Pocock in Berlin: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

In power since 1933, the Nazi Government saw the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a way of promoting National Socialist Germany to the world. Not everyone was taken in. On the right, a satirical photomontage by the German artist John Heartfield reads “Olympic Guests – Forward March!” and shows Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, leading the world’s athletes to the Games with Olympic rings through their noses.

26 May 2022

By Chris Dodd

In his fifth occasional piece on the wisdom of Pocock, Chris Dodd finds George in Germany as boatman to the U.S. crews at the 1936 Olympics.  

If George Pocock looked down from his heavenly workshop this month, May 2022, he would have been stunned to see his familiar shell house in Seattle transplanted to the Cotswold Water Park in south-west England. Director George Clooney’s props people have faithfully (if temporarily) recreated the former seaplane hangar where Pocock crafted racing boats for America, including the eight for the University of Washington at Hitler’s Games in 1936.

Mark Edwards and Bill Colley have built replica Pocock shells to match the replica Pocock shell house and last week the boats were rowing on the Henley Reach as part of the filming for George Clooney’s movie of Daniel James Brown’s, The Boys in the Boat. Brown’s bestseller dramatises the crew who beat the Germans to gold in the last race of the Olympic regatta. In the presence of the German Chancellor, the host nation won the first five of the seven rowing events on offer. The sixth was won by Britain’s Jack Beresford and Dick Southwood of Thames RC. And George saw it all in his position as boatman to the U.S. team.

George Pocock (far left) and coach Al Ulbrickson (far right) with the subs (standing) and The Boys (sitting) just before their departure to Germany on the SS Manhattan.

The Berlin Olympics were controversial or glorious or, for some, a bit of both. The Games were awarded to the German capital before Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. At first the Nazis were none too keen to be lumbered with them. But Hitler and his cronies began to realise that they had been presented with an ace propaganda coup if they could demonstrate tolerance for Jews to the world – tolerance for Jews alongside Aryans, tolerance for blacks alongside whites, and tolerance for other misfits who, along with Jews, were already being persecuted in the backstreets.  

Added to which, more than one of the top Olympic officials had Jewish blood or connections to be handled with kid gloves if international incidents were to be avoided. The Golden Oars exhibition at the River & Rowing Museum in 2000 summarised the background:

Berlin was the model for the politicisation of the Games in 1936. Dr Theodore Lewald was dismissed as president of the German Olympic Committee because his grandmother was a Jew, but was reinstated after pressure from the IOC. Opposition to the Games came from the right and left in Germany and from sporting interests in the USA, Britain and other European countries. The plan to hold alternative socialist games in Barcelona was scuppered by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Under pressure, the German government permitted Jews to try out for the German team (two succeeded).

A poster for the proposed alternative Olympics, the “Socialist Games” in Barcelona. On the right, a French satirical magazine has a nice joke: “Olympic performance: The Armaments (or Arms) Race”. It works  better in English as “arms” could be a pun referring to both weapons and to the Nazi salute.

Oliver Hilmes’s award-winning Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August is a riveting mosaic of life in the German capital during the Olympics. It intersperses incidents from stadium, street and nightclub with quotes from police reports, weather forecasts, newspapers and diaries of socialites and the Big Cheeses of the Olympic movement, German cultural life and leaders of the governing National Socialist Party – in particular those of Adolf Hitler’s chief acolytes, the vertically challenged propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels and podgy Hermann Goering, creator of the Gestapo.

The world had only a sketchy idea of what was to come in the next ten years, but there were hints. Concentration camps were already up and running in 1936. In an attempt to ‘clean up’ the host city, the Ministry of the Interior authorised the chief of police to arrest all Romani and keep them in a ‘special camp’, the Berlin-Marzahn concentration camp. As I wrote in HTBS’s review of Hilmes’s book in 2019: 

He also reveals the thoughts and courage of the many Germans who did not go along with Hitler’s vision of racial superiority or world domination. Down-to-earth Berliners used to ask each other what a real Aryan looks like. “He’s blond like Hitler, tall like Goebbels and thin like Goering,” came the answer.

The 1936 U.S. Olympic Team arrives in Hamburg, Germany, after a 10-day voyage on the SS Manhattan. Picture: US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In July 2020, Julian Eyres wrote a HTBS piece on accommodation for oarsmen (women didn’t row in the Olympics until 1976), describing how the American eight had poured cold water over rowdy Yugoslavian rowers outside the police academy at Köpenick, near Grünau. 

