. Out come the poles again and they poled us upstream where there were also lots of reeds so we disappeared into the reeds. And Les’s crowd were doing the same. But

08:20:30:00

they went to march – I wanted to go in the first boat for the simple reason find out what was going to happen on the other side. So the partisans waiting for us, they wanted us all to march off. Nobody spoke any English. No German or anything except Slav. But I made it clear that I had to stay there to count the blokes from the two rows as they came across.

08:21:00:00

I got them to understand this. So they marched them off as they came across. Rowing across the river took about on the average quarter of an hour to twenty minutes. So half an hour to forty minutes for the return trip. So it was quite a long operation. Ninety- nine bods we were. So when you’re counting twelve at a time

08:21:30:00

they had to make eight trips. Two boats make eight trips twelve at a time. So it was well on into the morning by the time I’d counted them all across. But despite the lack of language they got across to us that we were now in an area that was not of much strategic interest or even tactical interest to the Germans.

08:22:00:00

Sure they still had pill boxes here and there, defence points, but there weren’t very many German troops. There weren’t any German patrols worth talking about. We could relax a bit – that’s what I gathered from just doing it in Slovene. And so we marched off and caught up with the blokes. They were at another farmhouse where we again had a feed. But there was one problem

08:22:30:00

now because whereas we’d be marching across paddocks and urban roads, now we were getting into country where we marched openly on made roads. They might only be tracks but they’d been worn down so that they were quite rough, hard roads. There wasn’t any soft going any more. You understand me? You know what happened?

08:23:00:00

The complaint that they’d never been before – nails in boots. Walking on hard surfaces worked nails up through the soles. But oddly enough it didn’t matter very much because every peasant, every house as a matter of course had a boot jack. So they were able to get their boots on the boot jack and belt the nails down. But it was a worry for quite a while because most of them had worn their socks out.

08:23:30:00

A lot of pairs of socks had worn out. I was alright. Well actually I had a good pair of socks on, but I had a spare pair so I was able to give them to somebody in need. But no we marched along quite nicely. But some of the chaps, the going was getting a bit tough for them. They weren’t in good enough shape really. But you just had to coax them along, get the partisans to slow down a bit.

08:24:00:00

Anyway, my memory of things, perhaps in the book it’d be a bit more defined and clear. But it’s just days of marching. Sometimes we’d stop at a woodland for a sleep, feed or something like that. But I remember one night hitting a town where there was quite a torrent sized river flowing through the town. It had

08:24:30:00

a bridge over it. The bridge was just wide enough and strong enough to carry their light wagons and so forth with a horse or an ox pulling it. And just one of the odd things that happened, there was a girl there too – that’s right she was to guide us to where there was a meal. That’s right. This village – I don’t know whether it was a village or a town. It was probably rated a town. But there was the local media.

08:25:00:00

We caught up with the local media. They had a printing press. They got out a news sheet every few days. Of course, this was a big deal. He’d pinned on to me and he thought he spoke English, which wasn’t any English that I could really understand. So I tried German, yes he had a bit of German. His Italian was alright, but mine wasn’t.

08:25:30:00

But anyway I don’t know what sort of a story he wrote, but this would have made his news sheet. Ninety-nine of the allied soldiers on the march with – the partisans called themselves the Army of National Liberation. And yes the troops of the Army of National Liberation was guiding ninety-nine

08:26:00:00

allied troops to freedom. I would reckon he made a sensation. Anyway at the end of the town there was an empty shed. We were herded in there. I might say by now – trust ingenuity – the dixie problem didn’t worry anyone very much anymore. They’d all picked up something that was hollow – a jam jar, a tin of some sort. Everybody – of course you see the original – we had our dixies, of course, we knew

08:26:30:00

that we’d need our dixies. But everyone else they were managing quite nicely with jam jars and tinned cans and whatever they’d picked up. It wasn’t a problem any more. So we had I remember quite a nice meal in the shed. And we marched on a little way and then into another woodland and we had a good sleep.

08:27:00:00

Next day we marched pretty well – took our time, but I think we were on the road pretty well all day. And at night time we came to woodland – there’s a picture of it there, I’m sure it’s the same place – with a great big open space between that and the next woodland. Probably a space

08:27:30:00

five hundred metres, but quite a long space too. We were instructed, “Right get in among the trees. Don’t move out of the trees and make sure that you get under a strong tree.” And come about – it must have been about eleven o’clock at night. I know I’d dozed off. Suddenly the sound of aircraft.

08:28:00:00

Out dashed the partisans and there were piles and piles of fire wood scattered around the edges of this vacant space. Huge fires. Fires damn near as big as this room. This was a supply drop. And the reason we had to stay under strong trees was that anything

08:28:30:00

breakable they dropped by parachute. But bundles of uniforms and boots didn’t need a parachute. You could hear them going thump! crash! wallop! Because the plane I suppose they came in quite low one by one about half a dozen of them dropping these. Oh, that’s the trick there. Guiding them was an English lieutenant.

08:29:00:00

His story was an interesting one. He was in a reserved occupation in London and he hadn’t enlisted or they hadn’t been called up but it so happened that two Slovene refugees who had fled Slovenia when the Germans invaded had made it to London. He’d taken them in as boarders. They were looking for shelter.

08:29:30:00

So he’d taken them in. In the course they got him a Slovene/English-English/Slovene dictionary and taught him to speak Slovene. So as soon as Churchill in 1943 decided that Tito was the bloke he was going to back instead of the Serbian Chetniks – Milosevic’s lot – soon as he – right, this bloke was in high demand.

