Göran R Buckhorn writes:
Now and then, in between all books on rowing, I try to read a book that has nothing to do with our beloved sport. I sometimes have a few books going at the same time, but not more than three so as not to confuse myself. Right now, I am reading a well-written book by Dan Waddell called Field of Shadows – The Remarkable True Story of the English Cricket Tour of Nazi Germany 1937 (2014). Waddell spins a good yarn about the English team Gentlemen of Worcestershire, who were a miss-matched group of ex-country cricketers, members of the gentry and some schoolboys. Der Führer hated cricket as he saw it as un-German and decadent. Despite this, the German cricket fanatic Felix Menzel, an extremely brave man, managed to get the Gentlemen of Worcestershire invited to Germany in 1937 to play two unofficial Test matches against two German teams.
I have to confess that I know very little about cricket. In 1986, when I did my Grand Tour of the British Islands, a kind gentleman gave me a 45-minute lecture about the rules of cricket in a small book shop in Hay-on-Wye, but I am afraid, I got lost after only a few minutes. The story about the Gentlemen of Worcestershire, however, is so interesting that I just keep on reading, though I probably miss a couple of good ‘cricket points’.
To make non-cricketeers, or at least rowers and readers of HTBS more easily understand what Field of Shadows is about, one might say that Waddell’s book is cricket’s equivalent to rowing’s The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, the book about the American young men who went to compete in the eights at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. When the Gentlemen of Worcestershire went on their trip to Germany, the 1936 Games were over and Europe was approaching the Second World War. What is true to both these great books is that you do not have to be an expert in either of these sports to enjoy the stories.
As a matter of fact, it did also happen that English oarsmen did go to Nazi-Germany to compete, not only for the Olympics in Berlin.
In the brilliant book The Last Enemy (1942), RAF fighter pilot Richard Hillary writes briefly about how he and his friend Frank Waldron, both Oxford oarsmen, decided to travel to Germany and Hungary in July 1938 ‘before it was too late’, as Hillary puts it in his book. They contacted the German and Hungarian Governments to ask permission to row at regattas in these countries during their visits. Not only did the Governments give Hillary and Waldron positive replies, they even asked if they may pay for their expenses – probably hoping to be able to use this in their propaganda. Thinking nothing of it, the Oxford oarsmen happily accepted and on 3 July Hillary and Waldron and eight other Oxford rowers left England for Bad Ems, Germany, for the first regatta.
Hillary and Waldron were going to compete in a four race where the first prize was “General Göring’s Prize Four”, Hillary remarks. As the English oarsmen had not brought any boats with them, they had to borrow a shell from the local rowing club. It was in a poor condition, ‘leaky and low in the water’, as Hillary writes in The Last Enemy, but he continues, ‘it was still a boat and we were mighty relieved to see it’. The only supporter the Englishmen had at the regatta was the local rowing club’s coach, ‘Popeye’, who had fought in the First World War against the British forces.
In the changing rooms, before the regatta, the German rowers were hostile toward the English oarsmen, though Hillary did not have any high opinions about the Germans either: ‘All five German crews were lying flat on their backs on mattresses, great brown stupid-looking giants, taking deep breaths’. Out on the water, the English four got a very shaky start, much due to that all five German boats started rowing already when the starter called out: ‘Are you ready?’, leaving the English crew several lengths behind.
However, when the Englishmen managed to collect themselves they were gaining on the German crews, but they were still in the rear of the field of boats. They were also encouraged by Coach Popeye’s cries from the shore: ‘You got to go, boys, you got to go’.
The boats had to race under some bridges, and then ‘a tactical error’ occurred, Hillary mentions, as a spectator spat on the English crew as they were going under a bridge, which was the half-way mark. The Oxford stroke, Sammy Stockton, got furious and, Hillary writes, ‘pursued by all the fiends in hell’ picked up the stroke-rate and the Englishmen crossed the finish-line as the first boat, winning the race by two-fifths of a second. And so, the General Göring’s Prize Four ended up in English hands for almost a year. Hillary writes:
It was a gold shell-case mounted with the German eagle and disgraced our rooms in Oxford for nearly a year until we could stand it no longer and sent it back through the German Embassy.
