Chris and Peggy Maher pictured together during their 53 years of marriage
His neat, hand-written letters are kept in a wooden chest under a dressing table.
Crafted using pen and paper obtained from his German prison guards, they provide a fascinating insight into a wartime romance between an heroic soldier who came back from the dead and his best friend’s sister.
Today, Peggy Maher, the recipient of the letters and a sprightly 94-year-old, wipes away a tear as she recalls how the notes and postcards, all written more than 70 years ago, eventually led to a lifetime of happiness, once the British PoW who had penned them was finally released after nearly five years in captivity.
The full story of the extraordinary relationship between Private Chris Maher and Peggy Hammond — as she was called when they first knew each other — can be told for the first time today because, on a whim, she decided to write a short letter to the Daily Mail earlier this month (Peterborough column, September 7, 2017).
When I read it, I was so moved that I decided to track her down to find out more.
Her letter in the Mail revealed how Peggy had started writing to Private Maher after he had been captured by the Germans at Dunkirk in 1940.
She had only done so at the request of her elder brother Jack, Private Maher’s best friend, who wanted to cheer him up while he was a prisoner.
Jack, too, was serving in the 1939-45 conflict against Nazi Germany.
After World War II ended, Private Maher came to Peggy’s home to thank her in person for writing to him while he had been held at some of the Germany’s most notorious PoW camps.
Private Chris Maher in his army uniform (left) and on his wedding day after marrying Peggy (right)
To this day Peggy has kept the letter informing Private Maher’s parents that he had been killed and she has also kept a letter of condolence from the King
Within a month of that meeting, the young couple, who had become close over their exchange of letters, were engaged.
But that was not all. I soon discovered there were many more twists and turns to the story than Peggy Maher’s short letter to this newspaper could possibly disclose.
The account of how Peggy and Chris went from being family friends to a married couple sharing 56 years of their lives together is one of the remarkable untold tales of the war.
Shortly after the outbreak of war, Private Maher was sent to France with his regiment and by late May 1940 he was part of the British force trying to help with the Dunkirk evacuations.
Anyone who has seen director Christopher Nolan’s recent blockbuster film Dunkirk will know just how chaotic and terrifying the scenes were in northern France from May 26 to June 4.
Private Maher’s unit had been ordered to stem the German advance, but their senior officer was apparently so scared by the enemy’s relentless advance that he spent most of the time in his tent sobbing.
The unit sergeant-major took over effective command, but the situation looked grim.
Private Maher’s parents were stunned when they received a letter telling them he was alive and inside a PoW camp
Peggy and Chris’ story can be told for the first time today because, on a whim, she decided to write a short letter to the Daily Mail earlier this month
A close friend of Private Maher’s — whose name I have decided not to disclose — told him: ‘Come on, Chris. We are going to die here. Get your stuff and we’ll do a runner.’
Private Maher replied: ‘That’s desertion. We will be shot. I am staying here to fight.’
As the Germans advanced, Private Maher and his fellow soldiers were ambushed by an enemy armoured motorbike and sidecar unit, armed with a machine-gun.
When one of his comrades was shot dead, Private Maher removed his own jacket and put it over the man’s body out of respect.
After a brutal fight, Chris Maher managed to escape the ambush, but was himself wounded in battle just hours later and taken as a PoW.
Meanwhile, members of some British forces about to be evacuated from Dunkirk found the dead man along with Private Maher’s ID papers in the jacket covering his body.
They concluded, perhaps understandably, that the body was that of Private Maher.
The soldier was buried near where he had fallen and Chris’s parents, who by then lived in Sunningdale, Berkshire, were informed of their son’s ‘death’. A letter told them their son had been buried in a forest in northern France.
A letter from prisoner of war Private Maher telling Peggy that his address had changed once more
As their romance developed, Private Maher began signing off his latters with ‘All My Love, Chris’ and kisses
To this day Peggy has kept the letter informing Private Maher’s parents that he had been killed and she has also kept a letter of condolence from the King.
On Buckingham Palace notepaper, George VI wrote: ‘The Queen and I offer you our heartfelt sympathy in your great sorrow. We pray that your country’s gratitude for a life so nobly given in its service may bring you some measure of consolation.’
Private Maher had been a regular visitor to Peggy’s family in London almost from the day she was born in June 1923 to a Savile Row tailor named Jack and his wife Florence.
She had two older brothers, Jack Jnr and Sid, and a young sister, Miriam, and they all grew up in Holborn and Baker Street before moving to Shepherd’s Bush when war broke out in September 1939.
Chris was eight years older than Peggy, and was her brother Jack Jnr’s best friend. ‘I would only have been about one when he first started coming around to our home,’ she recalled. ‘He was like having another older brother. He was very sociable and he got on with everyone in the family.’