08:30:00:00

Because I mean Slovenian is only a home language to about two million people. It’s pretty scarce. So an Englishman speaking it, oh he was just what Fitzroy McLean, the delegate to Tito, was looking for. He was immediately commissioned as a lieutenant and there he was taking charge of a supply drop right there in Slovenia. But he

08:30:30:00

knew all about us. But he laughed. He said, “Well they’ve surprised it this time. They’re bonny fighters. They’re bonny blokes, these Slovenes. But they do exaggerate. When they say they killed fifty Germans, say five. They stretch it a bit. And when they told us they were bringing a hundred fleeing prisoners of war he said oh yeah, maybe ten. They’re right

08:31:00:00

for once. Yeah, the place you’re bound for is a little village only probably a day’s march from here called Semich and there you’ll find English and American officers. So stick it out. Keep going. You must be getting a bit worn out.” I said, “Yeah. I’ll give you that in writing.” Anyway this air drop, down they came. And in no time flat. In the moonlight

08:31:30:00

there’s clapped out old trucks but mainly ox wagons at the bottom of the hill gathering this stuff up before the Germans got it. Cause the Germans used to track these flights in pretty well you see and track the fires that the partisans lit. Because while they could they used to raid in, make a flying swoop on it, but they lacked the troops to do it at this stage of the piece.

08:32:00:00

So we stayed there. I think I caught another hour or two’s sleep or something. Quite early in the morning our guides told us we had to bustle on. So it was still dark. Everyone seemed to hurry and I never made a head count which was a bad mistake. Because we got to the next stopping place

08:32:30:00

and lo and behold, but who was missing? None but my old mate, Ken Carson. Ken Carson, dear old Ken. Stuttering Ken. He was a very good sleeper. I will always have a picture of Ken with his foot on a long handled shovel and a German overseer roaring at him. “Nicht verstehen,” which of course enraged him. But that was the only German Kit knew was “Nicht verstehen.” I don’t

08:33:00:00

understand. But anyway so I wanted to go back or send somebody back but the partisans wouldn’t hear of it. No no no they had their schedules they had to make and there was no going back. They said, “He’ll be alright. There’s not much of the enemy around here. He’ll be alright.” And so we marched on. But by now some of the blokes were really footsore.

08:33:30:00

Really done in. And these lot of partisans, our escort now, wood group cell five I think there were five or six of them and march in front of us. So I got them. They marched at a pace we couldn’t keep up so I really roared at them in the bit of Slovene I had. And I just told them, “We can’t go as fast and for goodness sake there’s people dropping off at the end of the line down there. Will one of you go to the end of the line, one of you march alongside

08:34:00:00

us, so that you can whistle if somebody falls out?” They saw the sense of this. But while we stopped I said, “You blokes that are feeling the going, there’s some light timber here. Get yourself a stick of some sort for support.” I had to jolly them along. Well, I wasn’t going that well myself. I reckon I had a days march in front of me and I didn’t want any more

08:34:30:00

after that. Anyway we marched during the day taking rests and so forth and we were getting pretty hungry. I remember in the middle of the afternoon we went round a shoulder of a hill – oh biggish mountain I suppose you’d call it – and away in the distance we could see some houses and things, it was a village. And the guides said, “Semich.” So there it was.

08:35:00:00

Our rag tag job, we just drooped our way into Semich and that was the end of the road. Partisan officer who was all dressed up in quite a flash American uniform, stepped out when we got there and started sounding off in English about us being late. We should have been there much quicker. I was in no mood for any nonsense like that.

08:35:30:00

I roared back at him that we had marched two hundred and fifty ks in fourteen days on very scrappy rations. He didn’t look as if he had done a hundred yards on the best. It was too bad. We were here and that was the object of the exercise. He choofed off and that was that. And the next thing I knew up roared

08:36:00:00

a funny little vehicle. A thing called a jeep. Never seen one before. A jeep. And an American marshal sergeant in it. Very shortish bloke. Nice bloke called Jim, a very genial young man. Made us welcome. Told us that our troubles were over. And he showed us the local school which had been evacuated of course. And there were

08:36:30:00

Hessian bags, palliasses for mattresses. Heaps and heaps of straw to fill them with. So there we are. All we had to do was fill up our palliasses and we’d have a bed. Also of course we’d be having a meal pretty shortly. He looked at some of the eating gear and told us “So you can junk

08:37:00:00

that gear, you won’t need it here.” And we didn’t. We were supplied. We had a really splendid dinner served in nice enamelware. Really, we perked up perceptibly before we went to sleep. But despite the lack of – oh they did find

08:37:30:00

some blankets, but I think we ran them out of blankets. Anyway those that were especially ill clad, they got blankets. And so they slept well. And that was Semich. Very pretty little village. I’ve been back to it a couple of times. It’s advanced a bit. Oddly enough we hadn’t had very much of rain in the fourteen days of the march. We were very fortunate.

08:38:00:00

No we didn’t. We had fine weather there in Semich. So there wasn’t much to do. Potter around. Oh yes, the English captain – Saggers, Captain Jack Saggers – he came as soon as we arrived. At least as soon as Jim the master sergeant had us down at our sleeping quarters. Came along and

08:38:30:00

bade us welcome. Got the story from Les and I just what had happened. And he considered it all quite remarkable. “Rather overdoing it, chaps, you know you should not have gone back. That was really testing your luck too far, chaps.” “Well we’re here aren’t we sir?” “Yes yes you have justified yourselves.