Noise was a constant problem for the rowers. Brown writes in The Boys in the Boat:

The boys from Washington were having a hard time sleeping. Almost every night there was some kind of disturbance in the cobblestoned street below their windows. One night it was brown-shirted storm troopers singing and parading past in hobnailed boots. Another, it was military night maneuvers – roaring motorcycles with sidecars, trucks with glowing green night-lights in their cabs, caissons carrying field artillery – all rattling past under the street lamps. 

Jack Beresford related to his son John how, on the night before his final, SS troops marched and paraded outside his hotel. John says that his father implied that this was a deliberate ploy to distract Dick [Southwood] and himself. 

Hilmes’s Berlin 1936 does not mention the Olympic regatta, more’s the pity, but it served to remind me of the exploits of ‘boys in boats’, particularly the American eight and Britain’s Beresford and Southwood who between them ruined Hitler’s day at the races. If the nighttime disturbances were a deliberate ploy, the ploy failed. Both the American eight and the British double scullers won gold, and put a grimace on Adolf’s face.

Berlin dressed up for the Olympics – though there are more Nazi German flags than Olympic ones.

Brown’s 2014 book is more a dramatisation of these events than an academic history. Professor Michael J. Socolow’s snappily titled Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), published in 2016, records the history. While browsing at the Library of Congress in 1999 the professor came across oral histories recorded by the LA84 Foundation, including an interview with Gordon Adam of the 1936 Washington crew. He found the story to be riveting. Adam grew up poor on a farm in the Pacific Northwest and earned enough at an Alaskan salmon-canning factory to enroll at the University of Washington during the depths of the Depression. He tried rowing and recorded how he and his teammates topped the Ivy League colleges in the East for the right to represent the United States in Berlin. He recalled his impressions of Nazi Germany and described his crew’s stirring come-from-behind victory over the Italians and Germans. 

The Boys. Gordon Adam is third from the right.

Berlin saw the introduction of the torch relay from Olympia, and the organising committee made several other innovations. In Grünau, where forest bordered the Langer See and lawns graced the portals of the boat houses and beer gardens, Dick Southwood noticed that the starter, a Belgian orchid grower by the name of Victor De Bisschop, could not see the crews held on the six start pontoons once he raised his enormous bullhorn to his lips. The starter’s calls went ‘Êtes vous prêt? Partez!’. ‘We go on Êtes,’ Southwood told Beresford. 

It was a good call. The Germans in the next lane, Willi Kaidel and Joachim Pirsch, did the same, but they burned out after 1800 metres. The Brits had received coaching on the quiet by the professional sculler Eric Phelps, who was employed by the German amateur sculler Maurice von Opel as his chauffeur, odd-job man and coach. Phelps knew Dan Cordery, Tom Sullivan and other foreign coaches in Germany, and he sussed that the German double customarily blew up after 1800 metres. 

Armed with that intelligence from Phelps – who had challenged Beresford and Southwood to race him in his single on the Henley course, and beaten them – the Thames RC double had raced a perfect campaign in Berlin, progressing from heat to repêchage before jumping the start in the final, undetected by the man with the bullhorn.

Jack Beresford and Dick Southwood, winners of the 1936 Olympic double sculls.

There was fun and games before the rowing began and during the opening ceremony. The largest German port for ocean liners and North Sea ferries was Hamburg. George, coach Al Ulbrickson and the Americans, sailed up the Elbe and docked, and were entertained by the civic authorities before taking the Berlin train. Hamburg was a massive railhead, and the marshalling yard managed to lose Beresford and Southwood’s boat. 

When an obituary of Noël Vandernotte in the Daily Telegraph in 2020 mentioned curious goings-on in 1936, I smelt a rat. Vandernotte was the 12-year-old cox of France’s coxed four and coxed pair, in both of which he won a bronze medal. What caught my eye was that the boat used by the crew from Nantes was specially built in Paris and despatched to Berlin. But when the crew arrived in Grünau, the boat didn’t. It turned up a week later, having reduced the French four’s practice time to two days.

Meanwhile, Cordery lent Beresford and Southwood a training double after the opening ceremony. But it disappeared the next day, and the Brits were told it was required to replace a German boat that had been damaged. Phelps lent his single to Jack and took Dick out in a double whenever he could find time. As I wrote in HTBS (24 August 2020): 

To lose one boat is careless; to lose two smacks of conspiracy. It’s hard to imagine the Deutsche Reichsbahn-Gesellschaft (Deutsche Bundesbahn after WWII) 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. 

