Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Ballad of Jack Elliott, Olympian, Boxer, Journalist, War Victim

John 'Jack' Elliott, 1927
One aspect of writing a book detailing historical events is that you can very easily go off on tangents that, while peripheral to the topic at hand, don’t quite fit into the overall narrative.  Such a tangent is the story of the death of John ‘Jack’ Elliott, Olympic boxer, silver medallist, suspected Nazi sympathiser and a victim of World War II.

I first learnt about Jack Elliott as I was researching and writing my forthcoming book, ‘Australian Gothic’, which will detail the story behind the 1929 Dracula stage tour of Australia.  I began to serialise the book in the pages of Monster! magazine, but felt that a book project would enable me to expand upon my findings and give me far more scope to detail the histories of the performers of the tour, in particular Ashton Jarry, Australia’s first stage Dracula.  One of the actors in that tour was a young lady named Helga Rolunde.

A natural beauty, precocious and talented, Rolundes turn as the Maid in Dracula marked her swansong from the Australian stage.  She entered the world of journalism, writing a regular column titled Little Stages for the Sydney Sun, before she passed away in 1935.  Along the way she met, fell in love with and eventually married John ‘Jack’ Elliott.  If you want to know more about Rolunde, get the book when it comes out, there’s a lot more detail in there.

Elliott was born in London, England, on the 14th of October, 1901.  He served, albeit briefly, in World War I, enlisting in the Royal Navy at the age of 17 and being mustered out in 1919.  While serving in the navy, he lost the top joint of his left thumb, something that was incredibly disabling for a person of his chosen craft.  He then turned his attentions to boxing.  
Probably the main principal of boxing is being able to form a fist.  As he was missing part of his thumb, Elliott had to teach himself to form a fist that would be powerful enough to incapacitate his opponent and also be able to sustain the force required to throw a snap left hook.  To his credit, Elliott was able to do both.  He boxed as an amateur, earning a call up to the 1924 Olympics, held in Copenhagen, where he represented England as a middleweight.  He reached the finals, losing to Harry Mallin on points, and earning the silver medal in the process.

He turned professional after the Olympics and began to box in England and Europe.  He was brought to Australia in 1927 as part of Charles Lucas’s boxing tour, at the time it was noted that Elliott would be fighting as a cruiserweight and that he was looking forward to Australia as the climate of England wasn’t to his liking.  Elliott reached Sydney in December and in early January, 1928; he had his first bout, fighting Australian George Thompson.  That fight was a messy affair, with fouls on both sides and Thompson winning by disqualification.  

To say that the fight wasn’t well received by both the media and the public is an understatement.  Big things were expected from Elliott and this fight was nothing short of a disgrace.  Thompson appeared to be the main offender, landing many low blows, faking injury and eventually head-butting Elliott giving him a concussion.  Finally, sick of the punishment, the two men began to wrestle and Elliott landed his own succession of low blows, causing him to be disqualified.  The head injuries that Elliott suffered were enough to keep him bedridden for over a week.

At the same time that Elliott was boxing in Sydney, he met Helga Rolunde.  The two fell for each other and began a courtship.  Elliott, assessing himself after the beating he had received, retired from boxing at the age of 30 and took up a job with the Sydney based sports newspaper The Referee, eventually becoming the paper’s editor.  Unlike most boxers of the era, Elliott was highly intelligent, well spoken, well-read and was perfect for the job.  Rolunde landed her job with the Sun at the same time meaning that the couple were now both journalists.

The two married, but it was short lived.  Rolunde died in tragic circumstances in 1935 and Elliott went off the rails.  Wracked with grief, he hit the bottle with a fury.  He continued to write, but found himself getting into scrapes and finding himself in trouble.  Finally, having never remarried and suffering longstanding guilt over Rolunde’s death, he left for England, in 1939, joining the AIF.

In the AIF, as a war correspondent, Elliott saw action in England, going as far as Russia and reporting on the Russian-Finland war, spending the bulk of his time in Finland.  He also visited North Africa and reported the war there.  Leaving the AIF in 1941, he returned to Australia and attempted to enlist, only to find that he was now being accused of being a Nazi sympathiser. 

John Elliott's War Identification Card
NAA: B883, NX677
He enlisted on the 8th of April, 1941 and stationed himself in the Labrador Hotel in Sydney, where he took up residence and devoted himself to writing a book about his experiences in Finland.  In May, 1941, it was reported to the Armed Forces Investigations Unit that Elliott’s former mother-in-law, Helga Swinburne-Johnston, also known as Helga Rolunde and Madame Rolunde, had been talking, in general, about her views on the war in Europe.  She had also hired a Frenchman to work with her and appeared to be very sympathetic to the Nazi cause.  Her prediction was that Germany would win the war.

At the same time two young ladies reported their encounter with Elliott at the Labrador.  He had been asked what he thought of the Russian situation and replied, “Just wait until the Germans get here, you’ll be clicking your heels then.”  At which point he neatly clicked his heels together and walked off.  The two girls quickly worked out that Elliott was a Finn and a Nazi and immediately reported him.  A dossier was requested on both Swinburne-Johnston and Elliott.

The dossier found that Swinburne-Johnston was nothing more than highly intelligent and well read on the European situation and not a Nazi, rather she could see things from all angles.  Elliott had his own defenders, an old friend who detailed his downfall and descent into depression after his wife’s death and that he was most certainly not a Nazi.  While the dossier was being presented another anonymous source informed on him.  His crime this time was to tell a girl she would soon be learning the Nazi salute.  When the source was tracked down, all they could say for sure was that Elliott liked to drink and that the Nazi salute comment had been said to a friend of a friend of a friend – in other words, it probably never happened.

Unaware of the surveillance, Elliott applied to be a war correspondent for Australia.  He was knocked back on the grounds that free-lance journalists would not be granted such status.  He then applied for, and was granted, employment with the ABC, who supported his application.  When high ranking military officers in the AIF were contacted about Elliott they all vouched for him and his patriotism.  The ABC vouched for him, as did the newspaper The Daily Mirror.  The more the army dug the more they discovered that Elliott had been unfairly slandered.  Finally the army investigators interviewed him and he was forthright.  He had been critical of the treatment of the Finns by the Russians, and still was. He had minimal contact with his ex-mother-in-law for personal reasons and he hated Hitler.  

That was good enough for the Army, they allowed Elliott to become a fully accredited war correspondent.  He was sent to Manila as the official roving reporter for the ABC and remained in the Pacific area for the duration.

"Off the record" The Cipher Message detailing
the true manner of John Elliott's death.
NAA: B883, NX677
On the 3rd of April, 1945, Elliott was shot dead.  He was 44 years old.  The official story was that he and a fellow correspondent were resting in a trench after a fierce battle when a Japanese soldier, who had been hiding underneath a pile of corpses, rushed the trench and shot them both, killing them instantly.  Elliott’s next of kin, his sister Louise, was notified and the story allowed to run in the newspapers.  The truth was somewhat more tragic.

Elliott and his friend, Bill Smith, were indeed resting in a trench when an Australian soldier with a Bren gun mistook them for the enemy and shot them dead from a distance.  This, of course, was reported to the higher echelon of the army and kept off the record.  Nobody, not even his immediate family, were to know that Elliott had been killed by his own side.  He was buried in Borneo and his effects sent to his sister.  The case was closed and the story of John ‘Jack’ Elliott, silver medallist in the 1924 Olympic Games, came to an end.

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