Footballers at War: 1939-1945

Bolton Players at War (Bleacher Report)
One of my last blogs was on football during the Tudor era (1485-1601), for many the game back then could be described as a "war zone" with people sometimes dying on the pitch. However, in September 1939 Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany invaded the peaceful, neighbouring country of Poland and the Second World War began. A war that would change the face of Europe and indeed that of Great Britain.  Today footballers are accused of being divers, cheats and constantly attacked by the media for their off-the-pitch antics. From 1939-1945, this was simply not the case... 

The Second World War was the biggest, bloodiest war to unfortunately take place. A total of 40-60 million soldiers and civilians perished during the conflict. The idea adopted the use of "Total War" meaning everyone in the country would have to play their own respective roles in achieving success. Whether you were a member of the Home Guard (like in Dad's Army), a soldier in the front line or a woman manufacturing ammunition and supplies for those fighting overseas, you were expected to do your duty for King and country.

Sergeant Cristiano?
Footballers were no exception, the idea of David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo donning camouflaged uniforms and earning their stripes seems a million miles away to us today. On the other hand, just 70 years ago this would have been very much the case. Some might say that footballers now are more idolized, more important and better known than there 1939 counterparts, but this is simply not the case. 80,000 people watched the success of Uruguay in the 1930 World Cup Final and the 1939 FA Cup final between Portsmouth and Wolves was viewed by nearly 100,000 spectators. The First World War saw the infamous Christmas Day Truce between the UK and Germany and a number of football matches taking place among men from both countries, further promoting the power football has to unite people and nations even in the darkest of days.

Soldiering Striker Stan Mortensen
It's easy to answer when questioned about British war heroes, names like Douglas Bader, Winston Churchill and Bernard Montgomery, but is also important to remember those who do not receive the praise they ought to. One example of this is footballer Willie Thornton of Scotland and Rangers who was awarded with a Military Medal in 1943 due to bravery during the Allied invasion of Sicily. It was said that Thornton performed “acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire.” Infamous FA Cup winner Stan Mortensen also had an eventful War period, being involved in a crash in his RAF Bomber, which killed everyone on board, except the future Blackpool player. Mortensen was a wireless operator from 1939, not an easy job by any stretch of the imagination. 

The Galloping Major
It was not just British players who fought during the War either. Future World Cup winning captain Fritz Walter was conscripted into fighting for "Der Fuhrer" and the fatherland. Walter himself was a Prisoner Of War (POW) in Hungary and only spared moving to the brutal Soviet Union POW camps by impressing the Hungarian guards with his footballing ability. Other footballing German soldiers include English league player Bert Trautmann, a Sergeant in the Luftwaffe and an eventual POW in Cheshire. Another player heralded today as one of the greatest centre-forwards of all time rose to the rank of 'Major' in the Hungarian Army. It is from this that the great Ferenc Puskas earned the nickname "The Galloping Major". Finally, Lev Yashin, regarded by many as the greatest goalkeeper of all time was also involved in the Soviet war effort. Yashin, only 12 in 1941 (when the USSR joined the war) went straight to work in an ammunition factory to help the Red Army in their push to Berlin. The Italian double World Cup winning teams were spared fighting however as the Italian Serie A astonishingly continued up until 1943!

Combining football with history...nice.
Like football, success is never achieved without losses. In Germany the persecution of Jews even led to the execution and murder of German Jewish footballer Julius Hirsch among others. Hirsch perished in the nightmarish and inhumane conditions in the death camp at Auschwitz. Such was the ruthless nature of the Nazi regime, even sporting idols were no exception from the "Final Solution". The first recorded footballing fatality during the War was that of Liverpool and England International player Tom Cooper, who had made 150 league appearances for the Reds (1934-1940). Cooper tragically crashed his motorcycle whilst serving with the Royal Military Police in 1940. Around 15 top flight English footballers died in World War II includung Sid Gueran, a Southampton loanee was killed in the infamous Battle of Arnhem during Operation Market Garden, 1944. Bolton regular Harry Goslin was also killed in action during fighting in Italy in 1943. It is clear to those who read this article the grim nature of war and the even darker thought that even those we idolize everyday are not always immune to its calling.

The three English footballers, mentioned above are just a small number of those who fought for their country during the war, and footballers making up a minuscule number in comparison to the total who helped the war effort in the UK.  However it is important that we never forget the contribution, large or small of the British, American, Russian and numerous other Armies, as without it, life as we now know it may have been a whole lot different!

"Never has so much been owed, by so many, to so few"
Winston Churchill


Adam Heayns said…
Only had a quick glance but this is superb. Look forward to reading it in more depth and other posts.

Top work.

Adam Heayns
A View From the Centenary Stand
The Football History Boys said…
Thanks very much! We'll try to keep up the work!
Anonymous said…
This is probably a bit crazy, but I am a Graduate student and I am planning to write my thesis on this same sort of stuff and I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of where you got some of your information. This is very good!
The Football History Boys said…
Hi Kaylen! Thanks for the kind words! We have got a lot of our information from various websites and books - this piece was quite brief - but pieces like "The Association Game: A History of British Football" By Matthew Taylor was helpful - you'll find that one and more on Google Books!
The Football History Boys said…

Association Football and English Society: 1863-1915 by Tony Mason.
Football and the English: a social history of association football in England, 1863-1995 by Dave Russell.
Girls With Balls: A Secret History of Women's Football by Tim Tate, (John Blake, 2013)
These three were also of help!
Unknown said…
Great article, only just found you. Tom Cooper was my great-uncle.We have quite a few photos if you are interested. Judy D.

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