Footballers At War: World War II

Way back in February 2013, I wrote one of my first pieces for The Football History Boys - "Footballers At War: 1939-1945." Within the article I briefly skirted around the edges of a topic which had the potential to be explored in more depth. Since we began we have attempted to continue exploring and discovering the ways in which football has affected more than just those in attendance every Saturday afternoon. In 1939, war once more came to Britain, the horrors of the First World War ready to be performed again in the theatre of conflict. What World War II was to provide was 'total war' - everyone had to play their part - including footballers. 

Before diving straight into the role footballers played in history's most deadly conflict, it is useful to understand just how the Second World War began. In hindsight it is easy to point the finger at Germany and the fascist dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, but a number of wider causes can be found. In the 1930s, Europe was in a state of disillusionment, the Treaty of Versailles had arguably failed as totalitarian dictatorships were created in Italy, Spain and Russia. Following a process of appeasement and American 'isolationism' the Nazi rise was underestimated as Austria and Czechoslovakia fell to the hands of the Germans.

By 1939, Hitler and his need for 'lebensraum' or 'Living Space' for his perfect breed of 'Aryan' Germans led to the eventual threat of invading Poland. Appeasement was this time not an option, Poland's alliance with the UK and France led to the two declaring war in September 1939 just 21 years after the horrors of 1914-1918. However, this conflict was different - following the mass rearmament and development of vastly more sophisticated militia, most European nations were in a state of 'Total War' - footballers were once more called into action.
Europe c.1939
Football had been on its own journey of change and discovery since its codification 70 years previous. By 1930 it was now the sport which best encompassed the globe, with leagues being found all over Europe and further afield. Like today, they truly were sporting heroes and idols which many fans looked up to. Unlike World War One, the Football League was to cease almost immediately after the declaration of war on Germany. The Western Morning News reported on the decision the next day under the apt headline SPORT AND THE CRISIS,
"International situation and heavy rain combined played havoc with sport in the West Country on Saturday, and, except for the more important League matches, few football engagements were carried out, clubs finding it impossible to get together full teams. As the Government have forbidden all sports where crowds are likely to assemble, League football will cease for the time being.[1]
So the Football League was suspended just as the sport had really encaptured all four corners of the world. The World Cup had been in existence for nine years with Italy winning the last two editions in 1934 and 1938. Under the regime of Benito Mussolini, Italy had seen dominating football as a chance to show off their superior physicality to the rest of the world. The Italians themselves were not to enter the War until 1941, with the actual conflict being relatively quiet in terms of battle prior to this date. Germany had advanced both east and west by 1940 and had even taken Paris before turning their eye of dominance on Britain.
One of WWII's most chilling images
Despite obvious involvement from football across the continent, it is the home front which we are looking closer in to. How did people react to their heroes going off to fight? Who went and what did they achieve?

What was clear from 1918 was that footballers had done their bit, but many took up to two years to join those in the trenches despite a great deal of public opinion believing the players should have signed up instantly. The Derby Daily Telegraph reported just 5 days after the start of fighting that the FA had began to draw up ideas for 'resuming football in some modified way.' What football could provide was a sense of escape in a time where people's worlds and livelihoods were under increasing threat.[2] Other newspapers mention games between evacuees as the sport proved vital to many children's morale. Indeed, friendly matches were granted to teams, subject to approval from the Home Office, at neutral venues, removed from the threat of the German bombs.

