A rare memoir offers fascinating insight into Rommel's Afrikakorps and an entertaining account of a daring escape from the Allied Army
For the Austrian Max Reisch, pioneer international motorist and writer of the 1930s, World War II offered yet more opportunities for adventure. Here is his lively account of his time with a vehicle maintenance unit of the Afrikakorps in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia. On forays into the desert at the wheel of a captured Jeep, searching out wrecked vehicles for spare parts, he visited the fabulous oasis of Siwa and dug his way out of the sinister minefield of Minqar Qaim. Seeing German defeat as inevitable, he hatched several escape plans and finally, with no experience of the sea, acquired a dilapidated fishing boat and some rudimentary navigation skills. He avoided capture at Tunis and, despite damage to the boat, set sail for Sicily together with seven comrades (and one small dog). Running the blockade of Allied warships and weathering a sudden storm, his motley crew succeeded against the odds.
|Publisher:||The History Press|
|Product dimensions:||4.80(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.50(d)|
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Out of the Rat Trap
Desert Adventures with Rommel
By Max Reisch, Alison Falls
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Max Reisch
All rights reserved.
HOW THIS BOOK WAS WRITTEN
I spent the first days of peace in a shepherd's hut, high up in the mountains of northern Italy. It was a heady feeling, knowing that the war was over, but now the uproar was at an end, I felt oppressed – not only by the silence of the mountains but by the uncertainty of what was happening in the outside world.
A week went by. Although I had been very frugal, the provisions I had lugged up with me in the rucksack were all gone. I had not been able to carry very much, as my right leg was still not properly mended from the wound I had got at Nettuno.
Meanwhile the Italian peasant who owned the hut had found me out. He was neither friendly nor unfriendly, but I promised him money if he would bring me food. After a few days, during which I ate almost nothing, he arrived with bread and cheese, but we could not agree a price. His demands were excessive and since I was obliged to husband my meagre resources, we haggled for a long time. Being in a tight corner, I found myself at a distinct disadvantage, so I said I would be willing to work for him.
'No, no, certainly not!'
He was anxious about this as it was apparently illegal. All I could do was sit in my sheepfold and go hungry.
This was a pretty dire sort of existence, not unlike Robinson Crusoe's. In my childhood I had often longed for such a life and later on I had lived in similar conditions, but that was somewhere in Central Asia where there was no alternative. Here, on the other hand, all I had to do was descend 2,000m into the valley and the throb of civilisation and its comforts would be all around me.
When the peasant brought me a frying pan I felt I could live like a king, since up to that time I had been cooking in tin cans.
There was enough water around, but I had run out of soap. My wardrobe had a pitiful aspect and my shoes were worn through. Things could have been worse, for summer was on its way, but worst of all was the boredom. Now and then I glimpsed an aircraft in the sky, but my only human contact was with the peasant and his little 10-year-old daughter. They were both so wretched and poverty-stricken that I thought they probably lived in a sheepfold too, 1,000m further down the hill – 1,000m nearer to civilisation and yet just as far removed from it as I was.
In my solitude I began to write. I wrote about my two years in Africa, just the way it happened, and got it off my chest. The peasant had no idea why I needed so much paper. If I had told him that I was working on a diary or writing a book, he would probably have regarded me with the utmost suspicion and wondered what sort of top brass he had got hidden away. My presence in his sheepfold irked him enough as it was.
And so this book was written – on newspaper, on wrapping paper, in the margins of an old farming calendar and in minuscule script in my notebook.
I was hungry and, whenever I wrote about the good life we'd led in Tunis or the delicious stuff we'd looted in Tobruk, my mouth would water. Perhaps this was the reason why I wrote more often and at greater length about food than good form would dictate.
The peasant brought me what I needed, including flour, cooking fat and onions, but only for money, at an exorbitant price. I could see that he was as poor as a church mouse himself, and that as long as I had money he would make me welcome. He wasn't a bad fellow really, or he would simply have robbed me and turned me in.
So I carried on writing and my belly carried on rumbling. I cooked up amazing damper and soups in the frying pan and it all got digested. I have never been a good cook but my innards will put up with quite a lot. Once in Baluchistan I acquired a few eggs from one of the nomads. Not having any fat to fry them, I poured some oil out of the motorcycle and soon they were sputtering nicely. They didn't taste at all bad but the consequences were devastating. Every few kilometres I had to make an emergency stop in the middle of the desert, leap off the machine and disappear hastily behind the non-existent bushes.
Ah, those were the days, but many years had passed since then.
I often thought about my comrades-in-arms who were now all in prison camps. They weren't getting much grub either, it's true, but they had each other, a bit of company and entertainment, even if it was only a worn-out pack of cards. In spite of their troubles, someone could always make a joke and the others would laugh. I never laughed in my sheepfold, in fact I scarcely spoke a word in all those months.
The peasant, or his little girl, came every week or ten days and brought whatever it was we had bargained for on the last occasion. I was on such short rations that I was getting thinner all the time. In the purse around my neck I had only a few hundred lire left.
