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A Compass and a Map
A Compass and a Map
Photo courtesy of Ernest Brough

The chill of winter still hung in the air when, in April 1944, now aged 24, Ern, together with Allan and Eric, escaped the prison farm camp.

Armed with only a tiny compass and a stolen map, the three men had planned to flee through Slovenia to the Adriatic coast and from there hitch a boat ride to Italy.

But after days on the run in south-eastern Austria, hiding in lofts and ditches, the men were starving and suffering from hypothermia.

Lying down back-to-belly, they tried to stay warm during the nights, but always woke feeling so cold it was difficult to speak.

Late one inky black night, ignoring their aching bodies, they were forced to cross the freezing Drava Riverm – which bordered Slovenia – now swollen from melting snow.

Ern and Allan couldn’t swim, so it was the New Zealander, Eric, who took charge of the dangerous river crossing.

They stripped naked and tied their clothes with boot laces to a makeshift raft.

Trouble struck an hour into crossing what they thought was a 15-metre span of the river, when they discovered they were in a section that had been widened by a weir.

Allan developed a cramp while Ern, trying desperately to stay afloat by dog paddling, was showing worrying signs of shock.

Eric swam ahead to check how far they had to go before returning to help his struggling mates.

“We nearly came undone that night,” Ern says.

As if the cold wasn’t enough, the raft began to come apart and they lost most of their meagre supplies.

Dragging the disintegrating raft ­behind him, Eric saved the two from perishing in the freezing water that night.

Eventually reaching the Slovenian side of the river, they set up camp and dried their uniforms over a fire started with Eric’s cigarette lighter.

Above pic from left: Ross Sayers, Ern Brough, ‘Allan’ Berry and Harry Lesar on their return to Port Melbourne in September, 1944. Sayers and Lesar had also escaped POW camps.

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