From Meerut to the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Major General Syed Ali Hamid tells the story of how a young Lieutenant from colonial India found himself attending the Games

From Meerut to the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Little could a lieutenant serving in the cavalry brigade at Meerut have known that he would soon get a complimentary pass to the famous Berlin Olympics of 1936.

10 months earlier, during a steeple chase at the Meerut Race Course Ground, his horse collided with a jump and rolled over. The fall broke the officer’s right arm, which, in spite of two operations, did not set properly. Ultimately a very concerned British commandant of the military hospital told him in confidence that his arm was in a mess and the only surgeon who could set it correctly was Professor Lorenz Bohler in Vienna. Bohler was the leading surgeon at the AUVA-Hospital, and is now universally acknowledged as the creator of modern accident surgery. The lieutenant was granted six months of leave and his father provided him with the necessary finances. After taking a train to Bombay and spending three weeks on a ship, he arrived in London where he was examined by a board at the Millbank Hospital. They wanted a British surgeon to operate for a third time but the lieutenant was adamant to get to Vienna. However, he was warned that if Bohler was unsuccessful, the lieutenant may be invalided out of service.

The lieutenant arrived at the AUVA-Hospital without an appointment but the “father of bone surgery” was very compassionate and after examining the X-rays, agreed to repair the fracture immediately. The lieutenant then broached the matter of the fee. Bohler enquired, “What is your monthly salary?” The lieutenant told him it was Rs.550. “My fee will be half of that,” stated the doctor. It came as a surprise to the officer because the impression in Europe in those days was that all Indians were rich nawabs and rajas. The lieutenant protested and said he did not want charity and had money. “This is the rule of the hospital,” replied Bohler and closed the issue. The surgery was performed the next day. The broken bones were reset and when the lieutenant recovered from the local anesthesia, to his great relief, he felt no pain. Three days later, supporting the whole arm in heavy plaster, he was discharged and the hospital arranged his lodging in a small family hotel.

Professor Lorenz Bohler, the innovative Austrian surgeon who introduced the technique of nailing broken bones, operated on Lt. Shahid Hamid in 1936

The officer remained in Vienna for nearly nine months. Austria had been an empire and Vienna was one of the cultural capitals of Europe with lots to see and do. The people spoke gently and kindly and accepted foreigners into their homes unlike in Britain - where the officer had spent two-and-a-half years at Sandhurst. Every fortnight he reported back to the doctor for a checkup but was otherwise free to explore the country. Bohler became very fond of his patient whom he addressed as “Herr Lieutenant”. During one of checkups in early July 1936, he asked, “Herr Lieutenant! Are you going to see the Olympics?” “No,” replied the officer. “I cannot afford to.” “You must go,” insisted Dr. Bohler. “This is a chance of a lifetime” he said and then paid Herr Lieutenant’s train fare to Berlin.

Berlin had been nominated for the 1936 Games before the Nazis came to power. Adolf Hitler was not a sports fan and had been lukewarm toward the whole idea of hosting the Games. It had taken some effort by Goebbels the propaganda minister to convince the Fuhrer that the event was a perfect opportunity to prove the veracity of the Master Race idea and demonstrate the efficiency of Nazi Germany. As the lieutenant’s train approached Berlin, a uniformed man approached him with the information that all the hotels were booked but the government had requisitioned rooms in private houses and guided him to one of them. This was a blessing and after settling in, the officer went to purchase a ticket for the games but to his dismay, they were sold out. Seeing his disappointment, the clerk asked “Who are you and where are you from?” “I am Lieutenant Shahid Hamid from India,” the officer replied in his faltering German - whereupon the clerk gave him a chit and said “Go and meet this member of the Olympic Committee.” The member listened to Shahid’s story and then produced a complimentary pass for all the events, adding that the officer was a guest of his country.

Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony. Shahid Hamid was seated just behind the Fuhrer's enclosure, from where he could clearly see him

51 countries had decided to participate in the Berlin Games including a separate contingent from India - which was technically a colony and not a country. The crowd gave a great reception to the 24-member Indian contingent, of which 16 were from the hockey team. Germany had the largest Olympic team, with 348 competitors. The Soviet Union had not participated in any of the Olympics thus far and was also absent from the Berlin Games. The opening ceremony was not without controversy, since the Olympic salute with right arm held out sideways from the shoulder could also be mistaken for the Nazi salute. Therefore the British and Americans chose a military-style “eyes right” with no arm salute and the Indian contingent salaamed with their right hand. However, the Bulgarians outdid everyone by goose-stepping past the Fuhrer!

Throughout the 14 days of the competition Hitler maintained a deliberately low-key presence at the Olympics. It was also a good opportunity for the Fuhrer to appear calm and dignified among the thousands of international observers who were watching his every move. However to Shahid, who was seated close behind the Fuhrer’s enclosure, Hitler appeared restless.
The highlight of the Games was the hockey match in which India played Germany for the Gold on the second-last day. The game was witnessed by a record crowd of 40,000 spectators

The Olympics lasted two weeks and with his complimentary pass in hand, Shahid saw as many events as he could, particularly the equestrian events. He saw Major Alois Podhajsky of Austria win the Bronze in the Individual Dressage Competition.

