24 August 2020
By Chris Dodd
The obituary of Noël Vandernotte in the Daily Telegraph on 21 August mentioned curious goings-on at the Olympics in 1936. Vandernotte was in Berlin as the 12-year-old cox of the French coxed four and the coxed pair, in both of which he won a bronze medal.
What caught my eye was that the boat used by the four from Nantes was specially built in Paris and despatched to Berlin. When the crew arrived at the Olympic rowing course in Grünau, a suburb of Berlin, the boat was not there. It turned up a week later, having reduced their practise time to two days.
This struck a chord. The British double Jack Beresford and Dick Southwood used a tailor-made ‘knife’ ordered by their coach Eric Phelps six weeks before the Games and was built by Roly Sims in Putney in two and a half days. But the knife, too, was lost for some days in a marshalling yard in Hamburg.
After the opening ceremony, Dan Cordery, one of several English professionals engaged with the German team, lent Beresford and Southwood a training double. The next day it had disappeared, and the Brits were told it was required to replace a German boat that had been damaged. Phelps then lent his single to Jack and took Dick out in a double whenever he could fit them in. The British double famously went on to win gold, one of two out of seven rowing events that didn’t go Germany’s way, much to Hitler’s annoyance.
To lose one boat is careless; to lose two smacks of conspiracy. It’s hard to imagine the Deutsche Reichsbahn-Gesellschaft (after WWII the Deutsche Bundesbahn) cocking up their operations in the worst of times, let alone during a special event that was an important plank in the Führer’s propaganda war.
Did any other boats go astray? What about George Pocock’s purpose-built eight-oar for the ‘Boys in the Boat’ who came from Washington to win gold? I suspect Pocock accompanied his boat all the way from Seattle and never left it out of his sight.
For more on the Berlin Olympics, see The Story of World Rowing by Christopher Dodd (Stanley Paul, 1992).