Southampton had an interesting Second World War. Being a major port with an enviable record of staging successful invasions of France, and an important centre of such industries as ship building and repair, aircraft construction, telecommunications , motor-transport and tobacco (Napoleon’s army might have marched on its stomach, but your regular Tommy needed your regular nicotine fix) the Luftwaffe paid it particular attention.
Southampton’s blitz statistics are impressive. Keeping them snappy: around 40,000 homes were damaged by bombing, 3,589 of them beyond repair; as 2,586 bombs and 30,652 incendiary fell on the town.
War was declared on Sunday 3 September 1939, three matches into the Football League season – which was officially abandoned on the following Wednesday. Friendlies were quickly arranged and a war league programme was underway by October. With players, nationwide, engaged in war-work and joining the services getting a team together could be hard work. Saints’ manager, Tom Parker, was obliged to select from promising local youngsters and keep an eye out for any useful servicemen stationed on Salisbury Plain. Pompey, being a major garrison town as well as the home of the Fleet, did quite well for “guests”, as did Aldershot Town. Home of the Army Physical Training School, the nation’s elite sportsmen were passing through to train as PT instructors and the Shots’ side brimmed with household names.
Football took on new dimensions at this time. Spectators could never be sure they’d see an entire game. Interruptions by air raids were frequent and transport to away fixtures difficult, both road and rail routes were subject to disruption by bomb damage or military movements and petrol rationing was tight. Saints, as often as not, would travel in a small convoy of private cars or taxis. Many players, guests in particular, had to find their own way to matches and some never made it. There are many instances of players being recruited from the crowd. The most celebrated example of this at The Dell came on Christmas Day 1941, when, by 11am, the advertised kick-off time, only two Bristol City players and the kit had arrived.
The side had left Bristol at 7am that morning in three cars, but one had broken down and the other stopped to assist. The players, officials and the 2,500 crowd amused themselves for forty minutes before it was decided to augment the City side with six Saints’ reserves and three spectators. The missing cars turned up before half time, too late for the passengers to participate. City’s skipper attempted to take the field by changing into the kit of an injured player and muddying himself up at half-time. The ruse was spotted before the game re-started. Saints won 5-2.
Southampton’s worst experience of a conflict that has left lasting scars was the eleven hours of bombing over two nights, November 30 and 1 December 1940, that brought Southampton to a standstill: sans gas, water, electricity, roads and rail. Amidst the mayhem the Milton Road end penalty area took a direct hit, the conduit carrying Rollsbrook beneath The Dell was damned and the pitch was flooded. Unsurprisingly, football being a lower priority that getting the town and port to function, The Dell would not reopen until the following October. Saints were obliged to play all their league fixtures away. Their one home game during this period was a War Cup tie first leg against Brentford on 15 February 1941. Saints were welcomed to Fratton Park. Pompey partisans stoutly supported their derby club. Saints drew 2-2 and lost 3-0 at Griffin Park.
The Dell sustained war damage again in March 1941. This time the centre of the West Stand went up in flames. The culprits were the RAF, who had being doing something “hush hush” in its offices since war was declared.
A lot has been written about Southampton and World War Two. The port will forever be synonymous with the Supermarine Spitfire and the Normandy Invasions, but those contributions were the tip of a substantial iceberg. The Saints did their bit to keep things going, provide a little respite for workers and service personnel about the town at what was a particularly stressful time. Imagine trying to sleep in a crowded public shelter after a 10 or 12 hour working day, listening to bombs falling and the buildings above you collapsing.
Germany surrendered 8 May 1945. This provoked memorable celebrations all over the country. Southampton was not an exception – but the war continued in the Far East.
Above Bar photographed from the Bargate – 1930s
Above Bar photographed from the Bargate – 1945
Careful scrutiny of the programme above will reveal that Sgt Alf Ramsey was at centre-half for the Army. He would play in the half-back line and as a centre-forward for Saints before settling at right-back.
Arthur House, a regular in Saints’ goal before the Fleet Air Arm wafted him to the Indian Ocean.