Sunday, 19 July 2015

Bessie Rodger in Europe - 1938 - The Last Chance to See ...

LC Gagnon, Grace McOuat, Mary Elizabeth Rodger, May 21, 1929.

May 1929: 
LC Gagnon, Grace McOuat and Mary Elizabeth 'Bessie' Rodger pose for a photo at Shawinigan Falls, Quebec.

The Great Crash on Wall Street would occur five months later.

Adolf Hitler would be appointed Chancellor of Germany four years later.

Bessie Rodger would correspond with my father about her trip through Germany nine years later
... in July 1938.

*  *  *

By the time July 1938 arrived, many existing objects, people, cultures and institutions of Europe - and the world beyond - were doomed to significant change or destruction.

In particular, Germany and her neighbouring states were undergoing rapid change. Much of this change was presaged by Hitler in Mein Kampf .

Most of Europe was war weary, but decorated war veteran Hitler and a group of right-wing German citizens wanted to attach a proper ending to the Great War of 1914-1918. They believed they had been cheated of victory ... that they had never been defeated on the field of battle. A few wanted to see a German empire with its superior culture prevail in Europe - and to eventually influence and rule the rest of the world.

While Germany had enjoyed some prosperity during the later 1920s, it was hit hard by the Great Depression. This gave Hitler his opportunity to appeal to German citizens and to obtain power.

Imitating Mussolini's success in Italy, once in power Hitler provided employment through public works, made other political parties illegal, took direct control of industry and began to secretly re-arm his country. Then, he began building an empire - starting with ethnic German populations in neighbouring countries.

Many countries separated from Germany by water were indifferent to Germany's renewed militarism. 

Countries closer to Germany were in a wide variety of  'mental states', they might be:
  • Still reeling from the effects of the Great War.
  • In denial about Hitler's intentions. 
  • Internally split along ethnic lines. 
  • Dealing with economic problems.
  • Grasping at straws to save themselves.
  • Offering up their neighbours to keep the peace. 
  • Gearing up to fight at any cost. 
  • Not yet ready to fight.
  • Supporting Hitler in order to obtain another state's land. 

It was a rare country which was not displaying two or more of these 'states of mind' in the late 1930s. As a general result, Hitler's militaristic behaviour was permitted to escalate.

Into this deteriorating state of affairs, went my great aunt - a 34 year old schoolteacher on a tour provided by the Overseas Education League. The OEL was a 'one man show' run by Major Frederick Ney - a British-born Great War veteran who called Winnipeg home. He promoted the positive qualities of the British Empire to Empire teachers and students and had support from corporate and private donors - including, it seems, the CPR and some of its officers. My grandmother had been on one his earlier tours in 1922.

Bessie Rodger's diary places her in the eye of Europe's worsening fascist storm.

She had 'the last chance to see' many things which would not survive the war.

*  *  *

Saturday, June 25 - Empress train from Montreal and onto the ship.

The 'Empress Trains' carried CPR ship passengers directly from Montreal to the dock at Wolfe's Cove, Quebec City. One source states that the Empress of Britain's masts were too tall to travel beneath Montreal's new Jacques Cartier Bridge. There may be other factors which were considered ...

A couple of special non-stop passenger trains were cheaper to operate from Montreal to Quebec City than an ocean liner. The Empress of Britain's attributes were better applied to getting across the Atlantic quickly during the summer 'high season' - both for competitive reasons as well as to make the best possible use of the ship's capacity to produce revenue.

from: Canadian Pacific Railway, public timetable, February 5 1939, my collection.

While Bessie did not record the name of her eastbound ship, the CPR public timetable from the following year, 1939, suggests that the Empress of Britain was her ship. Bessie crossed June 25-30, 1938 and the newer Empress of Britain matched that crossing time - as you can see above.

In the footnotes section the special Empress train is referred to ... "From Quebec 2.00 pm ET after arrival of Empress Special from Montreal ...".

from: The Spanner,  Canadian Pacific Railway, March 1952, collection of LC Gagnon
Shown above, the Empress of Britain has almost reached the dock at Wolfe's Cove.

