NINETEEN THIRTY­EIGHT - A Trip of a Lifetime

Joan Friend

Written February 1998 ( Sixty years later )

125 pounds ­­ $250 ­­ that was my return fare to London by ship and it represented 38 weeks gross salary. The year was 1938.

I'd actually made the booking fifteen months earlier; I knew a goal was necessary to revive my spirits when I inspected my bank balance. The man at the P.& O. office was very English and very helpful. I nominated a three­berth cabin and an absolute limit of 120 pounds, and he said "Ooohh!" The ship, he explained, was one class but had previously been First and Second and there were still forward and aft dining saloons, the aft being for passengers who paid less than 125 pounds. "Of course, they are very nice people who dine in the aft saloon, very nice indeed, but they ... ah, um ... they ... well, they EAT THEIR PEAS OFF THEIR KNIVES!!"' Shock!! Horror!! I immediately agreed somehow to find the extra five quid!!

It was a wonderful trip. I'd always been a good sailor ­­ trained by years of travel in all weathers on the Manly ferry ­­ and the occasional storms held no terrors. Then the magical new places, Colombo, Aden, Suez. One of my most fervent desires had always been to sail through the Suez Canal; yet when we were offered, several days before Suez, the chance of a day and night trip to Cairo, rejoining the ship at Port Said, I accepted gladly. I have here beside me a small memento of that good decision. Ahmed Soliman, the self­styled "Cairo Perfume King", had a tiny stall in one of the markets. What I bought was a small polished wooden bottle with a wooden screw cap. Inside is a tiny glass phial with minute cork; and to­day, 1998, the faint perfume of lilac still lingers in the cork.

Next stop Naples, with a coach tour to Pompeii and the coastal towns of Amalfi, Sorrento, Castellamare -- and on to Gibraltar. It seemed that all the Geography I'd ever learnt was being spread before me. Gibraltar was particularly interesting because the Spanish Civil Walt was in progress and at night we had a huge Union Jack sandbagged flat on the top deck, heavily spot­lighted ­- just to make sure we were recognised as a British ship. (I still have an old snap.)

Then LONDON ­­ and what can I say, after all these years, and after subsequent trips, of what London meant to me, then aged 22!!

Fortunately Australian stenographers were in constant demand. English bosses liked the way we had been trained and I immediately took a temporary job with the Anglo­American Oil Company in Queen Anne's Gate, very close to Buckingham Palace. On the first day the manager of the Shipping Department dictated letters constantly. Most of the time the shipping terms were completely unfamiliar; as I didn't get a chance to transcribe the letters until the following day, I really was very, very fearful. However the result couldn't have been too disastrous because on the third day I was put on the permanent staff.

When I was accepted into a Club for business girls in Bayswater Road, opposite Hyde Park, I was set for a very pleasant interlude.

Unfortunately as the year progressed it was obvious that life was not going to be a bed of roses. War clouds loomed darker, news from the Continent became more ominous. The stage was reached when we asked not "if" but "when". Trenches were dug in Hyde Park with antiaircraft guns in place; many, many children were moved out of London to places of greater safety; the lovely groundfloor windows of the Anglo­American building were completely covered with stacked sandbags and all members of staff were issued with gas masks. After the months of mounting tension it was almost a relief to know that "it's going to happen".

And then Mr. Chamberlain went to Munich, and on September 29 the papers screamed "PEACE".

We didn't believe it, of course ­­ we knew it was only a respite; and a friend and I decided that if we were hoping ever to see the Continent, it was NOW. She (Kath) left her post at Middlesex Hospital, I resigned and, with the help of the Bank of New South Wales in Berkeley Square, we had six extraordinary weeks travelling on the Continent reaching as far east as Budapest.

After 60 years it is sometimes hard to believe they really happened ­­ the amazing experiences in Nuremberg, Munich and Vienna.

We travelled across to Ostend and through Belgium to lovely Cologne and Heidelberg ­­ then in Nuremberg the reality of Hitler's Germany hit. Every inch of the railway station was hung with huge swastikas, 90% of the men were in uniform and transport was incredibly crowded. We had tickets from place to place but no accommodation booked, so we had decided we must always arrive in a new town at a sensible hour. On our last day in Nuremberg we visited fascinating Rothenburg and arrived back, not late, but to find that all restaurants were closed ­­ and we were starving! Walking back to our hotel we heard the welcome sound of conversation and the clinking of china and glasses and we proceeded upstairs to the restaurant. The head waiter conducted us to a table and took our orders and then we had time to look around, only to discover we were the only women in the room and every eye was upon us. I've never had a more uncomfortable meal; but obviously it was a Party meeting so that when we left we weren't followed and had no trouble getting back to our hotel. We then had to proceed to the station and on to Munich and although it was an odd experience we were very lucky.

