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The remarkable sacrifices of Tranmere Rovers during World War II

At 11.15 am on 3rd September 1939, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain addressed his nation with solemn intent.

“This morning, the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us,” said Chamberlain. “I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.”

Tranmere Rovers and the Football League during World War II

Eleven days later, the government announced that football games would continue to be played, but not in the recognised professional structure. A 50-mile travelling limit was established, all but forcing the suspension of Football League activity. Regional leagues sprouted up throughout the country with patchwork squads impersonating the most revered clubs in England.

Most of Tranmere’s senior roster enlisted in the armed services, leaving Rovers to field a team of youngsters below conscription age and guest professionals stationed near Merseyside. The Birkenhead Advertiser later reported that 140 players associated with Tranmere Rovers served in what became World War II, while more than 80 different servicemen guested for the club during that period. Manchester United ace Charlie Mitten and Everton striker Tommy Lawton were perhaps the most famous guests as respected professionals used any form of local football to stay sharp.

For smaller clubs such as Tranmere, simply maintaining a presence and keeping the club’s heart beating was a very real challenge during the war. Under the management of Jimmy Moreton, the coaching of Bill Ridding, and the chairmanship of Bob Trueman, Rovers begged for, stole and borrowed players just to stay afloat, participating in regional leagues and ramshackle cup competitions.

Birkenhead during World War II

Birkenhead bore the brunt of repeated raids on Liverpool throughout the conflict, with north-west winds proving particularly troublesome. Land at the periphery of Prenton Park, typically used for parking, was repurposed to house a bank of anti-aircraft guns used to shoot down Luftwaffe planes. The hardy town dug deep into its reserves of trademark resilience, finding ways to survive. The same can be said of its football club, which simply refused to die.

Tranmere initially entered the West League in 1939, but they were regularly outclassed by elite teams such as Liverpool and Everton. Rovers played Manchester United, or at least a demoralised incarnation thereof, in December 1939, losing 4-2. Tranmere played United frequently during the war, even managing a heroic 1-1 draw in 1941.

Tranmere also had frequent games against their Merseyside neighbours. They beat Liverpool 3-2 in December 1940, while a 5-3 thumping of Everton came almost twelve months later.

Despite such incredible victories, wartime competition was plagued by inconsistency and irregularity. Reliance on amateur players made scoring farcically abundant, and the war naturally took precedence, causing the postponement of matches that were never rescheduled. Attendances were greatly reducing through fear of large public gatherings gaining Nazi attention. It was football, but not as we know it.

With travel restrictions in place and civic pride running strong, local competitions gained tremendous value during the war. For instance, the Liverpool Senior Cup enjoyed a boom, imbued with extra significance. All but one iteration of the tournament was completed during the war, a testament to Merseyside’s impenetrable grit and sporting passion. The machinations of evil would not deter our enthusiasm for football.

Tranmere Rovers vs Czech Army XI during World War II

Twelve months into the war, ally struggles culminated in the Dunkirk evacuation, which left Britain’s strategy in ruins. A brigade of 3,300 Czechoslovakian soldiers regrouped in Britain, with many stationed in Cheshire, where a football team dubbed the Czech Army XI coalesced somewhat messily to play Chester in an exhibition game. Trueman, the Tranmere chairman, subsequently invited the Czechs to play at Prenton Park. The patchwork squad of internationals and amateurs agreed, becoming the first foreign team to play against Tranmere.

On 16th September 1940, the United States instituted the Selective Training and Service Act, which required all men between the ages of 21 and 45 to register for a conscription draft, bolstering the war effort. An ocean away, in Birkenhead, the Czechoslovakian flag flew over Prenton Park in a show of solidarity, welcoming allied footballers to a most unusual event.

All proceeds from the match were donated to the Spitfire Fund, under the aegis of Birkenhead. In one of history’s first great triumphs of crowdfunding, local councils, charities and authorities across Britain generated revenue to deploy the spitfires that played an essential role in transforming the war’s momentum. Accordingly, despite attracting only a miniscule crowd for the Czech Army match, Tranmere at least played a small role in the turnaround that led to Allied victory.

Local newspapermen were rather unflattering in their assessment of the Czech team, comparing it unfavourably to the standards of lower league English football.

“They have not the guile and ball control of the English League players,” wrote the Birkenhead News of our visitors, “but they step in first time, absolutely fearless and hit the ball about.’

Tranmere won the match 5-2, joining the select group of domestic football teams that can claim to have beaten an international eleven. It was a small fillip for the weary public of Birkenhead, who were about to face their sternest tests of the war.

How Prenton Park was damaged by Luftwaffe raids during World War II

On the night of 13th March 1941, moving into the following morning, Liverpool’s dockland was the target of sustained raids by the Luftwaffe. Two ships struck mines in the Mersey, while prevailing winds saw much of the Nazi ammunition pepper Birkenhead.

A landmine fell on Borough Road, flattening four houses and killing six residents in the process. Across the street, fencing and parts of the roof at Prenton Park were damaged, prompting members of the Tranmere first team to assist with clearing debris. 

Rovers’ ground was largely unaffected by the war despite frequent raids locally. However, in one of the strangest episodes in Tranmere history, amid the poverty and misery of combat, Rovers actually announced plans to explore a new stadium in central Birkenhead, capable of seating 65,000.

“Plans are afoot for Tranmere Rovers to change their ground to a site in the centre of town after the war,” wrote the Birkenhead News. “Mr RS Trueman, the chairman of the club, being quite confident that the team will achieve First Division status, said that the proposed site they had in mind was in easy access of three railway stations and the ferry, and was on the route of most of the bus services in the borough.

