The Encylopedia of British Football

Football and the Second World War


On 15th March, 1939, Adolf Hitler ordered the German Army to invade Czechoslovakia. It seemed that war was inevitable. Harry Goslin and fourteen members of the Bolton Wanderers squad decided to join the Territorial Army. Other clubs like Liverpool and West Ham United also persuaded their players to join the territorials.

Politicians continued to negotiate in an attempt to avoid a war. On 29th September, 1938, Neville Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler, Edouard Daladier and Benito Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement which transferred to Germany the Sudetenland, a fortified frontier region that contained a large German-speaking population. When Eduard Benes, Czechoslovakia's head of state, who had not been invited to Munich, protested at this decision, Chamberlain told him that Britain would be unwilling to go to war over the issue of the Sudetenland.

The Munich Agreement was popular with most people in Britain because it appeared to have prevented a war with Nazi Germany. Some people disagreed with this point of view. George Kay, the manager of Liverpool, did not trust Adolf Hitler and joined the Territorial Army. He also encouraged his players to join. Charlie Paynter, the manager of West Ham United, also persuaded his players and staff to join the Territorials.


Bolton Wanderers players in 1939: Jack Ithell, Danny Winter, Jack Roberts,
George Catterall, Don Howe and Harry Goslin.


In March, 1939, the German Army seized the rest of Czechoslovakia. In taking this action Adolf Hitler had broken the Munich Agreement and that war was likely to take place in the near future. However, it was decided that the Football League should begin on 26th August. More than 600,000 people watched these games.

On Friday, 1st September, 1939, Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland. The football that Saturday went ahead as Neville Chamberlain did not declare war on Germany until Sunday, 3rd September. The government immediately imposed a ban on the assembly of crowds and as a result the Football League competition was brought to an end. Blackpool, who had won all three games so far that season, was top of the First Division table at the time.

On 14th September, the government gave permission for football clubs to play friendly matches. In the interests of public safety, the number of spectators allowed to see these games was limited to 8,000. These arrangements were later revised, and clubs were allowed gates of 15,000 from tickets purchased on the day of the game through the turnstiles.


Jack Fairbrother and Willie Hamilton of Preston North End
joined the Blackburn Police Force on the outbreak of the war.


The government imposed a fifty mile travelling limit and the Football League divided all the clubs into seven regional areas where games could take place. London clubs arranged for their regional competition to begin on the last Saturday in October. One group was composed of Arsenal, Brentford, Charlton, Chelsea, Fulham, Millwall, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United. The other group included Aldershot, Brighton, Clapton Orient, Crystal Palace, Leyton Orient, QPR, Reading, Southend and Watford.

Some of the players had already joined the armed forces. West Ham United decided that this was unfair on those players who were unavailable for selection. The club decided to pay all their players thirty shillings a week whether or not they played. Shortly afterwards, the Management Committee of the Football League passed a resolution instructing all clubs to follow West Ham's example.


James Barron, the Blackburn Rovers goalkeeper is beaten by a shot from
Sam Small of West Ham United in the 1940 Football League Cup Final.


After the declaration of war in September 1939, Adolf Hitler did not order the attack of France or Britain as he believed there was still a chance to negotiate an end to the conflict between the countries. This period became known as the Phoney War. As Britain had not experienced any bombing raids, the Football League decided to start a new competition entitled the Football League War Cup.

The entire competition of 137 games including replays was condensed into nine weeks. However, by the time the final took place, the "Phoney War" had come to an end. On 10th May, 1940, Adolf Hitler launched his Western Offensive and invaded France. In the days leading up to the final, the British Expeditionary Force was being evacuated from Dunkirk.

In the final held at Wembley on 8th June, 1940, West Ham United beat Blackburn Rovers 1-0. Despite the fears that London would be bombed by the Luftwaffe, over 42,300 fans decided to take the risk of visiting Wembley. The only goal was scored by Sam Small after a shot from George Foreman had been blocked by James Barron, the Blackburn goalkeeper.


