Field of Shadows by Dan Waddell

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

field-of-shadows-jacketWhen I first heard of an English cricket tour to Germany in 1937, I assumed it was essentially subversive – that the tour would have been disapproved of in England, perhaps undertaken at risk of worse than disapproval in Germany.  Parallels with English teams in South Africa during apartheid came to mind.  But not at all – the Gentlemen of Worcestershire went openly and with what appears now to be a naive excitement to Berlin in July 1937, lauded on both sides.  While there, they came to have some misgivings about Nazi Germany, but were neither politically motivated nor anathematised.  But – spoiler alert – the presence of twelve mainly middle aged men in whites did not avert  genocide and global war.

The Gentlemen of Worcestershire were – and they still play – a continually changing group of men united only by the love of cricket; there was a strong public school element, minor nobility and local squires, ex professional cricketers and those not quite good enough for the county team (in Worcestershire in the 1930s, this might mean not really very good at all!). Occasional players had included the 9th Marquess of Queensbury (he of the rules) and the Nawab of Pataudi, but such glamour was past when Major Maurice Jewell led his team around England and Europe –  they had already been to the Netherlands, Denmark and Portugal.

The 1937 tour was not the first cricket tour between England and Germany; a team from Berlin had come to England in 1930, travelling third class all the way and losing heavily, and Dartford had returned the compliment the following year.  But the Gentlemen, on a tour apparently arranged at short notice, were the most prestigious club to tour, and they did it in style, crossing on the steamer Prince Baudouin, later involved at Dunkirk, then taking the Nord-Express and staying at the luxurious Adlon. Indeed, they seem to have had a high old time of it in Berlin, dispensing with early nights and practice alike, and visiting nightclubs trying the local beers and spirits with enthusiasm.

In many ways, the tour was a success.  The Gentlemen won their three matches by handsome margins, and were treated well.  They gave, apparently willingly, the Nazi salute and cried Sieg Heil!, but later disquiet grew as they saw torchlit military marches, and signs excluding Jews from public places.  At the end of the tour, they dined in a restaurant on what is now Jesse-Owens-Allee – but it wasn’t then, although “his” Olympics had been the previous year.  They scored the highest totals between the countries and the first centuries, they put up with a photographer on the pitch during play – to judge from the shot of Jewell being bowled in the first match, he must have been at silly mid-off, completely unwitting of his danger!  The German team was captained by the unlovable Gerhard Thamer, who once allegedly felled an unfortunate teammate with a right hook for dropping a catch, although the moving spirit was Felix Menzel, whose long lived passion for the game equalled the Major’s.  Major Jewell played his first first class match in 1909, and played until the 1940s, and umpired after that; Felix Menzel never tired of trying to promote the game in Germany in increasingly inauspicious circumstances, and was the central figure of a surreal vignette of the occupation of Berlin in 1945:

On a warm summer morning, a group of British soldiers were standing at a checkpoint in West Berlin … From the rubble, five middle aged men trudged towards them … the soldiers could see they were gaunt and underfed …

“Can we help?” the officer asked.

The troops had become used to these missions, the locals shuffling from the ruins to beg for fresh water, cigarettes, medicines, some women even offering their favours in return for food – all the things a conquering army might expect from a defeated people who had endured misery and suffering.

“Yes … could we play a game of cricket against you?”.

One German cricketer from the second game was Egon Maus, possibly the only one ever immortalised in English literature.  In C P Snow’s wonderful The Light and the Dark, the brilliant but wayward scholar Roy Calvert write a postcard to his friend Lewis Eliot: The best cricketer of German nationality is Maus.  He is slightly worse than I am, slightly better than you.  (Quite irrelevantly, Snow’s series of novels, Strangers and Brothers, from which this comes, is an extraordinarily skilled and puzzlingly neglected masterpiece of English literature from one of the renaissance figures of the era).

Waddell is more interested in cricket than in Germany or politics, but it is worth wondering why Hitler, who despised all that was English, allowed the tour to go ahead – Did he not care? Did he not know?  Hitler saw a game of cricket during the First War, but thought it unmanly (the batsmen wore pads!) and insufficiently violent to be good training for soldiers.  After 1937, there were other tours –  a Somerset team went in 1938, soon after the Anschluss, and a Danish team even travelled  in July 1939, after the invasion of Czechoslovakia.  Obviously Chamberlain was not the only one fooling himself that war could be avoided.  But the tide was running against cricket in Germany, though that might not be without its compensations:

Can you imagine what life might have been like for long-suffering English cricket supporters had Germany become good at it?

This 1937 tour is a fascinating episode, of interest to the cricket lover and the historian alike, but the truth is there wasn’t really enough good material for a book – so this is padded out slightly with much marginal matter such as extended biographies of the cricketers on both sides before and after the tour, other tours between the two countries, and so on.  But this, albeit slightly woodenly presented, does not detract from the mere mystery of contemplating this encounter of opposites, and the naive self preoccupations of middle England until the very moment of crisis.  Apart from the cricket, there is much political and social anecdote to savour – but now it’s time for the best bit of the game, according to one correspondent of Fussball-Megaphon, which is the tea interval.

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Terence Jagger has watched cricket (under the watchful eyes of a bodyguard) in Afghanistan, in Australia and at Lords, but sadly never in Germany.

Dan Waddell, Field of Shadows: The Remarkable True Story of the English Cricket Tour of Nazi Germany 1937  (Bantam Press: London 2014) ISBN 9780593072615  241pp, hardback, £16.99.

One Comment

  1. Roy Hathaway

    Enjoyed the review. This book sounds like further evidence of fact being stranger than fiction.

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