Arsenal in the 30s: Arsenal at the start of the 2nd world war (autumn 1939)

by Tony Attwood

On 19 August 1939 on the eve of war, Arsenal beat Tottenham (away) 1-0 in a friendly – an event that was undoubtedly presaged by the same fixture as a pre-season friendly, but at Highbury, on the saturday before the first league match of the 1938/9 campaign.

 Whether the clubs also agreed a return fixture to be played later in the 1939/40 season, as they did the previous year, is not known.  There may also have been a first team vs reserves (Reds vs Whites) game during the midweek, prior to this match, or on the saturday before this match but if so I have no details of it.

Arsenal’s team against Tottenham was


Male Joy Hapgood

Crayston Les Jones

Kirchen    Drury    Lewis    Bryn Jones    Nelson

We may also notice there was no Drake, no Swindin, and no Bastin.  Drury got the goal

On 24 August the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939 was passed giving full authority to the new ‘defence regulations’.  Parliament was recalled to pass the bill and as a result of it, army reservists were called up and Civil Defence workers placed on alert.

As an immediate response on 25 August the Irish Republican Army exploded a bomb in Coventry, killing 25.

Two days later Arsenal opened the new season with the result Wolverhampton 2 Arsenal 2.  Allison showed that his team selection against Tottenham was not an experiment, in that he repeated the XI exactly. Kirchen and Lewis got the goals against the team that had come second for the last two seasons.

For the next match on 30 August 1939 Arsenal made use of the official sanction which allowed the wearing of numbered shirts for the first time in a league match.  The club had worn numbered shirts on 25 August 1928 but had been ordered to stop by the League for reasons that were not clear at the time, and never became clear thereafter.

The result of this second match of the season was Arsenal 1 Blackburn 0 in front of a 17,137 crowd.  Even allowing for the fact that this was a midweek game, the crowd was very poor and was in fact the lowest for a home league match since 22 April 1929 when Arsenal beat Everton 2-0 in front of 11,696.  Stories of war were everywhere, everyone was nervous.

But the game was played, Bremner came in for Drury and Bastin, who had come in to replace Nelson, scored the goal – a penalty.

On 1 September Germany invaded Poland, having been warned that such an action would be taken as an act of war against Britain.   “Operation Pied Piper” was announced: the evacuation of children from London and other major U.K. cities began.  The army was mobilised and the blackout imposed.  BBC TV shut down and did not re-open until 1946.

However war had not actually been declared and therefore the Football League continued.  Thus it was that on 2 September 1939 that Arsenal played their final Football League match of the 1930s, which ended Arsenal 5 Sunderland 2.  Drake replaced Lewis for this game and marked his return by getting four goals.  Drury got the other.  

Bernard Joy’s account of the match, in which he played, states that the professionals in the team found letters awaiting them saying that their contracts were terminated for the duration.  They were still Arsenal players, but Arsenal would not pay them.  Joy, playing as an amateur, and thus getting “expenses” had no such letter.

The crowd was 17141 – just four people more than for the previous game.  A barrage balloon rose from behind the ground at the final whistle and the ground was within days converted into an ARP centre.

The league table after three games looked thus:

Team P W D L F A Pts
1 Blackpool 3 3 0 0 5 2 6
2 Sheffield United 3 2 1 0 3 1 5
3 Arsenal 3 2 1 0 8 4 5
4 Liverpool 3 2 0 1 6 3 4
5 Everton 3 1 2 0 5 4 4
6 Bolton Wanderers 3 2 0 1 6 5 4
7 Derby County 3 2 0 1 3 3 4
8 Charlton Athletic 3 2 0 1 3 4 4
9 Stoke City 3 1 1 1 7 4 3
10 Manchester United 3 1 1 1 5 3 3
11 Brentford 3 1 1 1 3 3 3
12 Chelsea 3 1 1 1 4 4 3
13 Grimsby Town 3 1 1 1 2 4 3
14 Aston Villa 3 1 0 2 3 3 2
15 Sunderland 3 1 0 2 6 7 2
16 Wolverhampton Wanderers 3 0 2 1 3 4 2
17 Huddersfield Town 3 1 0 2 2 3 2
18 Portsmouth 3 1 0 2 3 5 2
19 Preston North End 3 0 2 1 0 2 2
20 Blackburn Rovers 3 0 1 2 3 5 1
21 Middlesbrough 3 0 1 2 3 8 1
22 Leeds United 3 0 1 2 0 2 1

The following day, on 3 September, war was declared on Germany, and the general mobilisation of the armed services began.  The National Service (Armed Forces) Act was passed by Parliament, introducing National Service for all men aged 18 to 41.  The Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939 had already been passed on 24 August.  It required required all citizens “to place themselves, their services and their property at the disposal of His Majesty.”  Am,ong many other things, all debts were cancelled until the end of the war.  Businesses that were owed money, could effectively count that money as gone – and this included football clubs.