Often I came very close to climbing down into the valley and giving myself up to the first Allied soldier I met: 'Arrest me, please, please just arrest me!' It would be a great relief, so it seemed, to let someone else take on the problem of keeping me alive. It would be great to be in a prison camp, together with comrades. Things were not so hard if you were all together. But was it possible to write a book in such circumstances, and write it the way I wanted? In theory it was, but in practice it wouldn't have worked.
I had now been living in my hut for seventy days. The money was gone. I offered my camera, but the peasant shook his head. What use was it to him? It was easier to talk him into taking my watch, although he already had one of his own. However, it was impossible to persuade him that the stopwatch function made it extremely valuable and I made it over to him for a derisory sum.
Now I had no watch, but I was writing and I had food for a couple more weeks. In spite of this I went on getting thinner and the lordly names I bestowed on the dishes I cooked could not disguise their meagre content.
I spent hours peering down into the valley, wondering when they were going to come and get me. This could have happened any time, any day, because in the end it was no use relying on the peasant. For me it would have been a happy release, as the constant insecurity was a terrible burden, and uncertainty about the fate of my homeland was wearing me down.
What if I just ...?
But except for outward appearances, my situation would in principle have been unaltered, so I stayed in my sheepfold and wrote. I left out the 'monstrous anger of the guns' and did not concern myself with high strategy. However, on the fringes of history there are still to be found those countless human stories of personal experience, of adventure, of care and woe, which are all worth recording. All these episodes, both comic and serious, which reflected the lives of 100,000 white men in the heat of the desert (in short, our day-to-day existence in Africa) might prove more riveting than any of the more sensational events of the war. It was in this vein that I preferred to tell my story of Africa and the two years I spent there, including the eventful 47,000km I spent racing through the desert in a Ford, with the driver Froschauer, between El Alamein and Tunis. I would also give an account of how we planned our escape from Africa to Europe, what went wrong and how we finally succeeded.
* * *
In the end I gave the peasant my rucksack as well, and a threadbare shirt, but by then I had finished writing down my experiences and my reflections. Five months had gone by, the autumn winds were sweeping over the alpine meadows and the first snows were lying on the summits of Adamello.
As I rolled up the multifarious scraps of paper that formed my manuscript, I could not help smiling at the tatty old bundle, but I shoved it under my arm and slung the frying pan over my shoulder. My other possessions fitted comfortably into the pockets of my fraying jacket and I set off down the hill. I gave the pan to the peasant and thanked him for everything. Once down in the village I handed my strange roll of paper into the safe-keeping of the local priest and set off along the village street feeling cheerful and free at last. A lot of traffic was passing and these were Allied vehicles – Americans. So I did exactly what I'd seen people do in the States. When I was over there I had often given lifts to tramps. They would stand on the side of the road hitch-hiking with a casual wave of the thumb over the shoulder.
At last one stopped. It was a Jeep.
'To the nearest "concentration camp"', I said in English, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
'Where do you want to go?'
'To prisoner-of-war camp!'
'I'm not going that way!'
And with that, the Jeep drove off leaving me alone and dejected on the roadside. After a few more attempts I finally struck lucky with a more understanding driver.
In the camp I made such a pathetic impression that they put me straight into the field hospital where I lay for several days while I was subjected to repeated interrogations. After that I got some peace. I had time to gather my wits in a friendly atmosphere and I got three meals a day. Through a big clear window I could view the world in full colour. A new life seemed to beckon.
Eventually they came back and told me I was being discharged – not just from the hospital but absolutely. I could stay on for a few days if I wanted, but I went. In my pocket were my discharge papers and a ticket home, which was wonderful.
It was all I could have asked for.
* * *
Six years later I felt that the time had come to return to the area and look up the kindly priest. Understandably, he did not recognise me at first, but after we had talked for a while about the time in question, he handed over my bundle, tied up exactly as it was when I had entrusted it to him.
It was with some eagerness and also, I have to say, some curiosity that I looked through the pages I had scribbled six years earlier in my sheepfold, looking out over the Adamello Mountains. Friends advised me to change this or leave out that, but in the end I couldn't bear to. Even people's names are still the real ones. All the same, the manuscript lay untouched for another eleven years. One day, on a whim, I gave it to a publisher – and here it is.CHAPTER 2
ESCAPE OR CAPTIVITY?
It usually sounds ridiculous when somebody insists that, way back in the past, he always knew about something or other. It is easy to be wise after the event. However, I can say with certainty that America's entry into the war in December 1941 made a deep impression on me. I had been in the United States just before the war and the American Automobile Association had made it possible for me to visit all the most important automobile works and those of various key industries as well. This meant that I had some idea of what people over there were capable of producing.
On that historic day at our camp in Derna I made a few observations on this point and on the possible implications for the African theatre of war. I remember it particularly well because my remarks earned me a severe reprimand from my senior officer at the time.
Major Lüdecke, as he was wont to do in special circumstances, had ordered the radio to be brought out of the command post tent and we were sitting or standing around the set under the awning, discussing the new situation. 'Pearl Harbor a sea of flame, American Pacific Fleet destroyed' and suchlike was coming out of the loudspeaker.
'Splendid!' said somebody.
'Not surprising' I muttered.
'What do you mean?'