Popeye helped the Englishmen with their luggage to the railway station, where they were going to take a train to Hungary. They all shook his hand and Waldron jokingly said: ‘Promise me one thing, Popeye, when the war comes you won’t shoot any of us.’ Whereupon the old coach replied: ‘Ah, Mr. Waldron, you must not joke of these things. I never shoot you, we are brothers. It is those Frenchies we must shoot. The Tommies, they are the good fellows, I remember. We must never fight again.’
But the war came and on 3 September 1940, Hillary, now an RAF pilot, was shot down by a Messerschmidt. While he survived by bailing out of his plane, his face and hands were horribly burned and he had to undergo several painful surgeries performed by plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe. After having written The Last Enemy in New York, where Hillary had gone to rest, but also to raise public awareness about the war in Europe, he was back in England. Despite severe problems controlling the movement of his hands, he bullied his way back to the cockpit. During a night training flight on 8 January 1943, Hillary crashed his plane. Later, his ashes were scattered over the English Channel.
Though, Hillary, rowing for Trinity College, had tried to make it into Oxford’s Blue boat, he never succeeded, as he was, he writes, thrown out of the boat for ‘lack of enthusiasm and co-operation’. His friend, Frank Waldron, however, was more successful and raced in Oxford’s Blue boats in 1938 and 1939, winning the first race and losing the second.
The following is a short presentation of the 1938 Oxford crew, where Frank Waldron is in the sixth seat, one of the two men in the boat with ‘sex appeal’, according to the crew’s president, Con Cherry:
While the Oxford oarsmen’s trip to Germany in 1938 is well-known, much thanks to Hillary’s account in The Last Enemy, there is another trip to Germany by some Oxford rowers which is lesser known for us today. Whereas this trip in 1936 has been mentioned in a few places en passant, Sir James Gobbo, former Supreme Judge and the 25th Governor of Victoria, Australia, mentions the 1936 trip in a chapter called “Rowing at Oxford” in his Something to Declare: A Memoir (2010).
Gobbo rowed first at University of Melbourne before coming to Oxford (Magdalen College) on a Rhodes Scholarship and was an Oxford Blue both in 1954 (president) and in 1955. It was as President of Oxford University Boat Club, he had access to the so-called President’s Book, where each president of the Boat Club wrote down a record of the year that passed. Curiosity took over, Gobbo writes in his autobiography, and he read former presidents’ records. There he found what John ‘Jock’ Lewes, also an Australian, had written about his year as president starting after the 1936 Boat Race. Morale was low at Oxford as they again had lost the Boat Race to Cambridge. (Parts of the 1936 winning Cambridge crew came to race in the eights [Leander Club] at the Berlin Games, finishing fourth.) Last time the Dark Blues had won the Boat Race was in 1923, so President Lewes decided to build up the morale by taking his crew abroad to the regatta in Bad Ems. Though the trip did wonders for the comradeship of the crew, their racing at the regatta was, Gobbo writes, ‘a total disaster’, and the Englishmen lost terribly.
Gobbo writes in Something to Declare:
The lack of success led the British Foreign Office to write a letter to Lewes in which the Foreign Office deplored the visit by Oxford, as their lack of success served only to confirm Germans in their belief that the British were soft. The letter recited that such visits were not in the long-term best interest of Britain.
It seems then, that Richard Hillary and Frank Waldron’s crew restored the honour for Great Britain in July 1938. Nevertheless, the 1936 trip was not a total waste, because in the 1937 Boat Race, Oxford did beat Cambridge by three lengths. For the 1937 race, President Jock Lewes in an unselfish manner left his seat to David Winser, when Lewes felt that he did not live up to his own high expectations, and watched his crew win the race from the launch.
According to Sir James Gobbo, the President’s Book is held at Bodleian Library under ‘very restricted access’, but let us hope that these records will be opened for a rowing writer, so that we in the future may see more detailed accounts of the Oxford crews’ visits to the Third Reich in 1936 and 1938. Maybe the result will even be a book along the lines of Field of Shadows and The Boys in the Boat?
Read also Tim Koch’s three-part post about Michael Ashby, an Oxford Blue in 1936 and 1937, who also rowed at Bad Ems in 1936, here.
In 1954, Gobbo and the Oxford crew were invited to compete in a 20,000-metre race in Göteborg, Sweden, read more about it here.