The second World War witnessed a change of role for Arsenal's players and its stadium. Of the 42 players on the Arsenal staff, 40 joined the armed forces. The players were scattered far and wide across the globe.
George Male spent much of the war in Palestine, Bryn Jones in Italy, and Leslie Compton in India. Arsenal players remained in demand throughout the conflict, however, and made regular appearances in regiment games across the globe, and war league contests.
Up-and-coming striker Reg Lewis recalled: “As a player it was tough. You dreamed of playing at Highbury in front of thousands but instead I ended up playing football at White Hart lane, our adopted home in regional wartime matches. I was stationed at Shoeburyness, and I’d be given leave to come to London to play.
"They cut crowds at those games to a maximum of 25,000, just in case… You got on with it because you wanted to play football, but all the time you were pining for Highbury. What a mess that was in!”
From the moment war was declared, Highbury buzzed with activity. It was transformed into a stranglehold for the ARP (Air Raid Precautions). The pitch was used twice daily as part of the Islington Borough ARP’s training programme.
Before he was assigned to Palestine, Male regularly played in matches against the local ARP wardens. He recalled: “At first, many of us were still being paid by the club, so we played in some Combination games, and some friendlies.
"I use the word friendlies in the loosest possible sense of the word, mind, as some of those wardens couldn’t wait to get stuck into professional footballers. Most of them were Spurs fans, I reckon! At that time, I’d look around Highbury and see the barrage balloon above the stand and the bomb shelter furniture under the Laundry End. It was all quite unreal, to be honest.”
The war became devastatingly real to local residents when, on the night of April 16, 1941, around 550 German bombers dropped over 100,000 incendiaries on London. Dozens of incendiaries rained down on the streets around Highbury.
Local resident Harry Stone recalled: “St Thomas’s Road was reduced to a pile of rubble. So was Blackstock Road. It was chaos. You wondered if anything would actually be left standing when you came out. When we did step out next morning, we walked past the Laundry End and we couldn’t believe what we saw. There was the roof – all crumpled and smouldering.
"It was the first time we realised what aerial bombardments were really all about. Five incendiaries had come through the Laundry End roof, and fallen onto all the bunks and stuff underneath. Incendiaries consisted of phosphorous, and although they don’t explode, they set fire to anything they touch. All the mattresses went up in flames, and the intense heat had made the roof melt and collapse. When they did some further investigations, they found that the holes in the roof were no bigger than the size of a football – which is ironic really, isn’t it? So if all that stuff hadn’t been on the terrace, it wouldn’t have gone up”.
A year earlier, a 1,000lb bomb fell onto the practice ground behind the South Bank, killing two RAF pilots who were sitting in the hut.
Highbury may have been out of bounds for matches, but Arsenal’s ability to chase silverware, despite the difficult situation, remained undiminished. In 1941 they reached the Football League War Cup Final, with Laurie Scott partnering Eddie Hapgood at full-back, Leslie Compton headed the attack as Arsenal drew the first game with Preston, and then lost the replay 2-1. The Gunners were crowned champions of London in 1941/42, and also the Football League South the following year.
At Wembley in 1943, prolific young striker Reg Lewis netted four goals as Arsenal thrashed Charlton Athletic 7-1 in the Football League South Cup Final. Lewis was the star of those war years and scored an amazing 53 goals in that 1942/43 season.
Lewis recalled: “My scoring achievements made me really proud in those days, but it was also torture, because I wanted to be scoring for us at Highbury in the league. It didn’t do to moan about it at the time though. Others were in a far more unfortunate position than me in the war. I was lucky. I was alive, and playing football.”
Six years of war left Arsenal with a massive problem. With no income from gate receipts at Highbury, the Gunners were about to enter the post-war era with a (then) huge £150,000 debt. Admittedly, the club could eventually reclaim the money needed for repairs to the ground on insurance, and the gargantuan post-war crowds would once again fill the coffers, but the Bank Of England club’s finances were diminished.
Arsenal’s most famous match of their “non Highbury” era was played at White Hart Lane, of all places. The 1945/46 season began with the regional leagues retained, and the FA Cup back on the agenda. Late in 1945, with the world on the cusp of the Cold War, Moscow Dynamo arrived for a European tour, and in the era before the advent of the European and UEFA Cups, the Dynamos’ match against the Gunners garnered a huge amount of newspaper headlines.
The day of the match saw a classic London “pea souper,” which simply added to the mystery and confusion which surrounded the match. George Allison needed to summon six guest players, including legendary forwards Stan Mortensen and Stan Matthews. An enormous 54,000 crowd rolled into White Hart Lane, but only had sporadic views of the game due to the fog.
The game ended with the Dynamos winning 4-3, but amidst claims of incorrect decisions made by the Russian referee, and the fact that at some points the players couldn’t see one another, or the goals, the Mail labelled it: “the most farcical match which has ever been played,” although the newspaper did also claim it was “... one of the most exciting games 54,000 people have never seen.”
The war of words, and lingering suspicion between the players mirrored the tenseness evident during the post war era. With league football about to resume, George Allison had lost old warriors to injury like Ted Drake and Alf Kirchen, and players like Bastin and Male were entering the autumn of their careers.
The question was whether or not Allison had the ability, and the energy, to mould another victorious Arsenal team when the war ended.
- Moscow Dynamo striker Vsevolod Bobrov alleged that Arsenal player Reg Drury had actually been sent off during the second-half of the Dynamo match, but Drury simply ran off into the fog, and carried on playing anyway.
- As Arsenal players began to return to Highbury after the war, they discovered that their wages, in some cases, were ten per-cent lower than they had been six years earlier!
- To show the state Highbury was in after the war, an Arsenal official admitted in late 1945: “We have absolutely no idea when the club will reopen for business.”Copyright 2015 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source