08:39:00:00

A splendid effort. Really pukka. I am very proud to be associated with you.” Oh he was charming chap, really nice. And so the days went on. It was a matter then of course signalling to Italy that we were there. Could somebody come and lift us out. And yes somebody could. I’ve still got a picture of it of flat country

08:39:30:00

which was a bit scarce there, where there was a rising woodland at one end and a river at the other which the partisan surveyors reckoned was a thousand metres, but – well anyway, the third night, I think it was the third night. I must get my dates right. We were called out. We’d been – all of us had gone to sleep, we were in bed. Getting in bed just

08:40:00:00

meant taking your shoes off. Fortunately there were ablutions and so forth at this depot so we were smelling a little better than we had for some time. Anyway we stand to and we’re told to march down allegedly to the airfield. But halfway there they met up with a messenger. No, it wasn’t on. The

08:40:30:00

weather, you see, could be fine in Italy, but cloudy here in Slovenia. I don’t think the partisans every recognised the difficulty there of getting fine weather, moonlight weather, both sides of the Adriatic. But anyway this – and there was a lot of mumbling and grumbling amongst the troops. I had to shut them up. And back we had to march. It was called off. No reason

08:41:00:00

given. It just wasn’t on.
Interviewee: Ralph Churches Archive ID 1094 Tape 09

09:00:42:00

So we had to return to our sleeping quarters. The chaps were a bit grumpy and so forth. But I just had to tell them that was the way things were. But unfortunately exactly the same thing happened next night. Well I found that trying even

09:01:00:00

my patience. But there it was. It wasn’t on, it wasn’t on. But the next night we were dragged out. And we wondered, well I wonder. But no we had passed the point where we had been turned back twice before. Kept marching and eventually – it was quite a respectable road – and there in the moonlight we

09:01:30:00

were turned off a right hand turn, marched across the fields and there was a strip of open country, a rising woodland at one end and some tall trees. Well it turned out of course a river. But the partisans said there was a thousand yards there which was the necessary for a loaded DC3 or what the Yanks call a Dakota to get off the ground.

09:02:00:00

And this was high drama. Must have been I suppose well after eleven o’clock at night. We had been marched right down to the woodland end of this airstrip. There we waited. And we heard the sound of aircraft coming in. Right over us. And to our

09:02:30:00

amazement, down floated a parachutist. It turned out he got decorated for this. In the operations in Italy weren’t all that certain that the airstrip was in partisan hands. So he had to drop down to establish that this was the place and then to guide the planes in. So he dropped down and the plane circuit came in he put a red

09:03:00:00

flash over their nose. They had to come in lower and more quickly because they didn’t have a lot of space to play with. And actually it was the third attempt he got a green light over his bow and landed into the wind, roared back down to the airstrip, turned round and came back again. Unloaded a whole lot of gear that they didn’t want to

09:03:30:00

drop by parachute. Then loaded up a whole lot of wounded partisans on crutches. Chaps that needed more serious hospitalisation than was available to them where they were. They were loaded on and there was just room for seven of us. So it wasn’t selfishness, looking after my own corner, but I said, “Righto, the original seven, we’ll take that.” A murmuring. I said, “Wait a minute.

09:04:00:00

Lobbing ninety nine people unexpectedly that might be a difficulty getting anyone to own us. I am leading this because I’ve got to establish some accommodation, you ungrateful sods that you are. We’ve got to get it all tied up.” Anyway away we went. And as we took off I was aware as we got really airborne, there was just something – a bit of a bump,

09:04:30:00

a little bit of a thump and once the pilot got it on automatic pilot he came back. He was a young north English flight sergeant. And was he going crook about the partisans. “I’ve been flying so and so missions for another six weeks. If they don’t take me off this I won’t be alive in another six weeks. A thousand yards, they say. A thousand yards.

09:05:00:00

Didn’t they feel the bump as my wheels come up?” “Come to mention it, sarge [sergeant], yes I was.” He said, “That was the so and so treetops. I signalled back that they’ve got to get their wheels up quicker.” Anyway that was that. No seats, just lying on the fuselage, but I was feeling tired and sleepy so I went to sleep and then someone woke me up and said, “We’ll be landing in quarter of an hour.”

09:05:30:00

And so we did, at Bari in Italy. And so there were ambulances waiting there for the sick partisans. One of the ambulance drivers said, “Who are you? Are you British?” I said, “You bet.” He said, “We’re supposed to be picking up wounded partisans.” I said, “Well here they are, go get them, they’re in there.

09:06:00:00

By the way what’s the time?” And he said “Half past one, mate.” Half past one. It had to be – now was it, yes – by my reckoning it had to be the nineteenth of September or maybe the eighteenth. I wasn’t sure. I’m still not. But since we actually made the raid

09:06:30:00

was eighteen days. That took place on the last day of August 1944 so it was either they eighteenth or nineteenth. It doesn’t matter. But of course it was when I buttonholed one of these drivers. The aircraft had buzzed off somewhere and gone back to a hangar or something.

09:07:00:00

I was there and there was nobody but the driver of the last ambulance. “Where can we find somebody to talk to? We want accommodation?” “Wouldn’t have a bleeding clue, mate. Wouldn’t have a bleeding clue. Light over there.” We looked and along the row of barracks there was a light. So Les and I set out for this. It was air force of course. And there was a flight sergeant there

09:07:30:00

sitting there on duty. So we breasted him and told him who we were and he said, “But you’re army aren’t you?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well we can’t do much.” I said, “Well you can pick up a phone can’t you and ring someone.” “Oh wait a minute, I better get the orderly officer.” So he goes away and he gets I think a flying officer rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. He’d been having a zzz when he should have been awake.

09:08:00:00

So we told him. So he resorted to the telephone. Next thing obviously somebody had got somebody higher up out of bed because, “Yes sir. I’m sorry sir. I understand sir.” Well of course what the higher up said, “Ring area headquarters, you blockhead. Don’t get me out of bed.” So he rang up area and in quarter of an hour flat

09:08:30:00

there were covered trucks rolling along. But in the meantime of course they hadn’t been still. Two more aircraft had landed. We’d been haggling there for half an hour or more so two more aircraft had landed. There were our blokes standing around all over the place. There were over forty blokes by the time I got back to them. Anyway these trucks picked us all up. And I can remember the jolly fat sergeant, he insisted on having me in the cabin of the truck with him as well as the driver.

