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When Football Stopped - The Second World War

The Thirties were Town's golden years.  Division 1 for most of the time, two FA Cup semi-finals, and international players even though there weren't all that many internationals played then compared to now.

12 May 2020

The Thirties were Town's golden years.  Division 1 for most of the time, two FA Cup semi-finals, and international players even though there weren't all that many internationals played then compared to now.

But by the late thirties another war with Germany was inevitable.  By the time Town were in prospect of playing the greatest single game in their history - it didn't quite turn out like that - the Wolves semi-final at Old Trafford actually got fewer column inches in the Grimsby Telegraph than local preparations for war.  But still the possibility of a new season was in the planning stages.  The Osmond Stand was finished over the summer, and after an opening day defeat at Old Trafford (the last league game played at Old Trafford for nearly ten years), the Stand was opened on the Tuesday for a match with the old enemy - Wolves.  12,000 turned up for that, but the following Saturday, fewer than 7,000 saw Town beat Preston NE 2-0.  By the time the game had started, thousands of Grimsby schoolchildren had already been evacuated to a rural life, as far afield as the Fens.  The following day, war was declared and football stopped immediately.  The lesson had been learned from the previous conflict that football couldn't carry on as normal when others were fighting and dying.

That lesson was even carried forward to 2020 when the football authorities stopped games and large gatherings before the government decided to make it official.

The Football League decided to have regional leagues exactly as in the First World War (as it could now be called, rather than the Great War), and Town played in the East Midland Division, with ten other teams, eventually ending up 4th, with the best home gate by far being the 6,936 that saw a 7-3 win against the Imps.  Town were able to keep a nucleus of regular first-teamers with a few from the reserves, and as in WWI, guest players who were stationed locally.  Similarly, Town players who had been called up were playing as guests for other teams, and perhaps in the darkest days of the war, even a notional team helped maintain spirits.  Remarkably, for most games in the first two years of war leagues, the first six players that trip off the tongues of Mariners fans remained together … Tweedy, Vincent, Hodgson JV, Hall, Betmead, Buck!  Their war-time jobs meant that they remained local.

By the second season gates at Blundell Park had plummeted to as low as 600.  The decision was made to move "home" games to Scunthorpe's Old Showground.  It is usually stated, with good cause, that this was down to the proximity of Blundell Park to the docks …. more of that shortly, and that Scunthorpe, despite its steelworks was considered safer for large gatherings.  However, there may have been another motive: there were restrictions on travel, and by moving nearer the other clubs in the league, Town could comply with travel restrictions AND play teams that were more local to Scunthorpe rather than Grimsby.


The threat from German bombing was very real, and perhaps no more so than in 1943 when Grimsby, Cleethorpes and Immingham became the target for a new kind of weapon - the "butterfly bomb."  It was the first time they had been used, and brought terror to the area.  A first wave of bombers dropped incendiary bombs which started fires all over the area.  30 minutes later a second wave of bombers dropped the anti-personnel butterfly bombs with three different fuses.  Some would blow up immediately on impact, some had a 30 minute time delay, and some would only explode if disturbed.  As firefighters fought the infernos started by the incendiaries, many were killed by the explode-on-impact butterfly bombs.  The medics who raced to help the firefighters were then caught in the time-delayed explosives, and for days and weeks the explode-on-disturbance ones sent fear throughout the area.  That one raid accounted for half of the local civilians killed during the entire war.  One can only imagine the carnage if the raid had been carried out at Blundell Park during a match!

Meanwhile Immingham became a naval base, with Lord Mountbatten using the County Hotel as his HQ for a time.  Blimps were flown from anchorages around the docks, trawlermen joined the navy and trawlers again became minesweepers (a plan that continued into the 1980s, even when there were almost no trawlers!) as well as other tasks such as anti-submarine warfare.  Many Grimsby fishermen joined Harry Tate's Navy as it came to be called, doing their training down at Sparrow's Nest, Lowestoft.  Grimsby became the largest minesweeping base in the country, accounting for 34,858 mines alone.  Grimsby trawlers and Grimsby sailors were involved all over the globe - round the British Isles, on the Russian convoys, the Battle of the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and of course in the largest armada ever seen - D-Day.  Grimsby anti-submarine trawlers were even sent to the east coast of the USA, as the States were struggling with u-boats in their own waters!

