Leeds United in the shadow of war

On 1st October 1938, spirits were high among the crowd at Elland Road. The previous day, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had returned home from the Munich Conference and declared “Peace for our time!”. On the field, Leeds’s prolific centre forward Gordon Hodgson scored five times in an 8-2 thrashing of Leicester City (he remains the only Leeds United player to have scored five goals in a game).

Also on the scoresheet that day was my great uncle Jack Hargreaves. Having been in and out of the side since his debut in 1936, he played 28 times at outside left in 1938/39 scoring 9 times to finish second top scorer behind Hodgson.

Leeds had begun the season in sensational form and a 2-1 win away at Blackpool on 19th November put them in third place. Fans began to dream of an unlikely first League Championship title but these hopes proved to be as illusory as the prospect of lasting peace and the side’s form slumped dramatically, as the shadow of war lengthened over the continent. By the time the season ended with Leeds in 13th place, the possibility of war seemed increasingly inevitable.

Despite this, Leeds embarked on a post-season Scandinavian tour culminating in three matches in Denmark in May 1939. Less than 12 months later, Denmark would be under German occupation.

Programme from Leeds United’s Danish tour

The squad for that tour contained a mix of seasoned veterans such as Hodgson and fellow England internationals Wilf Copping and Willis Edwards, as well as talented youngsters including Uncle Jack, goalkeeper Jim Twomey, inside left Eric Stephenson (twice-capped by England) and centre forward George Ainsley. If war had not robbed these players of six years of their careers, who knows what this talented Leeds side could have achieved?

Upon his return from Denmark, Jack married my grandma’s sister, Madge and they honeymooned in Scarborough and were pictured walking arm in arm together through Peasholm Park.

Newly-weds Jack and Madge Hargreaves on honeymoon in Scarborough

In the run up to the start of the 1939/40 season, Leeds United optimistically advertised for corporate season ticket holders to entertain clients at Elland Road blithely ignoring the imminent likelihood of conflict. The season itself began on 25th August but league competition was annulled after three games following the outbreak of war on 3rd September 1939. Although wartime games were played throughout the war, official league competition did not resume until 1946/47.

Although Jack survived the war and resumed his professional career with, first, Bristol City and then giant-killing Yeovil Town, several of his team mates sadly did not.

Eric Stephenson was killed on active service in Burma, whilst attacking an enemy bunker, on 8th September 1944. Including wartime games, Stephenson played 154 times for Leeds United, scoring 29 goals, and gained two full England caps. He could potentially have been one of Leeds’s finest players.

He was a Major in the Ghurka Rifles and part of the ‘Chindits’ special operations group operating behind enemy Japanese lines. In a letter to his widow, Olive, Stephenson’s commanding officer said that “Eric had died a happy warrior. He was killed instantly on the edge of a Japanese position in a remote part of Burma. We buried him where he lay on top of a jungle covered mountain. A service of remembrance was held at his graveside shortly afterwards.

Leeds United played Celtic in a benefit match for Stephenson’s family on 26th May 1947. A memorial to Stephenson can be found in a stained-glass window in Lidgett Park Methodist Church, Roundhay.

Credit: Celtic programmes online website

On 27th April 1944, former youth player Robert Montgomery was piloting a Lancaster bomber during a raid to Schweinfurt, Germany. It was his tenth combat mission. The flight path was heavily defended by German night fighters, one of which flew up beneath Montgomery’s aircraft and raked its belly with cannon fire – a tactic known as ‘Schrage Musik’.

Montgomery, and four of his crew, went down with the ‘plane to their deaths. The rear gunner (Sergeant Baker) and mid-upper gunner (Sergeant Mitchell) parachuted clear. Baker was captured but Mitchell escaped through France and into Switzerland from where he was repatriated.

Pilot Officer Montgomery and the other deceased crew members (Pilot Officer Cluff and Sergeants Boyce, Smith and Parkin) were laid to rest in Bure Churchyard, Meuse, France.

Montgomery was a talented schoolboy centre forward who was signed by Leeds United manager Billy Hampson in September 1938. The outbreak of the war robbed him of the chance of first team football but he played for the reserve and youth teams and won a Yorkshire League runners-up medal.

Born in Ireland, Montgomery made his home in Beeston during his time with the club. He collected autographs and scrapbook clippings, all of which were auctioned by Bonhams in 2009. He was only 22 at the time of his death. 

Fred Mills was killed on active service on 5th December 1944. Mills, who could play at either centre-forward or inside-right, played 67 games for Leeds United between 1934 and 1939, following a transfer from Port Vale.

He was killed on duty with the Royal Artillery in the Netherlands after jumping from a lorry and stepping on a mine. He died instantly. He was buried in Venray War Cemetery.

Left-half Vernon Allen was killed on active service on 28th July 1943. A former Leeds City Boys captain, Allen had signed amateur forms for Leeds United just before the outbreak of war but never got the chance to represent his home-town club.

He was a sergeant on board a Lancaster bomber of 101 Squadron which was shot down during a mission to Hamburg. All seven members of his crew were killed. He is buried in Hamburg’s Ohlsdorf Cemetery.

Former Leeds United striker Alan Fowler was killed on 10th July 1944 during the battle for Caen in Normandy.

Apprentice Maurice Lawn was killed at sea in the English Channel. The centre forward had played in three wartime games for Leeds United, scoring once, before joining the army. He was serving with 15th (Scottish) Reconnaissance Regiment during the invasion of Normandy in the summer of 1944 when he was wounded by machine gun fire.
He was being repatriated back to England on board a hospital ship which was sunk by enemy action. He is buried at Bayeux Cemetery, Northern France.

Wilf Copping, who survived the war, played three ‘international’ matches for an Army XI against a French XI in France shortly before the evacuation from Dunkirk.

My new book ‘On This Day In Leeds’ is now on sale here and at Philip Howard Books in Roundhay (0113 225 9797) and OPAL Welcome In Community Centre in Cookridge (0113 261 9103)

3 thoughts on “Leeds United in the shadow of war

Add yours

  1. Thank you for this item re cricket. I am 92 and remember those days. My uncle, John Margerison, unemployed, bowled to Len Hutton at the nets. Len was a apprentice, but his boss sent him out to practice at St Lawrence ground. I’ve lived in NZ since 1953, but still hold memories of the days when husbands brought pregnant wives home for the delivery, because only players born in Yorkshire could play for them. Sadly those days are past. Kath O’Sullivan Auckland NZ

    On Tue, 28 May 2019 at 3:53 AM, Rhodes to the Past wrote:

    > James Rhodes posted: ” On 1st October 1938, spirits were high among the > crowd at Elland Road. The previous day, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain > had returned home from the Munich Conference and declared “Peace for our > time!”. On the field, Leeds’s prolific centre forward Gor” >

    Liked by 1 person

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