The train we boarded for Munich -- long carriages with side corridors ­­ was packed with military personnel, seats seemed impossible and lights were barely visible. Finally a group of young S.S. boys called us into their compartment. They were part of Hitler's vanguard, their insignia the skull and crossbones, their motto Victory or Death. They spoke no English but a woman travelling with them, also in uniform, spoke French. The boys spoke to her in German, she passed it on to me in French, I conversed with Kath in English and spoke back to the woman in French. The trip was quite hilarious and had a very pleasant ending. When we reached Munich, two of the boys took us under their wing and stayed with us until we found a pleasant hotel. The following day they called for us and showed us the sights of Munich. They were so charming and helpful.

Of course, the bulk of the German people didn't want war any more than we did. In a big market in Munich a little old peasant woman wept when we spoke English. She indicated her two hands, one "England" the other "Germany" and shook her hands together. As for us, I am sure no more fervent peace campaigners ever travelled the German trains.

Then, as Alice would say, things became curiouser and curiouser. After a couple of days in Munich we discovered that the following Friday was November 9, the anniversary of the day in 1923 when 16 martyrs to the Nazi cause had died. Their graves were greatly revered in Munich and constantly under guard. (We hadn't even known that the Nazi party was in existence in 1923!) Realising that there would probably be an influx of visitors, we spoke to the hotel manager explaining we'd like to stay until after the march. Later in our trip we realised we were probably under surveillance from that moment on. We were such innocents, with nothing to hide, we weren't even apprehensive.

On the Thursday night, lying in bed, we debated whether we should Heil Hitler and/or salute. We finally decided it would be common courtesy to do so ­­ and I can see us now ... a neon sign outside our window was flicking on and off as we sat up in bed busily practising Heiling Hitler.

About 6.00 on Friday morning there was loud banging our door and three S.S. men entered. We sat up in bed and watched as they methodically searched every item we owned before departing. We got up then because, although the march didn't start until noon, we wanted to be there by 9.00 to be in the front row.

It was a grey, misty morning with the heavy old stone buildings looming. At intervals along the route builders had erected tapered columns topped with wide metal saucers. Just before the march, long lines of S.S. men arrived and stood literally shoulder to shoulder in front of us. I managed to explain to the boy in front of me that I wanted to take a photo of Hitler and he indicated he would lift his arm so that I could do so. "But", he warned, "you will have a chance for only one photo." He kept his word and my daughter has the yellowing snap somewhere stored. (He also said: "And you WILL send me a copy of the photo because I HEL­PED you.) I was too frightened not to send the photo ­­ and I still have his name and address scribbled in the back of my German phrase book.

Immediately before the marchers approached, lamplighters came along and with tapers lighted the crude oil in the saucers and the wild flames were a brilliant living colour against the grey morning.

The atmosphere was absolutely electric, the dramatic stage­managing was perfect and there was scarcely a sound ­­ dead silence as the crowd raised their arms in salute and, after a drum roll, the name of one of the martyrs. We were glad we had decided to salute. Looking down the street towards the marchers, my arm must have strayed from the correct angle ­­ and it was promptly corrected by the man standing behind. Within six feet of me Hitler passed with various of his henchmen.

I have since seen film of this actual march on T.V. ­­ obviously the last 9th November ever celebrated.

That night was Kristallnacht, when all over Germany and Austria the homes and shops of Jews were smashed and looted. But we knew nothing about it at the time; as soon as the march ended we proceeded on to the little village of Berchtesgaden where we spent the night. The following morning, a lovely day, we walked up the beautiful Alpine road towards Hitler's eyrie, but didn't get too far ­- a gate, locked and guarded blocked the way. So we continued on to Vienna.

What a sad city Vienna was, with unsmiling people hurrying past. We had no information about the previous night, nor did we have any conception of the horrors taking place that day until we read the English papers several days later in Budapest. What we did know was that, after dinner when we attempted to go for a walk, we found we were locked in our area of the hotel; and when we prepared to go to bed, we discovered our room hadn't been changed or cleaned after the previous visitors. Even the chamber pot had been used. We left for Budapest in the morning.

Budapest was wonderful in its autumn colours but when we left there we didn't stop until we reached Switzerland ­­ Lucerne, Montreux, Geneva.

