Life During Wartime

Posted by Mickey Cooper on 9 November 2019

There was an inevitability about the approaching war during 1938 and 1939, as events moved towards the resumption of the conflict which had ended only a generation before.  On Good Friday 1939 Erith & Belvedere captain Len Scott (who made 434 Deres appearances and scored 158 goals from 1931-48) took the microphone at the derby with Bexleyheath.  He urged the 2,838 crowd to sign up for National Service or ARP, “to protect your home and your family”.  The tragic irony in this was that among those killed in the wartime bombing of Belvedere were Len Scott’s wife and child.

 

And soon enough the war clouds descended on Park View.  Only three games had been played in the Kent League by 3 September 1939, when the declaration of war interrupted press secretary Hugh Richards as he wrote his notes for the local paper.  He wrote: “At this stage of my notes news has arrived of the declaration of war, which automatically will put an end to sport...”  Of course it wasn’t long before the value of sport to wartime morale was recognised. On 6 October, regional amateur league officials met to arrange four geographical groupings, and Deres were placed in the “South East Combination” with Bromley, Dulwich Hamlet, Nunhead, Redhill, Sutton United, Tooting and Mitcham and Wimbledon.  Deres had a number of players engaged in work important to the war effort at places such as Woolwich Arsenal and Callenders Cables, and consequently lost fewer players to the Forces than clubs from leafier areas.  But no club went entirely untouched by the war, and this article looks at how pre-war and post-war Deres players fared during the conflict.

 

 

Ernie Drew (37 apps, 1938-40) had the distinction of being the first Deres player to be called up: his papers arrived on 15 July 1939.  At the time his CO at Brentwood barracks refused to let him play for any team outside the Army, although he seems to have relented as Ernie was able to play three games that autumn.  His last Deres game was on 4 November.  On the 11th he was unable to play following inoculations, and by the 18th he was reported to be on the move to “an unknown destination” with the Army.  Nothing more was heard about him until the following June, when he was reported as part of the BEF being rescued from Dunkirk.

 

A handful of other Deres took part in major set pieces during the war.  Full-back Stan White (25 apps, 1 goal 1948-50) parachuted into France on D-Day, and centre-forward Fred Ford (69 apps, 22 goals 1934-36), who had played in the First Division for Charlton, was Mentioned in Dispatches for his work ferrying troops across the Channel in the period following D-Day, during which time he was wounded and lost his right index finger. 

 

Harold Gee (36 apps, 24 goals, 1932-34) had his career interrupted by two different wars.  Having signed for Charlton Athletic from the Deres, he went on loan to Español in Barcelona – in 1936, which made it an ill-timed move!  At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War he returned to Charlton and was there until World War II.  He made four wartime appearances for Bolton Wanderers.  Joining the First Airborne Division, he made 153 parachute descents and took part in the Arnhem operation.

 

Other players who featured in the decisive advance through France and Germany were Reg Beal (201 apps, 76 goals, 1932-40) who served with the Transport Corps, Bill Phelps (25 apps, 1948-49) who served with the Royal Engineers, and Bob Penney (226 apps, 6 goals, 1950-57) who served in the anti-tank infantry and reached the rank of sergeant before demob.

 

 

Several past and future Deres took to the skies.  Sid Faggetter (21 apps, 22 goals 1949-50), Tommy Fuller (129 apps, 20 goals 1937-55) and Reg Stather (54 apps, 18 goals 1950-53) all served with the RAF: it’s not known where they were stationed, although Stather guested for Notts County.  Len Lowther (19 apps, 4 goals 1949-52) served two years with the RAF in the East, stationed at Karachi and Cawnpore.  Goalkeeper Lew Collins (112 apps 1948-52) served for 3½ years with the RAF in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, and turned out in goal for the RAF’s water polo team in 1945.  (He was also, reportedly, a pianist with a 17-piece dance band!) 

 

Pat O’Hara (257 apps, 39 goals 1937-48) must have been the last Deres player to be called up – he was called up in March 1945 for the war in the Far East, and his farewell appearance was as late as 24 March, a victorious London Senior Cup semi-final.  Pat saw service with the airborne RA in Burma, and on being demobbed sailed from India on 24 May 1947, returning in time for Deres’ end-of-season social in June: possibly the last Deres player to return from the war too.

 

 

Other players risked their lives on the seas.  Tom Garden (12 apps, 7 goals 1948-50) spent three wartime years escorting Atlantic convoys before returning to a steadier life with Bexley Borough Council.  Tom Jenner (90 apps, 6 goals 1941-53) was called up to active service in December 1942 and served in the Mediterranean.  Tom lived to the age of 101 and I was lucky enough to know him in his last years.  I also met “Jock” McCullough (257 apps, 20 goals 1946-56) who had travelled from his native Workington to a job in Erith aged just 15 in 1936.  Jock served with the Navy, stationed at Soba Island (very inappropriately named, he told me!), an island opposite the naval dockyard of Trincomalee, Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka).  There he ate rotten food and played football for the Navy in a tournament against the locals.

