WWII’s Great Escapes

The Freedom Trails

Monty Halls retraces four extraordinary journeys as he treks the Freedom Trails of WWII, discovering what it took to escape Nazi Europe and meeting the ordinary men and women who became heroes in the process.
Broadcaster: Channel 4
Transmission Date: 16th Sep 2017, 8pm
Length: 4×60 min
Executive producer: Monty Halls
Producer: Liberty Smith
Director: Tom Whitworth
  • WWII's Great Escapes - Monty Halls

    Series overview

    During World War Two, tens of thousands of men and women staked their lives following little-known routes through unknown, enemy territory and out of Nazi occupied Europe. The Freedom Trails led to safety, but many were extremely perilous. To find and complete them required the help of local resistance, who risked their own lives to save others.

    Over four episodes, explorer and former Royal Marine Monty Halls treks the very same routes, discovering what it took to escape and meeting the ordinary men and women who became heroes in the process.

  • Slovenia

    Monty heads to Slovenia to retrace the largest known successful mass escape of Allied prisoners during the second world war, made possible only with the help of partisans and locals.

    He’s joined by Neil Churches, whose father Ralph was one of the daring ringleaders of the escape. Initially just a small group escaped, aided by the partisans, but they returned just hours later and rescued a further 80 fellow prisoners. The huge group traveled more than 150 miles through rough terrain – facing the elements, German patrols, ambush and betrayal. We hear from some of the original surviving Slovenians who helped make this extraordinary escape possible.

  • Sulmona, Italy

    Monty tells an incredible story of evasion and escape through unknown, hostile territory in central Italy. He follows the route taken by prisoner of war Len Harley, who spent months on the run before braving snow, ice, and Nazi patrols to escape over the mountains of Majella.

    Along the way, Monty meets families who sheltered Allied servicemen, at incredible risk to themselves. Len never forgot the ordinary people who put their lives on the line to protect him, and an emotional reunion takes places between Len and the woman who saved his life over seventy-five years ago.

  • Rossano, Italy

    Monty travels to the Rossano Valley in northern Italy, to follow the story of Operation Galia. 33 SAS soldiers were parachuted behind enemy lines on a mission: attack the enemy and create chaos to draw Nazi-fascist forces away from the front line. Monty’s journey takes him over the ridges of the Marble Mountains on the route the SAS took after their mission.

    He meets some of the last local eye-witnesses to the Operation, and also John Redhead, whose father escaped from a POW camp nearby. Together they meet the family who took John’s father in, despite incredible danger to themselves.

  • The Pyrenees

    Monty treks one of the toughest and most famous freedom trails out of Nazi controlled France, taking him through the valleys and high ridges of the Pyrenees mountains and into Spain.

    We meet Bob Frost, who aged just 19 crossed the Pyrenees using the Comet Line, and hear remarkable stories of bravery and defiance from the local people, who used their knowledge of the mountains to lead thousands like Bob to safety. These routes were part an escape network that included Paris and would have been fraught with danger – from German soldiers, the Vichy police, local informers, and from the mountains themselves.

CLIPS AND EXTRAS

100 Miles as the Crow Flies

Episode one follows The Crow’s Flight, an incredible journey made by Australian POW, Ralph Churches. With the help of local partisans and fellow POW Les, Ralph led a group of 90 Allied escapees nearly 200 miles through the mountains and forests of Slovenia. Ralph passed away in 2014, but his son Neil flew from Australia to help Monty tell Ralph’s story.

A Hundred Miles as the Crow Flies is Ralph’s first hand account of his daring escape.

READ MORE +

Zdenko's Story

At night, we walked, walked. Attacked, fought. At day, we slept or sought shelter, where we would be hidden from the enemy and prepare for new, new actions.

Aged 16, Zdenko Roter worked as a co-ordinator on the corridors used by escapees from the Stalag 18D prison camp in what is now Slovenia. Zdenko recalls how partisans and couriers used the sound of jays shrieking overhead in the deep forests to alert them of the presence of their German trackers.

Jože's Story

Back then, during the war, we didn’t consider whether something was hard to do or not, things just had to be done.

Growing up on his family farm, Jože Kimovec was witness to the Slovene partisan movement during WWII. Jože’s family provided any help they could to the partisans – food and drink, somewhere to shelter and hide. It was only with the hospitality of local families such as Jože’s that the partisans were able to guide a group of Allied escapes to safety and eventual rescue.

