Raid at Ožbalt
The Raid at Ožbalt was an operation on 31 August 1944 in which 105 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) were rescued by Slovene Partisans. The majority were liberated from a work site at the village of Ožbalt (German: St. Oswald an der Drau) about 25 kilometres (16 mi) west of Maribor on the railway line to Dravograd in the German Reichsgau Steiermark (Styria), now part of modern-day northern Slovenia. Six of the liberated POWs were separated from the group during an engagement with the Germans a few days after their liberation, but following a 14-day trek across 250 kilometres (160 mi) they were flown out of a Partisan airfield at Semič to Bari, Italy. The successful escapees consisted of eight Frenchmen, nine New Zealanders, 12 Australians, and 70 British POWs.
Allied POWs were used in working camps for various purposes beneficial to the German side. By June 1944 there were several working camps administered by Stalag XVIII-D which was located in Maribor, Slovenia (German: Marburg an der Drau). Prisoners held in one of the work camps were used for maintenance of the railway between Maribor and Dravograd (German: Unterdrauburg) which continued through the Drava valley and into Austria. This work camp is believed to have been Work Camp 1046/GW. At this time, railways in Slovenia were being regularly sabotaged by Slovene Partisans, who also rescued Allied personnel including aircrew and POWs who had escaped from the Germans. A work party, consisting of about a hundred mostly British POWs were transported from their camp to Ožbalt each morning to do railway maintenance work, and returned to the camp in the evening. There were several other work camps in the vicinity of Ožbalt, mostly doing agricultural work. By late August 1944, the Partisan 14th Slovenia Division, including the 2nd Slovenia Brigade "Ljubo Šercer", was deployed in strength in the Pohorje mountains south of the Drava river between Maribor and Dravograd.
The raid was preceded by the escape of seven POWs on 30 August 1944. The organisers of the escape were Private Ralph Frederick Churches, an Australian Army infantry soldier of the 2/48th Battalion who had been on temporary duty with Headquarters ANZAC Corps when he was captured during the Allied withdrawal from Greece in April–May 1941, and Driver Leslie Arthur Laws, a British Army soldier of the 127th (Dorset) Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Royal Engineers. By August 1944, Churches had already attempted to escape on two occasions and had learned about the surroundings from those experiences. He realised that he had to escape while the prisoners were in an environment hostile to the Germans. Churches had learned to speak passable German during his captivity, and had been the camp leader of the work camp for eighteen months when he resigned the role so he could be involved in the escape.
Through a Slovene family who provided water and some food to the prisoners working on the railway, Laws managed to make contact with an agent of the 2nd Slovene Brigade "Ljubo Šercer", and after discussing this with Churches, they agreed to include all the members of their 8-man accommodation hut at the work camp in their escape plans. In the mid-afternoon of 30 August 1944, seven of the eight POWs walked away from the work site under various pretexts, and met the Partisan agent, who led the group to a village, Lovrenc na Pohorju, which had been temporarily liberated from German control. The remaining member of their hut was unable to get away from his work crew to join them. The escapees comprised three British, two Australian, and two New Zealand soldiers.
Churches managed to convince the commander of the brigade to conduct an operation to free the rest of the work party the following day, by giving him crucial information regarding the work site and the guards. Next morning Churches and Laws returned with some hundred Partisans to await the arrival of the work party by the usual train. As soon as work had begun the Partisans disarmed the eight guards and captured the four civilian overseers. In a short time the POWs, guards, and civilian overseers were being escorted south along a different route than that used by the first seven escapees the previous afternoon.
Altogether, 79 more POWs from the working camp were freed. On the same morning ten French and nine additional British POWs were freed by the Partisan brigade from two smaller working camps closer to Maribor. Churches had provided the details of one of the working camps, at a farm with a single guard, and the Partisans had freed the French POWs when they raided a different camp in error. They then corrected their error and released the British POWs from the camp Churches had mentioned. All the groups of POWs, along with their Partisan liberators, assembled in the hills of Pohorje. Altogether, including Churches and Laws and their original group of escapees, a total of 105 POWs were liberated by the Partisans during the escape and subsequent raids.
Trek to Semič and aftermath
Progress along the evacuation route south was difficult, as German patrols were very active. A night ambush by one such patrol caused the loss of six prisoners, two of them French. Eventually, after marching approximately 250 kilometres (160 mi) over 14 days and being ferried across the Sava by boat, they reached Semič in White Carniola, which was a Partisan base with an airfield used for communication with the Allies. After a few days delay waiting for aircraft to be available and weather conditions to be suitable, they were flown across to Bari in Italy on 21 September 1944.
