1 Review by Dave Obee, Editor in Chief of the Victoria Times Colonist, 29 June 2014
2 Article by Glen Schaefer, feature writer in the Sunday Province, 12 October 2014
3 Article by Glen Schaefer, picked up by the National Post, 14 Ocober 2014
4 Article by Michael Platt in the Calgary Sun, 18 October 2014
Hitler’s chief goon told Lukin “Rufus” Johnston he was pushing too hard for the truth about the Nazis — and for that, western Canada’s most popular reporter was pushed to his death in the English Channel.
It was mere days after the London-based foreign correspondent from Vancouver landed the biggest scoop of a career filled with exclusives, but even as the new German chancellor granted the first one-on-one interview to Johnston, Hitler’s right hand man was waiting in the shadows, uttering threats.
Having already upset the Nazis by refusing demands they be allowed to edit his stories for misunderstandings, the Canadian must have felt a chill when then-Gestapo head Hermann Goering caught up to him in an anteroom following the interview.
“You’re damned lucky to get out,” Goering told the reporter, with menace all too clear.
Johnston filed his latest expose of the Nazis and their leader as thuggish militants with a flair for drama, and then went to Holland, where he boarded an overnight steamer back to London.
He never made it, vanishing on the voyage and leading to front-page speculation he had fallen overboard: “Lukin Johnston Accidentally Drowned Off Ship” reads the headline of the Nov. 18, 1933, Ottawa Citizen, published just two days after the Hitler story caused an international sensation.
That accident, says Kelowna-based historian Colin Castle, was in fact a case of cold-blooded murder.
“Goering was a psychopath and I don’t suppose it was much of a decision for him,” said Castle, whose new book Rufus follows Johnston from his birth in Britain to criss-crossing Canada as a teen, looking for work and trying to settle down.
At one point before finding his calling as a newspaper writer, the future star reporter was living near Lethbridge, trying his hand at homesteading.
But ink was in his veins, and by 23, Johnston was a rookie at the Vancouver Province — and from there it was the big leagues, working for Canadian Press and covering big news like presidents and the birth of commercial flight, which brought him to Calgary to fly with war ace Fred McCall.
But the biggest story of all was that exclusive interview with the most fascinating leader in Europe — and if Castle is right, the Hitler scoop cost 46-year-old Johnston his life.
“It was pushed at the time as being an accident, but I think that’s highly unlikely,” said Castle, who is married to Johnston’s granddaughter, Val.
“He was a very good sailor who never got seasick, and he’d done a lot of ocean travel, because in those days that was the only way to go.”
Having already annoyed the Nazis by writing too truthfully about military ambition and the concentration camp at Lichtenburg, where 1,600 ‘politically dangerous’ prisoners were confined, it’s believed Johnston had enough material for more articles, or even a book.
“It had been suggested to him while he was in Germany that he should accept censorship, and this he refused,” said Castle.
“He was going to visit a concentration camp, and he was invited to submit his work to a censor, and he said no.”
On top of his often scathing reports on life in Nazi Germany, where stormtroopers were rampant, Johnston was astute in his observations, predicting war was coming.
“Poland calmly expects, and is prepared for, war. Nothing which German leaders can say in the present circumstances will change the Polish belief that Germany intends to choose her own time to recover, whether by force or subtle diplomacy, what she lost by the Treaty of Versailles,” reads a dispatch from Warsaw in 1933.
Silencing the Canadian reporter was certainly in the best interest of the fledgling Third Reich as it cemented its grasp on power, and it would have been easy to send a Gestapo agent or two to ensure Johnston never made it back to London.
The Canadian reporter’s death was a sensation, at a time when newspapers were the news, and the top writers were given celebrity status.
“He’d become fairly big by that time,” said Castle.
“He was a very popular guy — when he died, his wife got 700 letters from readers.”
Colin Castle has undertaken a labour of love. The retired schoolteacher spent four years researching, transcribing, and writing the story of newspaperman Lukin “Rufus” Johnston. The self-described “history buff” (xvii) married Val Johnston, the granddaughter of Rufus, and inherited the family treasures: thirty years of family letters, seventeen years of Rufus’s personal diaries, and a reminiscence by Rufus’s son Derek Johnston. The result is a thick tome that commemorates this remarkable man, Rufus: The Life of the Canadian Journalist Who Interviewed Hitler.
Red-haired Rufus adopted his nickname after the ancient Anglo-Saxon King. He came to Canada from England in 1905, working his way across the country. In 1910 he engineered himself a job with the Vancouver Daily Province before moving on to the Cowichan Leader and subsequently to the Victoria Colonist. During this time he crossed paths with many influential people, including fellow newspaperman Hugh Savage, Premier Richard McBride, and writer and hunter Clive Phillipps-Wolley, who became one of three godparents to his son.
When the Great War broke out, Rufus did not immediately enlist because his wife was recovering from a serious operation. The next year he volunteered and was soon involved in many of the major battles fought by the Canadian Corps, including Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, and Amiens. For a time he was in turn aide-de-camp to both General Arthur William Currie and General Sir Julian Byng, who later became Governor General of Canada. Rufus was also tasked with taking future prime minister Winston Churchill out to “show him the sights” at Vimy Ridge (93). Castle has successfully captured in this work the extraordinary talent Rufus had for meeting and befriending important people.
After the war, Rufus returned to both Vancouver and work as a journalist, where he helped secure the early careers of two important British Columbian writers: Bruce A. McKelvie and Bruce Hutchison. He also wrote a book about his home province, Beyond the Rockies: 3000 Miles by Trail and Canoe through Little Known British Columbia (1929), which is still used by British Columbian historians. In the 1930s, Rufus went to work in Europe as a foreign correspondent for the Canadian Southam News Agency. In Germany he began to write articles about the dangers of the Nazis and was working on a book to be called Germany Today when his life was cut short in 1933. Following many attempts, he had finally arranged a meeting with Adolf Hitler. Rufus pressed the German Chancellor on many tough issues, but as he was leaving, Gestapo founder Hermann Göring hissed at him: “You’re damned lucky to get out” (279). His words were portentous as Rufus filed his last report by phone but never made it back to England. He disappeared suspiciously while aboard ship and his body was never found.
Ultimately, Castle needs to be credited with preserving the story of this extraordinary character, whose depths will surely be further plumbed. For example, a search of the archival collections of the famous people Rufus befriended could reveal additional information on his influential career. In addition, scholars will certainly want to put Rufus into some sort of larger historical context. Patrick A. Dunae, Gentleman Emigrants: From the British Public Schools to the Canadian Frontier (1981), and J. F. Bosher, Vancouver Island in the Empire (2012) are two such sources that could frame Rufus’s life and provide a greater interpretive perspective. In fact, Bosher even references Rufus (211). Nonetheless, while further context would greatly augment Castle’s labours, this book stands as a valuable asset for anyone interested in the military, newspaper, or general history of British Columbia in the early twentieth century.