How football kept Newham going during the Blitz
- Credit: Archant
When the Luftwaffe turned East London into an inferno, when France was smashed to pieces by the Wehrmacht, when Britain was on its knees and anticipating a devastating defeat, many people were kept going by one thing.
No, not Winston Churchill’s defiant speeches – not even an overpowering instinct to protect our green and pleasant land – but rather the beautiful game and everything it represented.
For the people of Newham especially, who were bombed relentlessly because of their docks, the sense of solidarity they derived from football was crucial.
“You have to remember that during the Blitz Churchill was telling people to hide under their tables,” said Brian Belton, author of War Hammers II: The Story of West Ham United During the Second World War. “No proper shelters had been built. The people of east London had to look after themselves.”
As Hallsville Junior School, Canning Town, was obliterated by a Nazi bomb that killed 600 people – the worst civilian tragedy in the battle for Britain – it was around football that East Enders rallied.
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“Football was a weapon – or rather a form of defence – for the working classes,” Brian said.
“It kept morale up, it generated pride and patriotism for the area – it was like a form of propaganda.
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“Forty-thousand people died in the Blitz, Dunkirk was disastrous – football was a very necessary distraction.”
Unlike many other clubs, West Ham prospered during the conflict, winning the War Cup in 1940 after beating Blackburn Rovers 1-0 in the final.
“It was a big victory, the equivalent of the FA Cup,” Brian said. “But it was a subdued game – attended by many soilders who’d come from Dunkirk. It looked like Britain was beaten then.”
As the war went on, however, people increasingly began to channel their feelings through football – and in the process gave birth to many of the features of the game we now take for granted.
“Things were changing all across Britain,” Brian said. “People were coming together, creating new and stronger identities.
“Before the war, nobody really sang at West Ham matches. It was very rare you’d hear I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, for example.
“But the trauma of the war changed that. People were happy to be alive and wanted to express it. It brought people together in a huge way.”
Perhaps an example of the strength of these new feelings among the working classes was just before the D-Day landings of 1944, when soldiers were posted to Upton Park prior to embarkation – and then ran out of cigarettes.
The result was a mass abscondment of hundreds of soldiers as commanders struggled to bring their subordinates back.
“They didn’t want to arrest them because they needed them for the invasion,” Brian said. “But these soldiers had no idea what was going to happen to them and they’d ran out of booze and fags – so off they went to the pubs.
“Eventually a man with a lorry managed to persuade them all to come back, but no one knows how.”
After the war, West Ham went on to enjoy a period of great success – and Brian credits the war for the Hammers flourishing later on.
“The youth and ownerships structure all came from the war,” he said. “It changed everything.”