Arsenal at war


By R J Nicolle

This is part two of the recollections by R J Nicolle.  To read part one, please click here

Oldham was very good to we schoolboys. Apart from the welcoming folk we were given free visits to the cinemas, swimming baths and, more importantly,free seats at Oldham Athletic.

The peculiarities of wartime football soon became apparent. No player could be paid more than £2.50 a game and the country was split into North and South Divisions to avoid unnecessary travel.

Guest appearances became the norm with many famous players turning out for the clubs nearest to their military establishment or factory where they worked.

As an example, I once turned up at an Oldham game to find that our goalie was none other than Arsenal’s George Swindin. Oldham were under the cosh throughout the game, only to be saved time and time again by George’s heroics. At the final whistle, he received a standing ovation from spectators AND both teams.

In 1941, the qualifiers in each Division met at Wembley in a FA Wartime Cup Final.  Arsenal drew with Preston North End and the replay took place at Ewood Park, the home of Blackburn Rovers. Three of us from School went to the game (our first chance to see our heroes in the flesh!).

My eyes hardly left Ted Drake.………my special hero. At one stage, Arsenal had a corner from the right wing. Ted and the Preston goalie stood side by side level with the back post. As the corner was taken, Ted struck his left  arm out and grasped the upright in front of the goalie preventing him from advancing to meet the incoming ball. No-one seemed to notice and it was my introduction to professional gamesmanship. Arsenal lost the match 2-1.

In 1942, I moved down to London and I recall an incident which typified the depth of  memory displayed by fans of the Club. My father had remained in the Island under German Occupation and the only contact we had with each other was by infrequent International Red Cross messages, rather like telegrams, 25 words a time.

In an effort to let him know I was in London, in one message I said “Saw Ted Drake yesterday”. In 1945, after the Liberation of the Islands, Dad confirmed that my crafty ploy had worked!

For the most popular Cup Finals, Home Internationals and Inter Services Command games at places like Wembley, the attendance was limited  to 75,000, a surprisingly high figure bearing in mind the danger of air raids.

Each match programme contained directions to the nearest air raid shelter. Whether any match was disrupted by German aircraft I very much doubt. I think the enemy  would have fought shy of bombing an innocent sporting crowd  for fear of world-wide condemnation.

In 1943, Arsenal beat Charlton Athletic 7-1 in the South Division’s Cup Final, watched by 75,000 of us with little thought of an air raid. While in London, I watched Arsenal games as much as possible. Highbury had been taken over as an Air Raid Precautions  Station and was itself bombed.The Club played all its home matches at White Hart Lane and usually managed to turn out a fair proportion  of its stars in matches.

Most of the players however were drafted into the Services as PT Instructors and some attained quite high rank. One charity game I remember was when Arsenal played an RAF XI which included Stanley Matthews. Opposing him was England and Arsenal left back and skipper, Eddie Hapgood. Eddie never gave him a kick and the booing as each tackle or interception went in was amazing. Fans booing their man for outplaying Stan’s usual trickery.

When I think back to those wartime games, the atmosphere was nowhere near  the partisanship of today’s football. Historians and students of the time will say that football was important for the morale of the nation at a time of food rationing, long working hours for many, the blackout and the general malaise of a country at war.

I sensed a release of tension at matches rather than the opposite. Crowds would react to the happenings on the field as a relief from the day-to-day struggles of ordinary life.

Following the end of the War, I returned home to the Islands and in 1948, got married.

During our honeymoon in England, we watched Arsenal, back at Highbury, play Burnley in a virtual decider for the Division 1 title that year.Two front row seats in the East Stand at 52p each!

On our arrival at the ground, an estimated 20,000 fans outside meant we had to ask a mounted policeman to help us get in to join the 62,000 attendance. Arsenal won 3-0 and the scorer of two of the goals was an aging but rejuvenated Ronnie Rook signed from Fulham. A somewhat rotund Denis Compton (he of cricketing fame) played outside left and his brother Leslie was in midfield.Joe Mercer the former Everton and now Arsenal skipper shone as usual as did Bryn Jones, the Club’s record signing of 1938.

When I watch now on TV, in old age, the speed, ball control and technique of the modern players bears little resemblance to that of the 1940’s. The wartime game was of necessity affected by the quality of life at the time coupled with non-existent training, yet in those grim years the simple enjoyment of watching The Lads was a regular boost to the spirits of many.


If you have a historic recollection of Arsenal, we’d love to publish it. Please forward it to

Woolwich Arsenal Index

Untold Arsenal Index

“Making the Arsenal – the book”

11 Replies to “Arsenal at war”

  1. Looking at that post of mine it could easily be misread but it was absolutely genuine and meant without a hint of sarcasm.

  2. Ralph, Glad you enjoyed my memories of yesteryear. At 86, it provided me with a last bit of therapy!

  3. I was great to read this story.
    As being not English I always have find the Channel Islands a bit intruiging. I have thought of going over there to have a look because people who have been there have told me that they are very lovely islands but never actually got there.

    And I really love to read such personal story’s. Thanks RJ for sharing this.

  4. It is from the Woolwich Arsenal armaments factory around the turn of the century

  5. Does anyone know if there is a comprehensive list of all the players that appeared as guests for The Arsenal during both wars?

  6. Mark

    I can recommend ‘ARSENAL, a complete record 1886-1990’ by Fred Ollier if you can get a copy. It is as comprehensive as you can get I would think. I have just checked Amazon and they have plenty of copies from, wait for it, 1p. with postage at £2.80.

  7. It sits on my desk Nigel, very battered and worn. If only he would bring out an updated edition. It does have every wartime game, with the teams, although you do need a long ruler and fairly decent eyesight.

  8. Many thanks Nigel and Tony. I have the book, and have had it for years, just wondered if there was a truly comprehensive list though as wanted to make sure that my own records were correct. Thanks again

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