There were two Czech army officers in our carriage to Geneva and, to our chagrin, they followed us and stayed at our hotel. We were very unco­operative ­- we wouldn't even go for a moonlight stroll around Lake Geneva!!. ­­ but they were most persistent, although eventually they gave up. Imagine Kath's dismay to discover them on our train from Geneva to Paris. She was furious and determined we wouldn't speak to them. As it happened we had a compartment to ourselves, so she insisted we should lie along the seats, one each side, and pretend to be asleep. It was a miserable trip. Our only illumination was the blue safety light; every now and again one of the Czechs would come along and peer in ­and I wondered how long I could last without laughing in their faces. Finally, when we reached Paris, it was my job to tell them: "It's been nice knowing you, but Good­bye."

Our sojourn in Paris, 10 days, was such a joy after the intense drama of Germany and Austria. Then back to London where I took another job ­­ but my family were getting very, very edgy . Christmas was wonderful ­­ a "white" Christmas spent with Australian friends living near St. Albans ­­ but it was getting to be time to leave. I was lucky enough to book a single cabin on the maiden voyage in March of "Dominion Monarch" (not so very long afterwards she was a troopship) to Sydney via Cape Town.

It was a wonderful series of experiences ­­ not just the drama but unexpected happenings and contacts. Above all were the friendships which continued through the years and right up to the present.

My heart leapt when we sailed back into Sydney Harbour. But what a year it had been.


People I met in London who became long­time friends included Lesley Hanna and Helen Wallis, O.B.E. (both hostesses with Lady Frances Ryder's organisation, The Dominions Fellowship Trust), Norah (Neale) Fletcher and Jenny Weir (both Scots girls working in London

Norah was with me at the Helena Club and subsequently was an announcer on the B.B.C. during WWII. She later married an American who died very young but who must have been very affluent. Norah later visited Sydney and Ron and I spent time with her in London on our trips. We remained in touch regularly but not frequently. She is now (1998) in a nursing home, nearly blind, and can't write to me. I write to her care of one of the nurses who is kind enough to reply on her behalf. I was very fond of her in London ­­ she was enormous fun.

Lesley, Helen and Jenny have all died.

Lady Frances Ryder's mother was an affluent woman who, during WWI, opened her London home to Commonwealth military personnel on leave. After that war, Lady Frances continued the wonderful hospitality and it was in 1938 that I was given an introduction to the splendid organisation, then known as the Dominions Fellowship Trust. Helen and Lesley were both hostesses although I didn't meet Lesley until later when she and her mother visited Sydney.

Every afternoon the hostesses served afternoon tea ­- and many cash-strapped Australians gladly made it their main meal of the day! During the afternoon the hostesses would also offer tours, theatre tickets, weekends in the country, etc. all donated by friends of the organisation. I remember particularly a week­end I spent at Laycock Manor in Laycock Village in Wiltshire. The two maiden ladies who owned the Manor were charming and splendid fun. They had invited several of us that week­end ­­ and they taught us to dance the Lambeth Walk. The Manor was beautifully warmed but had no electric lighting. Each bedroom had its special characteristics. I had the Napoleon Room. Over my bed was a hanging tapestry, similar to a hoop mosquito net, decorated with gold tassels from the uniforms of some of Napoleon's soldiers.

On the Sunday morning we walked through the garden, through the kitchen garden to the door in the stone wall which one of the women unlocked, and we found ourselves in the churchyard. And the cost of all this? Helen asked us to be sure to write our "Bread and butter letters" (our Thank You's to the Manor's owners) on Monday morning.

Lesley and I corresponded quite regularly and Ron and I visited her in 1975 when she was living in the beautiful city of Cheltenham. She died in 1987.

Helen and I had a close friendship until she died in 1969, aged nearly 80. She was "Mrs. Wallis" in 1938 but later asked me to call her Helen, Ron's Airforce training was done in Canada; he was then posted to a Squadron in England which subsequently became Squadron 460, the First Australian Lancaster Squadron. When he went to London on leave he of course contacted Helen and she remained a close friend. Unfortunately the organisation had to close in 1961. Most of the hostesses had been associated for many years and were in their 70s'. Helen continued writing to us until she died in 1969.

Jenny was the most dearly loved. I met her at the Helena Club in Bayswater Road, but after about six months she returned to her home in Glasgow. She was unmarried and "adopted" Lib and Tony. She was quite incredible with their birthday presents (usually books). Australian friends' gifts might arrive a day before or after the birthday; but Jenny's, from Scotland, ALWAYS arrived on the day.

In 1975 Ron and I took our first overseas trip together, flying to Scandanavia and across to Scotland before proceeding down to London. One of my main objects was to meet Jenny in Glasgow ­­ and after 37 years she hadn't changed a bit. She had arranged that we would take a short tour with her up to Inverness ­­ and Ron loved her as much as I did. We said Good-bye the night before we left Glasgow for London but she still came to the coach the next morning. We corresponded until she died suddenly in 1978.