The 1939/40 season kicked off on 26 August. It was football, but not as we know it, with war seemingly inevitable.
Under newly appointed manager Billy Birrell a ‘new Chelsea’ was being written about. The Pensioners ‘seem to have taken the London limelight in Arsenal’s absence,’ the Dundee Courierhad said in January 1939, the forwards Joe Payne and Jimmy Argue looking star turns.
By August the same newspaper had been moved to admit, ‘Chelsea, of all clubs, are being written up as one of the sides of the season. There may be more than a hint of optimism about this forecast, which is based apparently on the new order of things at Stamford Bridge.’ The new order being based on ‘a new manager and new training ideas.’
The season started with an impressive 3-2 win over Bolton Wanderers in front of 35,000 at the Bridge, yet just four days later the first evacuations of children from London were ordered. A day later Manchester United were the visitors and a 1-1 draw the result with a crowd of 15,000. Fire service auxiliaries placed canvas reservoirs of water on the streets of the city, retailers took measures to protect their shop windows, and gas masks had to be carried everywhere.
With the backdrop of news that Germany had invaded Poland, games on Saturday 2 September went ahead, attendances dropping from 600,000 on the opening day to 380,000. There were only 12,000 at Liverpool to see Chelsea’s first defeat of the season. Eight of the Merseyside team were Air Raid wardens and were only able to play because others covered their sentry duties.
The following day, Sunday 3 September 1939, at 11.15 am, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that a state of war now existed between Britain and Germany.
On Monday 4 September the streets of Chelsea resonated with a real-life air raid warning siren for the first time. A couple were marrying in the Registry Office on the King’s Road at the time and spent their first 10 minutes of wedded bliss in the shelter beneath the town hall with a host of strangers.
Like much else that the nation savoured, football would soon be subject to rationing.
An emergency Football League committee meeting decided on suspending the 1939/40 campaign. Clubs were liable to pay players only up to 6 September. Season ticket refunds were to be put in place. Matches already played were to be treated as ‘cup ties,’ and scrubbed from the official records.
Pity Harry Cothliff, the Liverpool-born Torquay midfielder whose £6,000 transfer to Chelsea was one of the first casualties of war. From 8 September footballers were effectively out of work, although the League Management Committee did permit clubs to pay signed-on players a paltry £1.50 a week, with no goal or appearance bonuses. The PFA regularly lobbied for increases and provided for its members in case of hardship.
The post-war Football Association publication, ‘Victory Was The Goal: Soccer’s Contribution to the War 1939-45’ noted that between 3 September 1939 and the end of the war, ‘Ninety-one men joined the armed forces from Wolves, 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…’
By 8 September Billy Birrell announced, ‘Chelsea have closed down, but we are still marking time, hoping and believing that football in some form or other will be allowed soon. I think the Government are fully aware that the public must have a safety-valve such as football provides, and I consider it is highly probable that something will be done.’
Poorly attended friendlies were organised as a stop-gap while localised competitions were put in place, as in World War One. On 3 October 1939 the 11 professional London football clubs opted to fill the remainder of the season with games under the auspices of the capital’s Football Combination organisation.
Two groups were formed according to their Football League status: Group A included Chelsea, Arsenal, Brentford, Charlton, Tottenham, West Ham, and Group B (with five other southern teams) Aldershot, Brighton, Clapton, Crystal Palace, QPR, Reading, Southend and Watford. An initial 50-mile travel limit was relaxed on appeal, as long as teams were able to make the return journey in a day. The initial draconian 8,000 attendance cap was gradually eased.
All but six (most notably Aston Villa and Sunderland) of the then 88 league clubs took part in eight regional competitions, to kick off on 21 October. Even the lucrative football pools restarted. Some matches were covered by the BBC and rebroadcast by European radio stations to British troops camped on their soil.
With their futures uncertain, some playing staff elected to join the armed forces or national service organisations such as War Reserve Police, or take on essential war work in, say, a factory. Others sat tight until the dreaded conscription papers were posted through the door.
‘Whereabouts of Players who were on the Club’s books at the beginning of the season may be of interest,’ the Chelsea FC Chronicle suggested on 30 September 1939. ‘The following joined the Police War Reserve some twelve months ago and were called upon just prior to the commencement of hostilities: Alexander, Barber, Buchanan, Burgess, Foss, Griffiths, Hanson, Jackson, Mills, O’Hare, Payne, Salmond, Sherborne, Smale, Smith, A J Spence, Tennant, Vaux, Weaver and Woodley.
