Charles Mayhead

Rumours: A Memoir of a British POW in WW11


ISBN: 1-929355-02-5

$16 (trade paperback)   220 pages

s "Chas" Mayhead was one of the millions of young British lads of the 30s who seemed to drift, who didn't have a clear idea of what they wanted to do with their lives. One thing Chas did know though was that he wanted to get out of his neighborhood and see the world. He wanted to be able to afford a tailor-made suit. He wanted to own a car.
When his nation called him to military service, he was

Chas Mayhead in 2009 while visiting the camp where he was held prisoner in Germany

actually happy to go in. At least he'd have a chance to see something new, have an opportunity to be someone.
Before his basic training was completed, however, England had declared war on Germany. Suddenly the situation had changed. Chas was assigned duty in the Middle East, and within a year of his enlistment, he was separated from his company in the desert and was captured by the Germans.

What followed was a fascinating and terrifying experience life as a prisoner during World War II: held in North Africa, shipped across the Meditteranean to Italy, moved to Northern Italy, escaped across the Alps toward Switzerland, re-captured just outside the Swiss border, transported to a POW camp in Germany, and escaped again from the prisoners' march toward Dresden.

This book is a first-person account of these harrowing experiences. In the book, Chas Mayhead tells what life was like for a prisoner during that nightmarish period of world history. He tells of the differences among the treatments of the prisoners by the Germans vs. the Italians, tells of the tensions among the prisoners themselves, of the kind of work the men did and the kind of food they ate. He tells of the experiences in the camps, whether it was the barbed-wire holding area in North Africa, the open-air work camp in North Italy, or the cold and muddy plant work in Germany.

Some of the stories are humorous, filled with the kind of small joys only a prisoner can find. Others are tense and frightening, taking on prison guards, being discovered in an escape attempt or smuggling food into a barracks.

Through it all, though, Chas maintains his strong love of country and his fierce sense of pride. And, obviously, he makes it. He comes out of the experience a changed man. Not changed the way he'd wanted to be when he longed to escape his neighborhood, but changed in the way such daily confrontations with death and starvation might change a person: Giving him a recognition of life as a gift, as a daily joy to be appreciated, not taken for granted.

Excerpt from the book:

There I was [in the desert] with four other chaps. We had a vehicle, an armored truck, but we were cut off from the lines. We decided to go east and then south, hoping to get back to camp and avoid the enemy, the Germans. They weren’t visible, but of course we knew they were near. We had to try to find our way out. This was the desert. There were no roads, and the weather could cause the scenery to change every morning. So there we were hoping we were going the way we wanted to go, but not really sure.

In the early evening hours, around eight or nine, I suppose, we saw a black mass heading our way, had to be one or more vehicles. We thought it was British, although we couldn't tell for sure at first. We took our chances, though, since we were as visible to them as they were to us. It was led by a staff car. When we got alongside, a British officer got out and held a pistol at us and asked who we were. I was afraid he’d shoot first and ask questions later. He thought we were the enemy. It was a natural possibility since the Germans had lots of our stuff and they were using it. So the officer couldn’t tell by looking at us. We told him we were on our way to Cairo. He said, “Don’t move. This place is covered with land mines.”

He introduced us to a major who was responsible for laying the mines. And he arranged it so this officer would see us through the mines. We were told to stick close to the staff car, to make any turns or shifts of direction the staff car made. We couldn't have made it on our own. That became clear. Eventually they stopped and the officer got out and told us we’d passed the mined area and we were on our own. “Head in this direction,” he said, and he pointed. We took off, hoping to reach Cairo. We would need food and fuel soon, so we didn’t have too much time to get there. Fortunately, we found a deserted British lorry with lots of fuel in it, so we took that and destroyed our truck. No food, however.

As dawn approached, we could see the desert. We thought we’d made it. We pulled into a kind of hill near the road and got in the back of the lorry and ate a biscuit or two from our rations. We took turns keeping awake while others slept. We saw some German aircraft flying over and we figured that if they'd seen us, they must have thought we were Germans. I said we should stay put until it got dark again. The rest agreed, so we just stuck to the lorry and kept out of sight.

That evening, we took off again, still heading in the direction we thought was right. I was driving when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, at around one or two o’clock in the morning, I saw a mass of black silhouettes ahead of us. Looked like a military camp. I was too close to them to turn away—that would have been a giveaway—but I was afraid they were Germans. Just had that horrible feeling. I woke the others and told them what was up and said I thought we should take our chances. We didn’t know who they were. The guys agreed, and we went on ahead, very nervously. It turned out they were Germans, a Panzer group. Tanks. I don’t know how many tanks there were, but there must have been more than a hundred, all lined up and spread along. There was one main pathway straight down the middle, so we headed for that.

We knew we were in trouble, but we just went forth. Drove right down that pathway. Every few tanks we saw a guard or two. No one called out to us, or anything, thank god. We’d taken our hats off and our tropical gear didn’t look much different from the Germans' gear. NOBODY in our lorry was to speak. That was the rule. We wouldn’t allow it. NOBODY. Act like you’re asleep. I was NCO. I drove very slowly. We could see the silhouettes of the men sleeping and we could occasionally see the guards. They didn’t expect us to be British, of course, because what kind of crazy British soldier would drive right down through the middle of a battalion of tanks?

I don’t know how many guards we passed, but I just KNEW one of them would say something. I had planned to say nothing if they did or they would have known I wasn’t German. The truck was open in the back, and I was trying to act as though I was dead beat and just going forward. Some of them waved, sort of half waves. I just waved back, sort of shook my head, and moaned. Acted like I was just going through the motions, trying to stay awake. That’s all. It seemed to work. I told myself we can’t win. Before long someone will say something and we won’t be able to answer. But it didn’t happen. Unbelievable.

We got to the end of the line. Probably took us fifteen minutes but I swear it seemed like an hour or more. It was near daylight by this time. And we just kept going. None of us could believe we’d made it through. Really. After we were out of sight, I stopped and said to the others, “We’ve made it. And by god, if we made it through that line, we can go anywhere.” We felt terrifically relieved, but of course we wondered why those tanks were all stationed there so close together. We knew something was going on. Still, I got in the back and relaxed, let someone else do the driving for a while.

Suddenly—Bang! Bang! Bang!—machine-gun fire. We’d been identified. We had to get off the vehicle, and we managed that, but we were in the open. Nowhere to hide. We didn’t know where the gunshots were coming from. We tried to tell ourselves it might be the British firing at us, might be our own men who hadn’t been able to identify us. But we didn’t really believe it. We tried to get under the vehicle to escape the shooting. We then made a run towards a gully and got down low. It felt like we were rats being forced to scatter from their nest.

In no time at all, voices in English called out to us: “Tommy! Hey, Tommy!” This was a reference to “Tommy Atkins,” an old name for English the Germans used in WW1. It wasn’t used in this war, though. So we knew these were Germans. The British would never use the term to themselves.

Finally somebody called out, still in English, “We are Germans and you are our prisoners. Come out with your arms in the air or you will be shot.” Two or three blokes stood up with their machine guns. We saw them. They said something like, “We respect you as British soldiers.” They were all right. Another man stood up and said, “You are our prisoners.” We asked him where we were and he told us we were near El-Allomay.

So we discovered we had been off on our directions, but not too far off. We were a bit lost, but not bad.

One of our crew was a cockney, and he didn’t want to give up. So before I came out, I said to him, “You suit yourself, but you can’t win. You’re going to get killed. If you want to do it that way, do it.” I’d never seen him before except just around in passing. He finally, reluctantly, agreed to come out.