Early in her voyage, here is an artifact of Bessie's trip which will disappear ...

On June 15th 1939 this ship had carried King George VI and Queen Elizabeth from Halifax, Canada, and arrived the next day at Holyrood at the head of Conception Bay, Newfoundland. The King and Queen had just completed their unprecedented 1939 tour of Canada and the eastern US to shore up support for Britain ... given the prospect of impending war in Europe. 

After the Newfoundland visit, only the King, Queen and their immediate party were present on the ship - fewer than 50 passengers - as it sped back across the Ocean. This was less than 3 months before Hitler invaded Poland, beginning World War II.

After less than a decade in service as a CPR passenger liner and later as a requisitioned troop transport, the Empress of Britain was attacked and set on fire by a patrolling Fw 200 Condor west of Ireland in October 1940. The Condor dropped two 250kg bombs on it and the oil-burning steamer was burnt out and had to be towed. It was finished off by U-boat while still under tow.

Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor. from: Aircraft of World War II; Francis K Mason; 1983, Temple Press.

The Condor had been developed during Hitler's 'quiet' rearming of Germany for 'war as early as 1938'. To avoid clear violation of the Versailles terms - typically - this aircraft was ostensibly developed as a peacetime passenger transport with the option of later converting it to military service. The ring around the globe 'nose art' celebrates its former long distance commercial achievements.

*  *  *

On the Empress of Britain as Bessie's ship ...

After working with the diary for quite a while,
I went back through Bessie's correspondence with two other family members.

I then found the postcard above in her correspondence to my father (then age 11).


*  *  *

Wednesday, June 29 - Last night on the ship, concert.

It seems there was usually a 'gala concert' aboard ship on the last night. During my grandmother's tour in 1922, special programs were printed by the ship's printer. These documented the participation of the various individuals and groups present from across the Empire on the OEL tour and their particular contribution to the entertainment.

*  *  *

Thursday, June 30 - Arriving at Cherbourg, met by Major Ney, and on to Paris.

"By 6 PM, the high land about Cherbourg is sighted and soon after the breakwater is seen. As the ship enters the harbour the engines are stopped, and promptly at 6.30 PM down goes the anchor. Tenders which are waiting with more passengers and mail lose no time in getting alongside. In about an hour's time all are aboard, the tenders leave, the anchor is hove up, and the great ship turns seaward and moves to the sea, acknowledging the salutes from the tenders as she goes on her way. Once she is clear of the harbour, all engines are ordered to full speed."
from: Operating an Atlantic Liner;  a chapter of Factors in Railway and Steamship Operation, Canadian Pacific Railway; 1937.

... the ship described in Captain RN Stuart's article had already made its call in England and was presumably dropping off passengers for Cherbourg (like Bessie) on those same tenders.

*  *  *

Friday, July 1 - Paris - Louvre, see decorations for King and Queen, midnight train to Strasbourg.

*  *  *

Saturday, July 2 - Travelling by train: Strasbourg - through Germany - Prague, Czechoslovakia.

*  *  *

Sunday, July 3 - Prague - Jewish cemetery, castle, opera.

Old Jewish Cemetery from:
The cemetery was in use from circa 1439 until 1787.
This is a screencap from the 360-view available at the website source.

*  *  *

Monday, July 4 - Prague to Karlsbad (about 150km west) - glass factory, spa.  

Met by Major Ney. 
Returned to Prague. Listened to Gypsy orchestra.

The Karlovy Vary (Czech place name) or Carlsbad (German) Spa area is shown in a German newsreel in late 1938.

The newsreel showed the Third Reich's integration of the ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia
(shown on the map at the end of the post).

During this event which happened shortly after Bessie's visit, non-Germans were exiled immediately
... leaving their houses, farms and livestock without any compensation from Germany.

Bessie visited this town shortly before this part of Czechoslovakia became part of Germany.

