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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

Escapers in Yugoslavia

page 31

Escapers in Yugoslavia

Men escaped into Yugoslavia from Greece, from Italy, and from Germany. Some New Zealanders fought with distinction in Marshal Tito's partisan forces in their heroic resistance to the Germans and Italians.1 Most simply passed through Yugoslavia. It has been seen that at one time this was not altogether easy, and German patrols made it always a gamble. But by 1944 the Yugoslavs were venturing deep into Austria or German-held territory to pilot men out to freedom and to recruit sympathisers to join their own armies.

In August 1944 the men at a working camp attached to Stalag XVIIIA (Wolfsberg) organised a mass escape. The camp ‘man of confidence’, an English NCO, had through ‘bribery and corruption over a long period’ entered into intelligence with the Yugoslav underground. Seven men left the camp the day before the escape on reconnaissance, and returned next day with partisans, who ‘swooped down the hillside and disarmed the eighteen guards’. The Yugoslav escort of nine guides, led by a man with a wooden leg, accompanied the group of about eighty prisoners all the way to safety. It was still a dangerous and hungry journey: the partisans could not provide more than one meal a day for themselves or their guests, and it was necessary to keep moving. It took the party eleven days, travelling as stealthily as possible through the hills south-east of Maribor, to reach a congregation area near Ljubliana. Five transport planes landed on an improvised runway in open fields, and within a few hours the former prisoners were in British hands in Bari.

Things might not always go so smoothly. Another party about a month later on approximately the same journey came partially to grief. A New Zealander (Sapper Roy Natusch2) put into touch with the Yugoslav underground by an Austrian hostile to the Nazis, escaped from Radkersburg and joined a column of about 400 civilian Yugoslavs, men and women, leaving Austria to join Tito's forces, convoyed by armed partisan soldiers. This rather unwieldy and poorly disciplined body was twice ambushed by the Germans, who seemed to know of its route, and the party played a desperate game of blind man's buff in the forested hills trying to elude a German cordon. The physical conditions of the journey were in any case severe, with long marches on little food up and down mountains. Natusch's own group of sixty reached safety, and he himself was taken to Bari in a Russian-piloted transport plane.

1 See Partisan, by James Caffin (the exploits of John Denvir).

2 Spr R. S. Natusch, MM; Maraekakaho, Hastings; born NZ 16 Jul 1918; architectural student; p.w. 28 Apr 1941; escaped after nine attempts on 12 Sep 1944.