2 Sep 2013

A Hundred Miles As The Crow Flies


what I'm going to show you today is something I've found really interesting. A hundred miles as the the crow flies is a book by Ralph Churches. He was an australian soldier, captured in Greece in 1941 by Germans. I had this post written twice, but have decided to delete it all and make it more to the point. I've had a short WWII history of Slovenian area written, but I have decided it is not necessary, as I have provided you a link to great, great book I've found. A book, from which my posts borrowed its name.

It is the end of August, 1944. Ralp Churches is an Australian soldier, who was captured on one of the Greek islands in 1941. He and some other Allied (Brit, NZ, AUS, French) POWs were detained on nowadays Austrian-Slovene border. They were used as a labour force, building roads, tending railways, working on farms etc. Churches escaped the camp two times in his past, but didn't came far. Those two "escapes" were useful for recce, as he has said, letting him know what he'd need for the time he'd escape for real. He quit messing around after the second escape, because he was feared he might be moved to a more secure camp. He was learning german since the day he was captured and he took great interest in  learning about the situation of the area he was located in (northern Slovene area, occupied by German forces, right on border with "Germany" (Austria). Slovene area was planned to become southernmost part of German Reich, but the Germans postponed the official annexation because resistance was giving them trouble. Italians, for example, have annexed the occupied area as soon as they got there and figured they'd "deal with the problems as they go"). Their working camp was lightly guarded by old austrian soldiers. Work area was secured by a single barbed wire and there were no watch towers. It is important to realise POWs were quite friendly with guards. Old Viennese men had little enthusiasm for Nazi ideas. Churches and 6 others have escaped the camp on 30th August 1944. They linked with slovene partisans operating in the area and convinced them to help them save the rest of the detainees. Which they did, or else this whole story would be quite boring. Out came a story of a partisan raid on Ožbalt ("Ozhbalt" ž is pronounced similar to "g" in "mirage"), where slovene partisans saved 105 allied POWs from captivity (from Britain, New Zealand, Australia, France) from 3 various working camps. Nobody was hurt during the raid, guards were taken with the rest of the group for a while and left behind in middle of the hills. Eventually they came back to their own units. The POWs were escorted 250 kilometers south to Semič ("Semich"), where Partisan Airfield Otok (means "Island" and it is a name of a near-by village) was located. The path took them through Gerrman occupied area (remember by 1944, Italy has capitulated and Germany occupied it) towards a "liberated area" in south, where German presence was limited to ouposts along important communication lines, bridges etc. A Dakota airplane took the POWs to Italy from there, saving the men. I've linked the name to Wiki so feel free to check it out.

 The POWs were rescued by members of one battalion of Šercer (Shertser) Brigade, named after a yugoslav (slovene) officer who was captured and executed in December 1941. Keep in mind partisans formations were all at least one level smaller than what you'd be used to. Šercer Brigade had roughly 600 members at its peak and it was part of a 14th Division (2,000 members at its peak). This division was badly damaged on its winter march from south Slovenia through Croatia to north, where the raid took place. By april 1944, 4 months before the raid, Šercer brigade had around 200 members. On the march, 14th Division was often breaking out of the german encirclements. The Division moved north to stiffen the local resistance, that was very low after in january 1943 local "Pohorje battalion" (named by local mountain range) got completely destroyed. Its winter camp was betrayed encircled by 2,000 germans. Battle lasted for roughly 2 hours and half, which I find quite long, comparing the numbers, but I think we need to keep in mind Germans probably didn't really knew what they're dealing with. One of the commander's sons (aged 16, 14 and 12) has reportedly shot german captain from top of the pine tree after the battle was over. 69 members of battalion (out of 70 present) died in battle (Battalion was 90 men and women strong). They were ordered by the commander to save the last bullet for themselves. One partisan survived, as he was injured from previous battles and couldn't commit suicide. If I recall correctly, he was publicly executed in the summer and his body was dragged around by car to "make a statement".

Here is a memorandum plate for the raid, set up in 1985 (so, while Yugoslavia still existed). It (roughly) reads:

Along numerous partisan attacks on railway tracks Maribor - Dravograd an unforgettable memory lives on August 31st 1944 when battalion of Šercer brigade freed 87 allied POWs.

Here Šercers crushed the cuffs of prisoners of fraternal slavery. Over rivers and mountains to freedom. They've headed to new battle.

It is written pretty "poetic", suitable for the era it was shown in. Partisan warfare and their deeds were "divine" during the communist Yugoslavia.  Perhaps a bit too untouchable and nowadays, they're a bit too trampled.

Here are some other links that talk about the raid:
Newspaper article:

BBC article:

And what seems like an actual, freely available PDF of the book! Now, I hope sharing the link here doesn't interfere with any rights, as this is certainly not my intention. It is linked to a page of a theater As the book is pretty hard to get by, this is probably the single most useful piece of information I can give you. It also includes a pretty accurate account on the happening, so I can only suggest you read it if you find the time! It shows how Partisans operated, what they ate, how people joined them (one even commit suicide), how they got ambushed, how French prisoners complained all the time (I know, extra stereotypical, but honestly, they had good reasons as they were "on parole" and were treated like almost any other farm worker, not like some prisoners...I was also reading another book, where some partisan wounded personnel and some frenchmen were escorted to another airfield...they also mention low morale, complaints and general unwillingness to cooperate) and so on. It even tries to explain the "Balkan situation". What has happened in Yugoslav area during WW2 had great impact on what has happened in the nineties.  I have to say I was read most of it in one day,  as more I've read, more I've realised what 250 kilometer march means.

