Friday 28 October 2011

The real heroes of football

Spotter at The Valley (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
As we have already discussed the nation's summer sport in an earlier post, it only seems fair to take a look at the winter game and how it fared during the dark days of the Second World War.

Firstly, it should be remembered that in many ways, football was a completely different game to the sport we know today. In the 1940s, it was truly the working mans' game and the players and spectators had far more in common with each other in those days than is the case today. For example, it is hard to imagine today's pampered Premiership stars travelling to the game by public transport; indeed, it is highly probable that most of them would get lost inside a tube station and would have no idea as to how to go about catching a bus!

Another thing that is hard to imagine is any of the players of today, giving up the game "for the duration" and donning the uniform of one of the fighting services, not for a cushy job on the sidelines but actually putting their lives on the line. Perhaps this writer is too much of a cynic but cannot help thinking that the agents who represent these players would be furiously trying to extricate their clients from any sort of involvement. We can only hope that such a situation never arises.

Upon the outbreak of war on 3rd September 1939, the 1939/40 football season was just three matches old and on the Saturday before the fateful Sunday which heard Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast to the nation that "consequently, this country is at war with Germany", the matches seem to have been played in a curiously subdued atmosphere. Indeed, across the country, attendances for these matches were greatly reduced. For example at The Valley, home of Charlton Athletic, which only a year previously had seen a crowd of 75,031 for a cup match against Aston Villa and where the average for the previous season had been over 25,000, a mere 8,608 had bothered to turn up to watch The Addicks play Manchester United. It seemed that minds were already drifting towards the inevitability of war.

On the outbreak of war, the Government immediately banned any form of public assembly, which meant that all forms of public entertainment ceased forthwith. The reasoning behind this was to avoid mass casualties in the air raids which were expected to begin the moment that war was declared. Fortunately, the raids and mass destruction did not materialise and the Government's somewhat panicky restrictions, which had also seen the closure of all theatres and cinemas, as well as sporting venues, were soon eased. Although the Football League programme had been abandoned, it was decided to commence a greatly reduced and regionalised league programme, so as to avoid causing problems for Britain's public transport system, which was also very much on a wartime footing. As it was, football matches had to cease immediately upon the sounding of the Air Raid Alert and our photograph shows a spotter posted at The Valley, home of Charlton Athletic, keeping a sharp look out for enemy raiders.

When football did resume, attendances were greatly reduced; after all the vast majority of football supporters were disappearing into the armed forces and those that did remain were too heavily involved with their wartime jobs to be able to spare the time to travel to away matches in any case. Despite this, it was recognised that football, along with other forms of entertainment, needed to continue in order to provide some form of diversion from the war. Once it was decided to resume playing, the problem for the clubs was one of raising teams.

With the termination of the league season in September 1939, players had been released from their contracts in order to make themselves available for war service and each club made different arrangements for their players. For example, in 1938 at the time of the Munich Crisis, West Ham's players were encouraged to join either the Territorial Army or the Reserve Police, whilst Arsenal's squad nearly all became ARP Wardens. Brentford, at that time a top division club, saw their players become War Reserve Policemen, whilst Liverpool's entire first team squad joined the Territorial Army. It was suggested in some quarters that this mass joining up at these and other clubs was a cynical ploy by club chairman in order to keep their playing squads together. Whilst there may have been some truth in this viewpoint, it quickly backfired when the league season was abandoned and the players had nowhere to play!

When the new regionalised league began in late October 1939, many of these players had already been called up with their new units and in many cases were posted far and wide across the country. With the cancellation of contracts, players were able to guest for clubs in the areas to which they found themselves posted. So it was that Charlton players such as Sam Bartram and 'Sailor' Brown guested for Southeast London arch-rivals Millwall, Stanley Matthews played for Crewe and Sunderland's Raich Carter regularly turned out for Derby County. If you were a supporter, you never quite knew who was going to turn out and if you could play a bit yourself, it was worth taking your boots as there was always a chance that you could end up getting a game yourself!

Just as the players themselves took up war work, many of the stadiums they had previously graced went onto a war footing, with some being immediately requisitioned for wartime purposes. For example, Arsenal's Highbury Stadium became an ARP Wardens' Post and Public Air Raid Shelter, with the adjacent training ground being taken over by the RAF for a barrage balloon unit. Supporters found themselves having to watch their beloved Gunners playing at the White Hart Lane home of their great rivals Tottenham - something that would be unthinkable today. Not surprisingly, Arsenal's ARP Wardens team, which boasted players such as England's Cliff Bastin, who was excused military service due to poor hearing, were usually the winners in matches against local rival ARP Wardens teams!