The Boys in Berlin. Their Pocock eight, the “Husky Clipper”, was not one of the boats “lost” by the German hosts. Credit: The Joe Rantz Family.

Before the opening ceremony began on 1 August, athletes assembled outside the magnificent new Olympiastadion before marching in. The British eight, bored and likely looking for the bike sheds behind which to take an elicit smoke, came upon thousands of pigeons (standing in for doves of peace) awaiting release from their baskets when Hitler declared the Games open. The oarsmen set about freeing birds, and when the ceremony was over, Hugh Mason meticulously edited his programme. Item ‘[time]: 30,000 doves released’ was crossed out and changed to ‘29,970 doves released’. The birds had the last laugh, however: frightened by the racket in the stadium, they circled and clouded the sky, and as one observer put it, ‘the poop was scared out of them’. You could hear, he said, the poop pitter-pattering onto thousands of straw hats in the stands. 

The great Jesse Owens was fast enough to avoid the pigeon poop. In Berlin, he won four gold medals: 100 meters, long jump, 200 meters, and 4 × 100-meter relay.

George Pocock witnessed Hitler’s arrival at close quarters. ‘It was jaw dropping. The Fuhrer stepped out of his automobile so near that I could have reached out and touched him. He had a kind of Satanic grin which must have come from an inner belief that “I, the big I, have the answers…” He strutted into the stadium and when the 120,000 people in the stands saw him, they stood as one and screamed Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil, all giving the Hitler salute. You never heard such a blood-curdling, spine-tingling frantic screaming in all your life. No wonder he thought he could conquer the world.’ 

Spyridon Louis, the 1896 Olympic marathon winner, presented Hitler with a symbolic olive branch at the opening ceremony. The Americans, in company with the British, Swiss and Philippines athletes, deliberately strolled out of step. ‘It was a very small blow for freedom, certainly, but it somehow made us feel better,’ wrote George in his diary. The New York Times commented that the Nazis took advantage of the event to leave an impression of ‘cleanliness, tidiness and orderliness… exceeding courtesy, extreme consideration and hospitality…’

Sixteen days later, the Berlin Olympics closed. Champions on the podium were adorned with victory wreaths and an oak sapling to take home – saplings that were supplied by the German Olympic Committee as a ‘gift of the German people’; saplings that became known as ‘Hitler Oaks’. The black American sprinter Jesse Owens had four of them. Jack Beresford’s was planted in the grounds of Bedford School, but is no more.

At the 1936 Olympic Regatta, Germany won five of the seven events (double sculls, coxed and coxless pair, coxed and coxless four). Britain won the double sculls and the USA (pictured) the eights.

The American team had sailed to the Games from New York on the Manhattan. George deplored the American boxers’ attempt to pick a fight with the Aryan ranks of Hitler Youth lining the staircase to their reception. There’s no call for such behaviour, they are after all our hosts, he wrote. The Youths were ‘straight as a ramrod, blooming cheeks, short hair, bare legs, the picture of health, ambition in their eyes’. 

George noted that every German down to the humblest occupations seemed to have a uniform, and every telephone call began and ended with ‘Heil Hitler’. He saw great moments on the water, and he saw a panoply of boats and their European builders, including the products of a German naval architect’s carte blanche to seek new designs and materials for racing shells – aluminium, plywood, plastic and cedar. 

As the Olympic flame flickered on the last day, the youth of the world were summoned to meet again in Tokyo, four years hence. That evening George and coach Ulbrickson and their wives were taken to dinner at the ritzy Adlon Hotel by Royal Brougham, the celebrated sports editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who had earlier burned up the wires with his report on the eight’s great triumph. 

Well victualed at the Adlon, George had had enough of Germany and the Germans. Next day he departed for England, his first visit to his home country since he and his brother Dick left Windsor for British Columbia to become lumberjacks. He was taking his adored American wife Frances to meet his father, cousins, apprentices and workmates of his youth; to explore the Thames and see the sights; to take a rain-check on English attitudes to the storm clouds forming over Europe; to take a charabanc tour to Edinburgh via the east coast one way and the west on the return leg.

As the 1940 Tokyo Games did not take place, there was to be twelve years between the 11th (Berlin) Games and the 12th (London) Games.

The youth of the world had worse things to do than join together for sport in 1940 Tokyo. By then Japan had invaded China, and Germans were shooting their way to dominating Europe. The next time George accompanied U.S. boats to the Olympics was in London in 1948.

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