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What did cricket mean to troops and civilians during WWII? Crispin Andrews has scoured the MCC library to find out.

Women of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) pose for the camera at Lord’s cricket ground, c.1944.
Women of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) pose for the camera at Lord’s cricket ground, c.1944.

Even Hitler had the common decency to wait until the 1939 cricket season was almost over before invading Poland. When war broke out, cricket was seen as a metaphor for life for both English high society and the chattering classes. As the Panzers rolled into Poznan, Sir Home Seton Charles Montagu Gordon, 12th Baronet Gordon of Embo, Sutherland, wrote his weekly preamble for the Cricketer magazine in a sombre mood. ‘England has now started the grim Test match with Germany,’ he wrote. According to Gordon, the ‘Ashes of civilisation were at stake.’

After war was declared, the treasures at Lord’s cricket ground, including the original Ashes urn from 1883 were packed away in an anonymous location for safe-keeping. The West Indies team who had been playing in England during the summer of 1939 cancelled their last five matches and sailed home before Grand Admiral Raeder could send the U-boats out in to the Atlantic. The Marylebone Cricket Club cancelled its tour to India. England played cricket under the MCC banner back then.

‘Hitler permitted us almost to complete an exceptionally interesting season,’ Gordon wrote. ‘When shall we see the stumps pitched again?’

Charles Burgess Fry, an English cricketing legend from before the First World War, who by then was Captain Superintendent of the Royal Navy Training Ship Mercury, expressed his personal annoyance that Hitler would stop him from watching Len Hutton, Denis Compton, and Joe Hardstaff rise to stardom.

In August 1938, with Hitler’s armies ‘on manoeuvres’ along the Czechoslovak border, Len Hutton, Joe Hardstaff, Maurice Leyland, Wally Hammond, Bill Edrich, and Dennis Compton had amassed a world record 903-7 against Don Bradman’s Australians at the Oval. MCC Deputy Secretary, Sir Pelham Warner, bemoaned the loss of England’s best bowling attack for years.

In 1939, cricket fanatics saw life, and the world, through the eyes of a very serious game. A game played for, by, and with the attitudes of, gentlemen. C B Fry epitomised this sentiment in his September 1939 Cricketer Magazine column. Fry, who had dabbled in politics and worked at the League of Nations in the 1920s, wrote that the world would be a better place if the Germans had taken up cricket. He would teach them to play himself, ‘if we ever get out of this current cul-de-sac.’

During a 1934 visit to Germany to encourage links between the Boy Scouts and the Hitler Youth, Fry had tried to persuade Nazi foreign minister Von Ribbentrop that Germany should take up the game. Fry thought perhaps athletic javelin throwers (and hand grenade slingers) might make fast bowlers, although he did admit that the Germans might struggle with the concept of fair play. Ribbentrop dismissed cricket as ‘too complicated for us.’

A barrage balloon, also at Lord’s, c.1944.
A barrage balloon, also at Lord’s, c.1944.

Cricket cancelled?

During the early days of the war, it looked like there would be no cricket at all. Chamberlain’s government closed all places of entertainment and outdoor sports meetings, before rescinding this order in favour of a business as usual approach.

With nothing much happening on the Western Front for the first few months, there was talk of organising a full county cricket season for 1940. Only 20 to 23-year-olds had been called up for military service. Most first class cricketers were in their late 20s and thirties. Many players were over 41 and not, at the time, eligible for military service.

Then, on April 9th, a few days before the cricket season would have been due to start, the German army attacked Denmark and Norway. A month later, Hitler invaded France, Holland, and Belgium and by June 4th had pushed British and French forces to Dunkirk. On 9 June, German soldiers were in Paris and by the end of the summer the Luftwaffe had started bombing London.

In the Cricketer, former England captain Arthur Gilligan collected his thoughts sitting in a blacked out house with dim lights. For renowned cricket writer Raymond Robertson Glasgow, looking back at the 1939 season was like peeping back at a happy world through the wrong end of a telescope.