White Hart Lane, although it remained open for football, was also turned over to war work with part of the ground becoming a gas mask factory, whilst another part of the ground was set aside as a mortuary for air raid victims. Outside London, Preston's Deepdale ground became a Prisoner of War camp, as was part of Doncaster Rovers' ground at Belle Vue.

As well as being lost for war work, many grounds were damaged by bombing. In London, Arsenal's Highbury would have been rendered unusable for football even if they had been able to remain there. In October 1940, the famous old ground was damaged by incendiary bombs which destroyed the roof of the North Bank and in April 1941, a High Explosive bomb hit the training ground, killing two RAF men from the Barrage Balloon unit there and destroying a large part of the North Bank terracing. Millwall's Den ground was badly damaged, and elsewhere in London, Stamford Bridge, The Valley, Upton Park and Brentford's Griffin Park all suffered varying degrees of damage. When peace finally returned in 1945, many clubs found themselves returning to grounds that were in an extremely dilapidated state.

Grounds could always be repaired, so more importantly, let us look at what happened to those players who found themselves in the front line and in many cases made the supreme sacrifice. Raich Carter, who was mentioned earlier, was in the Fire Service and regularly put his life on the line during the Blitz on Sunderland. Two Queens Park Rangers players found themselves in German POW camps; Johnny Barr was captured in North Africa and found himself working in a German cement factory, whilst goalkeeper Reg Allen was captured in North Africa in 1942 whilst serving as a commando and after an unsuccessful escape spent the remainder of the war in an Austrian POW Camp. Charlton's Arthur Turner was the only survivor when his Coastal Command aircraft came down in the Bay of Biscay and he spent several hours in the sea prior to being picked up. Crystal Palace's Howard Girling recovered from wounds received in Germany whilst serving with the Army to play 27 times for Palace before being transferred to Brentford in 1947.

Bolton Wanderers' entire squad had joined the 53rd Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery and served at El Alamein and later in Italy, where their famous pre-war captain, Harry Goslin was killed in action. Goslin was only one of many well known players who made the ultimate sacrifice and whilst only a few can be mentioned here, all of those players who laid down their lives are remembered with honour.

Jackie Pritchard had been a promising goalkeeper with Cardiff City who was serving with the 77th Heavy Anti Aircraft Artillery and had been onboard a troopship heading for the Middle East when the Japanese invaded Malaya. His part of the convoy was diverted to Singapore and arrived two weeks before the colony surrendered in Britain's greatest military defeat of all time. Pritchard found himself as a POW in appalling conditions, as were all of those taken by the Japanese who showed a callous disregard for human life. He was then used as a slave labourer building airfields and was being moved on an unmarked ship when it was torpedoed by an American submarine north of Bali. Pritchard and his fellow prisoners had been worked almost to the point of death and in the eyes of their captors were expendable. Hundreds of these men were in the water but all hopes of rescue were dashed when the commander of a Japanese minesweeper, having picked up the Japanese survivors, then machine gunned the Allied survivors whilst they were floundering in the water. Jackie Pritchard had been the victim of a war crime.

Arsenal FC were worst affected by the war, losing no fewer than 11 players during the conflict; Cyril Tooze was killed by a sniper in Italy in 1944, Sid Pugh was killed in 1944 whilst serving with the RAF and Bill Dean, who admittedly had only appeared once for the club, was drowned when the cruiser HMS Naiad was torpedoed in the Mediterranean. Bobby Daniel was killed on Christmas Eve 1943 whilst serving with RAF Bomber Command on a raid to Prague and William Parr was also serving with the RAF, this time with Coastal Command, when he was shot down in 1942. Leslie Lack was also with the RAF, this time as a Spitfire pilot with 118 Squadron and lost his life over Holland in 1943. Hugh Glass, Albert Woolcock, Harry Cook, Herbie Roberts and Jack Lambert completed this sad list but nearly every club was affected in some way or another. As well as players, some clubs lost long serving officials; Lieutenant Colonel John Murray "Ivan" Cobbold, chairman of Ipswich Town, died whilst serving with the Welsh Guards. He died not on a foreign battlefield but whilst attending a church service in the Guards Chapel in Birdcage Walk, London, which was struck by a V-1 flying bomb on 18th June 1944. He was one of 122 fatalities in what was to prove the worst single V-1 incident of the war.

Overall, nearly 100 professional footballers lost their lives during the Second World War. Football was just one of the many aspects of British life that had been changed forever by the devastating experiences of wartime and we must sincerely hope that we never again have to see our sporting heroes donning their wartime uniforms.

Published Sources:

Gas Masks for Goal Posts - Anton Rippon, Sutton Publishing 2005

Home & Away with Charlton Athletic - Colin Cameron, Privately Published 1992

London at War 1939-45 - Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995

Soccer at War - Jack Rollin, Willow Books 1985

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