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Down But Not Out
The Incredible Story of Second World War Airman Maurice 'Moggy' Mayne
By Maurice Mayne, Mark Ryan
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Maurice Mayne and Mark Ryan
All rights reserved.
FLASH OF BLADE AND THUD OF GLOVE
I was lucky to be born at all. My dad, George, was a private in the Royal Fusiliers during the First World War. Somehow he managed to survive being sent over the top in the first wave on the very first day of the Battle of the Somme, when about 60,000 men were killed or wounded.
He charged through the shells and bullets and reached the German trenches alone. Later he recalled:
Out of breath and to gather my wits and strength, I dropped into a shell hole just in front of the German wire. I peeped over the edge, fired a shot at a round hat on a German head that suddenly appeared, rushed the last few yards and jumped into the German trench. I saw nobody there, friend or foe. It was very eerie but I recall facing our old front lines and being appalled at the poor positioning of them. They were absolutely clearly overlooked by the enemy for all those terrible months preceding the battle. Sitting ducks we must have been, I thought.
I then went on to the second-line trench and jumped in, to see a German soldier lying on the parapet. With fixed bayonet I approached, then I saw his putty-coloured face which convinced me he was mortally wounded. The German brought up an arm and actually saluted me. I understood no German language but the poor chap kept muttering two words: 'Wasser, wasser' and 'Mutter, mutter.' It took me a minute or so to realise he wanted a drink of water. The second word I could not cotton on to. I am glad to this day that I gave him a drink from my precious water.
The other word my dad's German acquaintance had repeated was 'Mother, mother.' My father felt sorry for him and was never ashamed for having shown some compassion. More than a million men became casualties on the Somme eventually. It was a miracle my dad came home in one piece because most didn't.
Did he receive a hero's welcome? Hardly. He couldn't find any work at all in London for the first few months. Eventually a friend managed to get him a job at the Victualling Yard in Deptford. That was where they used to keep all the supplies for the navy, including the rum. My father found himself working in the department where they used to mix rum with lime. Each day all the workers got a ration of rum, same as the navy boys got, but some blokes didn't want their ration, so they gave it to my father, because they knew he liked it. My mother said he came home one day in a wheelbarrow.
I was born in Deptford and spent my first few years in that part of East London. But as a youngster I used to go up to White Hart Lane with my dad, to watch Tottenham Hotspur play. We'd walk all the way through the city to North London to get to the matches. And if we were running late, he would literally drag me along through the crowds, to make sure we arrived on time. I remember having the skin scraped off my knees in the desperate rush to the Lane. It didn't put me off, though; the atmosphere was amazing. Those were the days when we all stood, and they passed youngsters over the heads of the grown men and put them down at the front, where they could have a better view of the match. I loved it.
When I was eight years old I asked my father whether he knew how to attack with a fixed bayonet. He said he did and showed me how to put the bayonet on his rifle, which he still had.
'See? Like this.' He demonstrated, sliding the thing down once it was on. But he didn't stop there. 'First foot forward ... plunge! Twist! That's very important. Pull it out again.'
Some people think you twisted a bayonet to do maximum damage to your enemy's vital organs, and that could have been a consequence, but the main reason was that if you didn't twist a bayonet, you didn't leave enough air around the metal to pull it out again. The 'meat' closed in around the blade and then you were stuck. You'd end up tugging for ages and ages, pulling the body along.
'Thrust! Twist! Come out again!' He showed me one last time for good measure. 'In! Twist! Out!' He didn't mind teaching me, even though I was so young. Perhaps he thought I might have to fight one day. In a way he was right.
When I was ten or eleven we moved across to West London – Paddington, to be precise – so that my dad could run his brother's textile shop. I went to the Polytechnic Secondary School there. By then I wasn't known as 'Maurice Mayne' to my friends. For some reason they called me 'Moggy' – and the nickname stuck.
Everyone studied a foreign language at the polytechnic, which was a grammar school. You could choose between French, Spanish or German. I chose German. I don't know why because it wasn't as if I thought they'd try to invade us or take over the world. I just remember finding it easier than French. German would prove very useful later on – in captivity and then when I was on the run among the Nazis, having escaped on my own.
I also learned to box at an early age, because the school was big on it. Even though I was only small, I discovered that my fists packed a punch and I was nifty on my feet. Quite a few opponents were surprised to find themselves sitting on their backsides before they could land much glove on me.
They had boxing competitions every year at the polytechnic, and the parents were all invited along to watch. I won the first fight I had in a ring because I went in with my fists flying and overwhelmed my opponent. But the second fight I had at school was very different. I went straight in again, as though I was going to murder the other chap, but I left myself exposed and he got me. I took quite a pasting.
I remember going back to the classroom in a state. Mr Chipperfield, the head of the scholarship class, took a good look at my face. It was still smudged with blood and he said to me, 'Don't go in for boxing. It's not nice.'
