Sep 28

British Services Football in India 1944 to 1946

Posted by SoccerHistory
British Services Football in India 1944 to 1946

Organised sport in its various has generally played a significant role in life in the British Forces. Physical activities such as soccer, cricket and rugby are useful ways of keeping the men active at times when they are not required for fighting and in this context it is interesting to note that from the early days of association football the Army in particular was involved.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the Volunteer Force was a factor connected with the emergence of football clubs of both codes, and indeed two of the senior association clubs in Scotland – Queen of the South and Third Lanark – can trace their origins back to their local corps.

The presence of a touring team generally referred to as ‘Tommy Walker’s XI’ is widely known, but an absence of firm detail provided the inspiration for this article. Jack Rollin’s ‘Soccer at War’, the definitive work on soccer during this period, indicates that Walker’s party toured the Far East and a separate party led by Denis Compton toured India. However, further investigations have revealed at least five separate tours (and possibly six) made by groups of professional footballers during the latter stages of the Second World War and in the period immediately after the Japanese surrender, covering the period from late 1944 through until the early months of 1946, and thus the scope of the article has expanded somewhat. Both Compton and Walker led two separate tours each, while an additional tour (described as the sixth such tour in the press) reached as far as Malaya and Singapore by early 1946. I shall begin with a brief overview as to why the British Forces were in India at the time, then consider how football was organised before going on to examine the ‘Football Circus’ tours that took place and the impact they made.

India, as a British colony, hosted a considerable military presence in peacetime. These numbers were supplemented during the lifetime of the war, notably from around 1943. Major centres for troops included Ceylon, Bombay, Poona & Kirkee and Calcutta. In a nutshell the war in the Far East India had two distinct phases: a lengthy retreat and evacuation from Singapore, Malaysia and eventually Burma, which took place from the commencement of hostilities with Japan in 1941, followed by a counter attack, which was essentially a war of attrition to drive the Japanese from Burma, ending with the surrender in August of 1945, celebrated by VJ Day.

Significant numbers of troops were transported to the Indian Sub Continent from around 1943, and while some of these were involved in fighting in the forward areas in Burma, many more spent their time based thousands of miles from the action. The troops involved were drawn widely from within the Empire and in addition to those men transported from the UK, there were significant numbers of Indian, West African and Ghurka troops. The Army and RAF needed ways of keeping these men entertained and ‘battle ready’ should they be required to take part in the fighting and there was little in the way of entertainment available locally: the cinema and the NAAFI provided some offerings, but sport was of course a cheap and effective way of keeping morale up. The weather was a problem, the intense heat (affecting both players and the pitches, which were often rock hard) and the monsoon rains governing between them the seasons available for sports such as soccer and rugby. In general matches were played for 35 minutes each way and took place in the early evening to take advantage of the marginally cooler temperatures. The venues of matches varied considerably. In big cities such as Calcutta and Bombay the stadiums were generally well-established locations such as the Calcutta FC ground or the Cooperage, but in the more remote areas it was often a case of playing on almost any open space. Compton’s first team played a match in Assam on a pitch which was 80 yards square, while a Tottenham man who attended an exhibition game at Kutupalong during the same tour noted the game was played “on a field where rice is grown, being worse than Tottenham Marshes.” (Tottenham Weekly Herald, 20 October 1944).


Denis Compton’s XI
Army Welfare aimed to replicate the experience of going to a match back home, and match tickets and programmes were produced. This programme was for the match between Denis Compton’s XI and a South Indian XI played at the Madras United Club on Sunday 18 November 1945.

Soccer was played at all levels and whenever weather permitted – each RAF base or RAF unit might have its own internal league, then there were the local district leagues, arranged very much like they might have been back home, leading up to representative level matches. Although in most areas teams adopted the name of their unit, it was occasionally the case that names of well-known clubs were adopted, hence ‘Manchester City’ was one of the better teams in the Chittagong district! The extent of competitive football reported in the Calcutta area towards the end of 1945 included a Services League made up of 33 teams divided into three divisions and a local league, the Power Memorial League, with 53 teams, also in three divisions, the majority again being drawn from the services. In addition individual bases and units would have held their own internal competitions. The situation was similar in other areas where there was a significant military presence notably Bombay, where the local teams were of a particularly high standard. It should be noted of course that British Forces teams had traditionally entered into competition with local teams from the Sub Continent and in fact dominated many of the local tournaments until at least the mid-1930s.

Although the principal aim of the tours was to provide activities for the British troops, fixtures also took place against established teams from the local population and occasionally teams were fielded which were a mix of locals and military personnel. Bill Wood, who served in the RAF during the hostilities, recalled the situation in the Bombay area, “Many new units had sprung up around the Bombay/Poona area; several of the new RAF stations had formed football teams, playing each other in a station league. Each station also ran its own little league of sections on the station, and I was persuaded to turn out for the Sergeants' Mess team at Santa Cruz. I was immediately selected to play for the station team thereafter, whenever my flying duties allowed. ... For the entertainment of the assembled troops and the Indian populace in the area, each arm of the service - Army, Navy, Marines and RAF, plus the top Indian teams - played each other in a 'premier' league, the matches being held at the main football ground in India, the Cooperage in Bombay.” ( accessed 28 November 2006). The presence of competitive football was not restricted to the Indian Sub Continent, but stretched almost to the front where fighting was taking place. For example, in August 1944 an RAF Inter Unit League was established on the Burma front, known appropriately as the Monsoon League as matches took place during the monsoon season.