It is often reported in football books and web sites that the Southern League and the Northern League continued through the season, showing that there was no order from the government for games to stop.  It is also stated that quite a few clubs failed to complete their games.

This is not so – at least not so for the Southern League, for they immediately restructured the league and did play a 1939/40 season, as a league split into an Eastern and a Western Section.  In the former, two games were not played, in the latter, one game was not played.  I can’t find details for the Northern League 1939/40 – if you have them please let me know what happened – and your source of information.

As for the Football League, historically there was no clear precedent.   The Football League had continued through the 1914/15 season after the 1st World War began, and Scottish League football continued all the way through that conflict.   There had been some criticism of the continuance of the league in England for that season, and crowds were low, but the existence of the games gave recruiting officers a chance to encourage young men to join up, prior to conscription, and Henry Norris was particularly active in this regard as a recruiting officer.

However there was no general ruling laid down by government on such matters, and although the media were critical of the football authorities for continuing games in the 1914/15 season, the counter argument was made that horse racing continued without any such protest.  But that was of course the sport of kings, and kings tendws not to fight in 20th century wars.

The League immediately set about creating a new set of competitions and formed 10 regional mini-leagues.  However the organisation of these competitions had clearly not been thought through or prepared in advance, and the games did not start until late October.

To fill in the time clubs organised friendlies, and Arsenal played six of these, all away from home (Highbury now being unusable as it had been commandeered by the military authorities).  It was during this period that Arsenal negotiated with Tottenham for Arsenal to be able to play its home games at White Hart Lane – a reverse of the arrangements set up during the 1st world war.  It is interesting that it took a month for Arsenal to reach the agreement, but while these discussions were going on Arsenal only played away games.

Bernard Joy calls this interim period “a few weeks of muddle and drifting”, and he was there so he should know, but the list of matches suggests that games were organised very quickly, and indeed the first friendlies took place less than two weeks after the abandonment of the season.  It is also noticeable that Joy himself didn’t play in the first three friendly games – so maybe the “muddle” he noticed arose because no one told him where the matches were being played!  Fields took over his number 5 shirt; maybe he didn’t welcome that!  Maybe the initial priority was to use the professional players, not the amateurs like Joy.  I need more information on this!

Perhaps I should also add that I do have quite a few doubts about Joy’s testimony not only here but elsewhere, which is a shame because having a player from the era write about the club should be highly useful.  It is Joy, for example, who gives us the story that “I remember Ted Drake keeping goal at White Hart Lane against Clapton Orient when Marks had telephoned to say he would be late.  Drake was like a cat on hot bricks and as soon as he saw Marks on the touchline he could not wait for the ball to go out of play before taking off the jersey.  He snatched the shirt from Marks, and pulled it over his head as he ran upfield just in time to collect a through pass.  He continued his run to the edge of the box and had a shot at goal.”

The records show no such game with such an event, although there was a match against Charlton on 29 August 1942 in which Leslie Compton played in goal and Drake scored two.

Another tale from Joy involving a high scoring game against Aldershot does relate to a match that did happen on 21 November 1942, although Joy gets the score wrong; it was 7-4 not 6-2.  It’s a detail, but checking through the accounts in “Forward Arsenal!” (Joy’s autobiography) be it in the Woolwich Arsenal days or his own period playing for the club, shows that many of his tales that have since become part of the bedrock of Arsenal’s history, are mistaken.

But back to the matches.   For the most part in these opening friendly matches Arsenal were able to call on their own players although a few unexpected names do crop up on the team sheets.  “Daniel” is shown in the first match (not the Ray Daniel that Arsenal signed after the war – he would not have been old enough), and the Compton Brothers played a full part – as we shall see in a moment.

The six friendlies Arsenal played immediately after the cessation of the league are listed below.  They were all away matches, and of course all were friendlies.  Data comes from

Date Opponents Half-time Full-time Crowd
13/09/1939 Cardiff City 2-0 4-3 6,000
16/09/1939 Chelmsford City 4-0 4-0 5,000
23/09/1939 Brentford 0-0 0-3 6,969
30/09/1939 Reading 3-0 3-1 8,000
07/10/1939 Chelsea 2-0 3-0 10,036
14/10/1939 Swindon Town 3-0 7-0 8,000

After this game Arsenal joined one of the new regional leagues.  There were ten such across England, and the London teams were for some reason divided up between four of them – perhaps to give a balance to the spread of teams, or perhaps because there was a feeling that those outside the capital liked to see London teams.

