In Unseen Arsenal, featured first in the official matchday programme, we shed light on some of the unusual imagery in our photobooks. This week, we look at the POW side held in Germany in 1942.
At first glance this photograph may look like an informal Arsenal team group. However, take a closer look and you’ll see that the kit the players are wearing is somewhat dishevelled, and the boots are more suited to square-bashing than a football pitch. The ball held by the chap who is most likely the captain gives the game away. This motley crew are in fact prisoners of war, being held in Germany in 1942.
All manner of sports were organised within PoW camps during World War 2, with football being the most popular as it required the most basic facilities and equipment. Some camps held so many soldiers that league competitions could be organised and it seemed only natural that they would form themselves into teams based on who they supported. Stalag Luft 1 was big enough to run a league consisting of five divisions each with 12 teams! This group were obviously Arsenal fans.
As depicted in the film The Great Escape, the prisoners were very resourceful. In this case they managed to put together a kit of red shirts, a football and, to show that they had emulated the success of their heroes, a trophy. The men who were kept busiest were those who knew how to repair the balls, which suffered greatly due to the propensity of barbed wire in the camps.
At home, crowd numbers were restricted for safety reasons. This wasn’t the case in the PoW camps where they would often outnumber those even for a North London derby.
We’ve been unable to trace the identities of these brave men, but in 1944 there was a report in an Arsenal programme from Warrant Officer J.D. Wright who told of a knock-out competition at the camp in which he was being held, where he managed a team called Arsenal FC, who had suffered a narrow defeat to Glasgow Rangers in the final.
Despite all but a handful of Arsenal’s staff seeing active duty during the war, there are no recorded cases of any being captured. However, there was a bizarre story that involved Cliff Bastin. In March 1941 the Italian media reported that the mercurial winger had been shot down and captured when he was piloting a bombing raid over southern Italy. This turned out to be wartime propaganda at its finest as Bastin never saw active duty abroad due to his profound deafness!
More quizzes coming soon!
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