Volume II Number 1
October 20, 1995
Almost a Lifetime.
Lantzville, British Columbia: Oolichan books, 1995. 297pp, paper, $19.95.
ISBN 0-88982-143-7. CIP.
McMahon, John, 1921-
World War, 1939-1945-Personal narratives, British.
World War, 1939-1945-Prisoners and prisons, German.
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Neil V. Payne.
Barrack Commander Alec MacKinlay interrupted our Stalag exit
preparation with a request for everyone to come forward and listen. Alec
looked like an old man. These last few distressing months had played
havoc with him. He struggled to his table top podium and spoke quietly.
"Well, fellows," he began, "the Russian armies are not too far away. We
expect they will be in this area within a couple of days. We don't know
what is happening; communications are poor. All we have is rumours, some
not so good. But unless a battalion of German soldiers retreat this way
and through the camp, I don't think we will have trouble from our guards.
"There is the possibility we will have to walk out of here to some
place further west, so don't bank on being liberated by the Ruskies. I
have information that tomorrow morning we are to take with us on check
parade any smal1 kit we wish to have and use on a march. So you are being
forewarned. When parade is over tomorrow you will not be permitted to
return to your barrack. It's hellish cold weather and I can't understand
why they want to take us out on a hiking tour right now. We are 40,000
plus men, and once we move away from here, we'll be camping in sub zero
temperatures. Make sure you wear the warmest clothing you have and the
best footwear. I'm not giving orders or much advice; you are all free to
So began a forced march of forty thousand Prisoners of War westward more
than four hundred miles across the frozen, ice-covered Germany of
February 1945. A march that ended in exhausted freedom for some; a cold,
lonely death in a ditch in the middle of nowhere for many others.
John McMahon was a nineteen-year-old delivery boy for a Belfast
grocery store when he joined the Royal Air Force in the spring of 1940.
He started out in the relatively safe job of maintaining and repairing
aircraft, but soon wanted to be part of the "real" war as air crew.
After training as air crew, he was shot down over Holland on his
first mission in February 1943. The only survivor of the seven-man crew,
McMahon was briefly hidden by Dutch people, but soon became a POW.
McMahon's captors took him to Stalag VIIIB in eastern Germany where
he spent the next two years as a POW. Much of Almost a Lifetime deals
with this time in a German prison camp.
Life as a POW was harsh and boring, food was always lacking in both
quality and quantity, and life centred around trying to maintain
strength, health, and sanity until rescue came. The weekly Red Cross
package and infrequent mail deliveries were all that made continued life
either possible or bearable.
McMahon describes the friends, the mutual support systems, the
efforts to maintain the humanity among the POWs in great detail, but,
strangely, doesn't provide much detail on the interaction with their
captors except as it affected their daily routines. Life was harsh,
health was failing due to poor nutrition and significant weight loss, but
the clearest images of these two years are of the determination of the
POWs to survive through collective action.
Then early in 1945, with Germany clearly losing the war on all
fronts and the sounds of Russian artillery coming ever closer to their
camp, when liberation seemed imminent, they were forced to trudge
westward, through unusually harsh February weather, with only the clothes
on their backs.
McMahon started out strongly, surrounded by the help of friends, but
after many days contracted dysentery. Rapidly losing strength, he was
unable to keep up and finally collapsed on the road. A German civilian
who found him unconscious and delivered him to medical aid saved his life.
A long recovery finally lead to a return home to his family. He soon
married his childhood sweetheart and, in 1952, moved to Canada. Thirty
years later, he retired and started to write this book.
In 1983, he returned to Holland with his son and found the Dutch
family that had sheltered him, the graves of his air crew, and the German
pilot who had shot them down.
This is an intensely personal and very readable account of both the
experiences of the young airman and POW, and of his recent return to the
memories, the people, and the places of a lifetime ago. It is a deeply
moving and very human story that allows us to appreciate
experiences of war we could otherwise only dimly imagine.
Public libraries and high school libraries would find this a very
valuable source of insight into World War II and the life of a Prisoner of War.
Copyright © 1995 the Manitoba Library Association.
Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is
maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
The Manitoba Library Association
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