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

Saturday, 15 October 2011

A nation of organisers

Stretcher Fencing in Watergate Street (author's photo)
It is an often quoted 'fact' that Britain was totally unprepared for war with Germany in 1939. As is often the case with many 'facts' this is not strictly accurate, although this has not stopped it being wheeled out many times over the past sixty six years since the end of the war.

To this writer at least, the inference of this total unpreparedness would have meant that those in power were completely unaware of even the slightest chance of war occurring, which surely even the most die-hard appeasers in the government must have admitted as being a distinct possibility.

The truth is that Britain had begun a tentative programme of re-armament in 1936 when the then Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin appointed Sir Thomas Inskip as Minister for Co-ordination of Defence. This programme was begun in the nick of time, because projects such as designing and building new warships and aircraft inevitably take time - for example, HMS King George V , nameship of a new class of battleship which was laid down in 1937, did not commission into the Royal Navy until December 194o, over a year into the war. Another aspect of Britain's re-armament was the re-organisation and doubling in size of the Territorial Army to some 440,000 men, on top of a regular Army strength of 224,000 plus 170,000 reservists - i.e. recently retired regulars who were now in civilian life. Of course, the speed of this re-armament was not to everyone's liking, notably Winston Churchill, who had been earmarked for the job now held by Inskip but who had not been appointed for fear of sending the wrong message to foreign powers intent on war!

It was against this background that Britain began to lurch towards the invitability of war but in one aspect at least, Britain was more prepared than in many other areas and that was in the aspect of Civil Defence, or Air Raid Precautions, as it was known until 1941.

It was Stanley Baldwin himself who had famously said "The bomber will always get through" and perhaps it was because of this and against the background of the Spanish Civil War, that the Air Raid Precautions system or ARP was established in 1938. The whole Civil Defence network divided the country into twelve Civil Defence regions, each under the control of a Civil Regional Commissioner, reporting directly to the Ministry of Home Security. For the purposes of this exercise, we shall concentrate upon London, which was Region 5, with it's subterranean headquarters located beneath the junction of Exhibition Road and Cromwell Road adjacent to the Natural History Museum. This bunker was ready for occupation by June 1939 and was another sign of British preparedness for war.

The Commissioner for London was Admiral Sir Edward Evans - a post which he held for the duration of the war. Evans presided over a complex operation, for as Commissioner he was responsible not just for Air Raid Precautions but for a whole range of operations such as but not limited to shelters, wardens, bomb disposal, the fire services and fire guards, rescue squads, mortuaries, salvage and much more as shown on the accompanying chart, which incidentally is set for the old Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich. London itself was sub-divided into thirteen groups; Groups 1 - 4 covered the inner London boroughs, whilst Groups 6A to 9B comprising a further eight groups covered the outer London and suburban Kent, Essex, Surrey and Middlesex boroughs as also shown on an accompanying chart. The level of organisation was truly staggering and nothing was left to chance.

Of course, mistakes were made and for example, the initial decision not to allow the London tube stations to be used as air raid shelters for fear of fostering a trogladyte mentality amongst the civil population, can only be described as a mistake. However, mistakes were recognised and lessons were quickly learned; in the case of the tube stations a mixture of bowing to public pressure and simple common sense soon ensured that 79 stations were quickly and brilliantly adapted into effective deep-level shelters. Sometimes the mistakes were simple over estimations as to what would ensue from the onset of German bombing. For example, the government had factored casualty figures based on experiences from Zeppelin raids on London during the Great War and also from the experiences of the Spanish Civil War. So it was that the government had ordered a million coffins to deal with the expected casualties. It had been forecast by the Air Ministry that there would be 65,000 civilian casualties per week and a million casualties in the first month of any sustained bombing campaign. In the event, during the whole of the war the total number of civilian war deaths caused by enemy air attack numbered some 60,000 with approximately half of this number in London; bad enough but nowhere near as doom laden as had been predicted. To this day, the evidence of this over estimation of casualty figures can be seen in London, albeit in dwindling number; so many steel and mesh ARP stretchers had been ordered that hundreds of thousands of these were left unused at the war's end. They were to find use as replacement fences around the council estates that were built to replace the Blitz ravaged housing in many parts of London and the photograph shows an example still extant in Watergate Street, Deptford.

Of course, within all of this organisation, there were plenty of occasions when improvisation was the name of the game but for a period in our history when we were supposed to be masters of muddling through, in reality was a masterpiece of organisation.

For further background reading on the London Civil Defence Headquarters bunker, please follow the link to the excellent Subterranea Britannica website

(author's collection)

Published Sources:

Backs to the Wall - Leonard Mosley, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1974London at War - Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995
Westminster at War - William Sansom, Faber & Faber 1947

Saturday, 1 October 2011

A P Herbert, the Water Gipsy and the Royal Naval Auxiliary Patrol

Sir Alan Herbert, better known as A P Herbert or sometimes just "APH" would today be known as a 'maverick' - born in Ashtead, Surrey in 1890, he was also a man of many parts; he was a humorist, novelist, playwright, law reform activist and for fifteen years an Independent Member of Parliament for the Oxford University constituency as well as serving in the Royal Navy during two World Wars.