 

A common theme of newspaper profiles of Deres players’ wartime activities was how and where they played football.   A player whose name was given only as Aircraftsman Adams (presumably stationed somewhere like Biggin Hill) turned out for Deres in February 1941, illustrating that you got your football in when and where you could.  Freddie Boatwright (37 apps, 9 goals 1948-50) played for Millwall, Sutton and Newport County as an amateur during the war.  He served with REME, although a broken ankle in a services game spared him active service.  Harold Gurr (383 apps, 87 goals 1939-60) guested for Bournemouth and Tottenham’s reserve sides in wartime football.  John Smith (81 apps, 3 goals 1939-51) played for Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City reserves; Dave Walker (21 apps, 8 goals 1949-50) who could have been an amateur international but for the war, guested for Crewe Alexandra; Ernie Stygal (31 apps, 1936-41) made half a dozen appearances for Dundee United, and N Watson-Smith (8 apps, 1942-43) was invited to “assist” Arsenal.

Football was perhaps literally a life-saver for Charlie Sargent (53 apps, 1 goal 1940-46). He was one of those exempt from the call-up due to his crucial work in Woolwich Arsenal.  On 30 January 1943 the Deres beat holders Walthamstow Avenue 2-1 in the London Senior Cup, and that afternoon several of his colleagues were killed when the Woolwich Arsenal took a direct hit in an air-raid. 

 

A handful of players earned representative honours.  Ken Lister (11 apps 1941-44) had joined the Auxiliary Fire Service before the war, served with the Fire Brigade during the war and captained the brigade’s football team, coming up against the likes of Ted Drake in representative games: he also played for the All England National Fire Service XI.  Eddie Coote (9 apps, 10 goals 1949-50) played for the Navy: soon after the war it was reported that in the desperate housing situation, Eddie worked for a firm of construction engineers but couldn’t get a house himself.  Bill Corlett (39 apps, 1 goal 1954-56) stayed on at the war’s end and served 12 years with the Royal Artillery as a bombardier, representing the Army and Eastern Command in Services matches.  He was still based at Woolwich and his Deres appearances as late as 1954 were interrupted by calls to turn out for Army representative teams.

 

 

Several players featured in far-flung games.  Bill Bowers (108 apps, 20 goals 1946-53) served with the RAMC in the Middle East and played alongside Tom Finney.  Arthur “Tubby” Warboys (104 apps, 1 goal 1945-51) had the distinction of playing for Charlton, Millwall and the British Pacific Fleet. 

 

Albert Harris (24 apps, 3 goals 1935-38) became an Army sergeant and in September 1943 he played centre-half for an Army side against the Dutch Army in Ceylon.  The British won by four goals, two of them by Johnny Morrison (2 apps, 3 goals 1939-42).  Belvedere-born Johnny rose via Callenders and Northfleet to score 102 goals for Spurs before the war, and guested twice for the Deres during it: he may have been a Spurs player, but in the Army he was a Gunner!

 

Fred Wilson (14 apps, 1938-52) spent three years with the Royal Engineers in Italy – he also played for Services sides in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – and would have stayed with an Italian club after his war service if he had been single.

 

Charlie Fuller (99 apps 1936-54) served in the Royal Artillery during the war, but his family recalls him playing football more than he was on duty – they have a photo of him being presented to King George VI at Stamford Bridge before a Services Cup game between the Army and the RAF, which the RAF won 4-1.  Charlie was in liberated Holland, playing for Bromley v Arnhem, nine days before VE Day, when three planes came flying low over the ground. The visitors were scared witless until the planes dropped thousands of red carnations as thanks to the British liberators. Charlie and his team-mates were presented with plaques after the 4-1 win.

 

 

Two Deres are known to have been prisoners of war.  Bob Prescott (95 apps, 6 goals 1940-48) served as a corporal in the Hants Regiment, fitting in a match for a Services team on 10 September 1944 in the Roma Stadium (presumably the one that had hosted the 1934 World Cup Final).  However in October 1944 he was wounded and taken prisoner – his family had not heard from him by mid-March 1945.  At the war’s end he returned to Erith and to the Deres, scoring v Walton and Hersham in his comeback game in September 1945.

 

Few could have had a more harrowing experience than Jim Townsend (46 apps, 4 goals 1933-47).  He joined the Royal Artillery and was taken prisoner by the Japanese at Singapore in 1942.  One day, playing football barefoot in a prisoner-of-war camp, he heard someone shouting “Come on you Deres!” – and discovered that a man named Brooks from Erith was in the camp with him!  We can only try to imagine Jim’s experiences for the rest of the war – he was one of those forced to work on the construction of the notorious Burma railway, and the skeletal features of British soldiers emerging from Japanese PoW camps are a lasting image.  He survived bouts of malaria and cholera, and saved another prisoner’s life by distracting guards at a crucial moment when his comrade had stolen food.

 

 

And finally, only one Deres player is known to have been killed in action.  Alf Reeve (28 apps 1939-41) had played for Sutton United from 1935-38, came to Deres at the start of the war and remained until January 1941, when he was called up for service with the Navy.  He served as a telegraphist on HMS Harvester on the North Atlantic convoys.  Having destroyed a U-boat in the Battle of the Atlantic, Harvester was itself sunk by a U-boat the following day, 11 March 1943, and Alf went down with the ship, at the age of 27.  He is named on the Chatham Naval Memorial.  (More information on him can be found on the Sutton United message board “Amber Planet”.)

 

 

Rest in peace Alf, and our grateful thanks for their contribution to all the above-named and to the others whose war stories remain unknown.

 

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