Volume II Number 1
October 20, 1995

image Almost a Lifetime.

John McMahon.
Lantzville, British Columbia: Oolichan books, 1995. 297pp, paper, $19.95.
ISBN 0-88982-143-7. CIP.

Subject Headings:
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 make choices."

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.

Highly recommended.

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.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364

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