It may not be nice but it's a great skill to have and it came in handy during the times of trouble in wartime. When you're trying to fight for what's right in a prisoner-of-war camp and some trouble-maker challenges you, what are you going to do if you can't back up your words with your knuckles? If you're on a death march in the snow and you have to rip a man's coat off his back because you think he has stolen it off your mate, you have to be able to give the culprit a look that tells him he'll get a fearful beating if he tries to fight for that stolen coat. How are you going to do that if you don't know how to look after yourself? Boxing's not nice, Mr Chipperfield said. So what? Life's not nice sometimes.
After I took that schoolboy beating in the ring, you could say I was down but not out. I carried on fighting, partly because the Boy Scouts were big on it too. I was a Scout in Paddington – 43rd Troop, West London. They held boxing bouts every month and I had the opportunity to box against boys in other Scout troops. I don't think I ever lost a fight in the Scouts. I was learning more about the noble art every time I fought. I understood where to put my hands by then, to keep them up to protect myself from counter-punches.
As well as boxing and football, I loved cricket too. I was good at it and played for an adult team called the Old Vauxonians. In 1934, at the age of fourteen, cricket gave me a special experience, because I met Jack Hobbs! Imagine the current cricket England captain and attach to him the celebrity of David Beckham. Now you're getting an idea of Jack Hobbs' status in British sport at the time. He scored 199 first-class centuries and over 61,000 runs, despite his career being interrupted for five years by the First World War, during which he flew for the Royal Flying Corps. How many runs would he have scored if that First World War hadn't broken out?
He'd already become a journalist by the time I met him, which hadn't stopped him from scoring 221 against the touring West Indians in 1933 – in his fiftieth year! All the best journalists worked in London's Fleet Street in those days, so that's where I went to find him. I was going to pick up an award for the highest-scoring batsman on the London schools circuit that summer.
I climbed some stairs to his office and before I knew it Jack Hobbs, living legend, was greeting me.
'Congratulations!' he said warmly. 'Keep it up! And remember to keep a straight bat!'
Not only did he give me advice, he gave me a junior cricket bat. It was slightly smaller than the average cricket bat, just right for my age and size. And the best thing was, he autographed it for me too. He wrote his initials on it, which for me in 1934 was the cricket equivalent of being blessed by the Pope.
I didn't have the heart to tell him I'd only come to collect the prize for a mate called Bert Page. But Bert let me use his Jack Hobbs cricket bat whenever I wanted, and I scored quite a few runs with it too! The Old Vauxonians record for 1936 was played 20, won 11, drawn 7 and lost 2 – so I didn't do them any harm that year.
I won certificates in other sports too. It sounds like boasting but I'm only telling you all this because it helps to explain why I survived while others died as a prisoner of war. I was naturally athletic, you see – even though I was still short and never did grow much beyond 5 feet 7 inches tall. I'd had plenty of practice at racing around. We lived on quite a busy road and there had been a lot of accidents involving bicycles, so my dad told me I wasn't having one. I'd started to run everywhere instead, especially from the age of fourteen, when I'd begun to get really fit. That's how I became such a good all-round athlete. It stood me in good stead for the death marches at the end of the Second World War, when only the fittest were going to survive. It also helped me live into my nineties.
Competition is good for you, it's lovely. Sport at school really is important. People talk about competition not being important when you're growing up. The same kind of people say boxing is bad for you. What a load of rubbish! When you grow up what chance are you going to have when it's dog-eat-dog, if you were never encouraged to be competitive at school?
My father knew all this after what he'd been through in the First World War. Now he was doing everything he could to make his family comfortable and was moving up in the world. But he didn't want us to be soft. He left his brother's business in Paddington and opened a textile shop of his own in Bermondsey. It sold all kinds of clothing materials and started to do so well that he opened another one in Peckham. That shop began to do even better.
Leaving school at sixteen, I was still a world away from any life-or-death situations – at least to start with. What was soon in danger was my chosen career. The irony was that I played it very safe and joined an accountancy firm. This went well for a couple of years, until I broke the company's most prized possession – their calculator. I was swinging it over my shoulder when I dropped it. The boss wanted me to pay for it, which would have taken me at least a year on my wages. So I went to work for my father at his textile shop in Peckham instead.
My family was very friendly with a lot of Jewish people in the East End of London, because a lot of Jews were textile wholesalers. But not everyone was so friendly towards the Jews. Don't think for a moment that it was only in Nazi Germany where they had anti-Semitism in the 1930s. There was plenty of anti-Semitism in London too, and there were all sorts of derogatory names for Jews flying around – too terrible to mention here. A lot of people down the East End of London, where they settled, didn't like them at all. If you've lived in a place for a long time and it suddenly changes, you take a dislike to the change, I suppose.
But the Jews were trying to integrate and took up a lot of things that the East Enders thought were their prerogative – such as boxing. They found some excellent boxers among their number. The locals were quite surprised by that. And the Jews had musicians – marvellous musicians – people who really understood music.