West Ham players celebrate winning the 1940 Football League Cup Final.
Left to right, Corporal Norman Corbett, Ted Fenton, Charlie Bicknell,
Archie Macaulay
and George Foreman


The Luftwaffe carried out its first bombing raid of London on 10th July, 1940. During the Battle of Britain clubs continued to play football. On 19th September, 1940, soon after the beginning of the Blitz, the Football Association relaxed their ban on Sunday football to provide recreation for war workers.

Between September 1940 and May 1941, the Luftwaffe made 127 large-scale night raids. Of these, 71 were targeted on London. The main targets outside the capital were Liverpool, Birmingham, Plymouth, Bristol, Glasgow, Southampton, Coventry, Hull, Portsmouth, Manchester, Belfast, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham and Cardiff. Some two million houses (60 per cent of these in London) were destroyed and 60,000 civilians were killed and 87,000 were seriously injured. Of those killed, the majority lived in London.


Raich Carter while working for the Auxiliary Fire Service in 1940.


According to the Football Association publication, Victory Was The Goal (1945), between 3 September 1939 and the end of the war, 91 men went from Wolverhampton Wanderers, 76 from Liverpool, 65 from Huddersfield Town, 63 from Leicester City, 62 from Charlton, 55 from Preston North End, 52 from Burnley, 50 from Sheffield Wednesday, 44 from Chelsea, 41 each from Brentford and Southampton, and each from Sunderland and West Ham United.

While some footballers joined the armed forces, others found occupation in the support services. Jack Fairbrother and Willie Hamilton of Preston North End joined the police force, whereas Ernie Callaghan of Aston Villa, served as a reserve policeman and was awarded the British Empire Medal for conspicuous bravery during a bombing raid on Birmingham in September 1942.

Len Shackleton worked down the mines as a Bevin Boy. Edward Carr of Arsenal also worked in a colliery in Wheatley. Raich Carter was employed by the Auxiliary Fire Service while continuing to play Sunderland. The ageing Arsenal star, Joe Hulme, became a reserve policeman and Joe Cockroft returned to Sheffield to work in the steel industry.

The Blitz was still taking place when the 1941 Football League Cup Final took place at Wembley on 31st May. Preston North End and Arsenal drew 1-1 in front of a 60,000 crowd. Preston won the replay at Blackburn, 2-1. Robert Beattie got both of Preston's goals.


Jack Fairbrother (Preston North End) attempts to stop a penalty kick by
Leslie Compton (Arsenal) during the 1941 Football League Cup Final.


In the 1940-1941 season Preston North End needed to win their last game against Liverpool to win the North Regional League title. The nineteen year old Andrew McLaren scored all six goals in the 6-1 victory. There is no doubt that during this period Preston was the best football club in England. This great team was broken up by the Second World War. In 1942 Tom Finney, their star player, was called up to the Royal Armoured Corps and later fought under General Bernard Montgomery in the Eighth Army in North Africa.

The British Army invited some of the best footballers to became Physical Training instructors at Aldershot. Those who accepted the offer included Joe Mercer, Cliff Britton, Matt Busby, Don Welsh, Billy Cook, Arthur Cunliffe, Archie Macaulay, Norman Corbett, Bert Sproston and Eric Stephenson. Others stationed at Aldershot included Stan Cullis and Dave McCulloch.


England's half-back line of Cliff Britton, Stan Cullis and
Joe Mercer played for Aldershot during the war.


Most of Arsenal's first-team joined the RAF. This included Ted Drake, Jack Crayston, Eddie Hapgood, Leslie Jones, Bernard Joy, Alf Kirchen, Laurie Scott and George Swindon. Some of these got jobs as Physical Training instructors and did not see action overseas, whereas others in the team went abroad. This included Dennis Compton (India), Bryn Jones (Italy), Reg Lewis (Germany) and Ted Platt (North Africa).

Some of Britain's top footballers served abroad. This included Harry Goslin, Albert Geldard, Ray Westwood, Jack Roberts, Dick Walker, George Male, Tom Finney, Arthur Rowley, Robert Langton, Wilf Copping, Andrew Beattie, Robert Langton, Wilf Mannion, and Don Howe. Ernie Taylor, who had joined Newcastle United in the early part of the war was in the Royal Navy and served in the Submarine Service.


Tom Finney in his army uniform.