For the first match in the new league, for a game against Charlton the line up was


Male Joy Hapgood

Crayston Les Jones

Kirchen  Nelson   Leslie Compton   Lewis   Dennis Compton

Arsenal won 8-4 with goals from Crayston, four from Leslie Compton (including three penalties), two from brother Dennis and one from Lewis.

Full details of the teams for each game are again shown on The Arsenal History site.

There were ten teams in the Football League South “A” Division for 1939/40 and all of the matches save one were played by 8 February 1940, with the missing game (against Southend) not played until 3 April (by which time Arsenal were well into playing a new series in the Football League South “C” Division).

Additionally there was a match against the Army, but as this series is very much Arsenal in the 1930s, I am taking my self-appointed brief seriously, and I shall leave Arsenal at the end of 1939, striding away at the top of the Football League South “A” Division, which a few weeks later they won.  Here are the final Arsenal games of this amazing decade in Arsenal’s history.

Date Opposition Venue Comp. Result Crowd
21/10/1939 Charlton Athletic   H FLSA W8-4 8,934
28/10/1939 Clapton Orient   A FLSA W6-1 8,000
04/11/1939 Crystal Palace   H FLSA W5-0 7,306
11/11/1939 Norwich City   A FLSA D1-1 12,000
18/11/1939 Tottenham Hotspur   H FLSA W2-1 15,000
25/11/1939 Millwall   A FLSA D3-3 15,000
02/12/1939 West Ham United   H FLSA W3-0 10,223
09/12/1939 Watford   A FLSA W3-1 12,000
13/12/1939 Army XI (friendly match)   A Fr W1-0 3,000
16/12/1939 Southend United   H FLSA W5-1 3,396
23/12/1939 Charlton Athletic   A FLSA D0-0 2,000
25/12/1939 Clapton Orient   H FLSA W3-0 4,000
26/12/1939 Crystal Palace   A FLSA W3-0 10,400
30/12/1939 Norwich City   H FLSA D2-2 3,000

For completeness here’s the table at the end of the competition in February 1940

Pos Club P W D L F A Pts
1 Arsenal 18 13 4 1 62 22 30
2 West Ham United 18 12 1 5 57 33 25
3 Millwall 18 8 5 5 46 38 21
4 Watford 18 9 3 6 44 38 21
5 Norwich City 18 7 6 5 41 36 20
6 Charlton Athletic 18 8 1 9 61 58 17
7 Crystal Palace 18 5 3 10 39 56 13
8 Clapton Orient 18 5 3 10 28 60 13
9 Tottenham Hotspur 18 5 2 11 37 43 12
10 Southend United 18 4 0 14 30 61 8

Below is the list of the articles in this series.  I shall be adding some more articles about players from the decade who have not yet got their own page, and also be going back to correct errors and expand articles where I have discovered more information while writing later pieces.

The series started in May 2016, and this first draft is completed in March 2017.  Hopefully running through all the articles and expanding them where new information is to hand, will take rather less time.

If you have been, thank you for reading.  It’s been fun doing it, and I hope you have got something out of it.

Tony Attwood 25 March 2017

Arsenal in the 30s: the series

1930s: the players, the crowds, the tactics

Joseph Szabo, his visit to Arsenal, and the way it changed SC Braga’s history.



2 Replies to “Arsenal in the 30s: Arsenal at the start of the 2nd world war (autumn 1939)”

  1. Thank you Tony. It was a mammoth task you took on and you did it diligently and it gave the reality of what it was really like from game to game each season.

    I always think it was a pity that the statistics of those three league games played in 1939-40 do not stand as at the time they were genuine completed league matches. It would have boosted Ted Drake’s final total of goals by four. In more modern times an FA cup match which after completion was terminated versus Sheffield United the goal by Marc Overmars and appearances by the team were still officially counted.

    Bobby Daniel I think is the player you refer to and he was the elder brother of Ray. He tragically lost his life during the war whilst on active service along with other Arsenal players Henry Cook, Bill Dean, Hugh Glass, Leslie Lack, Bill Parr, Cyril Tooze and as you mentioned Sidney Pugh. These details from ‘Arsenal A Complete Record 1886-1990’ by Fred Ollier.

    I feel it a shame that more fans do not take an interest in their own clubs history and then they might enjoy any success they may have so much more. Thanks again, this Arsenal supporter really appreciates these fantastic historical articles.

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