A number of short soccer festivals perhaps over three or four days and tournaments took place – a Hexagonal Tournament in Bombay, for instance included a team of Forces personnel participating as the ‘Europeans’, their opponents also being split along ethnic and religious lines (‘Hindus’ and ‘Indian Christians’ were two of the other teams taking part). In August 1944 the Western India FA organised what was termed a ‘soccer carnival’. A match took place between ‘England’ and ‘Scotland’ with proceeds in aid of the Navy Sheepskin Jacket League; a British Army team and sides representing RAF Bangalore and RAF Bombay also featured in the games. This division between ‘England’ and ‘Scotland’ seems to have been present throughout virtually all levels of football amongst the British Forces. At the highest levels these were of similar status as the Army ‘international’ matches that took place between England and Scotland back home during the war, but it also seems to have been a useful way of creating a competitive element to matches in which this might otherwise have been lacking. The alternative of arranging matches between, say, ‘North West Command’ and ‘ Central Command’, the military organisational structures, does not have quite the same air of importance as ‘England versus Scotland’ which for most of the troops with an interest in football would have represented the height of competitive football from their pre-war days. Its use much lower down the scale is demonstrated in the arrangements for a match in Calcutta in aid of the Indian Red Cross: “All local units are requested to send two representatives (one for Scotland and one for England)” noted a newspaper report (The Statesman, 6 January 1945).

The first of the ‘Football Circus’ tours took place between mid-September and the end of October 1944, a period of some six weeks. The footballers, all drawn from the British Forces based in India, were led by Denis Compton, the Arsenal forward capped 12 times for England during the hostilities, who had been posted to India as a Company Sergeant Major in the Royal Artillery in January 1944. The party was evenly split between English and Scottish players, and in addition to Compton included the England Amateur international AH Fabian. With the exception of Fabian, the players were all professionals with senior clubs in England or Scotland. The tour consisted of a mixture of exhibition games, either ‘England versus Scotland’ drawn from the touring party or matches between the touring party and local services representative teams. After a launch in New Delhi (where 10,000 turned out), they visited Calcutta before moving east through Assam as far as Imphal and Chittagong before concluding with a second visit to Calcutta and a fixture in Ranchi. The venture was a great success, attracting crowds numbering in their thousands, often to venues which at best could be described as improvised. At Imphal over 15,000 attended the three games played. As the aforementioned correspondent to the Tottenham Weekly Herald noted, “Believe me, the boys enjoyed that game more than watching all the B.E.S.A. and E.N.S.A. concerts.”

The tour was not without its problems, however, and the squad of players seemed to grow substantially from the original number of 25. Jack Rothwell broke a finger; Goddard was so ill he was confined to a hospital bed and Charles Walker was also sidelined with an injury. Fabian, who was by now in his mid-30s, does not seem to have featured after the opening games. The ‘Scotland’ goalkeeper, Winters, was recalled to the UK midway through the tour leaving his team without a goalkeeper, so Johnston the Hearts forward stood in for him in the remaining matches. Blackpool’s James Ashworth missed the opening fixtures while on exercises with his unit in the jungle. He eventually flew some 1,500 miles over five days to catch up with the party only to succumb to sickness after just two appearances. The players were feted wherever they went and on a number of occasions the local troops were reported to have pooled their meagre beer rations and handed them over to the tourists. The men were clearly exhausted by the time they returned to Calcutta at the end of October and there were suggestions that the two games arranged against Indian selections would be cancelled, as defeat would not be good for morale. However, the games went ahead and both were won, against a Mohun Bagan/East Bengal Selection (4-0) and against an Indian FA team (2-0). On the latter occasion the match was effectively decided by a superb individual goal from Compton which drew much praise from the local press.


RAF vs. Inter Services
A picture of the teams for the RAF vs. Inter Services touring team played in February 1945, shortly after the start of the second tour commenced: (Left to right).
Back Row: F/L R Sayle; Ref Holloway; Roy Milne (Celtic); Roy Henderson (Queen of the South); Wellman, Ben Pritchard; Norden; Joe Keddie (Hamilton Academical); Cook; Louis Delaney (Arsenal); Major Record
Middle Row: Turner; Billy McEwen (Queen’s Park Rangers); Martin; Tommy Walker (Heart of Midlothian); Henderson; Bobby Campbell (Falkirk); Durman; Francis Joyner (Sheffield United); Wells
Front Row: Unknown; David Pryde (Arsenal); Hedley; Murray Landsborough (Queen of the South); Parr; Stan Duncan (Heart of Midlothian); Scott
(Picture: Colin Pritchard)

