When Londoners Risked Their Lives To Watch Football During Air Raids

When Londoners Risked Their Lives To Watch Football During Air Raids
75,000 showed up to watch 1943's Football League War Cup South Final between Arsenal and Charlton. Image: YouTube

When we think of London in wartime, we think of air raid shelters, food rations and the Blitz spirit in the face of death from above. What is less well known is that people were so determined to carry on as normal that they would risk their lives to watch and play football, in stadiums that were obvious targets for the Luftwaffe.

Football became a key component of the morale that would keep Britain going in times of terrifying adversity. The 1939-40 season was only three games old when it was abandoned, after Neville Chamberlain announced the country was at war with Germany. Everton were reigning champions, Portsmouth the cup holders and Charlton (3rd in 1938/9), the top London team, ahead of Arsenal (5th), Brentford (18th) and Chelsea (20th).

Image: The Saleroom

Factory workers wanted to enjoy their Saturday afternoons

The Football League couldn’t continue after the government banned the assembly of crowds. Hundreds of professional footballers joined the Armed Forces, though many joined the reserve police or Territorial Army, remaining in the UK, available for either football or war — whichever was the most pressing.

It wasn’t long though before appeals to reopen the football grounds were heard. Factory workers wanted to enjoy their Saturday afternoons. With travel severely restricted, the joint FA-League War Emergency Committee allowed regional competitions to take place; wartime leagues and the Football League War Cup were established.

Mass Observation, the UK’s social research organisation declared: “Sports like football have an absolute effect on the morale of the people and one Saturday afternoon of league matches could probably do more to affect people’s spirits than the recent £50,000 Government poster campaign urging cheerfulness.”

Bomb damage to the West Stand at Upton Park, which was hit in August 1944. Photo courtesy of Steve Marsh of theyflysohigh.co.uk

Arsenal’s Highbury ground was given up to the ARP (Air Raid Precautions), so the club had to play their home games at White Hart Lane, Tottenham returning the favour from the first world war, when Spurs played in Islington.

Several grounds were hit by German bombs, including Highbury, The Den, Upton Park and The Valley.

The wartime league games lacked a competitive edge, with matches played with the air of a friendly, and guests from other clubs appearing, if they were stationed nearby. Consequently the crowds for these games were small. But the Cup was different. Players and fans succumbed to the magic of it.

The 1939/40 semi-final between West Ham and Fulham saw 32,799 people at Stamford Bridge for a 4-3 thriller, before West Ham took the first Football League War Cup with a 1-0 win over Blackburn, thanks to a goal from Sam Small in June 1940. Despite the clear danger, 42,399 came to Wembley, just before the start of the intense bombing campaign that would become known as The Blitz.

Waiting until enemy aircraft were clearly visible, to halt the match

Between the semi-finals and the final, the Dunkirk evacuation occurred. In fact the Cup Final crowd was swelled by soldiers returning from that pivotal operation. It’s hard to imagine experiencing the terror of Dunkirk, followed a few days later by a Wembley Final. It’s no wonder that story hasn’t made it into the war film canon. Who would believe it?

Matches would be halted when the air raid siren went off and restarted after the all clear. Some clubs employed their own ‘spotters’ so they could carry on playing after the siren went off until enemy aircraft were clearly visible. After all, why mess up a perfectly good football match when there’s only a fairly small chance of imminent mass death?

Arsenal's 7-1 South cup final win in 1943 was dubbed 'dull' by the press. Guess everything's dull when there's a war on. Image © Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board.

The Valley was constantly in the firing line. One match between Charlton and Millwall was halted with a minute to go and the visitors 2-0 up. Once the all clear was sounded, they played the final minute. Sticklers for rules, they were, in the olden days.

The 1941 final was played after nine months of the most intense bombing of the war. 127 large scale night-raids had taken place in that time, with London a regular target. Day time attacks had become rare, but lone raiders were still to be feared. Yet 60,000 people went to Wembley to see a late Denis Compton equaliser give Arsenal a draw against Preston.