09:09:00:00

I hadn’t been told anything about security or anything like that. And he was just amazed. He just couldn’t imagine blokes – we were talking and I said how we’d marched 99 blokes through 150 miles of enemy territory of mountainous country and still made it. He said, “That unheard of. You’re here, but it’s hard to believe.”

09:09:30:00

He was a very hearty bloke. We got to barracks. Then we got planes number four and six landed, duly arrived while I was waiting – we were beautifully in proper beds and bedside cupboards – the lap of luxury. But the number six plane blokes brought the news that

09:10:00:00

number five had developed a fault and couldn’t take off. They had to send an aircraft mechanic in. But this was done. They took the risk, flew a fighter plane in just with a mechanic. Landed, dropped him off. Of course they dragged the plane back into the timber or camouflaged it or something. So this mechanic

09:10:30:00

got to work on it. I might say the two blokes – there were six I lost at the ambush. Four were recaptured. The two blokes – one of them an Englishman, he rolled into Semich on the second day after we arrived, but the Aussie bloke he rolled in the day we actually took off. So there were actually a net four

09:11:00:00

Brits I lost at the ambush. And anyway the next night the last nineteen arrived. So I thought that was pretty good. We were speedily – they got a whole battery of physicians out to examine us, see that we were all right.

09:11:30:00

We were. No casualties at all except feet that needed attention and stomachs that needed to trim their sails and not make beasts of themselves in a great hurry because – and that’s right, the half colonel got us to parade and told us we must not speak a word about

09:12:00:00

it to anybody. Tight security. Otherwise we’d be endangering the lives of the people in there. It was a tight secret. We must on no account give it away. We later had to sign declaration forms that we understood this, but he gave us the oil and it was about – I think we were at Bari for 48 hours and then we were moved by a truck up to Foggia which was a big army

09:12:30:00

base. There we were de-briefed, cross questioned and so on. We were able to draw twenty quid sterling because now we thought we could buy something with money. The only trouble was, in strapped Italy, there wasn’t anything worth buying. It was very frustrating. And their beer was lousy so we resorted to drinking their red wine

09:13:00:00

and decided that wasn’t up to much either. So there we were with money to spend and nothing to spend it on. At the end of the de-briefing we had to sign declarations that we understood that this was official secrets and under the Official Secrets Act it would be a crime if we were to reveal it until we were given the all clear. That was all right. Then there was one morning a

09:13:30:00

staff car came round and Les Laws was in it. And he picked me up and we were taken to intelligence headquarters there to be specially de-briefed by a colonel. If ever I saw a caricaturists dream of a

09:14:00:00

perfect model of a modern major general or something like that – Colonel Blimp – this bloke was it. He was middle aged, dark – bald head, but dark what was left of it except he had grey sideboards and a heavy grey moustache and he puffed. He prefaced everything he said with [emulates cough]. So we got talking what had happened.

09:14:30:00

But he started knocking the partisans. “You seem to have some regard for these, what would you call them, militia I suppose.” I said, “Well call them what you like, sir, they’re doing a mighty fine job. It’s making it very difficult for the Germans to get supplies. That’s the only supply line they’ve got left. They’ve got one left in France. They can’t come over the Brenner [Pass] so the only route is through

09:15:00:00

Slovenia and they’re getting a hard time. They’re getting stretches of railway line blown up practically every night. I think they’re doing a fine job. They got us out anyway.” With that he walked to a big wall map. It was a map of Slovenia and surrounds. And he had pinpointed every POW camp, working camp. He said,

09:15:30:00

“Hmm. Only a hundred mile as the crow flies. If these partisans are so clever why aren’t more of our fellows going up?” And I again, and Les joined me protesting, “Sir, we were able to go to the partisans. The German security is very tight. We were in a position to go to the

09:16:00:00

partisans and they got us out.” “Mm. I still say, a hundred mile as the crow flies. I can’t understand why more of our fellows aren’t doing it.” And I did my block. I said, “Maybe, sir, it’s because they’re not bloody crows.” He bridled a bit and he went “Humph. Oh of course you’re the Australian, aren’t you?” But that was more or less that. They had a

09:16:30:00

lady there, the sergeant a stenographer to take it all down. She was grinning a bit. So we more or less snapped to attention, saluted and marched. But I was very aggrieved at this. I thought we’d done something a bit special and only a hundred mile as the crow flies wasn’t – so next day – I thought about it – I found my own way back to this place and I enquired at the counter.

09:17:00:00

The receptionist at the desk recognised me because I still had this battered slouch hat. I said, “I’d like to speak to an intelligence officer other than the gentleman I spoke to.” “Oh. What about?” “About this escape. I’ve got some more information to tender.” Which was a lie. I didn’t. And she said, “If you can

09:17:30:00

wait perhaps ten or – ” “Oh time’s no object, yes, I’ll sit here.” At last I was shown in to a much – a colonel, a full colonel but he wouldn’t have been forty I don’t think. Much younger bloke. I told him the story and he said, “Well you have every reason to be proud of what you achieved. If you do your sums,

09:18:00:00

we don’t know when the war will be over, but suppose you have given days and days of freedom to ninety-nine fellows. That’s a pretty fair achievement, corporal. Well done.” And then as I promised Les I said, “Well I do want Les Laws to be recognised. Without his operation it wouldn’t have happened. He underwent

09:18:30:00

considerable danger with all the Gestapo and SS [Schutzstaffel] that was around consorting at all with civilians. Had we have been nabbed he wouldn’t have gone to well.” He said, “Neither would you for that matter. You were the leader.” I said, “No, I want it marked, though. I want him recognised if possible.” And he thanked me and he thought it very generous of me and he had

09:19:00:00

a lass went off to type up my statement and he talked to me while it typed up, had me sign it and away I went. And that afternoon glory of glories me old mate, Kit Carson, turned up. The night after we flew out he arrived in Semich

09:19:30:00

in a buggy drawn by a horse. One of the local farmers had driven him. He didn’t have any German, except he realised he was an Englander. So when he called into a cottage, “Englander. Partisan.” So they knew the drill. They passed him from one place to another. Took him a while to get to Semich, but he eventually made it in horse and buggy.