The FA itself helped contribute financially to the War effort and a great number of players went to the frontline. On the other hand, some public opinion echoed that of World War One as one letter to the Sunderland Echo in 1940 read,
Football and War Service Sir,—l was always of the opinion that professional footballers were men who had to be in the pink of condition. If that supposition is correct they should be ideal recruits for the Forces.[3]
This was an opinion by no means uncommon, not until 1942 was every British male aged 18-41 liable to be called into action, so those already physically capable would perhaps be the ideal early recruits. Football was of course played for 'war comforts' often with money raised for local soldiers and the wider public. Further newspaper trawling leads to the question of ex-professionals now in the army or air force. The Aberdeen Journal mentions that the Football Association kept good relations with the armed forces, leading to the possibility of many soldiers being allowed to play for their respective clubs if their Commanding Officer consented.[4] From this we can see a number of 'War Cups' being introduced with many players playing for different clubs than the ones they were contracted to,
'Provided that he receives the consent of his commanding officer. S. Bartram, the Charlton Athletic goalkeeper, who is now in the R.A.F., will assist Liverpool during the coming season. He played for England against South Africa. W, Cook, Everton's Irish international full back, who last year played for Wrexham, will be available for his own club.' 
So who was involved in the fighting? Today it is easy when questioned about WWII to think of Winston Churchill, Douglas Bader and Bernard Montgomery, but other famous names can come from football. Stan Mortensen (1953 FA Cup Winner) was utilised as a wireless operator in 1939 before even being involved in a plane crash two years later which he miraculously survived from. The Dundee Evening Telegraph noted Mortensen's wartime service in 1947 as well as his unusual start to his international career,
'When training to be an air gunner during the war he crashed in a Wellington Bomber. Several of the crew were killed and Mortensen received severe head injuries. Flying for a time was barred but he soon returned to the football field and thrilling Scots and English crowds with his spectacular bursts down the middle. His international career began in 1943, but not for England. He was picked as England's reserve against Wales at Wembley but midway through the first half he came out on the field in a red Wales shirt. Powell (Q.P.R) had fractured his collarbone and English officials agreed to let Mortensen make up the Wales side.'[5]
Billy Liddell
Other footballing names involved in the war can be found all over the World. Liverpool forwards Billy Liddell and Berry Niewenhuys were both members of the RAF along with Arsenal players Leslie Lack and Bobby Daniel also playing their own unique roles in the conflict. Abroad it is possible to see Lev Yashin, 1954 World Cup winning captain Fritz Walter and future Man City legend Bert Trautmann all answering their countries' calling to arms. In our previous pieces we have written more extensively on these players, what they did and how they were accepted after WWII. - To find out more click these links -

Footballers At War: 1939-1945
Footballers At War: Royal Air Force
1954 World Cup: The Miracle Of Bern

Following the involvement in fighting and the undoubted heroism of many professionals it is interesting to see if public opinion changed as War began to reach a conclusion. From 1942 articles can be found under the headlines - 'Post War Football' and 'Football After the War', perhaps showing that the public wanted to see the sport they loved back, and knowing that once it returned that the steady readjustment to life after battle could begin. The most intriguing article we have discovered comes from 1943,
News has reached his relatives here that Pte. Joseph Blair, R.A.S.C., former vanman at Dalziel Co-operative Central Drapery, and well known in local football circles, escaped from an Italian prisoner of war camp after the Armistice with Italy was signed, and after being for 55 days on foot in No Man’s Land succeeded in reaching the Allied lines in safety.[6] 
However, as war progressed its grim reality begins to rear its ugly head as the still heart-breaking newspaper articles put things into complete perspective,
CITY FOOTBALLER KILLED Well-known Dundee junior goalkeeper. Sapper James Mason, R.E., youngest son of Mr and Mrs J Mason, 2 Peddie Street, has been killed in the Middle East. He played for Osborne and Stobswell, and had just signed for Dundee Celtic when called up with his Territorial unit at the outbreak of war. He had since turned out several times for .East Craigie. Aged 22, he was a fitter with Gilchrist Brothers, engineers, Benvie Road. He was a former member of M'Cheyne B.B. Earlier in the Eighth Army's advance he Was wounded, and had only recently returned to duty. Two elder brothers are in the R.A.F. and Tyneside Scottish respectively.[7]
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 including 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.

Of course some members of the British public had a right to think that all footballers should have been off fighting a greater battle and many answered this call, with the numbers of fatalities within the game being higher than many could imagine. Football no doubt played its part in the most deadly conflict in human history. From the outset, despite some negative opinion, the sport provided the wider public with a sense of purpose, providing invaluable financial aid and charitable donations. What football offered was a chance to show that in the face of adversity we could 'Keep Calm and Carry On'.

By Ben Jones (Follow me on Twitter @Benny_J and @TFHBs) 


[1] Western Morning News, 04 September, 1939
[2] Derby Daily Telegraph, 08 September, 1939
[3] Sunderland Echo, 07 May, 1940
[4] Aberdeen Journal, 1940
[5] Dundee Evening Telegraph, 17 December, 1947
[6] Motherwell Times, 03 December, 1943
[7] Dundee Courier, 08 March, 1943


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