He was no stranger to war, his Royal Navy service during the Great War saw him earn a Mention in Dispatches at Gallipoli and despite becoming an M P in 1935, he had no hesitation in offering his services to the Navy once again upon the outbreak of war in 1939. Perhaps uniquely for a Member of Parliament, his service in the Royal Navy was not as an officer - he served as Petty Officer A P Herbert throughout the Second World War. He also tragically lost two younger brothers, one in each war, in 1914 and 1941.

Herbert loved the River Thames, lived alongside it at Hammersmith and was a member of the Thames Conservancy Board as well as being a Freeman of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, so it was no real surprise when Herbert became a part of the newly formed Royal Naval Auxiliary Patrol in 1939.

Despite being the largest in the World in 1939, the Royal Navy had been rarely seen in the Thames during peacetime; the Dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich had been closed during Victorian times and apart from a small victualling yard that remained in Deptford, that produced amongst other things, the infamous ships' biscuits, the Navy was surprisingly absent from the capital's tideway.

All this was to change in 1939; naval control of shipping and the convoy system meant that the Navy would need to maintain a considerable profile on the Thames and they set themselves up alongside the Port of London Authority within their prestigious offices at Tower Hill. With a nod towards their location, the Navy, never without a sense of humour named this 'Stone Frigate' HMS Yeoman. Apart from the organisation of convoys, another important aspect of the Navy's work was the Minesweeping Service and it was in the Thames Estuary that Lieutenant Commanders J D G Ouvry and R C Lewis of HMS Vernon, the Navy's school of mines and torpedoes, each earned a deserved George Cross for defusing the first magnetic mine, and thus discovering it's secrets when these weapons had come close to paralysing shipping movements into and out of the Port of London. Because of their work an effective countermeasure, in the form of degaussing - in other words, reducing the magnetic signatures of ships - was quickly introduced.

However, perhaps the most famous section of the Royal Navy on London River, was certainly the one with the highest profile and one which saw the White Ensign flying proudly along the length of the River Thames, was the Royal Naval Auxiliary Patrol, a kind of naval version of the Home Guard which saw gentlemen of a certain age mixing with younger recruits aboard requisitioned patrol boats performing a variety of tasks. At first glance, it perhaps may have looked like a waterbourne 'Dad's Army' pottering about on the river but in reality they performed many vital duties and were often in harm's way. Amongst other things, the small patrol boats towed barges out of danger during the Blitz and provided invaluable assistance to the Fire Brigade and ARP services with their fire watching duties. They also provided some sixty mine watching barges along the river which provided important information in spotting the location of mines which had been dropped into the Thames, sometimes as far upstream as Hammersmith. There were also many downed airmen, both British and German who had reason to be grateful to the RNAP who were rescued by them having parachuted into the river from their shot-down aircraft. One of the more mundane duties, although no less important, was the delivery and collection service from merchant vessels entering or leaving the Port of London.

It was natural that A P Herbert should join the RNAP, as it was the type of organisation that might have been created for him. His own motor launch, the Water Gipsy, named after one of his earlier novels became HMS Water Gipsy and was arguably the heaviest armed vessel of her size in the Navy, having been armed with several additional machine guns 'acquired' by Herbert through his various contacts. She once opened fire on German bombers directly over the Palace of Westminster and Herbert later claimed that this was the only occasion that one of HM Ships had opened fire in direct defence of the 'Mother of Parliaments.'

Despite suffering numerous casualties in both men and vessels, including an occasion when their base at Tower Pier received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb in 1940, at the end of the War, these brave men were denied the 1939-45 Star because it was deemed by the Admiralty that they had only operated in "sheltered waters." Sir Alan Herbert, as he had become in 1945 in Churchill's resignation Honours List, took up the battle in Parliament.

"From whom were these vessels sheltered?" he demanded to know. "They were not sheltered against bombs above or mines below and during the material times, these vessels were patrolling night and day, ready to repel invasion. So that what they were sheltered against, we do not know."

Despite this impeccable argument, this was a battle that Sir Alan was destined not to win, as the Admiralty remain unmoved and the medals remained unawarded.

Despite this, perhaps Herbert did manage to have the last laugh against Their Lordships, when with the war safely over, all members of the service were obliged to complete a questionnaire regarding their pre-war employment. In answer to the first question which was "How were you employed before the war?" he answered succinctly "Gainfully." And to a question about the character of his work, he replied "Good!"

If ever a man had the Thames in his blood, it was A P Herbert. After the war, he remained as Independent Member of Parliament for Oxford University until the seat was abolished in 1950 and continued writing, both novels and humorous works for publications such as Punch as well as his autobiography entitled simply "APH: His Life and Times" which appeared in 1970, one year before his death, which occurred on 11th November 1971.

Published Sources:

London at War 1939-45 - Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995
London's Docks - John Pudney, Thames & Hudson 1975
The Thames on Fire - L M Bates, Terence Dalton 1985
The People's War - Angus Calder, Jonathan Cape 1969