That night and the next were the worst of the London Blitz, with over 500 bombers targeting the capital. The House of Commons took a hit. The Luftwaffe attacked bridges, factories, warehouses and railway lines all over the city. You might think the final would have been a good time to consider penalties to decide the cup, but no, a replay was arranged. At least they moved it to Ewood Park, Blackburn, where 45,000 saw Preston win 2-1 thanks to two goals from Bobby Beattie.

A German Luftwaffe Heinkel He 111 bomber flying over Wapping and the Isle of Dogs in the East End of London at the start of the Luftwaffe's evening raids of 7 September 1940. Image: Public domain

75,000 turn out to watch Arsenal beat Charlton 7-1

In 1942, London’s clubs, along with those expected to play against them, rebelled against the Football League, who expected them to travel to all sorts of illogical places like Crewe, as well as the oft-threatened South Coast. Consequently the final was a two-legged home and away affair between Wolves and Sunderland, which Wolves won. But the rebels had their own War Cup, which saw Brentford beat Portsmouth 2-0, with both goals from Les Smith, in front of 71,500 at Wembley.

By 1943 the Southern clubs were back in the fold. Separate North and South cup competitions took place and trophies awarded, with the regional winners playing each other in a cup winners cup final. The Southern finals sometimes attracted bigger crowds than the overall finals, as they were usually London derbies.

With German forces tied up elsewhere, 75,000 people turned out to see Arsenal edge an eight-goal thriller against Charlton, 7-1. The Gunners were beaten in the overall final by Blackpool, who won 4-2 in front of 55,195 at Stamford Bridge.

Non-league football continued too. The 1943 London Senior Cup Final between Dulwich Hamlet and Tooting & Mitcham was due to be played on Easter Monday at The Den, when a lone raider hit the North Stand. A hefty crowd barrier was thrown 200 yards, and the terrace and pitch were cratered. Somehow the club cleared up the mess sufficiently for the game to go ahead, with Tooting 5-4 winners. With 30 minutes still to go, the Main Stand caught fire, probably from a discarded cigarette, causing so much damage that the Lions were forced to play their home matches at The Valley, Selhurst Park and Upton Park.

General Eisenhower is a guest of honour

Eisenhower was quite the fair-weather football fan. Image: Public domain

By 1944 the Allies were growing in confidence having taken North Africa, though London was about to be on the end of deadly V-1 and V-2 flying bomb attacks. The largest wartime club match crowd so far was attracted to the War Cup South final between Charlton and Chelsea at Wembley where 85,000 watched Charlton win 3-1. The guest of honour was the commanding officer of the American forces in Europe, General Eisenhower. The man who was to become the 34th President of the United States told reporters, “I started cheering for the Blues, but when I saw the Reds were winning, well I had to go on cheering for them.”

Charlton met Aston Villa in the national final, drawing 1-1 at Stamford Bridge in front of 38,540, with Charlie Revell netting for the Addicks. However, due to renewed bombing threats and transport restrictions, a replay was ruled out, which seems surprisingly cautious in the scheme of things. The cup was shared.

Not even V-1 rockets could dull Londoners' enthusiasm for footy.  Image: Public domain

The guest system made something of a mockery of the Cup by 1945, as the two southern finalists, Chelsea and Millwall, bid for star guests to play for them in what one newspaper called “the lease-lend final”. Chelsea won the bidding war, playing eight guests to Millwall’s four. They also won the match 2-0, in front of 90,000 people. War in Europe was over and the country was in celebratory mood, forgiving a dreary game, played, to an extent, by strangers.

The final War Cup game would see Chelsea lose on their home ground to Bolton, before normal service resumed and the post-war period began. Wembley though, had remained the home of football throughout one of humanity’s darkest chapters

All in all, some 37 million watched football during the six years of the second world war, showing a side to the Blitz spirit that’s rarely remarked on — plus the need for sport in our lives whatever is going on.

As a phrase, it may lack the poetry of The Beautiful Game, but football remains the Greatest Distraction on Earth.

Last Updated 20 February 2020

Continued below.