Firemen pictured at Lord's.
Firemen pictured at Lord’s.

A London Counties team was cobbled together from ageing amateurs, players on leave from the forces, and former greats like Frank Woolley. It played all over the country against clubs, counties, and invitation teams. The British Empire XI, set up by future MP Desmond Donnelly in 1937, continued to play throughout the war.

Counties and clubs played ad hoc fixtures, as did charity and invitation teams, and the armed forces. Cambridge and Oxford University continued their annual match at Lord’s. To fit in with military schedules, these games were one day matches, rather than the usual three, four, or five day contests.

Concerned that county cricket clubs might go bust, Raymond Robertson Glasgow urged county members to continue paying their memberships during wartime. Yorkshire and Worcestershire made a profit, while Leicestershire needed donations from philanthropist, Sir Julien Cahn, to keep going. After Old Trafford was hit by the Luftwaffe, Lancashire closed for business and diverted members’ subscriptions into a war relief fund.

Early season setback

Army v RAF - Lord's Cricket Ground - London - 1944. Players hit the deck as a V1 flying-bomb falls in the vicinity of Lord’s; Army’s Jack Robertson (batting), RAF’s Andy Wilson (wicketkeeper), Bill Edrich (bottom l) and Austin Matthews (r).
Players hit the deck as a V1 flying-bomb falls in the vicinity of Lord’s; Army’s Jack Robertson (batting), RAF’s Andy Wilson (wicketkeeper), Bill Edrich (bottom l) and Austin Matthews (r).

By then, even the most obsessive cricket diehard knew now that this war was a serious business. Not that this stopped the metaphorical bluster. While training Green Howards recruits in Richmond, North Yorkshire, Yorkshire spinner Hedley Verity told Cricketer readers that Hitler’s invasion of Holland was an early season setback. Sir Home Seaton Gordon likened playing cricket through the Blitz to Drake finishing his game of bowls before heading off to deal with the Spanish Armada. When England all-rounder Freddie Brown smashed 77 runs in 50 minutes for the Buccaneers against the British Empire XI on 31 August 1940, Gordon quipped that Ribbentrop himself would have been impressed.

The Reich Minister for Foreign Affairs would have actually been too busy planning the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Freddie Brown also took the first six wickets when the British Empire batted later in the day. But with victory in sight, air raid sirens sent players and spectators heading for shelter.

As the bombs dropped, the cricket continued. Plum Warner famously said that Goebbels would have won a significant propaganda battle had he been able to broadcast that the Luftwaffe had stopped cricket at Lord’s.

Abroad, South Africa and the West Indies immediately cancelled their domestic cricket competitions and international matches. New Zealand and Australia carried on in 1939-1940, but stopped when Japan bombed Pearl Harbour and brought the war to their part of the world.

Smoke from a doodlebug rises over Lord’s during a wartime match.
Smoke from a doodlebug rises over Lord’s during a wartime match.

Only in India did first class cricket continue. The Ranji trophy was named after the great KS Ranjitisinhji, who played cricket for England and represented India at the League of Nations. It took place every year except 1942-1943, the season following Japan’s invasion of neighbouring Burma, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. England’s Compton, Hardstaff, and Reg Simpson, stationed in India, played in some of the Ranji games.

Stationed in Egypt, a twenty year old soldier from Bradford called Jim Laker tried off-spin for the first time. In 1956 Laker took 19 wickets in a Test against Australia. Walter Hammond played a bit of cricket at the Gezira Sporting Club in Cairo. So did South Africa’s Bruce Mitchell and New Zealand’s Bert Sutcliffe. Myrtle McClagan, the star of English women’s cricket, scored 148 and 96 for the Auxiliary Territorial Service against the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Even the game’s greatest player, Australia’s, Don Bradman, enlisted. However, in June 1941, Bradman was discharged with fibrositis of the back.

Thousands of club players and enthusiasts also played cricket whilst serving in the armed forces. Either official matches or just an informal knock about on a spare bit of grass whenever there was time. The powers that be believed sport was good for the troops’ morale. So too, it seemed, did PoW camp commandants.