Alois was subsequently in charge of the famous Spanish Riding School of Vienna and is remembered for saving the Lipizzaner mares from the Soviets after the Second World War. He and Patton had participated in the 1912 Olympics. So in the twilight of the Second World War in 1945 Alois alerted the US general to the presence of the mares behind Soviet lines. Patton, who was commanding the US Third Army, ordered a dramatic raid by a Cavalry Regiment to evacuate the horses, which was featured in a 1963 Disney movie – Miracle of the White Stallions.

India's Hockey Team, winners of Gold at Berlin 1936. The captain Dhyan Chand is standing in the front row, 2nd from the left. Ali Iqtidar Shah is sitting 3rd from the left

In Berlin, Shahid also saw Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski, who was one of the three Germans to win gold medals in the team dressage competition. Bronikowski, who was from an aristocratic family, became a highly decorated officer during the Second World War. He was a tank ace on the Eastern Front against the Soviets and commanded a Panzer division. Many years later he coached the Canadian Dressage Team for the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

Shahid witnessed Heinz Brandt earn a gold medal in the graceful event of show jumping. In 1944, Brandt inadvertently saved Hitler’s life at a conference at the Wolf’s Lair headquarters by pushing aside a brief case containing a bomb. However he was killed by the explosion. The bomb plot against Hitler was the theme of the 2008 movie Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise.

Shahid Hamid's album of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Inset is the Indian contingent, which was given a rousing reception at the Games

One of the most thrilling events that Shahid watched was the final of the 100 meters in which Jesse Owens won the Gold. By winning four gold medals, Jesse was the most successful athlete at the 1936 Olympics. His success and of the other African American athletes, referred to as “black auxiliaries” by the Nazi press, was considered a particular blow to Hitler’s Aryan-supremacist ideals. However, Jesse recollects that at one point during the track and field competition he glanced up at Hitler and the Fuhrer stood up and waved to him, and he had waved back.

For Shahid and many other Indians including the Maharaja of Gaekwad who had come to see the Olympics, the highlight of the Games was the hockey match in which India played Germany for the Gold on the second-last day. The game was witnessed by a record crowd of 40,000 spectators. The captain and center-forward of the team was Havildar (Sergeant) Dhyan Chand, the wizard of hockey and a goal machine of whom much has been written. But there was another Indian hero at the Olympics. One day after their arrival in Germany, the Indian team played a warm up game against the hosts and lost 1-4. A player was out of form and an urgent cable was sent, asking for the services of Ali Iqtedar Shah, whose pet name was Dara. In fact, Dara was a captain in the Indian Army and had played with Dhyan Chand for the Punjab Regiment but was not included in the squad because he was refused leave. Dhyan Chand had also nearly been refused leave. Dara was air-dashed to Berlin, arriving just a day before the semi-finals in which India massacred France 10-0.

India were a strong favourite in the finals since they had won the Gold in the previous two Olympics but having lost earlier to the Germans, the team was nervous. The Germans successfully held the Indians to a single goal till the interval but in the second half, their opponents launched an all-out attack. Dhyan Chand increased the pace by discarding his spiked shoes and stockings and played in rubber soles that he was used to in India. According to Dara (playing inside-right), “Dhyan, though he never possessed great speed, had the astounding knack of spotting a gap before it was there.” The Indians were up by 6 goals when the Germans decided to play rough and their goalkeeper broke one of Dhyan Chand’s teeth. When he returned after first aid, Dhyan instructed the team to go easy on goals. “We must teach them a lesson in ball control,” he said. They tore the German defense to smithereens with deft passes and nasty stick play and the forwards repeatedly took the ball up to the German circle and then back-passed to dumbfound their opponents. Ultimately, they prevailed over the Germans 8-1. The single goal by the Germans was the only one that the team ceded in the entire tournament in which they scored 40 times. The Fuhrer was there to witness the match but left before the end. It is speculated that he did not want to present the Gold to the Indian team.

Before leaving Vienna, Shahid quietly gave some money to the hospital charity fund and after returning home remained in contact with Professor Bohler and sent him presents. Bohler rose to great fame after the Second World War. His medical book Treatment of Fractures of 2,500 pages became a top seller and was translated into eight languages including Chinese. The first edition had 176 pages and was self-published in 1926 because printers refused to accept it.
The success of Jesse Owens and other African-American athletes, referred to as “black auxiliaries” by the Nazi press, was considered a particular blow to Hitler’s Aryan-supremacist ideals

This story has been extracted from Shahid Hamid’s Autobiography of a General. Shahid narrates a sequel to his association with Bohler. An Indian lady had an accident while motoring in Austria and broke her hip-bone. Her husband was a rich Hindu industrialist and provincial minister who was a friend of Shahid’s father and she had heard how nicely and cheaply Shahid had been treated by Dr. Bohler. So she went to him and the doctor received her nicely as he did all his patients, performed the surgery and conducted periodic checkups till her bones were set. The lady had airs about her. She insisted on being addressed as “Her Excellency” and boasted that her husband’s monthly income was Rs. 50,000.

Her bill came to exactly half of that and she was shocked.

Author’s Note: The photographs in this article are from Shahid Hamid’s album of the 1936 Berlin Olympics and were official releases of events/participants.