09:20:00:00

And that really completed the deal. As far as I was concerned, all was great. Best of all worlds. At this time we were quartered on, the New Zealanders because they had troops in Italy. And I remember then we moved down to Naples where we were quartered on the South Africans who no doubt were nice chaps, but the irritated me very much

09:20:30:00

by breaking off in the middle of a conversation to make asides to each other in Afrikaans, which I thought was bloody rude to say the least. I know where the word boorish comes from. But anyway I had a new experience. I went and saw a performance of grande opera which I’d never seen before. I saw the San Carlo opera, the Rigoletto, and I thought they did a fine job of it. I liked it. I’ve got a nice video of it

09:21:00:00

these days. Anyway, I must tell you this – it’s a by the way. But when you’re in Naples, surely you go to visit Pompeii so we didn’t know whether there was public transport so we just got on the road and walked down towards Sorrento on the Pompeii road. It wasn’t very long before one of these funny little jeeps rolled up with a Yank at the wheel. We didn’t know anything about Yank insignia

09:21:30:00

of rank or anything. It was quite strange to us. They had their chevrons upside-down from us for sergeant, so we recognised that. But it turned out that they were both captains. But they didn’t care very much. They pulled up and “Say, Oz, that hat. You Australian.” And I said, “Yeah. We’re both Australian.” “Wow. I was out in Sydney last year and what

09:22:00:00

a wonderful place. I remember they served me with a steak. Really it was that big it oughta had a saddle and bridle on it. But I didn’t know there was any of you Australians in the east parts. I didn’t know. That’s interesting.” “Yes, Yank, that’s a fact.” We got to Pompeii. Got out of the jeep. Last thing, I said – and I

09:22:30:00

should have been awake up because I knew. And I said, “Thanks very much Yank you’ve been great.” He says, “Don’t mention it, Oz, except there’s just one thing. I come from Atlanta, Georgia and in those parts we don’t actually appreciate being called Yank.” The Civil War is not over!

09:23:00:00

But there’s a trick. Anyway, due course we were taken down – on our own, but we went down to Taranto, the port there on the instep of Italy. And right at the end of a great big jetty, long jetty because it’s shallow water there we could see two ships at the end and there we met

09:23:30:00

up with our Kiwis, the nine Kiwis and the seventy odd Brits. I might say, the French who would have slit my throat I am sure – would have been happy to jump on my grave. Because they’d been having a good life back there. No guards. I understand at least they informed some of the blokes they had girlfriends there. And we come along and stuff up their

09:24:00:00

idyll. But by that time we got them home free so all was forgiven. We parted company in the Italian city where we landed, that’s where we parted company. All was forgiven.

09:24:30:00

Au revoir. Bonne chance. They were quite cordial. So there we were. So we caught up with the Kiwis and the Brits down at Taranto. Righto, we were marched down this very

09:25:00:00

long jetty. And there it was indicated, there was the very same Edinburgh Castle that had taken us to Greece. There it was ready to take us to Alexandria. And then the wrench – there was the ship going to Britain. And I thought for a moment, yes it’d be nice to see the Old Dart [England]. Be nice. Nah, Ronte’s calling you, mate.

09:25:30:00

So the Kiwis and us started going up the gangway on the ship. Poms down there on the wharf. And halfway, nearly up the top of the gangway somebody roared down, “What about three cheers for the bloody Crow?” So they gave me three cheers. And I still get a little tearful when I think about it. They were really nice guys.

09:26:00:00

And in their own way they appreciated my role in what had been done. So away we went very cautiously down the Mediterranean because Gerries still had plenty of subs there. But we made it to Alexandria. Down to Cairo where there was an Australian army presence.

09:26:30:00

I was at last able to trade in my dear old slouch hat for a new one. And I found the red hot salesmen of Cairo bazaars as ravenous as ever. But we were an easy bait because we could draw another twenty quid in sterling in Cairo. I think we probably got taken down wholesale, but we were easy marks.

09:27:00:00

And then we were I think two or three days there in Cairo and then we were taken down to Port Taufiq and of all things there was the good ship, cruise ship, royal bale ship Orontes. Hence where Ronte’s second name. That’s where it comes from. Her mother’s

09:27:30:00

brother went to the war in the First World War and didn’t come home. And he sailed in the Oronte so my mother in law gave her the first child after the war to her daughter and her second name was Baronets. And the good ship Orontes was filled, a very comfortable ship and we had comfortable quarters. Took us to what is now

09:28:00:00

Mombai – Bombay in those days. And we spent a couple of days there. We were guided round by one of those high class religious – Parsee? They’re allowed to have half a dozen wives anyway. And this man he spoke brilliant English and an absolute gentleman but only had – I think he picked us up, volunteered to show

09:28:30:00

us around. He had five wives with him. And one home housekeeping presumably. They were lovely people, beautifully dressed. All his wives spoke English. Quite charming. Just seemed a little unusual, that was all. I don’t know whether it was Parsee or what it was, but anyway. We saw the sights of Bombay. Well of course it’s

09:29:00:00

for English speakers it’s still I think a favourite town. I think it was quite a pleasant town. There were obvious signs of the essential poverty that any big city in India’s going to have. You can’t avoid it. But I found it quite pleasant. But the news came we had to get our luggage off the Orontes and onto the USS General Anderson – a Yank ship.