Arsenal lost the use of its ground during the war as Highbury was used as an Air Raid Patrol Centre. Plymouth Argyle Home Park ground was badly damaged during an air raid in February 1941. So also was the grounds of Sunderland (Roker Park), Sheffield United (Bramall Lane), Chelsea (Stamford Bridge) and Southampton (Dell). Ten bombs that hit the Bramall Lane ground in December 1940, demolished half the John Street Stand and badly damaged the pitch. One of the bombs dropped on Roker Park in March, 1943, killed a policeman. The Dell was so badly damaged that Southampton had to play its games at the Pirelli Sports Ground in Eastleigh.

In August, 1944, a V1 Flying bomb hit the greyhound kennels close to Wembley Stadium. Several dogs escaped and the last of them were rounded up over a week after the bombing raid had taken place.

Blackpool's Bloomfield Road ground was used as a RAF training centre. Preston's Deepdale was used to hold captured prisoners during the Second World War. The military gave the club £250 a year in compensation.

Unofficial international games also took place during the war. Over 78,000 fans watched the England game against Scotland at Hampden Park, Glasgow, during the Blitz. England's Harry Goslin played in four war-internationals before being killed in Italy on 18th December, 1943.


Sergeant Harry Goslin (right), the English international
centre-half was killed in Italy on 18th December, 1943.


Other footballers killed in the Second World War included Walter Sidebottom who played for Bolton Wanderers, was drowned when his ship was torpedoed in the Channel. Cardiff City goalkeeper, Fred Pritchard, was also lost at sea in January, 1944.

Fred Fisher, who played football for Barnsley and Millwall, was killed in September, 1944. William Imrie, who had played for Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United during the 1930s, was in the Royal Air Force and lost his life during a raid in 1945.

Eight players registered with Arsenal died during the Second World War. Bobby Daniel, a Flight Sergeant Gunner in the RAF, was killed on 23rd December 1943. Other Arsenal players in the RAF who died included Sidney Pugh, Harry Cook and Leslie Lack.

Bill Dean, a goalkeeper who got into the Arsenal team in 1940, told friends: "Well I have fulfilled my life's ambition, I have played for Arsenal." Dean died in action with the Royal Navy in March 1942.

Three Arsenal players who joined the Royal Fusiliers also lost their lives. Hugh Glass was drowned at sea in 1943, Cyril Tooze was killed by a sniper's bullet in Italy on 10th February 1944 and Herbie Roberts, a regular in Arsenal's team that won a hat trick of League Championships between 1932 and 1935, died of Erysipelas in June 1944.

Most Luftwaffe air raids took place at night. To protect their planes from fighter planes and the heavy artillery below, the German pilots flew thousands of feet above the ground. This made it hard for the Germans to find and hit their targets. To make it even more difficult for the German bombers, the British government imposed a total blackout during the war. Every person had to make sure that they did not provide any lights that would give clues to the German pilots that they were passing over built-up areas.


"Is that you John? I was afraid I might miss you in the blackout."

Cartoon published in March, 1943


At first, no light whatsoever was allowed on the streets. All street lights were turned off. Even the red glow from a cigarette was banned, and a man who struck a match to look for his false teeth was fined ten shillings. Later, permission was given for small torches to be used on the streets, providing the beam was masked by tissue paper and pointed downwards.

The blackout caused serious problems for people travelling by motor car. In 1939 only car sidelights were allowed. The results were alarming. Car accidents increased and the number of people killed on the roads almost doubled. The king's surgeon, Wilfed Trotter, wrote an article for the British Medical Journal where he pointed out that by "frightening the nation into blackout regulations, the Luftwaffe was able to kill 600 British citizens a month without ever taking to the air, at a cost to itself of exactly nothing."

Liverpool and England full-back, Tom Cooper, was a sergeant in the Military Police, when his motor cycle was involved in a head on crash with a bus. George Bullock, who played for Barnsley and served in the Royal Navy, was another road victim when he was killed on 2nd June 1943. This included Percival Thomas Taylor, who made five appearances in wartime football for Preston North End. Taylor scored a hat trick while playing as a guest for Middlesbrough against Bradford City on 4th April 1942. He was killed in a motor cycle accident six days later.

