Posted: 8 August 2012 20:59
As Olympic fever has well and truly gripped the country following the recent flurry of Team GB medals, I thought some wartime sports reports might be of interest.
Sport was important to the armed forces; it provided an enjoyable means of keeping service personnel fit and healthy beyond endless route marches and fitness circuits. Archive documents provide myriad examples of sporting activity in East Sussex.
The large numbers of troops in Sussex were engaged on construction of defence works from May 1940, and any other time was allotted for regular physical and other essential training, such as shooting. By winter 1940, however, the situation had relaxed as the invasion scare receded, and sporting activity increased on the training syllabus.
War diaries record numerous inter-battalion and regimental competitions, and it was quite common for army units to put up a team to take on the local village team at traditional British sports such as football and cricket.
The following pieces describe examples of sport involving the British and Canadian Armies in East Sussex during the war.
Boxing has always been an Army favourite because it requires physical fitness, fast reflexes, dexterity and aggression.
As the flyer at right shows, boxing was not just for the field Army; the young lads of the Army cadet Force regularly boxed as part of their "toughening up" for full military service.
An account of a regimental boxing match from a Canadian War Diary describes the addition of wrestling to give the audience something to shout about:
The first event of the morning was a wrestling match between Pte Holloway and Pte Wilkins.
No "grunt and groan" match is complete without the usual appellations and accordingly Pte Holloway was named "Young Tarzan" and Pte Wilkins "Tex Wilkins". Pte Wilkins originally came from Houston, Texas to join the Regiment and the name selected was quite appropriate.
The match was a huge success, plenty of action; plenty of agony expressed by the participants; cat calls from the audience. This match gave the troops a chance to get off their chest any shouting or booing they felt as the boxing matches following were to be held under Army rules which lays down that during the actual rounds of boxing, there shall be strict silence from the audience. Canada has always been a country where sport enthusiasts have expressed their feelings in loud shouting or booing and it is quite a mental strain on the troops to have to remain quiet.
The first bout of the afternoon was again a wrestling match, this time between "Tex Wilkins" and Lance Corporal "Big Boy Farmer Hamilton". As was the case during the morning, the bout was a howling success, the crowning touch coming when the Auxiliary Officer for Brigade HQ was involuntarily brought into the fracas...
The Royal Canadian Army Service Corps of the First Canadian Division held a sports meet at Uckfield in 1942 between its three constituent companies, Ammunition Company, Supply Company and Petrol Company. It is the diary of the latter that supplies a full results sheet from the meeting; not surprising given that Petrol Company comprehensively won the day.
I've summarised some of the key events and results in the table below and added in the winning results from the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin for comparison. Note that the Canadian race distances are in yards, while the Olympic races are in metres. I've converted the Canadian throwing/jumping results to metres.
|1 Canadian Division RCASC Sports Meet, Uckfield, 1942
|1936 Berlin Olympics Gold Medal
|100 yard dash
|Pte W. BURRIDGE
|10.8 sec (91m)
|10.3 sec (100m)
|Jesse Owens (US)
|220 yard dash
|Pte W. BURRIDGE
|25.3 sec (201m)
|20.7 sec (200m)
|Jesse Owens (US)
|Pte E. BRAITHWAITE
|58.0 sec (402m)
|46.2 sec (400m)
|Archie Williams (US)
|Pte E. BRAITHWAITE
|2.21.3 sec (804m)
|1.52.7 sec (800m)
|John Woodruff (US)
|CSM J. STACKHOUSE
|Hans Woellke (Ger)
|Pte R. DUNLOP
|Cornelius Johnson (US)
|Pte L. TUCKER
|Jesse Owens (US)
|Pte L. WHITSON
|Naoto Tajima (Japan)
Shooting is an obvious competitive military sport. Another Canadian regiment recorded that in 1942:
The local Women's Transport Corps were holding a shoot today and invited Lt-Col --- and Capt. --- to attend. The women shot remarkably well, so we are told by sources other than those of the Regiment who were present. However, Capt. --- did mention that he was sure they could beat the "I" Platoon snipers, which leads one to believe that the Regiment's representatives were out-shot. Naturally this point was not pressed, but we did continue to wonder...
The Canadians did fare better against the Hailsham Home Guard shooting team however. When challenged to a contest, the Canadians seemed sufficiently doubtful of their ability that they constructed a small firing range at their Brigade HQ and conducted practice every evening.
In the event, the Canadians carried the day, scoring 829 points out of a possible 900. No gold medal, but Pte King's score of 97 out of 100 won him a tin of marmalade!
By 1943 endless military exercises appear to have knocked sports off the syllabus for the Canadian forces in East Sussex:
The band was again the chief attraction at the Regimental Sports held in Hailsham. An excellent sports programme was efficiently carried out and neglect of this important feature of training and morale-building was apparent.
More practice is needed in softball but the tug-of-war teams, even without practice proved their mettle. The programme was rounded off by a band concert in the evening which was a real treat and thoroughly enjoyed by everyone present.
It seems that some sort of opening and closing ceremony performance is a must for large wartime sporting occasions, perhaps reflecting the Olympic pageantry.
The above extract mentions tug-of-war and softball - a variant of baseball and regularly the focus of inter-unit rivalry. These were not the only games the Canadians were fond of however; volleyball, hockey and basketball were also popular, but our final event is comparatively little-known and not (yet) an Olympic event.
A lot of Canadian troops had an agricultural background and, come the season, were only too happy to volunteer to help Sussex farmers gather in their harvests to make good the shortfall of labour due to conscription.
'Horseshoes' is, not surprisingly, a game grounded in agriculture; teams throw horseshoes at a pair of stakes at opposing ends of the 'pitch'.
The regiment that had previously been competing in Hailsham continued with its sporting programme:
The softball team were guests of the local Light Anti-Aircraft (LAA) Regiment and brought home the bacon to the tune of 17-9.
Being true hosts (!!!) the Regiment PERMITTED the LAA to win the horseshoe contest by a score of 440-438 when they visited our model camp site.
From reading the full diary you get the impression that having a horseshoes pitch was one of the facets that constituted a "model camp site!"
Three days after the horseshoes competition, the regiment was dispatching parties of men to bring home the harvest on the local farms.
The forces have long supplied sportsmen and women on the national and international stage; the Royal Engineers were runners-up in two of the first three FA Cup competitions 1872-74, winning the 1875 final.
Then there's my own experience; during my basic training the officer commanding my platoon used to absolutely run us ragged around barracks and the playing field. After an early morning run, we'd all be lying on the ground, exhausted and coughing our lungs up, while said Officer would be running on the spot and then doing an extra lap (or ten) of the parade ground to emphasis our lack of fitness.
From that moment on, I resolved to never again get involved in physical training with an Olympic athlete...
A record of events kept by all units from the point of mobilisation. A diary's contents vary enormously from unit to unit; some give detailed entries by the hour on a daily basis while others merely summarise events on a weekly/monthly basis.
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Hibbs, Peter Wartime sport in East Sussex (2024) Available at: http://pillbox.org.uk/blog/216708/ Accessed: 5 March 2024
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