09:29:30:00

My first view of a Liberty ship made entirely of steel. Not one stick of wood on it. Oh it was so hard after the Orontes. The Yanks on board, they couldn’t have been nicer I don’t think. They knew we were repatriating prisoners of war. They were ever so charming, every so kind. But that ship, that damned Liberty ship, there wasn’t any softness. You see, if you walked through a door and you just

09:30:00:00

bumped your shoulder, you didn’t bump wood, you bumped steel. A ship rolling about a bit, it was very often this happened. You bumped into the steel. But anyway it was navigable and it didn’t waste time. It headed off straight south down into the Indian Ocean. And still of course, tight security, the lights out and all that sort of thing. Because still

09:30:30:00

the odd German raider poking about as well as maybe German subs. And I don’t know how many days we sailed due south. Sometimes it got bearing south east a bit. But I woke up one morning and we were heading due east. We must be in Australia, heading at least for Australian waters. But no sign of Australia.

09:31:00:00

No. But I get up early one morning. Yes, day’s breaking. And a great big Yank petty officer on the rail with the glasses to his eyes, and suddenly the loudspeakers came alive. “Now hear this, now hear this. The land you see

09:31:30:00

on the port bow is Cape Otway, Victoria, Australia.” This bloke, he was over six feet I just… He still had a neck …And he was strangling “Okay Oz? Just let me get the strap off.” And there it was unmistakably Cape Otway, Victoria, Australia. I’d made it. I was as good as home. And

09:32:00:00

by afternoon of course we were making through the heads and across Port Phillip Bay and we berthed at Williamstown and I think it was – Port Melbourne or something like that anyway. And of course I had an enormous amount of gear. I brought suitcases. And I still had my – I’d been reissued with a sausage bag, webbing and equipment and so forth. The only thing I hadn’t been issued with was a rifle. Everything else had been replaced. I was brand new.

09:32:30:00

And so off the ship we got and there were buses waiting for us. We were whisked out. I just forget – one of the inner city military establishments. I forget where it is. I think it’s somewhere they have the Grand Prix now. Somewhere round the lake. Lake Albert or somewhere around that area [Albert Park Lake]. I didn’t know Melbourne very well at the time. I didn’t

09:33:00:00

know it at all really. And there we were bedded down and it was announced that General Blamey, the commander in chief wanted to entertain us to dinner that night. So we went to ooh, lovely show. They even had laid on a dozen or so very sweetly dressed girls. They were AWAS [Australian Women’s Army Service] possibly, but they were dressed in colourful frocks and they were hostessing us for the night. It was very pleasant. We hadn’t had much

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feminine company for over three years. We were trying awfully hard, not very successfully to be gallant. But anyway, very good, but he admonished us again that we were not to breathe a word. It was a very close secret. What we had achieved was remarkable and it was quite something that would make Australian history – British and Australian

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history, and whacko. So the meeting broke up and the Victorians were then released to go home. The New South Welshmen, the Queenslanders. There weren’t any Western Australians among them. They would be catching the train north. But I had the bright idea, as we’d had a few grogs on the commander in chief – we’d been cobbers for all those years, wouldn’t it be nice, particularly with the Kiwis

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we had to say cheerio in proper Australian style. So I marshalled them all up to Flinders Street Railway Station – there were a lot of cabs rolled up there. Of course booze was practically impossible in those days. Melbourne was tight on booze anyway. But I went up the first cab and I pressed a quid note into his hand and I said, “There’s about twenty of us here, take us where there’s some grog.” And he, “I don’t know where this is.”

09:35:00:00

I’m sure that we got ripped off for the grog. But we saw our Kiwi friends off in good Australian style. I know very well that the New South Wales and the Queensland blokes – the Victorian blokes they got home by cab. I think they probably the New South Wales and Queensland blokes were specially wakened in a half stupid state

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and put on the train fairly early that morning. But of course the Adelaide-Melbourne express didn’t leave till late at night, or late in the evening. So I had a day to recover. And I felt I needed a day to recover. I had showered and one thing or another … I was still feeling pretty seedy. But anyway at long last a car called for me

09:36:00:00

to put me down to Spencer Street Station. And the Melbourne Express of course was anything but. It seemed to stop for no reason at all in the middle of nowhere. And well it had to stop at bigger places like Ararat and place to pick up passengers and let down passengers and so forth. And it rattled and groaned its way across the plains. Some blokes played cards. And of course

09:36:30:00

it was a mixed train. They were mainly civilians. But there were chaps on leave from New Guinea and Queensland and the islands and one thing and another. But I remember very well I started thinking about Ronte. She’d been very faithful. She’d sent me some beautiful parcels. Very sensible parcels. But she was a very

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proper person. She was always very proper. Would she still have any regard for me or was it just a sense of duty, it was the proper thing to do. God, I felt mm I wonder. So the train gets to Murray Bridge and I didn’t feel particularly like any breakfast or anything.

09:37:30:00

I got busy. Had a very careful shave. And really spruced myself up. I was even had a good wash up in the toilets there and freshened myself up and I felt, that’s alright. But I got more and more nervous the nearer I got to Adelaide. I’ll never forget the train. Actually the express stopped at Mount Lofty Station.

09:38:00:00

The next stop would be at … it would be the next stop. So down the hill we go. Got – it still exists for the Royal Show, they opened it again. Wayville Station. That’s where we got off. There were a great crowd on the platform. Girlfriends and wives and mums waited to welcome their heroes back and I didn’t know what I had to welcome me

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back. So I had to lumber all this luggage out onto the platform. A whacking great suitcase and a kitbag and pack and big sausage bag. But anyway I stashed the stuff and then I started walking up and down – well I walked down the platform, walked back along the platform. And there’s still goings on and carryings on on the platform. Oh. Mm.