*  *  *

Tuesday, July 5 - Prague

Traveled to Sokol stadium in the afternoon. 
Displays by: 30,000 men 16,000 women 300 horses and 100 airplanes. 
Evening: Listened to Gypsy music.

The Sokol (Czech for: 'falcon') movement began in Prague in the 1860s. It was essentially a movement which advocated physical, intellectual and moral fitness - particularly by embracing gymnastics. The movement eventually spread through the Slavic nations. 

... In her next entry, Bessie refers to "members from all countries in their national costumes".

In addition, the Sokol movement became an expression and focus of Czech nationalism.

Mass gatherings, congresses, (known as slets - flockings) were held periodically. 

Here, Bessie records the last one - attended by 350,000 Sokols - before the German occupation later in the year. Members of the Sokol movement was persecuted and repressed with vigour by the invading Germans, 

After World War II, it was the communists who stamped out any resurgence of the movement.

*  *  *

A Quick Look at the Local Land, Politics and Ethnicities

The map below shows the western Czech area circa 1900. Back then it was 'Bohemia' and formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Prague and Karlsbad can be seen in the upper-left corner of the map. The 'Hungary' part of the Empire starts at the lower-right corner (yellow outline).

Hitler's 'homes' of Linz (childhood), Vienna (late teens, early 20s), and Munich can be seen along the bottom edge. For scale: Munich to Vienna is about 350 km.

During the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris, the victorious Great Powers listened attentively to Czech delegate Edvard Beneš and subsequently included ethnicities such as "Sudetenland Germans", Slovaks, Ruthenians and Hungarians in the new post-war state of Czechoslovakia. 

After 1938 ...

... Regarding the 'Gypsy music' ...
During World War II, between 220,000 and 1.5 million Roma (gypsies) were killed in mass shootings or in concentration camps by the German military. 
To make room for German 'living space' (Lebensraum) in eastern Europe, including in the western USSR, about 19 million Jews and Slavs were killed out of a planned total of about 80 million. This total depopulation of 'inferior races' would have been conducted mainly through starvation, exposure to the elements, and slave labour. This plan was intended to make way for the Hitler's 'superior' German race to settle in and to farm the confiscated eastern European lands.

from: Hand Reference Atlas of the World; 1904; JG Bartholomew.
*  *  *

Images from the same 1938 Sokol gathering which Bessie described ...

from: YouTube X. všesokolský slet (1938) by Delfinlandian 
 Part of the Sokol gymnastic presentation in 1938 as described by Bessie.

from: YouTube X. všesokolský slet (1938) by Delfinlandian 
 The Czech horse artillery demonstration as seen by Bessie.

As shown later in Poland, World War One-style military forces such as this were cut to ribbons
by German Panzer tanks and Stuka dive bombers.

from: YouTube X. všesokolský slet (1938) by Delfinlandian 
Czech infantry at the Sokol.

from: YouTube X. všesokolský slet (1938) by Delfinlandian 
Czech aviation display at the Sokol in 1938 as seen by Bessie.

The German Luftwaffe had already proven itself in battle in the Spanish Civil War.
These aircraft would have provided little defence to Czechoslovakia.

*  *  *

Wednesday, July 6 - Prague - Sokol parade.

Processions from all countries in national costumes - took 4.5 hours to pass.
Evening: Entertained by British legation.

Considering the size and the timely patriotic importance of the event shown below, there would have been no public transportation available to the members of the OEL tour to attend the parade shown below. It would have been "a long walk" as Bessie describes! 

The 1938 Sokol Parade - described by Bessie.

from: YouTube 10th Sokol club congress Prague 1938 LinkmanSK 

from: YouTube 10th Sokol club congress Prague 1938 LinkmanSK 

from: YouTube 10th Sokol club congress Prague 1938 LinkmanSK 
The parade passes in front of the reviewing stand at Prague's City Hall.

from: YouTube 10th Sokol club congress Prague 1938 LinkmanSK 
On the reviewing stand is ...
Edvard Beneš (1884-1948).

His various roles up to 1938: Leader of the Czechoslovak independence movement,
Minister of Foreign Affairs, the second President of Czechoslovakia from 1935 to 1938. 