Stanley Mortensen, who played for England and Blackpool after the war, narrowly escaped death when his Wellington bomber crashed into a forest near Lossiemouth. Mortensen, who was an air-gunner, escaped with a cut head but the pilot and bomb aimer were killed and the navigator lost a leg.

Jackie Stamps of Derby County was badly wounded during the retreat from France in 1940. He was told he would never play again but the doctors were wrong and he managed to have a successful post-war career. The England international player, Wilf Mannion, was at Dunkirk and later saw action in North Africa.

Roy White, a sergeant of the British Expeditionary Army and was also involved in the retreat from France in 1940. His boat was torpedoed and by the time he was picked up it was discovered he had gone blind. After two months in hospital he recovered his sight and eventually reached the rank of major. After the war he played for Tottenham Hotspur.


"Mac" (Douglas Machin) drew this cartoon for The Topical Times (3rd February, 1940)


Jackie Bray, the Manchester City player, joined the Royal Air Force in 1940. He won the British Empire Medal and later worked in the unit that rehabilitated wounded fighter pilots. His club mate, Eric Westwood, took part in the D-Day landings and was mentioned in dispatches.Bill Shorthouse of Wolverhampton Wanderers was wounded in the arm soon after landing on the Normandy beaches.

Bill Edrich, better known as a cricketer but also played football for Tottenham Hotspur, was a Squadron Leader pilot who took part in several bombing raids on Nazi Germany. Harold White, who played for West Bromwich Albion before the war, won the Military Medal in March 1942.

Dick Walker of West Ham United was a sergeant with an infantry battalion who fought from El Alamein to Italy and was several times mentioned in dispatches.Alf Fields, the Arsenal centre-half, was also in North Africa and Italy and won the British Empire Medal. So was Corporal Alex Munro of Blackpool but was captured by the German Army in July 1942. He survived three years in a POW camp and resumed his football career after the war. Henry Roberts, who played for Millwall in the 1930s, was captured in a Commando raid on St Nazaire. He was wounded in both legs and spent the rest of the war at a POW camp in Germany.

Fred Chadwick of Ipswich Town and Albert Hall of Tottenham Hotspur were both captured by the Japanese Army while they were in Singapore. and spent several years in captivity. Hall escaped when he was one of the 58 survivors from a Japanese transport ship which was sunk in the Pacific in September 1943. Chadwick also survived several years of captivity and both men returned to play in the Football League after the war.






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(1) Tom Finney, My Autobiography (2003)

I vividly recall Neville Chamberlain's depressing broadcast to the nation on that Sunday morning, 3 September 1939, two days after German forces had invaded Poland. After attending morning service at St Jude's, I called in on a mate of mine, Tommy Johnson, a fellow plumber, and he was glued to the wireless as the news we all dreaded came through.

League football was suspended, players were told that they would be paid up to the end of the week only, and supporters were informed that there would be no refund on season tickets. Andy Beattie, another of North End's 'Great Scots' and a man for whom I held the utmost respect, was due a richly deserved benefit match. The war ensured that didn't materialise. Contracts were effectively cancelled although clubs retained players' registrations.

Preston made strenuous efforts to get players fixed up with jobs - Bill Shankly found employment shovelling sand, George Mutch building aeroplanes and Jack Fairbrother joined up as a policeman. Troops were stationed at Deepdale, and police and military use of the ground continued through until 1946.

Wartime football was no substitute for the real thing but it did serve a purpose. There were restrictions galore and most clubs found their squads decimated through call-ups into the armed services, but the public passion for football won through. Sometimes matches were in doubt right up to kick-off as clubs tried desperately to recruit some guest players, but when the action rolled it was good. Football provided the country with some much-needed escapism and, speaking as a player, it was thoroughly enjoyable - despite the bombs. After we had lost 2-0 at Anfield, our coach-ride home was caught up in an air-raid on Merseyside and that was a frightening experience by any standards.

The 1940-41 season was a shortened affair but Preston United did well. We finished as Northern Section champions, which was some achievement considering the fact that we had struggled at the wrong end of the First Division up to war being declared.



Soccer at War: 1939-45 is available from Amazon




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