‘Bidewell and Mayes are serving in His Majesty’s Fighting Forces, and of the remainder – Argue, White, Kilpatrick, McMillan and Creighton have returned to Scotland, Mitchell has joined his family in Ireland, James is at his home in Wales, and Smith, our recruit from Port Vale, has returned to the Midlands, and will assist his former club until he attains military age and receives his call to the Colours.’
‘George Barber, of Chelsea, is taking no chances,’ trumpeted the Picture Post on 4 May 1940. ‘He has four alternative professions up his sleeve. Footballer, hairdresser, policeman, cartoonist.’
Soon anyone under 23 was barred from national service because the demand for fighting men was so great. Bombing raids also brought the war close to home in the capital. With Highbury requisitioned for the war effort, Arsenal shared the White Hart Lane stadium with Tottenham, but Stamford Bridge kept its turnstiles open and rewarded acts of valour.
The crew of HMS Exeter, fresh from their victory over the German cruiser Admiral Graf Spee at the Battle of River Plate, were invited to the Bridge as special guests of the club to watch the game against Tottenham in February 1940.
Later, Italian prisoners of war, more regularly seen tidying streets and green areas around west London, were treated to tickets at Chelsea matches. It is perhaps one of the reasons there has long been such a strong bond between London’s Italian migrants and the club.
Meanwhile, in the early days of the war, householders and businesses were encouraged to maintain buckets of sand and water and stirrup pumps to deal with roof-penetrating incendiary devices, and Chelsea were very well prepared too with the binoculars of an air raid spotter scouring the skies for planes. A few years ago some west London schoolchildren asked a reminiscence group of older fans what the spotter would do if they saw planes overhead. ‘Direct them over to Arsenal’s ground,’ was the tongue-in-cheek response.
The period of most intensive Luftwaffe bombing of the capital, known as the Blitz, was between 7 September 1940 and 21 May 1941. Five days into the bombardment on 12 September an incendiary device was found to have singed grass on the Stamford Bridge pitch. It was not the only one to land on the ground.
One day manager Billy Birrell was told an unexploded fire bomb was lying on the terraces. Birrell rang the bomb disposal service but was told he would have to wait as they were, understandably, extremely busy. Postponing a match in times of precarious finances was unthinkable to Birrell, so he set out, pipe in mouth, and rendered the device harmless by himself. Wing-half Sam Weaver was less fortunate. He was injured in January 1941 while trying to extinguish an incendiary which fell on his house.
Exert from a Matchday Programme
The London County Council bomb damage maps, produced in peace time, reveal a number of other near misses that might have devastated the home of Chelsea Football Club. In the latter stages of the war powerful flying bombs – unmanned V1 and V2 rockets – were a deadly threat. A V1 exploded a few hundred yards north of Stamford Bridge at the point the District Line branches away from the overground line. Parts of the Western Hospital were damaged beyond repair.
Commercial premises behind what is now the Blue Spice restaurant between the stadium and tube station were also destroyed. Even closer to home, the house at 428 Fulham Road was hit, though it was restored and now appears none the worse for the incident.
The Chelsea and Fulham railway station on Wandon Road, which had channelled generations of matchgoers to the Bridge, was swamped in early June when thousands of exhausted servicemen were evacuated from the Belgian port of Dunkirk as part of Operation Dynamo and alighted there, to be greeted with hot tea and cheese rolls. A few months later, on 21 October, the station suffered massive bomb damage, was closed and eventually demolished a few years after the war. A block of flats now stands where the station office was.
Down near the Thames, Chelsea Old Church, scene of many fashionable weddings, was destroyed (pictured below). It was rebuilt.
In some ways it is disappointing the regional football results are not considered ‘official’. For example, Chelsea’s 11-2 away win against QPR on 27 November 1943 – one of our earliest encounters. ‘The home defence crumpled against incisive moves of the skilful Chelsea forwards,’ one newspaper noted, ‘of whom [Joe] Payne and [Willie] Fagan, who each scored four times, were deadly finishers.’
Meanwhile Birrell began scheming for the post-war football scene. An original thinker, in October 1944 he proposed footballers might consider having another part-time job to take their minds off the game in the week. ‘He would then regard a match on Saturday as a relaxation and not as a day of hard work,’ the Dunfermline native added. Terrace wits might observe that the Chelsea players not taking Saturday games seriously enough had been the problem for decades.
