"Don’t Mention the War": An Englishman Among Germans Aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway, 1940

31 August 2017

War and Conflict

In September 1940, a British diplomat named Wilfred Hansford Gallienne embarked on a two-week journey from Moscow to Tokyo via the Trans-Siberian Railway. A year into the Second World War, neither the Soviet Union nor Japan had explicitly taken sides, and Gallienne’s objective was to assess travelling conditions and evidence of military activity. His impressions are recorded in an official memorandum, included in our recently-published resource, Foreign Office Files for Japan, 1919-1952. Part-disgruntled travel review, part-casual espionage, the document offers fascinating insights into his journey and those he shared it with.

 

The Trans-Siberian Railway. Image in the public domain.
The Trans-Siberian Railway. Image in the public domain.

Gallienne’s account of the Trans-Siberian is enough to put off all but the most determined of adventurers. The journey, he wrote, is ‘not intolerable but certainly most uncomfortable’: the carriages were overcrowded and freezing, with filthy toilets and insect-riddled bedding, and the food provided was ‘invariably covered in garlic’. He advises future travellers to pack the essentials: bottled water, tinned fruit and (of course) a tea outfit.

Front page of Gallienne's memorandum to the Ministry of Information. © Crown Copyright documents are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK

Front page of Gallienne's memorandum to the Ministry of Information. © Crown Copyright documents are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK

The memorandum also contains notes recorded from conversations with other passengers, many of whom were German. These included Jewish refugees, Nazi Party members and a half-German, half-Japanese art professor. Gallienne spoke with a Jewish emigrant fleeing Vienna who revealed details about life under the Nazis, from the non-availability of motor cars to rationing and even racially-segregated shopping hours. There is a chilling reference to the high death rate in concentration camps: ‘treatment of Jews was bad in the extreme,’ Gallienne records, ‘and he wondered if people in England knew anything about it.’ 

Gallienne's conversation with a Jewish emigrant. © Crown Copyright documents are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK

Gallienne's conversation with a Jewish emigrant. © Crown Copyright documents are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK

Although he notes that he tried to avoid discussing the war with the Germans, the topic – as anyone who has ever seen Fawlty Towers will be unsurprised to hear – inevitably came up. Their assessment was confident: the German public seldom bothered using air-raid shelters as British bombs were mostly duds, and a complete Axis victory would be achieved by Christmas. When Gallienne assured them that the British would ‘give them such a hiding that they would beg for peace’ in 1942, they are distinctly unimpressed, dismissing the Ministry of Information as a ‘Ministry of Lies’.

The Germans' impression of the war. Gallienne's conversation with a Jewish emigrant. © Crown Copyright documents are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK

The Germans' impression of the war. Gallienne's conversation with a Jewish emigrant. © Crown Copyright documents are reproduced by permission of The National Archives London, UK

Despite their differences, Gallienne describes his German travelling companions as having been ‘very friendly’, noting that they even tried to conceal (false) rumours that the invasion of Britain had begun to avoid upsetting him. To paraphrase Basil Fawlty: he may have mentioned the war, but seems to have got away with it.

This document will be open access for 30 days. Read it here.

Japanese Imperialism and the War in the Pacific, 1931-1945, the first section of Foreign Office Files for Japan, 1919-1952 is out now. Read more here. This resource is part of Archives Direct, sources taken from The National Archives, UK.

About the Author

Jade Bailey

Jade Bailey

I joined Adam Matthew's Editorial team in January 2017 and have since had the opportunity to work on projects including Trade Catalogues and the American Home, Colonial America and Service Newspapers of World War II. My academic background is in medieval manuscripts, French literature and the history of language.

Comments (1)

  • J. Charlesworth

    J. Charlesworth

    05 October 2018 at 19:06 |
    Hi Jade,
    I was very interested to read your article about Wilfred Hansford Gallienne who was my grandmother's husband, my grandmother being Rose nee Estick. Every time I google his name I seem to find something new. He is a fascinating character.

    Regards


    Jenny Charlesworth

    reply

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