Both Ralph Churches and Les Laws were decorated for their actions in escaping and assisting the Partisans in planning the raid. Laws was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and Churches, the British Empire Medal. Churches was repatriated to Australia in November 1944, where after three months leave he was posted to the staff of a prisoner of war camp in Murchison, Victoria as an interpreter. He was subsequently promoted to sergeant and was discharged in November 1945. Laws' movements after arrival in Italy are unknown. Churches returned to the site of the raid in 1972 and 1977, and was accompanied by Laws on a further visit in 1985. During these visits Churches and Laws were reunited with several of the Partisans that had escorted them to Semič.
Conflicting accounts of events
There are two known primary sources regarding the details of the raid, and several secondary sources which drew largely on the accounts of Churches and/or Laws. There is one passing mention of the raid in the "Prisoner of War" volume of the Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War, which varies significantly from the other sources.
The first primary source is the book written by Churches, who was decorated for his involvement in the planning and conduct of the escape and raid. Churches' book, titled A Hundred Miles as the Crow Flies, was written after he was relieved of his obligation to secrecy by Australian Army. The book details the events prior to the escape and the course of escape and evacuation. His book is also translated in Slovenian as Vranov let v svobodo (Crow's Flight into Freedom). Churches was known by the nickname "Crow" as he was the only soldier from the Australian state of South Australia in the camp, and South Australians are colloquially known in Australia as "crow eaters". Churches' version of events has been published, in part, by several secondary sources, including Australian television programs aired in 1985 and 2003, and newspaper articles in 1944, 2009 and 2011.
An Australian POW that was freed in the raid, Private Walter Gossner of the 2/15th Battalion, provided an extremely detailed account of his experiences about being part of a group of 87 POWs freed by Partisans from a location near Ožbalt. He gives the date of the raid as 27 September 1944, four weeks after the date given by Churches. His account has been posted on the internet by his family. Gossner states that he arrived at Semič 21 days after the raid, and his account varies significantly from that of Churches. It is not known why Gossner's dates and other details of his account differ so markedly from Churches' account.
The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War states that the raid occurred at St Lorenzen (the German name of Lovrenc na Pohorju), and that the raid was planned by two British officers. This varies significantly from all of the other sources, and it is unknown why this is the case.
- Churches (1996), pp. 173–174
- Schwarz et al (2012)
- Walter Gossner
- Tomasevich (2001), p. 115
- Churches (1996), p. 18
- Churches (1996), p. 172
- Churches (1996), p. iv
- Churches (1996), p. 26
- Churches (1996), pp. 40–41
- Churches (1996), pp. 49–58
- Churches (1996), pp. 60–61
- Mason (1954), p. 383
- Lateline – 13 October 2003: 100 POWs make great escape. Australian Broadcasting Corp
- "Catalogue reference for Award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal to Leslie Laws". The National Archives, London. 1945. Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- "Record of Award of the British Empire Medal to Ralph Churches". Australian War Memorial, Canberra. 1948. Retrieved 26 December 2011.
- Churches (1996), pp. 79 & 56
- A Hundred Miles as the Crow Flies
- Vranov let v svobodo
- "Crow eaters". State Library of South Australia, Adelaide. Retrieved 26 December 2011.
- Edwards (2011)
- Churches, Ralph (1996). A Hundred Miles as the Crow Flies. Adelaide, South Australia: R.F. Churches. ISBN 0646391178. Retrieved 2012-03-14.
- Edwards, Verity (2011-04-25). "Memories of war that linger for a lifetime". The Australian (newspaper). News Limited. Retrieved 2012-03-19.
- Mason, Walter (1954). Prisoners of War: The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945. Wellington, New Zealand: War History Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs. Retrieved 2012-03-14.
- Neave, Denny; Smith, Craig (2009). Aussie Soldier Prisoners of War. Brisbane, Queensland: Big Sky Publishing. ISBN 9780980325157. Retrieved 2012-03-19.
- Schwarz, Werner; Gfüllner, Alexander; Rostocki, Aleksander (2012-02-24). "POW Camps: List". German camps for Allied POWs in World War II. Moosburg Online. Retrieved 2012-03-14.
- Tomasevich, Jozo (2001). War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941–1945: Occupation and Collaboration 2. San Francisco: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804736154.