*  *  *

Thursday, July 7 - Prague

Went to church and toured old castle in the morning.
Afternoon, shopping.
History of the Sokol.

*  *  *

Friday, July 8 Prague

Left at 1030hr (received mail as leaving)
20hr arrive Nuremberg, streets are noisy.

*  *  *

Saturday, July 9 - Nuremberg

Nazi stadium is largest in the world.
Watched students in field events. All students must attend military school for two years.
Afternoon - tour of the old town.
1830hr - left for Munich, arrived 20hr. Crowds and traffic in the street.

The Nuremberg and Munich days have their own articles elsewhere on this blog.

This postcard was mailed to my father from Nuremberg.
Its message follows below.

You'll notice that the postcard's own printed description interprets the German history
significantly more in German than in English ... 

And you've perhaps also noticed the reference to Friedrich Barbarossa (1122-1190) 
... also known as, Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Germany, King of Italy, etc.

... Operation Barbarossa also being Hitler's code name for the secret plans
prepared for the surprise invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

... Three years after Bessie's visit.

Main Munich railway station. from: The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Railways; Hamilton Ellis; 1968; Hamlyn Publishing.
On the theme of things which would disappear ...
The 100 year old main Munich railway station was destroyed during the war.

*  *  *

Sunday, July 10 - Munich

Tour of the city at 10hr.
Visited National Socialist (Nazi) tomb for the lives lost during 1923 (Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch).
Afternoon - Watched parade - The History of German Art.

A postcard mailed to my father from Munich.
The message follows below.

The stamp cancellation shows an expanded Reich map which includes the detached portion of East Prussia - an outcome from Versailles, 1919 ...
PLUS the Saarland (1936), and Spring 1938's addition: Austria.
(...  But Wait! There's more to come in '38 !)

*  *  *
Monday, July 11 - Munich

Went to art gallery (The House of German Art).
1530hr - Train to Stuttgart.
Had view of the city from the roof of the castle of the former ruler of Bavaria.

*  *  *

Tuesday, July 12 - Heidelberg

Toured Heidelberg University, saw professors' houses, Philosophers' Walk.
Modern university included new facilities made possible by American donations.
Visited old prison.

Paul Joseph Goebbels, later Hitler's trusted Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, received his Doctor of Philosophy from Heidelberg in 1921. Neither he, nor his family would survive the war.

Ironically, for a visiting group of OEL teachers from the Empire, the Reich universities had long ago fired professors of 'inferior' races or holding non-compatible beliefs about knowledge. Their books had been burned outside their own universities' libraries. As Albert Einstein (and other German Jews) had made notable contributions to advanced mathematics and physics ... there were open, serious discussions among the remaining German academics about whether these fields were worth anything - whether they were 'needed' in the Third Reich. 

Considering Bessie's own profession: Elementary and high school teachers were expected to produce good Nazi citizens (i.e. graduates providing unquestioning loyalty and service to the Fuhrer) from German school children. Those were the ultimate goals of German education under Hitler and Goebbels.

*  *  *

Wednesday, July 13 - Wiesbaden
Arrived 12hr and went to Prinz Nicholas Hotel.

*  *  *

Thursday, July 14  - Wiesbaden

Visited a Champagne factory.
Afternoon tea at a German home.

*  *  *

Friday, July 15 - Wiesbaden

Embarked on steamer for a trip down the Rhine River
Lunch at Koblenz.
1830hr - Took train to Cologne.
Saw cathedral, received mail.

Postcard of Bingen mailed to Alice Gall of Lachute on July 16,
Bessie passed Bingen while travelling down the Rhine
... on her travels between Wiesbaden and Koblenz.

Cologne main railway station. from: Railway Wonders of the World, Part 19; 1935; Amalgamated Press.
Cologne railway station.

Unused postcard. Cologne cathedral. My collection.
Cologne cathedral.
(translation: It's tall, old, took a long time to complete, and it's quite expensive.)