A consequence of this success was that a second party, this time made up of around 35 players embarked on a more extensive tour in February 1945. This tour was often referred to as a sports ‘circus’, as the footballers were accompanied by a squad of top-class hockey players. They visited all the main military areas of the country with the exception of the North West Frontier and Central India. Led by Tommy Walker, an iconic figure in Scottish football who had enlisted as a member of the Royal Corps of Signals and had been posted to India towards the end of 1944, this party essentially replicated the pattern of the earlier tour, playing ‘England versus Scotland’ matches and against local selections, both military teams and the top Indian players. The squad included a number of internationals, notably Walker (Scotland and Hearts), Ted Ditchburn (Tottenham and England) and Ivor Powell (Queen’s Park Rangers and Wales), although one of the stars proved to be Chesterfield’s Sid Ottewell who scored freely throughout. After the now traditional opening match in New Delhi the party moved on to Calcutta and the Eastern Command area before spending March in the ‘forward’ areas of close to the front. Next stop was Ceylon, then Madras and Bangalore before finishing off at Bombay and Poona in the west. Charlton’s Eric Lancelotte, a member of these two tour parties later recalled the competitive nature of the exhibition games: "We flew 30,000 miles in five weeks. We would drop down into the jungle to play a match against a battalion, or would play an England-Scotland friendly where we kicked one another to death." (The Independent, 28 October 2001)

With the war in Europe over and the conflict in the East, although far from won, having turned in the favour of the Allies, a further series of sporting tours took place between August and December 1945. Foremost of these was by an Australian Services cricket team, with two soccer squads drawn from the British Forces, a combined Indian and British hockey team and the British cruiserweight boxer Freddie Mills all in circulation. The existence of two separate soccer teams touring at the same time led to these being referred to as ‘Denis Compton’s XI’ and ‘Tommy Walker’s XI’ for easy identification. Both squads were similar in size, around 18 members, although both supplemented their initial numbers with extra men picked up en route to cover for injuries, and both toured from early September until December. The tours were gruelling – Walker’s squad reckoned to have travelled 10,000 miles in 108 days, playing some 42 games. Only two were lost – one to a Combined Services XI in Ceylon, which was the sixth game played in seven days, and a second to Compton’s XI when the two crossed paths in Madras in mid-November. Walker’s party probably had the more difficult of the two schedules. From New Delhi they visited North West India and the farthest outposts of British influence. One particularly memorable encounter involved a 130-mile ride by gharry (a horse-drawn carriage) to play a British Services team at Razmak in Waziristan, in the lawless tribal areas of what is now the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The match was attended by two battalions of soldiers armed ‘just in case’ the locals decided to intervene. After around a month in the North West they headed south to Ceylon, then on to Madras and Bombay before finishing off in the central area. Compton’s XI played mostly in the east, moving from Ranchi through Assam and on to the newly liberated areas of Burma where they played a total of 16 matches, including six in Rangoon. Then it was back to the Calcutta area before a trip south to Madras. Compton was demobilised towards the end of 1945 and returned home, but many of the troops remained in India until mid-1946. Walker did not return to Scotland until May 1946, by which time he held the rank of Staff Captain in the Welfare Branch at General Headquarters in India.

At the turn of the year a representative team of Indian players toured the country before a final party of British professional players embarked for an extensive tour in February. This group, led by Blackpool’s Eric Hayward, was quite different to the previous parties in that it comprised service personnel who had come to India on military duty, rather than being posted to the Sub Continent on account of their sporting ability. As a result the squad was significantly weaker than any of the previous four professional tours, and although it included Hayward, Ivor Powell and Doug Flack (Fulham), many of the others were little more than reserves with their clubs, indeed a couple were not even attached to senior clubs. Due to the steady process of demobilisation the squad changed fairly regularly as men were sent home and their places filled by newcomers. The party started out in India in February, eventually reaching Singapore and then Malaya by early April. Despite the standard of the players, results continued to be favourable and almost every single game was won.

Perhaps the most significant factor about the tours was their popularity with the servicemen who turned out in their thousands to watch. Not only was this a way of relieving boredom, for the entertainment provided by ENSA was often of a very amateurish standard, it was a way of recalling the past and on occasions a programme was issued, which the tour stars would readily autograph. The importance of the tours on the morale of the men is summed up by a quote from Denis Compton some 40 years later, “Gave everyone enormous pleasure. I still get letters from men who watched or played in those games.” (Tim Heald, Denis Compton, The Life of a Sporting Hero, pge. 88) The Indian football authorities wished to capitalise on the success of the tours and asked the Football Association to send a tour party, but they were unsuccessful. There were also proposals to promote soccer within the British Empire in an attempt to replicate the success of cricket, at one stage it being proposed that the game become one of the sports held at the Empire (now Commonwealth) Games. These were also rejected and a chance to raise the status of soccer in India to a level equivalent to cricket was effectively lost.

A version of this article first appeared with different illustrations in issue 15 of Soccer History Magazine (2007).