RAF bases, especially bomber bases were built all over Northern Lincolnshire, many within a short distance of Grimsby (and Scunthorpe, when Town played there).  These gave the opportunity for many pro-footballers based at Waltham, North Cotes, Manby and Binbrook to play for the Mariners, but also to provide referees too, and it was one such referee who took control of the second leg of a cup tie between Town and Barnsley.  The game had finished all square after 90 minutes, which was also all-square on aggregate, so the game continued into extra time …. And continued …. And continued.  Eventually, the referee could stay no longer as he was due back at his local RAF base, and so the game was decided on the better league position … Barnsley therefore going through. 

Town set an Old Showground attendance record - remember Scunny were still a non-league side at the time - when in the second leg of the War League Cup semi-final they were drawn against Sunderland.  More than 20,000 watched the draw at Roker Park, and almost 12,000 packed into the Old Showground expecting a Town victory.  Sadly they were disappointed as the Mariners lost by the odd goal in five.

The Moore brothers - Norman and Roy, also both played for the Mariners in 41/42.  Roy's sons - Kevin, Andy and current trainer Dave - all played for the Town in the eighties!  In the 43-44 season, Dickie Dorsett guested for Town on 12 occasions, whilst in goal for Town for each of those dozen games was George Moulson.  It was the collision between the pair in the 1939 FA semi that had had such a bearing on the result!

The Mariners returned "home" from their Scunthorpe sojourn on 1st January 1944, when Dorsett scored Town's equaliser against Doncaster Rovers.  Town's home gates bore a remarkable similarity to those they had enjoyed at Blundell Park in the Great War, even for the final league game of 1944-45 as the Allies overran Germany.

Vast numbers of players played for the Mariners throughout the war years, with Town never pulling up any trees in any of the leagues.

As VE Day was celebrated on 8th May 1945, the war in the Pacific reached a climax, and finally Japan surrendered in the middle of August 1945.

It was too late to restart peacetime football with the pre-war leagues.  Players were still signed to clubs, but were posted all over the globe, and most were still to be demobbed (de-mobilised).  So the wartime leagues and rules continued for the first year of peace.  The exception was the FA Cup which was held over two-legs, with Town drawing old rivals Sunderland.  Town lost each leg of the 3rd round, and so were out.

At last "proper" football returned for the 1946-7 season, and Town resumed in the First Division.  It was decided to use the barely-begun fixture list from the 1939-40 season.  History repeated itself pretty much from the end of the Great War ….  Town's pre-war players were all 7 years older, and the club was hit harder than many.  The first game was against Manchester United, but this time not at Old Trafford which had been bombed on at least two occasions, but at Maine Road.  The game was the very first league game with Matt Busby as United manager.  Town finished a respectable 16th, Liverpool, won the Championship, with Manchester United runners up.  But it was only a delay of the inevitable, as the Mighty Mariners finished rock bottom the following season and were relegated from the top flight, with their last ever game being an 8-0 thrashing off Champions Arsenal.

The effects of war continued for another decade as young men were called up for "National Service" … where youngsters - right at the age where they should be making their breakthrough into first-team football were whisked off into the armed forces for a couple of years.  Many of Town's players of the era losing two years to this.  Crowds across football boomed, with most clubs recording their largest gates at this time.  Blundell Park attendances peaked in 1949-50, despite being in the second division, with a mammoth average of 18,238.

Apart from the winter of 1962-3 when games were postponed for weeks on end, this was the last time football stopped …. Until this season.  And football STILL remembers the lesson learned in 1914-15 - that sometimes football HAS to take a back seat to much bigger things!


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