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So I walked back again. Back towards suburbia. There, yes, nice looking chick over there. Yes, nice bird. God, she’s beautifully dressed. Yes. Mm. Yeah, it’s not Ronte though. No. It’s not the simple country girl I left behind. Worth a look though. Went back along the platform. By this time the crowd was breaking up

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and I was getting in a lather of sweat I assure you. So I head back and back down the platform again. And this lady was looking at me rather hard. And I looked hard. Oh holy God that, no! You grotty little soldier you. It can’t be.

09:40:00:00

She was always pretty, but she was so fashionably dressed and with her height. Oh she! Well you can see her picture there. It didn’t do her justice anyway. I just walked up to her and I said, “Excuse me, ma’am are you waiting for someone?”

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Silly thing to say. She said, “I was. But it is you, isn’t it?”
Interviewee: Ralph Churches Archive ID 1094 Tape 10

10:00:40:00

Brief as possible. So we drove – Ronte had lived with my parents all the time I was away, so we drive out and of course there was a bit of a party to welcome me. But we had three months leave so I went back after three months leave and asked

10:01:00:00

told yes, 2/48th Battalion, could I get back there for that. So I was set to soldier on for the duration and twelve months thereafter I was available. They said, “Soldier, you were trained for the desert weren’t you? Well we’re not in the desert any more. And your age. You’re now 27, right?” “Yes” “We’re training our recruits a little younger than that

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soldier. I think you’ve had your war. Will you take a discharge?” I said, “No I don’t want a discharge until the war is over. That was the deal and that’s the way I’m stuck with it.” “Well we’ll find you a job, but no, the 2/48th not on at all.” So eventually I got sent to – they promoted me to sergeant, they gave me a British Empire medal. Strangely for – in Australia

10:02:00:00

in Yarralumla – for devotion to duty and valuable services rendered as a prisoner of war. Whacko. It wasn’t till 1985 that Les Laws and I met in Slovenia again that I learnt if I’d like to go to the Chancellery in Pall Mall in London, I would find out something different. So I did.

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I found that I had been received – her British majesty had been graciously pleased to award me the British Empire Medal for gallant and distinguished services in the field. A citation second only to the Victoria Cross for valour. I’m very happy with that. So that was quite a bonus. So I was finished up as a sort of interpreter, guard, sergeant at this mixed prisoner of war camp in the Goulburn Valley and I was eventually

10:03:00:00

discharged in November 1945. I went back to the State Bank. Reported back for duty. But quite common among those, the blokes that were getting on in their careers were terribly frightened of these returning ex-servicemen would get priority on their jobs. Actually I’m sure the top management wanted me back. But the middle management didn’t.

10:03:30:00

Under no circumstances were I going to get a job in Adelaide. I had to go into the country. So fortunately, no kids, so they sent us to Maitland on York Peninsula. There the manager had been managing on his own. So I went there and I was his teller. But they didn’t provide any accommodation. There was no accommodation at Maitland. Two pubs at then three pounds a week each. My salary was six pound five net of superannuation.

10:04:00:00

and tax. So I went back and asked them if they could manage something like a district allowance or something. No, they couldn’t. Frankly, you were just made to feel you weren’t wanted. This was extraordinary, extremely difficult. It was a wealthy town with some beautiful homes in it. But nobody offered us even a room. Nowhere. I had, what else

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could I do? I was stuck with it. And Ronte was most unhappy. She thought I deserved better. But anyway eventually we went back, we brought a block of land on the outskirts of the town. It’s now quite a suburb. And we found a carpenter who reminded us that second-hand material wasn’t subject to rationing. We might need a permit from the local council to build. But we didn’t need a permit

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as far as second-hand material was concerned, and nor were there any priorities. And he knew of a deserted farmhouse where there was loads of everything he needed to build a house for us which he did. So we built the first house in the township of Maitland after the war and we settled in there very happily. And I realised that I was going to change jobs. I felt I had been treated very shabbily.

10:05:30:00

I did have a reasonably promising singing voice. The leading singing teacher and coach in Adelaide at that time, Madam Delmar Hall from the Conservatorium, she offered me two years instruction free of charge. But I just had to drop it and I was very disappointed. So I didn’t know what to do, but along the window of opportunity drops.

10:06:00:00

In the form of a bloke from the Prudential Insurance Company Limited. He has had an official appointment to the staff of the company. He’s been a travelling rep up and down York Peninsula. Would I like the job? I didn’t think I would. I thought life insurance was great. But I didn’t think I was a salesman of anything really. So I went home to Ronte and told her. I can remember her now. “What you got

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that silly looking grin on your face for?” “I’ve been offered a job.” “What have you got to grin about? Anything’s better than what you’ve got. What is it?” So I told her and she said, “How much are they prepared to pay?” “They’re prepared to pay me nine pounds a week on account. I’ve got to earn it, but they’ll pay me that for six months.” She said, “Get down that street and catch the bloke before he changes his mind.”

10:07:00:00

That’s exactly what I did. Well, to my amazement, I had found my job. I fell in love with the job because I think still to this day that life insurance is the noblest thing, it’s the noblest concept – it sometimes gets malpracticed – but of itself it is the noblest concept that commerce between man and man has yet devised. And I sold it as it should be sold.

10:07:30:00

And I sold heaps. Actually I think in my third year I was second in Australia against all the big city blokes and all that as a salesman. I did this for – well by the end of six years we’d acquired a family. We adopted a lovely little girl. We thought she was four and half, but she turned out to be six and a half. But some adoptions turn out little tragic.