In early 1939, just before the war started, Chris, who had been an artisan glassmaker after leaving school at 14, enlisted into the Northamptonshire Regiment.
By then, aged 23, 5ft 7in tall and with fair red hair, he told his family and friends that he wanted ‘to see the world’.
This is a Christmas card sent from Chris to his pen pal, then known as Peggy Hammond, while he was being kept prisoner
Letters from the King and the Army confirmign the death of Private Chris Maher. Also shown is the postcard supposedly dead soldier later sent to his parents confirming he was alive
When Peggy, her two brothers and her parents were informed of Private Maher’s apparent demise, the family was devastated.
‘We were all heartbroken, especially Jack. Chris was like part of the family. We were so sad,’ Peggy recalled. But then, something extraordinary happened — Chris came back from the dead.
Out of the blue, Private Maher’s astonished and delighted parents received a postcard from him, dated June 12, 1940, saying he was being held as PoW.
‘Dear Mum and Dad. Just a p.c. [postcard] hoping you are both well. I have been taken prisoner, also have been wounded, but am doing quite well. I am sorry you cannot write yet but as soon as I get my address I will let you know. Cheers.’
Although the postcard was dated June 12, 1940, it was some three months before it reached his parents’ home. However, word soon reached Peggy and her family. ‘We were all overjoyed at the news,’ she told me.
When Peggy’s brothers Jack and Sid, who served respectively in North Africa and Italy, heard Private Maher was a PoW, they asked Peggy to contact him because she was always known as the family’s ‘letter-writer’.
Peggy, then 17, recalled: ‘My brothers were always very good to me — they looked after me — and so when they asked me to write to “poor Chris”, I said: “Of course I will. Leave it to me.” ’
It was in late 1940 she started writing to Private Maher — and he soon replied. Over the next five years they exchanged scores of letters. They started off being short, polite and formal.
Furthermore, the letters were always censored, in both directions, by the German guards.
Chris Maher’s medal set that he earned for fighting against the Nazis in the Second World War
But slowly the correspondence became more intimate and Private Maher — Prisoner No 37117 — ended his letter of March 1, 1942, by asking his friend’s sister to send a photograph of herself because it would ‘help to cheer me’.
When she did so, he replied to her in a postcard dated July 11, 1942: ‘I received your photo thanks ever so much, you certainly have changed a great deal and I think I’ve have found the girl of my dreams at last.’
In a letter dated February 14, 1943 — St Valentine’s Day — Private Maher wrote saying: ‘I don’t think it will be very long now before it’s in the bag [the war ends] . . .’
He carried on: ‘I hope you enjoyed your Xmas as well as we did. Believe it or not, we were all tipsy. We made our own wine out of raisins extract: it was like gunpowder. Well Kid, you give my regards to all at home. We are now going to play football as this is Sunday and we all like to make the most of it, so cheerio for now. Write soon.’
Two weeks later, on February 28, 1943, he wrote: ‘If a girl waits all this time for a chap, then she is a girl worth having . . .’
In a letter dated December 19, 1943, he referred to his anguish at having to spend a third Christmas as a PoW. ‘Forgive the curses sweetheart, it drives me mad when I think of the times we could be having together,’ he wrote.
During the war, Peggy worked in a munitions factory making limpet mines. She had a couple of short-term boyfriends, but her main wartime passion was ballroom dancing. However, Private Maher’s predicament as a PoW was constantly on her mind.
Now 94, Peggy holds two framed photographs, one of her husband, Chris, in his army uniform and the other of the couple arm in arm
She told me: ‘As time passed, the letters became more affectionate but, of course, we never knew when the war would end.’
Private Maher was held at several different camps during nearly five years as a PoW: they included the notorious Stalag VIII B through which passed more than 100,000 prisoners.
During early 1944, Peggy did not hear from him for several months and she learnt much later that he had, in fact, escaped with some other PoWs. The men spent several days on the run in bitterly cold winter conditions as they tried to make for a safe house in the Balkans, but Private Maher was eventually recaptured, brutally beaten up and kept in solitary confinement at a prison in Prague.
After his eventual release, he joked he was ‘delighted’ to be recaptured because he was so cold and hungry: he had spent part of his freedom in what was then Czechoslovakia, knee-deep in snow and without proper winter clothing, before seeking refuge in a church where he was betrayed by the local priest.
His handwriting in his letters home became decidedly worse after mid-1944 as his health deteriorated and his weight dropped to just 7st. In a letter dated April 2, 1944, Private Maher was — because his letters were censored — unable to reveal he had escaped and been recaptured: ‘As you see we are back in [Stalag] VIII B. I’d love to tell you the reason for this changing around. But if I did this letter would not get through.’