“‘The football fare that the Rovers will offer will attract people from a much wider area than at present,’ he said. ‘Prenton Park, although easily accessible for Birkenhead people, is too out-of-the-way for Liverpool and Wallasey.’

“It is his idea to build a ground worthy of the great team that they are building up at Tranmere Rovers, and he estimates a seating capacity of 65,000.

“‘We have the question of finances all worked out,’ he explained. ‘We do not intent to spend big sums on transfer fees. The cultivation of our own talent cuts that out. And then we have a valuable asset in our present ground, which, with the car park and adjoining land, is one of the largest in the country.’

“Mr Trueman feels confident that this very ambitious project will have successful results if the support he anticipates is forthcoming.”

Even now, all these years later, this is quite remarkable. Mr Trueman was my kind of guy. Even amid the direst circumstances, he was thoroughly intoxicated by the potential of Tranmere Rovers Football Club, a near-hallucinogenic affliction that unites us all.

Bob joins the long line of star-crossed stalwarts who tried and failed to excavate the almost unquenchable potential that lurks within the soul of our club. There’s a fine line between ambitious and stark-raving bonkers, and it runs right through the centre circle at Prenton Park, an equator of rationality.

The legacy of Tranmere Rovers in helping to defeat Adolf Hitler

Moreton, the stoic manager, died suddenly in 1942 following post-surgery complications. His greatest Tranmere legacy was in creating perhaps the first youth system in English football history.

As a means of wartime survival, Moreton opened a training camp in Barnston, near Wirral’s west coast, for schoolboy footballers of the peninsula. Attendees were divided into three teams – A, B and C – according to their skill, with promotion to the first team a tangible reward on the horizon. This model, raw and rudimentary, was later refined by Manchester United, who gained plaudits for supposedly introducing a concept that actually had its genesis in Wirral.

A former Rovers player, Bill Ridding assumed managerial duties when Moreton passed away, giving his all in the upkeep of sacred traditions. With limited resources, Ridding became involved at all levels of the Tranmere operation, acting as trainer, masseur, kit man and groundsman. He mended fences and brushed floors, trained all four teams and plugged gaps wherever they appeared. Few people have done more to help this club survive than Bill Ridding, and his sacrifice is worthy of greater recognition.

On Christmas Day 1942, Ridding convinced Dixie Dean to don the famous Rovers shirt once more. The great man was 35 and all but retired. Something of a marketing stunt, this game against Liverpool was heralded as a homecoming.

However, according to legend, Dean bumped into his friend Pongo Waring outside the ground, boots around his neck, and got talking about the good old days. The two finest exports in Tranmere history eschewed the scheduled match, which Rovers won 3-2, and instead retired to the Prenton Park Hotel, where they drank until last orders. Pongo always loved a pint.

Rovers’ finest wartime crusade came in the 1945-46 Liverpool Senior Cup, which was hotly contested by all powers in the region. Tranmere met Everton in a two-legged semi-final, drawing 3-3 then 2-2 in a pulsating tie. A subsequent replay also finished 3-3 before Rovers lost 2-1 at the fourth time of asking. In the space of six weeks, Tranmere and Everton played over six hours of football, finding separation by just one goal in 19. Liverpool beat Everton in the final, held almost twelve months after Nazi surrender ended the war.

Football League activity resumed fully with the 1946-47 campaign. Tranmere retained their place in Division Three North and finished tenth in that first post-war season, a solid showing made possible only by the perseverance of so many forgotten heroes.

Nine men who should never be forgotten are those associated with Tranmere Rovers who gave their lives in battle so that we can enjoy the cosmopolitan world we have today. Ernie Davies, Stan Docking, Stan Duff, Stan Gooding, Ken Haimes, John Kearns, Gerald Roberts, Gordon Rosenthal and Jack Watson made the ultimate sacrifice, and we should remain eternally thankful.

A total of 80 professional footballers were killed during World War II, and the nine mentioned above all played for Tranmere, comprising 11% of that daunting figure. Few clubs in England have a stronger connection than Tranmere to so many people who gave so much for the benefit of so few. I’m incredibly proud of that fact, which speaks to the ineffable, sequestered, under-appreciated brilliance of this football club and its supportive town.

Tranmere Rovers will always preserve. Just like Birkenhead, and just like Great Britain.

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2 comments

  • Hi- I am an Honorary Committee Member of the MAFCSV – the Memorial Association for Free Czechoslovak Veterans (see the website) Your history of the Czechs is fascinating and I am in the process of creating a short iMovie to celebrate the Czechoslovak football team in particular one its
    captains Miloslav Kaspar who was a personal friend of mine. I have at least managed to get a headline from the local newspaper, but wonder whether there might be something more visual. If not even an idea of the Tranmere badge of that time would be useful. It was incredible to see an a history of the match online and the description of the Czech colours. So quite incredible that so much info has been recorded from the Tranmere frontline. My purpose therefore is really to ask at least what the badge would have been like. Kind regards George Scott

    Dr George Scott
  • Hi- I am an Honorary Committee Member of the MAFCSV – the Memorial Association for Free Czechoslovak Veterans (see the website) Your history of the Czechs is fascinating and I am in the process of creating a short iMovie to celebrate the Czechoslovak football team in particular one its
    captains Miloslav Kaspar who was a personal friend of mine. I have at least managed to get a headline from the local newspaper, but wonder whether there might be something more visual. If not even an idea of the Tranmere badge of that time would be useful. It was incredible to see an a history of the match online and the description of the Czech colours. So quite incredible that so much info has been recorded from the Tranmere frontline. My purpose therefore is really to ask at least what the badge would have been like. Kind regards George Scott

    Dr George Scott

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