War Threat Alters Our Plans
In March of 1939, eight days before our departure from home on our European adventure, Adolph Hitler had begun the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Upon my return from winter Lapland I found that England was preparing for a threatening future. In letters and notes at that time I wrote:
“A.R.P. is sweeping London. Air Raid Precaution is the city’s most important activity. Gas masks were issued long ago. But now, real measures of actual protection are being provided. Every factory is arranging bombproof air raid shelters for the workers. Thousands of individual shelters have been distributed to the homes, and every householder who is without one is being urged to construct a safe shelter for his family. Each day’s papers carry a page devoted to the subject, with other instructions on how to darken windows for ‘black outs,’ and how to strengthen the basement as a shelter. The government has issued a booklet on the emergency food supplies each family should keep on hand.
“Every block in London has an air raid warden who can take charge in an emergency. The schools are ready to evacuate their children at a second’s notice and flee with them to the country. As transients, we are under the supervision of the American committee, and have filled out proper questionnaires as to what help we will need in fleeing London if need arises. All means of transportation have been planned in advance.
“We decided to make a film, for children, on England and Holland. In order to get attractive photos of the rural English countryside, we took an auto journey back into the most remote parts of the isle. There, almost completely obscured, vast airfields and hangars are being laid out. All this is going on doggedly, determinedly, quietly. If Hitler plays the fool and plunges the world into war, England doesn’t want to be caught napping.
“People hereabouts have a chance to see some of the effects of Hitler’s purges and conquests. London is filled with immigrants. Nearly every school has Czech, Austrian, and Jewish children who have fled Hitler; certain sections of the city are crowded with refugees. We have become well acquainted with a girl who just recently fled Czechoslovakia. Until Hitler took the country, she had never realized she was Jewish. But there was a trace of non-Aryan blood, so she came under the ban of hate.
“If England is reacting to the threat of war, then such is doubly the case in Holland. We discovered this as we and our two young daughters went there to continue working on our children’s film on England and Holland.
“The country’s main concern seems to be that she may become a battleground, caught between the vast armies of Germany and Britain.
“Upon entering the country with our movie camera, we were constrained not to take pictures of bridges, canals, dikes, dunes, or harbors. Every important bridge is mined—ready to be shattered at a moment’s notice—and on nearly all of the large bridges we observed patrols of soldiers. Most of the trees along rural roads, so we were told, are likewise mined so they can be blown up to obstruct the highways in case of emergency.
“All roads leading to Germany have been ‘tank-proofed’ — constructed, that is, in such a way that great steel spikes can be raised up above the concrete every few rods. And, as an ace up her sleeve, Holland has her dikes as the most potent weapon of all. Her army, it is conjectured, could at best hold off an enemy no more than forty-eight hours. But, by blowing up certain of her dikes, she could in that time flood two-thirds of the country with a foot of water. Enemy troop movements would thus be almost completely impossible. Such action would be a desperate course to take, but one for which the tiny country is fully prepared if emergency arises.
“Many of the Hollanders feel the strain. One of them, learning we had come from California, said: ‘You must be crazy. If I could only gain the safety of California, I would never leave it for a minute.’
“When crossing the North Sea back to England, we talked with many refugees on the ship—mainly Jews leaving Germany. One such family—a highly educated man and his wife, with four bright-eyed children—was fleeing because their children’s lives were in danger—not from soldiers but from other children. Stones were thrown at them whenever they entered the streets. Propaganda which causes such acts will certainly have cankerous effects for generations to come. And in the meantime this fine scholarly family must leave home, penniless and without a place in the world to go. England cannot absorb all these peoples, yet she is offering them temporary refuge.”
The private school in the south of England, where our children stayed during Helen’s and my summer trip to Finland and Lapland, was in one of the precise areas where London children would be evacuated in case of bomb threats. So we had felt they would be safe during our absence; actual war still seemed remote.
Fortunately we made our film on Finland, and revisited Lapland, without threats of war materializing.
But as we entered Germany from Denmark, on our return to England from summer Lapland, we began to wonder. The country and its people were tense.
Pictures of Hitler were everywhere. Photographs of him, paintings, statues, plaster casts were displayed in stores, hotels, stations. An enormous framed photo of “der Fuhrer” hung above the bed in our Hamburg hotel. The streets were filled with marching boys and girls, some of them little tots six and eight years old. The idea was to create a completely militaristic youth, instilled with Nazi ideals. It was impossible to tell what the older Germans thought of the Nazi regime, but the young people and college youth (educated according to the Hitler formula) were rabidly behind the Fuhrer.
It was difficult to find out anything about Germany directly from the people themselves. We tried to quiz a number of persons but met with no success. In a determined effort to find someone who would really talk, we at length discovered a Canadian youth who had been studying in Germany for a year but was just leaving. He had learned much and, as we rode with him toward the border, we conversed in whispers for several hours.
From all he had heard and learned, our Canadian friend was convinced that a severe crisis, with war as an eventuality, would come by September. That was just one month away. When finally we crossed the border out of Germany he gave a lusty shout of joy and declared: “Now it can start anytime.”
That sobering conversation with our Canadian acquaintance was the most important talk of our entire trip. Taking him at his word, we rushed back to London. Our return passage to America was booked on the Queen Mary for September, but we were able to get it put forward to the ship’s August departure.
Down to Kittiwake we went to pick up our children. A large bombproof cellar, with tunnel leading from it to the school, had been erected there. We owned a part of that tunnel and bomb cellar, since all parents had been assessed for their construction.
That night our return train pulled into London on Platform 15 of Victoria Station. We looked at the large station clock and noted the time-8:04 P.M. A little more than two hours later, Platform 15 had been wrecked by a bomb. Windows of the train on that platform were shattered, and the large clock had stopped at 10:20 P.M. It was an I.R.A. bomb; German sympathizers were suspected.
Our August departure on the Queen Mary was its last civilian sailing for six years. By September, England and Germany were at each other’s throats.
World War II began on September 3rd.