This is my second blogpost about cricket on the eve of the Second World War. The previous post can be found here.
Charles Burgess Fry (1872 – 1956) “was probably the most variously gifted Englishman of any age” (in the words of cricket writer and broadcaster, John Arlott). Following an illustrious athletics career, during which he equalled the world long jump record, he played for England at both cricket and football, for Southampton in an FA Cup final and for the Barbarians at rugby union. In later life, he stood as a Parliamentary candidate for the Liberals, worked as an assistant to the Indian delegation to the League of Nations and was reputed to have been offered the throne of Albania. He was also a teacher, a prolific writer and a Captain in the Royal Navy Reserve. It was said (mainly by Fry himself) that, even in his seventies, he could still perform his party trick of leaping backwards onto a mantelpiece from a standing start.
Fry visited Nazi Germany in 1934 to forge closer links between boys’ organisations in the two countries, particularly the Boy Scouts and the Hitler Youth. Like many upper-class Englishmen of the time, he sympathised with Germany’s desire to restore national pride after the Great War and had a much greater affinity with the Germans than with the French, for example. He was also an admirer of Adolf Hitler, whom he met in person and described as “a great man” with “innate dignity” and “a quiet, courteous and simple” manner. Fry was said to have been shocked by the violent Nazi pogrom against German Jews on Kristallnacht (9/10 November 1938) and subsequently played down his association with – and admiration for – the Hitler regime. In 1934, however, he was very much a fan.
During the same 1934 visit, Fry had dinner with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi Foreign Minister (whom Fry described at the time as “a keen, wide-awake and resolute man”). Fry tried to impress upon his host the athletic virtues of cricket and that training players up to Test standard “would have a wonderful effect on the direction of the Führer’s desires.” Ribbentrop dismissively replied that cricket was too complicated for Germans.
Fry brushed aside his objections. Cricket, he said, was “a pure Nordic game” and Germany would surely produce a blond W G Grace. He had been impressed by the “remarkable specimens of young Hitlerism” whose athleticism in hurling javelins would easily translate into fast bowling of some prowess. Warming to his theme (and Fry loved the sound of his own voice), he even joked that fielding practice would hone skills that could be used for throwing hand grenades. Young German men, he noted, were far better dancers than their English counterparts and this could only make for better footwork when batting.
Herr von Ribbentrop, however, was unmoved. He may have been aware that, a few years earlier, Hitler had assessed for himself the potential value of cricket to the Third Reich but concluded that it was not sufficiently violent and that the wearing of pads and gloves was unmanly and degenerate.
If von Ribbentrop was aware of this, he did not share it with Fry who, even after the outbreak of war, refused to give up on his mission: “I shall likely enough if ever we get out of this present cul-de-sac of a catastrophe offer to teach the Germans the game.” He reckoned that the German eye for precision would produce batsmen who “would probably want to draw parallelograms of forces to work out the direction of the resultant for their off drives.” But all this, he concluded, would have to wait until after the Siegfried Line had been smashed. For the time being, he rued not impressing upon von Ribbentrop the moral aspects of the game, which may have steered the world away from the “cul-de-sac of a catastrophe.”
A similar sentiment was expressed by Yorkshire and England opening batsman, Herbert Sutcliffe, who remarked “it’s a pity Hitler was not educated in Yorkshire for I feel sure if he had been he would have learned the principles of sportsmanship and what it is to play with a straight bat.”
On 23 August 1939, von Ribbentrop met with his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov, in Moscow to sign the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, more commonly known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The signing of this pact represented a grievous blow to the chances of avoiding war in Europe – Britain and France had hoped that the threat of the Soviet army to Hitler’s east and those of Britain and France to his west might just contain him. With the Soviet threat neutralised, there was little to stop Hitler from invading Poland. Britain and France had little choice but to pledge their support to Poland in the event of invasion.
The day before the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed, England and the West Indies had played out the final act of a three-match Test series at The Oval. The match was drawn and the series ended tied at 1-1. The West Indies had two more tour games scheduled but, once the news from Moscow broke, they curtailed the tour and sailed back to the Caribbean whilst it was still safe to do so.
It was a wise decision considering the fate which befell the SS Athenia less than a fortnight later. The passenger liner left Liverpool on 2 September bound for Montreal. On board were more than 1,400 passengers and crew, including approximately 500 Jewish refugees and 72 Britons. War was declared the following day and, within hours, Athenia was being tracked by German submarine U-30. At 7.40pm on 3 September, U-30 fired two torpedoes, one of which exploded in Athenia’s engine room (U-30’s commander would later claim that he mistook the Athenia for a troop ship). The stricken liner stayed afloat for another 14 hours, during which several nearby ships managed to rescue the majority of those aboard, but 117 souls still perished (including 28 Americans). Fearing the incident might provoke the USA to join the war, the Nazis denied responsibility and accused the British of sinking it deliberately, under the guise of a German attack, to influence world opinion against Germany. The truth was only officially acknowledged during the Nuremberg trials in 1946.