The amazing life of QE’s wartime athletics coach

The amazing life of QE’s wartime athletics coach

Two recent letters to the Headmaster from researchers in London and Australia have led to QE unearthing fresh information about Franz Stampfl – one of the 20th century’s leading athletics coaches, who taught at the School in the darkest days of World War II.

The Vienna-born son of an Austrian general and a Russian princess, Mr Stampfl studied writing and painting but also had early success as a skier and javelin thrower. He attended the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a trainer and was dismayed at the evidence of Hitler’s rise. Having refused to obey instructions from Austrian Olympic officials, he left Austria the following year.

Arriving initially to study art in London, he evaded a British threat to deport him by offering to coach athletes, securing a job in Northern Ireland with support from Olympic athlete Harold Abrahams (of Chariots of Fire film fame).

After the outbreak of war, he came to QE to teach physical education. The job lasted only from February to June 1940, when his tenure abruptly came to an end as he was interned as an enemy alien. Within days, he was on his way to Canada with other prisoners of war when their ship, SS Arandora Star, was torpedoed by a German U-boat. He was in the water for eight hours before being rescued.

After the war, he went on to coach Sir Roger Bannister, who to huge acclaim ran the world’s first sub four-minute mile at Oxford in 1954. He also trained the Australian squad for the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 and many other Australian athletics.

In 1980, he was left a quadriplegic in a car accident. He was awarded an MBE for services to athletics the following year and he continued to coach, dying in Melbourne in 1995 at the age of 81.

The School first received an indication of the renewed interest in his career in a recent request for information from Old Elizabethan Benjamin Sawtell, a 1999 leaver. Currently working as a public relations manager for City University London, he is also a freelance journalist working on a feature highlighting the contribution that Mr Stampfl made to world sport.

The Headmaster then received a similar request for information from Marg Woodlock McLean, who was one of the 1956 Olympians and was coached by Mr Stampfl when she was a Year 12 pupil at school in her home city of Melbourne.

She is the co-producer of A Life Unexpected: The Man Behind The Miracle Mile – a film that is currently being made about Mr Stampfl by her daughter, Sally McLean, an actor and director.

In her letter to Mr Enright, Mrs Woodcock McLean appeals for information from the School and for any OEs with personal photos or film footage of Mr Stampfl to get in touch.

The School duly checked the archives, which revealed mentions of his brief sojourn at QE in consecutive issues of the Elizabethan magazine, firstly in March 1940 and then in August of that year.

The first was published in the final weeks of the ‘phony war’ – the period between the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the invasions of Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and France in April-May 1940. In an introductory editorial replete with staff comings and goings connected to the war, the Elizabethan states: “Mr F F L Stampfl has taken Mr Snashall’s place in the gym. We are very fortunate in possessing so prodigious an athlete. He has already shown what hard work can be in the gym and on Stapylton, and we hope to record material proof of his coaching powers in the athletics results in our next edition.”

However, the next issue brought the startling news that Mr Stampfl had already departed: “The war treats individuals still more harshly than institutions. Three masters have been forced to leave the school for a while: Mr Buttery to study the secrets of army signals, Mr Wall to serve the RAF with his science, and Mr Stampfl to suffer the tragic inertia of internment.”

A recent Guardian feature claimed that Mr Stampfl said he was suspected of being a spy and was arrested by MI5. Whatever the truth of this, the uncredited editorial in the Elizabethan suggests that the School supported him, clearly reflecting the views of the Headmaster, E H Jenkins, who was to comment in his 1972 memoir, Elizabethan Headmaster 1930–1961, that under the wartime order, even Austrians and Germans friendly to the Allied cause were arrested.

As to his record as a coach at QE, the Elizabethan is complimentary: “Those who have presented themselves for athletics training have had until recently the continued benefit of Mr Stampfl’s coaching, and have accomplished much good work.”

Like so much else in that tumultuous year – when even the School’s summer holidays were cancelled – QE’s athletics in 1940 was in fact badly disrupted. A combination of the war, severe weather early in the season and an outbreak of illnesses including German measles (rubella) led to various curtailments and cancellations, making it hard to draw any firm conclusions about the impact he was able to make during his short stay in Barnet.

Hundreds died in the sinking of the Arandora Star, but the survivors, including Mr Stampfl, were nonetheless brought back to Britain and shipped on to Australia on board HMT Dunera. The Dunera was grossly overloaded and had Nazis and Italian fascists locked up alongside mostly Jewish refugees. During the voyage it was hit by a torpedo but did not sink. Conditions on board were so bad that several of the British guards were later court-martialled.

When the war ended, Mr Stampfl married an Australian, Pat, whom he had met in Melbourne, and moved back to London. They had a son, Anton, who is a physicist based in Sydney.

Mr Stampfl took up a number of athletics coaching posts, including jobs at Oxford and Cambridge universities. He achieved notable success at the John Fisher School in Purley, which won the Public Schools Challenge Cup in 1952 and 1953 against competition from larger schools.

After coaching Sir Roger Bannister and his pace-makers Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher for the successful four-minute mile attempt, he emigrated to Australia in 1955, ahead of the Olympics the following year. A humble man, he stood aside from the huge publicity surrounding Bannister’s feat.

Eventually he became an Australian citizen. The many successful Australian athletes he trained during his 50-year career included Ralph Doubell, who won Olympic gold at 800 metres in 1968, and Gael Martin, who took bronze in the shot put in 1984.

His book, Franz Stampfl on Running, was influential and he was a leading proponent of the interval style of training, in which athletes run high-intensity distance trials followed by short recovery periods.