Hammers at War

On Armistice Day, West Ham United’s Club Historian John Helliar looks back at how the Second World War affected the Hammers
West Ham United’s Club Historian John Helliar looks back at how the Second World War affected the Hammers...

Today is 11 November, Armistice Day – a day when the people of Britain pay tribute to those who made the supreme sacrifice in conflicts around the world.   
On 3 September 1939, Great Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany following Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland. This and subsequent events over the next seven years led to an upheaval in World events that had not been seen since the last great conflict of 1914-18, which had been ‘a war to end all wars’ – in the words of the politicians. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Football would quickly pale into insignificance next to the atrocities that would follow.    

Preparations for the 1939/40 Football League season had begun in an unreal atmosphere of what became known as the ‘phoney war’, as the dark clouds of war loomed once more over Europe.

West Ham United had kicked-off their campaign in the Second Division on 26 August with a 3-1 away win at Plymouth Argyle, which had been followed up two days later with a 2-1 home win over Fulham. On 2 September, the Hammers had suffered a loss by two goals to nil at home to Leicester City. Within 24 hours all thoughts of sporting activity had been put aside as war was declared. 

In 1914 the Football League programme had continued until the end of the following April, before being replaced by regional war-time competitions for the next four seasons. However, in 1939, there were a different set of circumstances prevailing, with fears of immediate mass air-raids.
The Government introduced measures to restrict large gatherings of crowds at cinemas, football grounds and other outdoor venues. Thus, the League season was abandoned after just three games and those matches were deleted from the official records.
In his book At home with the Hammers, future manager Ted Fenton, who was one of the star players at Upton Park at the outbreak of war wrote: “In 1939, we really and sincerely thought we were going to do it (be promoted). We had the balance, the power and the experience necessary. We saw it as our season of fulfilment”.
The dreams of Fenton and his team-mates – like many other footballers of that era – were shattered and left unrealised – as by the time League football resumed in England, many players had seen their careers ended by the seven-year suspension.
That being said, the War had also provided little opportunity for younger players to obtain the requisite experience to be themselves ready for the 1946 return of soccer. By then, many stars would appear no more, overtaken by age and tiring muscles, while others had been tragically killed on military service.
Eventually, the restrictions were relaxed and, after a short period of friendly matches in the autumn of 1939, organised football began again on a regionalised format.
The Government had realised that sport was one way of taking people’s minds off of the conflict which was now engulfing not only Europe but the most of the world.
West Ham were grouped with teams in the south of England which covered an area from Norwich City in the north through all the London teams down to Portsmouth and Southampton on the south coast.
As the FA Cup had also been suspended, knockout football was initially also run along regionalised lines in the early rounds. The Football League War Cup competition was introduced, with local winners in different areas then meeting up in the later rounds.                     
A pressing concern for all clubs was the potential disruption that conscription – players being ‘called-up’ into the Armed Forces – would cause.
Before war had actually been declared, the Hammers squad had volunteered for service with the Reserve Police – Charlie Bicknell, the captain at 34 years-of-age being an example – while others joined the Territorials in the Army and were drafted into the Essex Regiment and spent much of the war based in East Anglia and London on searchlight sites.
Others, such as Fenton, were stationed at the Aldershot barracks, and Archie Macauley – who played for Scotland – found themselves in the Army as PT Instructors because of their physical fitness.
Charlie Walker was one who did not return to Upton Park until the start of the 1945/46 season, having spent a long spell in the Far East in the RAF.
Soon Charlie Paynter, the manager, found that his players were scattered around the country as they made their contribution to the war effort. With many of his regulars unavailable, Paynter – like most other managers at clubs around the country – was forced to spend his time negotiating with commanding officers for the release of his own players or with other clubs for the services of ‘guest’ players who might be stationed in units in the London area.
Although some 85 per cent of all war-time appearances were made by players who were already on the Hammers’ books, or would be by 1945/46, there were some impressive ‘guest’ appearances from such as the Arsenal trio of Ted Drake, Eddie Hapgood and Bernard Joy, Manchester City’s Northern Ireland international inside-forward Peter Doherty, Willie Corbett and Tommy Deans of Celtic and Hearts’ Tommy Walker.                   
The War Cup of 1940 proved to be one of the highlights during this difficult period of the Hammers’ history.  After early round victories over Chelsea and Leicester, then Huddersfield and Birmingham, the Hammers met Fulham in the semi-final at Stamford Bridge, beating them 4-3.
In the final at Wembley, they met a strong Blackburn Rovers side in a match which was played on a Saturday evening in June at 6.30pm to avoid high levels of absenteeism amongst war workers.
The crowd was restricted to 50,000 and, to their credit, both clubs were able to name line-ups which were free of guests.
The only goal of the match was scored by the Hammers’ Sammy Small, who was an ambulance builder, with both Bicknell and Fenton sharing with the rest of their team-mates in what was West Ham’s first Wembley triumph.
While they did not return to Wembley, the Hammers were always well placed in the different war-time league competitions. In seven campaigns, they finished runners-up on five occasions, even though the format of the competitions was changed often.  
In the late summer of 1944, the horrors of the war did eventually arrive at the Boleyn Ground when a V1 flying bomb landed on the pitch, destroying a large part of the South Bank terrace (where the Bobby Moore Stand is now situated) – including blowing off the roof – as well as that end of the Main West Stand. The Club offices were also devastated, causing many records to be lost.
Forced to play away from home, the Hammers strung together nine consecutive wins, only to lose 1-0 to Tottenham Hotspur on their return to Upton Park in December 1944!
It would be some time before suitable repairs could be made to the actual structure of the affected areas, as materials for rebuilding were rationed even after the war was ended. 
Although the War ended in the summer of 1945, there was only enough time to organise a competition called the ‘Football League South’ for the 1945/46 season, although this did comprise a more familiar 22-club format with teams from the pre-war First and Second Divisions.
It was not until August 1946 that actual Football League Second Division football finally started up again in England.

John Helliar is West Ham United's long-serving Club Historian and Boleyn Ground tour guide. His father, Jack, also edited and published the matchday programme for many years.