And after the threat from bombing raids – except the ‘doodle bugs’ – receded, the League South Cup final at Wembley took on more of the airs and graces of the peacetime FA Cup final. Chelsea contested the last two at Wembley in 1944 and 1945 (See Key Matches below).
A month after the 1945 final, With ‘I Love a Soldier’ and ‘Old Mother Reilly Captures a Quisling’ doing the cinema rounds, the war finally drew to a close after five-and-a-half dreadful years. ‘Victory in Europe’ or VE Day was set to celebrate peace on Friday 8 May 1945.
Like a grim echo of the Luftwaffe raids, nature shattered the silence at midnight with a thunderstorm – just as it had on the night war had been declared. ‘There has been none of the almost savage plunging into hectic revelry which marked the more sudden Armistice in 1918,’ observed the Guardian of events in London. ‘There has been relatively little drunkenness today and still less of aggressive horseplay. The characteristic scene has been the little group of people singing or dancing in the middle of a crowded pavement, molesting nobody, happily involved in enjoying themselves.’
A few months later, in November, Stamford Bridge was swamped for the visit of Moscow Dynamo to play Birrell’s new-look stars – it was technically a riot, so substantial were the numbers of damage to adjoining property involved (See Key Matches below).
When the regular Football League returned for 1946/47 the crowds were bigger than ever. Sixty-one thousand flocked to watch Chelsea beat Bolton 4-3 (pictured right), and 70,000 came to see the derby with Arsenal in the FA Cup. Football was back and, let it be said, all the better for being without the bang.
Oh, and poor Harry Cothliff? He continued to play wing-half for Torquay until 1948, and died in New Zealand in 1976.
Below is a video of football in 1945, including Chelsea in action at Wembley in the League South Cup final and later at Stamford Bridge when we played with winners of the League North Cup. Titled 'The Great Game', it is part of the British Council Film Collection – which has 120 fascinating short documentary films made about Britain during the war years. Our thanks to the British Council for permission to carry the film.
On 5 May 1945, three days before VE Day, the Chelsea FC Chronicle announced that the club would soon resume as a Division One club and that the full list of retained professionals (and their status) was as follows:
Alexander, David B. Ex-Army. Invalided out following motor-cycle accident.
Argue, Jimmy. Army (Pte.). With British Liberation Army (BLA).
Barber, George F. Essential War Work.
Bearryman, H W. RAF (Flight-Sergeant). Has completed his rota of operations over Germany and now taking it easy with Transport Command.
Bidewell, S H. Army (Lance-Corporal). Serving at home.
Bowie, Jimmy A. Army (Private.). Serving at home.
Buchanan, Peter S. Essential War Work.
Creighton, J R. Essential War Work.
Foss, Sidney Richard ‘Dickie’. Essential War Work.
Greenwood, Ron. RAF (Leading Aircraftman). With BLA.
Griffiths, R. Army (Corporal). Serving at home.
Hanson, Alf J. Essential War Work. Has been playing with Northern clubs.
Jackson, Johnny. Essential War Work.
James, D. Navy (Petty Officer).
Kilpatrick, W. Army (Sergeant). Serving in West Africa.
Machin, A. Army (Private). Serving at home.
Mayes, A J. Army. (Corporal). With BLA.
Mills, George R. RAF (Flight-Lieutenant). Serving at home.
Mitchell, William ‘Billy’. Essential War Work. Has been playing with Bristol City.
O’Hare, John. Essential War Work.
Payne, Joe. RAF (Sergeant). Serving at home.
Salmond, R S. Essential War Work.
Sherborne, J S. Army (Private). Wounded in France – progressing well.
Smale, D M. RAF (Leading Aircraftman). Serving in India.
Smith, A J ‘Jack’. RAF (Flight-Sergeant). Had a recent injury to foot – will be okay*.
Smith, J F. Essential War Work. Ex-Army.
Spence, Richard ‘Dickie’. Army (Lance-Corporal). Serving at home.
Tennant, Albert. Army (Services Intelligence). Serving at home.
Vaux, Edward ‘Ted’. Army (Corporal). Serving in N Ireland.
Weaver, Sam. Army (Corporal). Serving at home.
White, A. Army (Services Intelligence). With BLA.
Woodley, V R. Essential War Work.
*Full-back Jack Smith, stationed in the Midlands and guesting for West Bromwich Albion, tumbled off a kerbstone and had his foot run over by a bus. The injury ended his career and, ironically, the bus driver was a fan of Wolves, Smith’s former club.