The letter to the Daily Mail, which was spotted by Lord Ashcroft, detailing how their romance blossomed
In the same letter, he referred to the fact that Peggy’s 21st birthday was looming. ‘Remember Kid what I told you before, you are not forced to wait. I do not want to cause you any unhappiness by waiting for me. You already know my feelings towards you and I think yours go the same with me.’
By now, all their letters were signed off with kisses.
As his health worsened, Private Maher spent several weeks in a prison hospital but, eventually, in late 1944 he discovered he was due for release as part of an exchange scheme of sick prisoners, and he informed Peggy of the good news.
She wrote to him on November 27, 1944, as the Allies started getting the upper hand in the war and the Blitz was long over, saying: ‘London looks so lovely lately with all the lights on again, every day more and more lights go on, it looks so much like Christmas. When you come home, you won’t know what blacked out London looked like.’
Private Maher was released, aged 29, in early 1945, some five months before VE Day (Victory in Europe Day) on May 8 marked the end of fighting in Europe after Germany’s surrender.
Days later, having already spent three months recovering in a British hospital, a thin and frail-looking Private Maher in his demob suit knocked on the front door of Peggy’s family home in Shepherd’s Bush.
‘It was the first time we had seen each other for more than six years. I gave him a hug. I had grown up and was no longer just his best mate’s kid sister. I think he had decided to snap me up!’
Peggy Maher pictured outside her home in Watford, Hertfordshire
Just weeks after that, on June 15, 1945, Private Maher arrived on Peggy’s 22nd birthday with an engagement ring. ‘He didn’t get down on one knee. He just said: “I have got you an engagement ring: how about getting married?” He assumed I would say yes — and I did,’ she says.
‘I liked Chris because he was always kind to me and he treated me well. He had a very good sense of humour and we would always be in fits of laughter together.
‘He said his sense of humour helped him get through his difficult times as a PoW. He never moaned and our wedding day was the happiest day of my life.’
The couple had a church wedding in Shepherd’s Bush on September 8, 1945, but the housing shortage was so acute in London after the war that they spent the first two years of married life with Peggy’s parents and the next two living with Chris’s parents in Sunningdale. Eventually, the couple were allocated their own two-bedroom council house in nearby Egham Hill.
By this time, Chris and Peggy were parents: their son, John — who proved to be the couple’s only child — was born on July 8, 1949.
Over the years, Chris said little to his wife or son about his time in captivity, but he did reveal that he was the only one from his unit to survive that enemy ambush during the Dunkirk evacuations, when he had fought to the last man.
However, his bravery was never officially recognised because there were no eyewitnesses to his actions and, ever modest and understated, he never pursued a gallantry award upon his release.
His son John, a retired project manager, said: ‘Dad always joked that his good friend was treated like a hero, despite deserting his post, having got on a boat back from Dunkirk, whereas he stayed to fight, did his duty and ended up in a PoW camp for nearly five years. But he was never bitter about what had happened.’
Mrs Maher playing in her garden with her corgi-cross dog, Bobby, who is her constant companion
After escaping in early 1944, Private Maher had been put in a concentration camp for two weeks. John said: ‘Dad said he was unable to sleep because of the constant screams.
‘On one occasion, he saw in the distance logs being piled up and what looked like a row of bodies and then more rows of logs and more rows of bodies.
‘He thought they were corpses, but when the flames grew he could see people’s heads and arms moving. People [Jews] were being burned alive.’
John Maher said his father had told him that he got on well with most of his prison guards and some provided him with pens and pencils, cards and paper, so he could write home.
For the most of their married life — from 1955 onwards — the couple lived in a two-bedroom council house in Watford, Hertfordshire, which they were able to buy under the Conservative Government’s right-to-buy initiative, in 1980.
Chris worked as a welder and, later, a quality control inspector, until retiring, aged 65, while Peggy worked for much of her married life as a silver-service waitress.
Chris and Peggy Maher were together for 56 years until he died from lung cancer two days after his 86th birthday.
‘We were very lucky. We had a long and happy marriage, and we never really rowed about anything,’ said Peggy, as she sat in her armchair, dressed in a pale green woollen jumper, dark green short-sleeve jacket and beige trousers.
Today, she lives alone, with her ten-year-old Corgi-cross dog, Bobby, as her companion, while her son John, who is married with a stepson, lives just a mile away.
She spends one morning a week helping out as a volunteer at Watford Hospice.
John Maher told me he was delighted the account of his parents’ wartime romance is now being told publicly for the first time. ‘It’s a lovely story, perhaps worthy of being made into a film,’ he remarked.