*  *  *

Saturday, July 16 - Cologne

Mrs. Ney left the tour group.
Went to Eau de Cologne factory.
Toured museum and university, took tram back for lunch.
Evening, a small group went to a Cabaret show - very acrobatic.
2330hr - back at hotel, saw moon over the cathedral.

Unused postcard of Cologne showing railway station, Cathedral, bridge across the Rhine. My collection.

*  *  *

Sunday, July 17 - Cologne
Went to High Mass at the cathedral at 0930hr.
1445hr got on train for Paris and travelled via Belgium.
2130hr arrived at Paris.

*  *  *

from: Among the Dead Cities; AC Grayling; 2006, Walker Publishing.
Cologne 1945

*  *  *

Europe as Bessie Rodger Visited ...

To some extent, Hitler got away with his early territorial seizures because some foreign onlookers could accept that he was simply gathering up foreign ethnic-German populations. In other cases, he was re-occupying areas which had previously been German. The map below illustrates Hitler's changes to the map of Europe before the war began.


The Nuremberg Laws - "for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour" are proclaimed. This was the Reich's package of eugenics and race-determination legislation. The Nuremberg Laws used an unwieldy process to calculate the percentage of a citizen's 'Aryan Blood' (by their pedigree) ... or classified citizens and people of invaded territories by their observed religious and ethnic characteristics. After the Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942, the way was clear for people like Reinhard Heydrich to administer their own 'law' without impediments.


Hitler sent troops to occupy the territory along the Rhine River (i.e. the cross-hatched area at the left of the map, below). In 1919, Germany had been prohibited from having its military within 50 km of the right bank ('east' bank) of the Rhine. Germany had agreed in writing to this in the Locarno Pact of 1925. However, re-occupying this area would provide secure German access to factories necessary to produce equipment for war - it would also be key for the defence of Germany should France, Britain or others attack from the west.

The Saarland (rich in coal deposits - which Germany needed) is brought into the Reich after a plebiscite strongly supports this change.   

The Berlin 1936 Olympics impressed some that Hitler was bringing prosperity to Germany (even in the depths of the Great Depression) because most Germans observed were cheery, optimistic and progressively engaged in sport, industry and clean living.

1938, March

Austria (formerly a German-speaking part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) is occupied and annexed through a persistent process of political murders and intrigues. Austria would provide German-speaking Reich citizens who could serve in the armed forces or otherwise provide labour to support the war effort. It would also secure part of Germany's border with a 'buffer zone'.

1938, May 

The Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia appears below as a crescent-shaped strip of territory around Bohemia and Moravia. After a great deal of German propaganda is broadcast about the poor treatment of the German population in the Czech Sudetenland, Edvard Beneš, the President of Czechoslovakia orders a partial mobilization in preparation for a possible German invasion.

1938, July - Mary Elizabeth Rodger visits Czechoslovakia and Germany. 
Bessie's tour visits Prague, Nuremberg, Munich, Heidelberg (near Mannheim), Wiesbaden, and Cologne.

from: Atlas of World War II; Jordan and West; 2004; Silverdale Books.

1938, September

The (German-sponsored and contrived) 'crisis' in the Czech Sudetenland escalates - so British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain attempts two rounds of face-to-face summitry alone with Hitler. Chamberlain undertakes to fly, for the first time in his life, using the two-engine passenger aircraft of the day (each one-way flight would take 3-4 hours).

Later, Britain and France agree that Germany can have the Sudetenland. The government of Czechoslovakia is informed after the deal has been completed.

1938, November

Kristallnacht - the beginning of widespread state-sponsored violence against Jews and their property.

1939, March

Hitler breaks his promise to Chamberlain and occupies the rest of Czechoslovakia. This facilitates the invasion of Poland (6 months later) as a southern pincer advancing north from Slovakia will meet a northern pincer advancing south from East Prussia to meet at Warsaw - thus enveloping the Polish Army fighting to the west near the German frontier.

Bessie Rodger had left Czechoslovakia about eight months before Hitler invaded the entire country.