10:08:00:00

Ours has been roses, roses all the way. Our beautiful daughter. We attended her sixtieth birthday in September. She is our eldest. And of course the funny that happened it’s easy to remember Saint Patrick’s day – March the seventeenth 1950, elder son Stephen arrived on December the thirteenth. Do your sums. That was what was prescribed as serious. The doctors told us that

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was the way to go. And I refused to wait for a baby. I was getting too old. And the doctor I was consulting, he said “Ever been to an orphanage? Try it.” We did. And the beautiful thing about this, the fatal day when you have to tell them the truth never happened and didn’t ever happen. She always knew. She was six and a half. She always knew. But she had very little –

10:09:00:00

I think her faculty of memory rather shut out the past. She is proud to be our eldest child.
Sounds like she’s very loved.
Oh yeah. Well of course, she’s Ronte’s daughter and she never made the five foot tall. But oh yes, of course she’s got grandchildren now. But I have been

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a very lucky fellow. Very lucky. And so my career went on. At the end of ten years of selling insurance I fell in love with the business. I felt indeed that I owed it something. Our lifestyle and everything had altered. We had a lovely house out at Tusmore. That would fetch I would think roughly about eight hundred thousand today. With its own tennis court. We loved it. It was a lovely family home. And I felt I owed Life Insurance something.

10:10:00:00

But I didn’t need to be earning all the money that I was earning. The new other big English company, Legal and General Insurance, offered me the job of manager, South Australia. At a very fine salary I might add, but about half of what I had been earning. But I took it and I never regretted doing so because I’ve done a lot more for the community managing blokes, showing them how to go about selling insurance

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rather than doing it myself. I’ve done society a lot better deal by training blokes to tell an honest story, the way it is. Because it can’t be improved, no matter how much – if they tell the straight line they’ll do well. And so that took me – I did sufficiently well in South Australia that three years on they transferred me to Sydney as manager, New South Wales. And I was that for sixteen years. Then as a pre-

10:11:00:00

retirement job, they made me marketing manager for Australia to see me out. And very cunningly I had included in my terms of appointment over there that if Mr Churches decides on retirement he wishes to return to South Australia, he can do so at the society’s expense. There was a totally new lot of accounting fraternity so I asked them whether they wanted to book –

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the chief accountant was a good mate of mine. I said, “Well Alan, do you book the pay and technicon or do I or what?” He said, “Nothing to do with us.” I said, “Laddie, I’ve got it in writing. It concerns you very deeply.” So back. Yes. I was never in any doubt. Sydney was all right. But I wanted to get back home. Well Ronte had her rellies. I had my rellies. It was the right decision. So three months before I was due

10:12:00:00

to leave the job, we came over here in July and bought. We liked – at least I liked this place. Ronte still doesn’t reckon it’s quite what she’d been used to. But it’s good enough for her to look after because I can’t do much looking after. And so that’s the end of the pre-war story. Roses, roses all the way. It’s only – you know I

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played sport all my life. I was a reasonably good tennis player. Ronte was too. Loved cricket, played a lot of cricket. In fact, played my last game of cricket when I was 61. Played first division soccer here. So you know I’ve really enjoyed, I’ve really kicked a lot of fun out of 86 years. Really. And so I think it’s

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time for a drink.
Just before you go, with all the experiences you’ve had, all the different people you’ve met along the way, what are some of the most important things that you’ve learnt?
To know when you’re on a good thing. Don’t put it all down to your own deathless charm or your great skill. Give

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destiny or luck or whatever you like to call it, give that a bit of the credit too. Because some of my best successes just happened without my planning it. When that train came back on that Thursday morning, its cargo would have, could have or would have been SS troopers but for a wonderful lucky accident.

10:14:00:00

We’d already got the guards bamboozled on counting us. They should have counted on to the train, count us off the train, the sentry on the gate as we marched through should count us, but everybody shambled along, you know. So they got sick of it. They didn’t count us. They didn’t know that anyone was missing until the lock up at ten o’clock when they had us in the back barracks and could count heads. So they didn’t know until ten o’clock.

10:14:30:00

And by ten o’clock, the new commandant was out on the town with this girlfriend. In fact he spent the night with her. Didn’t know a thing about it until eight o’clock next morning when he returned. And you see the thing with a conscripted army, you never do anything. You always obey orders, but you never do anything without being ordered. So there was nobody to

10:15:00:00

give orders. So they just roused the blokes out. They didn’t do anything except what they’d always done. Roused the blokes out of bed, had breakfast, marched them down to the station. Well the thing is, poor old commandant bloke, he got back to base a bit after eight o’clock I’m told. Was duly reported. He duly rang headquarters. Somewhere I think getting towards nine o’clock he rang headquarters to report the escape of

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seven prisoners of war. Apparently, laddie, you don’t know the half. You’ve lost your whole bloody count, that’s what you’ve done. Just what part of the Russian Front he fell I don’t know, but I’m sure he made it to the Russian Front. But you see nothing of my doing. But that was my one fear when that train – my heart was pounding – what’s going to be in it? But I learnt later of course that the

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partisans were wise to it. When it stopped a few miles down the track to drop off the midday dinner cook they got an all clear. All was well. Because they had thought of that one too. But I had nothing to do with it. But it still succeeded. No. I have always – I think in my life I have tried to be –

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well I know I’ve been – if I’ve done any man a bad turn he has never told me about it. He could clean me up if he wants to. I’m very proud of the sort of business I’ve done. I think I’ve affected the lives of a lot of people favourably. Helped them to save money where they wouldn’t have saved any. So that a lot of people are living comfortably in their

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later years because I taught them how to save money for that. Yes I think, no I can’t – and as I say I consider myself as smart as most, as intelligent as most, as well informed as most. But I don’t think I’m anything special. I think I have been extremely lucky. I think there’s been perhaps

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a greater power than any humanity has offered me a hell of a lot of favours. And that’s my story. Okay.
Well, thank you for letting us listen to your extraordinary story and you definitely deserve a drink.

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