I had no problem with the Jews; I liked them. I'm not going to lie, though; you had to be pretty sharp when you dealt with some of them, because when it came to business, well ... let's just say they really were business people! You had to fight hard to hold your own and survive alongside them in business. But overall we got on well, the Jews and I. Business was brisk, life was good.
Then the war started and people started joining up. There was a bloke living round the back of my father's shop and his name was Ken Reeves. When he was on leave, Ken used to walk past the shop in his RAF uniform, all blue and smart. I saw him a few times and thought, 'Look at that uniform! I want to look that good.' I was struck by the sheer elegance of his appearance and the way he carried himself. I watched him go past several times and each time I wanted that uniform a little bit more.
'That's it,' I said to myself. 'I'm going to be a pilot!'
But I didn't do anything about it until, one Thursday afternoon in the early summer of 1940, I went out for my lunch break and saw a bunch of blokes on a big area of greenery called Peckham Rye. It was a lovely sunny day and I was there to enjoy the fine weather; but these lads were there for a purpose – they were new recruits under instruction. They wore army uniform and they were learning how to fire a rifle while lain down on the ground. I was stretched out on the grass too; but I wasn't doing anything useful like they were. Suddenly I got this peculiar urge telling me I'd got to join up. But I didn't want to join the army like them; none of those blokes looked as smart as Ken Reeves.
I went straight over to Eltham, where they were recruiting in a public house called Yorkshire Grey. I told them, 'I want to join the RAF.' I could have added, 'I want to look like the bloke who keeps walking past my dad's shop in Peckham,' but they wouldn't have cared about that. They were more interested in giving me a quick medical – there and then.
A Scot in a long white coat said, 'Let's have a sample of yer watter!'
I worked out what he meant and did this little drop in a jar for him. He looked at it and said, 'I want a bit more than that, laddie!' So I filled the jar up. I took it over to him and he looked annoyed. 'I said "a bit more"; I didn't say have a damn great piss!' I was staggered at that sort of language from a doctor.
Despite having had the cheek to empty my bladder, they accepted me – or so I thought. My 'Notice Paper' to join the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve was dated 29 May 1940. I've still got it. Maurice George Mayne of 175 Peckham Rye, Peckham, London SE15, 'buyer/salesman in outfitters' became 'number 1253284'.
Within a couple of weeks they'd sent me for a full air crew medical over at Uxbridge in West London. When I got there though, I quickly realised it wasn't just a medical, it was a full-scale interview. They put me in front of a panel of high-ranking RAF officers, who asked me various questions.
'What do you want to be?'
'I want to be a pilot.'
There was a collective sigh. Then one officer said, 'Do you realise that every man who comes in here says he wants to be a pilot?'
I nearly said, 'Of course they bloody do – you're the RAF!' Instead I remained silent.
'There simply aren't enough places on the courses,' said another member of the panel. 'It would be six months before we could even think about sending you on the training course to become a pilot – and the nearest would be Babbacombe in Devon.'
Six months seemed like a long time. Then one of the officers asked me another question. 'Did you do any sport at school?'
'Yes, I love sport,' I said.
'Did you do any boxing?'
'Yes,' I confirmed. 'I did a lot of boxing and I was good at it.'
'That's settled then,' said another officer, the debate apparently over before it had started. 'Air gunner.'
Just because I'd done a lot of boxing, they made me an air gunner. No choice! I suppose they thought a gunner had to be a tough, aggressive type. Anyway, the dream of becoming a pilot was over – for now. 'At least I'm going to be flying,' I told myself. I was going to see more than my share of danger, too.
Aged nineteen, I took the oath in Uxbridge on 18 June 1940. It went like this:
I, Maurice George Mayne, swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King George the Sixth, His Heirs and Successors, and that I will, as in duty bound, honestly and faithfully defend His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, in Person, Crown and Dignity against all enemies, and will observe and obey all orders of His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, and of the Air Officers and Officers set over me. So help me God.
I wasn't likely to receive any direct orders from King George VI, was I? It was more about getting me to obey the orders of the officers. Disobey your superior officer and it was like disobeying the king. That was the gist of it. I didn't intend to disobey, I wanted to do my bit 'For King and Country' and I was excited about it, proud to take that oath. It was the beginning of quite an adventure, I can tell you.
Excerpted from Down But Not Out by Maurice Mayne, Mark Ryan. Copyright © 2014 Maurice Mayne and Mark Ryan. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Flash of Blade and Thud of Glove,
2 The Face in the Window,
3 The Boys,
4 On Ops,
5 The Channel Dash,
7 Beaufort Down,
10 Life and Death in Stalag VIIIB,
11 The Proposal,
12 Meet the Family,
13 A Hint of Freedom,
14 Berlin and the Coast,
15 The Execution Threat,
16 Death March,
17 Chaos and Salvation,
Postscript: Happy Ever After,