So..how is this related to the gaming, you might be wondering. Well, you can almost get the game! Check Ebob's collection for "The Great Escape", that touches other story, but the miniatures are quite nice. As for partisans, they wore various bits of uniforms from various places and were variously equipped. The first attacks were much like the "Enemy at the gates" scene, where there are more men than rifles. Just last time, my mentor told me the first partisans would rush the enemy and "simply" hope they could wrestle the rifle from the soldier before they'd get shot. By 1944, however, they were better organised and equipped, as they started getting the aid from the allies after the partisans were recognized as the legit army and thus part of the alliance. I suppose it is important to know that Yugoslav partisans were an army. It took Allies time to recognise them officially (as they were lead by communists (communism was illegal in interwar era), the Yugoslav goverment in exile didn't support them. They differ from soviet partisans by the fact that those were supporting Red Army's actions and in Yugoslavia, there was no other official army (Yugoslav army has collapsed in matter of days after the invasion). They differ from french resistance in the fact, that while they did sabotage communications, they were taking fight to the enemy. I was told they were offered (even in Slovenia) a degree of peace by Germans (and even food, by some accounts), if they'd remove themselves from the communications, important to Germans. The victim count of the WWII in nowadays Slovenia (so, not including other parts of Yugoslavia) was officially ended as late as 2012. By the official count 97,500 people lost their lives (according to an article that is 6,5% of nowadays Slovenia, but I'd be more interested in % of people that lived here at that time), roughly 14,000 died after the war (the research time frame was set from 1st day of invasion to January 1946). Some of those 14,000 were camp detainees, but most were members of collaborative forces. Germans (and collaborative forces) are responsible for over 31,700 deaths, Italians for around 6,400. Interestingly, Red Army is responsible for at least 5,000 deaths (Slovenes were conscripted in German army and sent to Eastern front). During and after the war partisans were responsible for over 24,000 deaths, which included people who "voluntary" (it was war, after all) joined homeguard units, but most of those were killed after the war. The rest are civilians, either supposedly connected to occupying forces, but most likely people that opposed communism (again, partisans were lead by communists because communist party was illegal many years before the war and they had the know-how. They were by no chance all communist and there were supposed to be elections held after the war. Elections in Yugoslavia were a farce. You had a choice of  vote "for communist party" and "against it". In first years, the balls (you voted with coloured balls) were of different weights, so they made different sound when dropped in the box. So, after the elections, you might be visited by the secret police and such). Smaller number (2,400) were killed by allied bombings, 800 by croatian Ustasha forces. Unfortunately, they were unable to find the source of death for roughly 20,000 people.

Anyways, to a bit brighter topic, three random partisans. That is sten on the right. They wore any kinds of uniforms, from german, italian, yugoslav to british. Only common feature was a 5 pointed red star.
As an interesting fact, the side cap, called "pilotka" in Soviet union and "titovka" (after Tito) in Yugoslavia was called...err.."certain-female-body-part hat". If you have trouble finding any resemblance, try to imagine how it looks from the top :P. It wasn't used much until it later became an official hat for the newly formed "Yugoslav army". Before that hat was introduced, partisans liked to carry "spanish civil war hats", with 3 peaks. They were called "Triglavka" in Slovene area, after the highest mountain I keep mentioning. Triglav still is a national symbol and you can see it more or less everywhere, from the national and military coat of arms to sport uniforms.

 As another interesting fact, you can see red stars everywhere, but no hammers and no sickles. The reason was, non communist partisans (at least in Slovenia) were upset with the communists using the USSR symbols. And if you read the book on the link (pg 48), it shows the same incident. Slovene partisans did see themselves as Yugoslavs, but never as Russians. After the war, Yugoslavia refused to join the Warsaw pact in 1948 and it even expected invasion, so it started linking with West, but turned towards East again in fifties. Later, in eighties, it was easier for people from Yugoslavia to travel to Paris than Moscow, for example. And Lee, if you are reading this - remember how we talked about WW2 equipment used in 91-99? Apparently the lack of weapons and ammunition from WW2 was so vivid, that YPA refused to throw anything away and they were stockpiling anything they could.

Thanks for looking,


  1. Thank you Mathyoo That was very informative. It is part of history I know nothing about and thus even this introduction was enlightening.

    1. Glad you found it informative! I suppose we see this area with different eyes. To me, its all I was ever listening about (and even more so for older generations), and to someone from Western Europe, I suppose it is just another occupied territory. I wanted to make a broader explanation but that gets boring and messy quite quickly.

      I do suggest you at least check out the book pdf, it sums it all up pretty neatly.

  2. I still need to read this. Have converted it to put on my kindle though.

    1. That's a step forward :P. I think it is a fast read, as it is written very "lightly". Not too complicated.

  3. Well, I knew a little about partisan activities in the Balkans before this, but not really very much. This was a good article; thanks (and it must have taken forever to write so much!)

    1. Strictly speaking, Slovenia isn't on the Balkans :P. As for the time it took...lets just say typing is about all I do lately, so it wasn't too bad :D

    2. Ah, no worries, it was meant a bit as a joke. The country does geographically lay in central europe, though :D

  4. Very interesting history Mathyoo. Sounds like some good gaming scenarios in there.

    1. Thanks Sean! I think most basic "escort scientists" zombie scenario could work. But swap scientists for POWs and zombies for germans...or german zombies, everyone loves german zombies :P

  5. Great links and a very interesting post.

    "A hundred miles as the crow flies" from anywhere in Slovenia would take you to another country - right ?

    1. If it doesn't matter to which country, then yes, easily haha.