Cricket in the camps

Cricket matches of a sort, took place in many camps. A bucket or a wooden pale for a wicket, a tennis ball, and an old bat saturated with linseed oil. It was six if you hit the tin roof, out if the ball went over the fence (although sentries could be bribed to retrieve the ball). It was definitely out if anyone hit the ball into the commandant’s prize flower garden.

England’s Bill Bowes and Freddie Brown played at the Chianti Camp in Italy. The officers camp at Warburg had its own ground and wicket, with equipment donated by the De Flamingo club in Holland. Changi Camp in Singapore had a cricket pitch too, although this was just a piece of matting laid out on concrete.

The boarded-up pavilion at Lord’s.
The boarded-up pavilion at Lord’s.

The famous cricket broadcaster and journalist Jim Swanton says cricket helped many prisoners get through the war. Swanton, a major in the Bedfordshire Yeomanry and spent three and a half years in camps along the Thai-Burma railway after he was captured during the fall of Singapore.

In a 1946 article in the Wisden Almanack, entitled ‘Cricket Under the Japs’, Swanton recalled a Christmas Day match at Wampo Camp where a Eurasian cricketer called Thoy scored a hundred in five overs. He also remembered an England versus Australia game on New Year’s Day in 1945, with players avoiding washing hanging off bamboo lines and hitting the ball behind the wicket where spectators gathered under the trees.

Swanton called it jungle cricket and said that it took prisoners’ minds off dysentery and cholera. Swanton himself contracted polio and spent time at the hospital camp, Nakom Patom, where more cricket was allowed.
He explains that Wampo commandants were suspicious of cricket, thinking it had religious significance. Cricket quizzes and talks by experts – Swanton recalls a league professional and a Worcestershire captain – passed the time until lights-out.

Thousands of miles from home and in terrible conditions, the English and Australians still had their national game.

A few days after the Japanese surrender on 2 September 1945, Swanton, on his first walk as a free man for four years, came across a café in Thai village on the edge of the jungle. ‘Our hosts kindly turned on the English (radio) programme,’ Swanton wrote. ‘We were at Old Trafford and a gentleman called Cristofani was getting a hundred.’

Victory Tests

WWII Royal Engineers at Lord’s.
WWII Royal Engineers at Lord’s.

Bob Cristofani was an Australian, and one of the stars of the 1945 Victory Tests. These games were hastily arranged as part of the national celebrations after the German surrender in May. Hutton, Hammond, and one of Plum Warner’s bowlers, Doug Wright, played for England against an Australian Services team who went on to tour India and Australia later in the year.

Some players, like Hardstaff and Compton were still on duty overseas and could not get back in time for the matches. Hedley Verity and Ken Farnes, England’s opening bowler, did not make it back, at all.

Captain Verity was shot in the chest in July 1943 as his platoon of Green Howards tried to take a farm house in Catania, Sicily. Verity died from his wounds in captivity two months later. Farnes, an RAF pilot officer, died in October 1941 after his plane crashed near Chipping Warden, near Oxfordshire, during a night flying exercise. Seven other Test cricketers never made it home. So too, countless other first class players.

Many years after the war was over, it took an Australian star of the Victory Tests to finally put wartime cricket into perspective. Keith Miller, the fighter pilot with the Royal Australian Airforce, would go on to become Australia’s greatest all-round cricketer.

The Victory Tests showed that cricket was still a national and international spectacle. 367,000 people watched the three matches at Lord’s. A serious business, maybe. But a metaphor for the sort of life and death struggle that the world had just been through.

It was Michael Parkinson who asked Miller about pressure in top level cricket. The Australian laughed. ‘Pressure is having a Messerschmitt up your arse at 20,000 feet.’

This article originally appeared in issue 40 of Military History Matters (formerly Military History Monthly). To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, where you’ll get the latest cutting-edge research delivered direct to your door, click here.

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