'I just meant, well, the attacker has the advantage.'
'Of course they do. That's war. You can't be sentimental.'
'You're right there,' I said, seeming to agree, 'because this will be the start of an almighty struggle. The destruction of Pearl Harbor doesn't mean the destruction of America. This is just a wake-up call over there and now they're going to be turning out aircraft like hot cakes, not to mention tanks and ...'
'My dear Reisch,' interrupted the major in his slow, oily drawl, 'it's not going to be like that. What you're saying is a load of rubbish.' Then, in sharper tones, he proceeded to give me a public dressing-down, larded with references to the Axis Powers, weapons stocks, discipline and the faith which moves mountains.
I listened patiently to the whole thing and realised that I had just made an enemy for life. It could have been worse, as he was due to be relieved of duty shortly on health grounds. A colonel had been designated as his successor, with whom I might get on better. Meanwhile I drew my own conclusions. From this moment I was sure that it was in North Africa that the Americans would launch their offensive against Fortress Europe. It would be a sort of dress rehearsal and serve as a springboard to the continent. We in Libya would be first in line, and what then?
I passed many a night in my tent through the summer heat and the winter rains mulling over this strategy in general, and my own personal fate in particular, both during and after the African campaign. How would it all turn out? What would the future bring? What were the possibilities, especially in the event of defeat? There were essentially four:
1. Going on leave at the right moment. This would be an exceptional bit of luck, assuming there was any leave. In Africa we only dared mention it in whispers, especially if one was as healthy as I was, and unmarried.
2. Being sent home sick or wounded. Sickness was virtually out of the question, as I knew from experience. The subtropical climate suited me very well. (In fact, I never had a day's illness throughout the whole African campaign). I had often irritated my comrades with references to the 'glorious Mediterranean climate' in our theatre of war, as they never really came to terms with the heat. Of course, anyone could be wounded, that was just fate, but with a bit of luck you might get off with a black eye or something, although not enough to get you sent home.
3.Escape. This was easy to say but not so easy to do, considering the situation in which we found ourselves. It meant either crossing the Mediterranean or a dangerous journey over the desert and through many countries. Which of these routes we chose would depend on the area of North Africa in which defeat occurred.
4. Captivity. I had no qualms about this. We were fighting mainly Britons and Americans whose homeland I knew well and whose language I spoke fluently. With these advantages I could reckon on quite tolerable living conditions. Better than that, in spite of being behind barbed wire, I would get to see a bit more of the world and it would be a stimulating experience from which I could gain some useful knowledge. Also, to be frank, I would be out of all danger. Not just the danger of an escape but all the other risks of war would be at an end. All very nice and I would be sure to see home again.
But when? That was the big question mark, the great unknown. It might last for years and years. It might last a decade if the First World War was anything to go by. Could I put up with that, indeed should I, especially when I knew what it would mean to people waiting at home? It was this that finally swayed my decision.
Escape it had to be. Once I had taken this decision (after mature consideration) I never wavered for an instant. As the months went by, it became ever more firmly entrenched in my thinking and planning, until the thought crystallised; after nearly two years in Africa without any leave, I simply had to get home, even if I died in the attempt.CHAPTER 3
THE GATEWAY TO EGYPT
In the autumn of 1942 we were camped before El Alamein. Our spirits were high: the field kitchen was well-stocked with plunder from the British camps at Tobruk and Marsa, and there was a never-ending supply of water for washing and drinking as the Tommies had forgotten to shut off the pipeline they had built for 200km through the desert from Alexandria to El Daba. Besides, this was the gateway to Egypt. Each of us carried a map of the land of the Pharaohs in his pocket and made great play with it. Our interpreter was kept busy providing the most detailed information. It was not easy for him, as he found the German language heavy going, and no wonder. He had been born and brought up in Cairo, and had always spoken French and Arabic, his German citizenship being only incidental. However, chance was enough to turn a curly-headed Egyptian into a German guide. Clothing makes the man, and our man looked very much the part.
We gave the poor chap a terrible time, forever asking which offered the better accommodation – Shepheard's Hotel or the Mena House? After so long fighting in the desert we were out to treat ourselves, given half a chance.
I also got certain useful bits of information from 'Georgy'. He was a black African from Mauritius, 24 years old, small and powerfully built. He was also a devout catholic and a stamp collector (which on Mauritius is probably just the decent thing to be).
Excerpted from Out of the Rat Trap by Max Reisch, Alison Falls. Copyright © 2013 Max Reisch. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
About the Author 7
1 How this Book was Written 9
2 Escape or Captivity? 14
3 The Gateway to Egypt 17
4 Conversations under Canvas 20
5 The Sahara Plan 26
6 Treasure Trove 34
7 Cleopatra's Bath 38
8 The Great Find 52
9 Driving Feats on the Via Balbia 60
10 Respite in Tunis 73
11 An Engineer turns Sea Captain 80
12 A Slight Misunderstanding 87
13 Learning the Hard Way 93
14 Preparations 104
15 Spanners in the Works 111
16 The Final Hours in Africa 120
17 The First Night at Sea 128
18 Man Overboard! 140
19 The Lonely Lighthouse 146