Rebel Aussie refused to kowtow to a Nazi salute
He was the Australian boy who cut a swath through the hedonistic social circles of pre-World War II Europe, but as a new book reveals it was the playboy’s need for speed that brought him face-to-face with Adolf Hitler.
Frederick Joseph McEvoy tightened his grip on the flagstaff and leaned forward into the driving snow. The big Australian — 6 feet 2 inches (187cm) of solid muscle, broad shoulders bulging against the white Olympic uniform — shook the flag to rid it of the gathering crust of snow. The red, white and blue British Union Jack fell free. It fluttered slightly in the falling snow that was getting heavier by the minute.
The Melbourne-born athlete’s thick moustache — the must-have facial accessory of every dashingly handsome man in the 1930s — collected snow that drifted into his face.
Freddie turned around to the 37 men and women lined up behind him. Here he was, an Aussie, about to lead the British Winter Olympic team into the opening ceremony of the 1936 Games, where they would march past a rabid dictator. The madness of the moment didn’t escape him.
Six days short of his 29th birthday, Freddie already had a Europe-wide reputation as a dashing high-society playboy with an eye for the ladies.
Freddie’s reckless pursuit of speed on mountain slopes and in fast cars had earned him the nickname “Suicide Freddie”, and a place leading the British Olympic bobsleigh team into Nazi Germany’s Winter Olympic Games. British Olympic selectors recognised that Freddie had a steely determination to win, and that he was utterly fearless. His daring tactics on bobsleighs had won him races in the past few years in Switzerland.
He’d invented a couple of innovations on the bobsleigh that were considered bold, but extremely dangerous, even deadly. In the months leading up to the February Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen Freddie had driven the British four-man and two-man bobsleigh teams hard, training on this new type of bobsleigh, and he’d whipped them into real contenders against the Alpine winter sport superpowers.
Instead of picking the usual upper-crust society amateur English competitor to lead the Olympic squad, the British team managers decided to appoint Australian Freddie to the honoured position of standard bearer of the British Winter Olympic team.
Eighteen years after the devastating Great War and the horrors of the trenches, the British were determined to beat the Germans in their Bavarian backyard. They wanted to show that jumped-up corporal who was now German Chancellor, ranting an raving to cheering crowds, tha Britain was strong and not to be threatened.
The 1936 Olympics were far more about power and politics than sport, and Freddi was leading the British team right into the thick of it.
Freddie watched the 32-strong French team march ahead into the driving snow. Now it was the turn of Grossbritannien, the German name for Great Britain carried on a placard in front of the team by a pretty German woman. Freddie hoisted the British flag higher and stepped forward. The snow was six inches deep under his feet as he began the march that would take the British team past the roaring crowds, towards the waiting German Führer, Adolf Hitler.
The British team, the fifth largest in the Games, followed in his footsteps.
The team and managers had discussed and argued for a long time over what sort of salute to give as they passed the podium where Hitler would be standing. They figured the Austrians and Italians would give Hitler the Nazi salute, and there was considerable pressure from Olympic
ficials to honour the German hosts with an outstretched arm salute. The Olympic officials argued it wasn’t so much a Nazi salute, but an Olympic salute that had been introduced at the Paris Games in 1924. It involved holding the right arm forward and horizontal from the body, with palm down, then bringing it across the chest. The difference to the Nazi elevated right arm salute was only slight, but it allowed British officials to argue they weren’t giving Hitler the Nazi salute.
Through the driving snow Freddie saw the ranks of the French team in front of him reach the balcony of the hotel Olympia Haus, where Hitler and his cronies stood to take the salute. The French flag dipped and the crowd roared out its delight as the French team extended their right arms parallel to the ground in front of them. Technically it might be the correct Olympic salute, but to the Germans watching it sure looked like the French team had just given their Fuhrer the Nazi salute. They were ecstatic.
Freddie was under strict orders from British team officials to dip the British flag and give the Olympic salute as he passed under Hitler’s gaze. Freddie wasn’t politically minded, and didn’t care much whether he saluted Hitler or not. He’d lived most of his adult life in the Swiss Alps at the rich playground of St Moritz, and spoke both German and French fluently. He’d mixed socially with the wealthy of Germany, as well as the rest of high society, on the Alpine slopes. He’d heard many rich German holidaymakers and aristocrats speak admiringly of Hitler, saying he had dragged Germany out of economic destruction, that he was restoring German pride and that he had crushed the communists.
As Freddie came abreast of Hitler and his inner circle, he dipped the British flag and briefly held out his arm parallel to the ground in the Olympic salute. Freddie looked up at the balcony and for a moment his eyes locked with the cold black eyes of Adolf Hitler, standing bare headed in the falling snow in a thick black leather coat.
Hitler briefly nodded to accept the salute, but there was no warmth in the gesture. Hitler didn’t smile at the giant Australian dipping the British flag. Hitler’s face was haughty, stiff and unemotional.
Hitler broke his brief eye contact with Freddie, and turned to make a comment to the weaselly looking man standing behind him, who quickly nodded his agreement. That was
Joseph Goebbels, Minister for Propaganda, who had planned this spectacle. Freddie turned his head to the front, and continued the march into the parade ground.
As the British team behind Freddie gave the Olympic salute, the crowd roared its approval.
They took the salute to demonstrate that their former wartime enemy was honouring their Fuhrer.
The official German propaganda film made of the opening ceremony cut out what came next.
The 55 Americans, who were second last in the parade just before the German hosts, did not dip their flag or give any salute as they passed Hitler. The proud Americans to this day are adamant their flag will never dip in salute to any mortal. According to non-German media reports of the time, the only other Olympic competitor nations to join the small anti-Nazi protest of not dipping their flag to Hitler were Bulgaria and Iceland. Australia, which was second onto the parade ground with its one athlete, speed skater George “Ken” Kennedy representing the land Down Under, did dip the flag.
The last country to enter the parade ground was the host, Germany, marching under the red, white and black swastika of the Nazi flag. The 77strong team’s synchronised Nazi salute and loud shout of “Heil Hitler!” as its members passed the Führer was greeted with a massive roar from the crowd. As one, the entire audience saluted back with a sea of arms extending the Nazi salute.
Adolf Hitler signs autographs for Olympic athletes and the German crowd, and (below) Freddie McEvoy and his bobsleigh team prepare for their second run. Pictures courtesy: Hachette Australia
This is an edited extract from The Scandalous Freddie McEvoy: The True Story Of The Swashbuckling Australian Rogue, by Frank Walker published by Hachette Australia, $32.99