"Well lads, you're on your own now."

After the Allied invasion of southern Italy in 1943, British Colour Sergeant Len Harley ignored the ‘stay put’ order issued by MI9, and fled the camp where he had been imprisoned for over two years.

In episode two, Monty retraces Len’s journey to freedom. But why and how was the ‘stay put’ order issued in the first place, and what happened to those who followed it?

READ MORE +

Raffaella's Story

“My father’s story is a very beautiful one, very painful and very difficult to tell.”

Raffaella Del Greco’s father, Michele, was executed for helping 56 Allied prisoners of war near Sulmona in Italy. Before his execution Michele said; “All I did was put into practice what I was taught as a child, in church, that if someone is hungry you feed them”. Raffaella and her family faced reprisals from their friends and neighbours for bringing the village to the attention of the Germans. It was only 50 years later that they were able to commemorate the sacrifice their father made.

Silvio's Story

“I loved him very much, because I had nobody else.”

Silvio Alboni was just 13 years old when he found three prisoners of war outside a neighbour’s barn. Silvio was an orphan, he didn’t go to school, seldom wore shoes and had little food -but he wanted to help.  Silvio gave the escapees food, shelter and clothing, and remembers one man, Jimmy, fondly. Jimmy was Silvio’s only friend, so after news that the Germans planned to create a large garrison in the town, Silvio led Jimmy and the other escapees to the foot of the mountains over which they could escape, and had to say goodbye.

Books to accompany the series

WWII’s Great Escapes is the result of many, many months of research and planning.

These books, amongst many others, proved invaluable in the production process (except one, which was written about the process itself) and are great resources for anyone wishing to find out more about Europe’s freedom trails, those that used them, and the men and women who made them possible.

READ MORE +

Beatrice's Story

“We thought about our own boys who were away at war, who were prisoners, and hoped at least someone else was doing what we were doing here.”

The Pieruccini family hid seven escaped prisoners of war in their home in northern Italy. Beatrice recalls one night, when two German soldiers arrived demanding food and shelter. The soldiers then slept in the kitchen, while above them the escapees hid in a bedroom. Beatrice and her family put their lives on the line to save strangers, and ended up truly caring for their guests, remembering them fondly over 70 years later.

Andrea's Story

We have reached the point that one should not hear these things until the end of time.”

The son of a shepherd, Andrea Quartieri hid in the woods during the massacre in the Italian town of Vinca, which was suspected of being a staging post to get escapees over the mountains and as a base for partisans. German troops and the Italian ‘Brigata Nera’ force closed in and conducted a ‘rastrellamento’ – a ‘raking’. The massacre went on for three days, and Andrea returned to find that 174 local people, including fifteen members of his family, had been murdered.

The Comet Line

In episode 4 Monty treks the Pat O’Leary Line over the Pyrenees mountains, one of the most famous and challenging freedom trails out of France. However, the ‘Pat Line’ was one of a whole network of lines that criss-crossed Europe during the War.

When he found himself stranded behind enemy lines in Belgium, RAF gunner Bob Frost took a risk by knocking on a farm house door in search of help. Luckily, he was put in touch with the Belgian resistance and invited to join the Comet Line…

READ MORE +

Bob's Story

I’d worked out that there was only one place to go and that was Gibraltar. So using the Pole Star as a navigation point I set off, all 19 years of age, to get to Gibraltar.

On his 14th mission over Belgium, Sergeant Bob Frost and the four crew members of his Wellington bomber started to drop. At 16,000 feet Bob donned his parachute and bailed out. A local farmer put Bob and his crew in touch with the Resistance network, ferrying escapees out of Nazi Europe. He was now in a system to help him realize his dream, to get back home to fight again.

Michele's Story

“We do what we want to do. It is not courageous, it was necessary for us to do that… especially to beat the Germans, to put them out of France.”

As a teenager, Michele Agniel worked for one of the escape networks in Paris. Michele’s job was to escort airmen across the city and onto trains heading south to Toulouse. Every time she left her home she would see a German poster, warning that anyone caught helping escapees would be arrested and executed. It is due to the bravery of people like Michele that so many thousands of men and women made it through France and over the Pyrenees to safety.