The Eccles RFC WW2 story, told in monthly episodes by Shiela Thomas and Chris Gaffey.
The concluding chapter is published today, the 75th Anniversay of VE DAY, in tribute to all those who survived the horrors and hardship of war and, having fought for freedom, returned to Eccles to rebuild our club.
PART 1 / THE NEW SEASON
Each August sees us looking forward to the forthcoming season at Eccles RFC with great anticipation. However, for those preparing for the new season on this day 80 years ago, the uncertain outcome of a far greater, ominous challenge loomed ahead.
In the summer of 1939, with a newly constructed clubhouse, prospects of raising a 5th team and a formidable First XV defeated only 3 times in the 1938-39 season, Eccles was in a strong position and primed to move forward, only for those plans and hopes to be brought to halt by unfolding events in Europe.
During that summer, Hitler, hell bent on aggressive expansionism, had occupied Czechoslovakia and rejected diplomatic attempts to avoid conflict. Following the Nazi-Soviet pact, Britain committed itself to the defence of Poland on the 25th August.
When the club committee met on Monday 28thAugust 1939 they must have feared the worst when they arranged to meet the following Monday 4th September. One week later life would be set on an irrevocably different path.
Negotiations were ended at midnight Thursday 31st August with Hitler ordering the invasion of Poland to commence at 4am the following morning. On Sunday 3rd September, in a 11.15am BBC broadcast from 10 Downing Street, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain told the nation that Britain was at war with Germany.
With dark days ahead, Eccles RFC Club secretary Bob Challoner added a new item to the agenda: “The National Emergency and position of our club”. To emphasise the point he wrote “WAR!” in capital letters in the margin of the club’s minute book.
125 fixture cards for the 1939-40 season had already been printed but the committee decided to await instructions from the RFU before making a decision on commencement. For the time being, a notice was posted on the pavilion at Redclyffe Road, Barton-upon-Irwell which simply read “Until further notice, all activities of the club, including training, are suspended. Pro tem.”
To be continued …
PART 2 / DARK DAYS AHEAD
Following the declaration of war on the 3rd of September 1939, the National Service (Armed Forces) Act was passed making all men between 18 and 41 liable for conscription. Exemptions included the medically unfit, students, clergy, and those in reserved occupations like baking, medicine and engineering.
As emergency measures such as the evacuation of women and children from London and other large cities were undertaken, King George called upon “people at home and across the seas to stand calm, firm and united in a time of trial” and warned of “dark days ahead where war was no longer confined to the battlefield”.
Having suspended club activities the previous week, the Eccles RFC committee met on Monday 11th September at the Rock House Hotel on Peel Green Road Barton where it was noted by Club President and County Union Representative Norman Shaw that no official guidance from the RFU had yet been received. It was therefore proposed that the Club Secretary Mr Bob Challoner should write to the Lancashire Union to inform them that Eccles’ ground, on land close to the Ship Canal, had been classified as a ‘Neutral’ area under the Government Evacuation scheme (which divided the country into zones, ‘Evacuation’ ‘Reception’ and ‘Neutral’).
At the following week’s meeting Club Chairman Norman Bisbey read out a letter citing Lancashire County Union’s instructions for the cancellation of all fixtures for 1939-40 season and the duration of the war.
Well aware of the difficulties the club had faced re-establishing itself following the previous war, and no doubt with consideration to maintaining morale of its members, the steadfast club committee discussed the possibilities of arranging friendly fixtures with local clubs. However, Mr Farnworth, owner of Bromyhurst Farm, Redclyffe Road, Barton where Eccles RFC played its games, communicated he would prefer the club not to continue its activities as he anticipated the land being put under the plough for the growth of crops in response to Government requests.
It was therefore agreed that the pavilion at Barton would remain closed and members would be sent their fixture cards for the new season with an accompanying letter explaining the situation and canvassing opinion on a proposal that Eccles RFC play occasional friendly games at away venues only.
On 28th September 1939 the club formally informed its members in writing that subs for the new season would not be demanded however donations to clover the costs incurred in preparation would be appreciated, the sum of 2s/6d being considered appropriate.
Following the abandonment of rugby fixtures, and perhaps with consideration to the imminent threat of vegetable crops on the pitch, the shrewd minds of the Eccles RFC committee decided to offer use of their ground and facilities to the military authorities.
On 2nd October 1939, the Eccles RFC committee minute book records three Army officers and Mr Farnworth joined the meeting to clarify their position. Club Treasurer and Chairman, Messers GIlbody and Bisbey gave a full and detailed report regarding the negotiations with the Army.
The following day, 3rd October 1939, 356th Searchlight Battery of the Royal Artillery took over the occupancy of the pavilion. The Manchester Ship Canal, Salford Docks and Trafford Park were of great importance and searchlights were deployed to illuminate the enemy bombers for the anti-aircraft guns to shoot them down before they dropped their payload. The 356th AA Company (39th Lancashire Fusiliers Searchlight Regiment) also manned Lewis Gun positions at Barton and Irwell Locks and Barton Power Station.
The ever assiduous Arthur Gilbody wrote to Lt. Hilton meticulously listing the articles on loan from Eccles RFC and enclosing ‘conditions’ for the army’s occupation! The items included 1 notice board, 1 card table, 1 oil lamp and 1 enamel tea-pot (tea rationing did not begin until July 1940). In his response Lt/ Hilton expressed his appreciation for the generosity of the club and reassured him “that there would definitely be no use of the pavilion as a dance hall or cinema by the army whilst in use”!
What did take place is for the next episode.
To be continued…
PART 3 / ENLISTMENT
In October 1939, as the situation escalated in Europe and the BEF assembled along the French-Belgian border, the Eccles RFC committee focused their minds on matters closer to home. Fixtures for the new season had been abandoned and the 356 Searchlight Battery company (39th Lancs Fusiliers AA Bn) had taken over the club pavilion and ground at Redclyffe Road in order to guard Barton Power Station.
Coal-fired Barton Power Station (situated on the Bridgewater and Ship Canals near the swing bridge and All Saints RC Church, where B&Q now stands today) had its fuel brought by barge and was one of the most advanced of its time, using equipment by Metropolitan-Vickers and Mather & Platt to provide Trafford Park and the City of Manchester with power. The aerial photographs below show the area as it was in 1933. The striped rugby posts are faintly visible in the field next to the switchgear.
Although Eccles’ facilities were officially off limits, the enterprising committee members wasted no time in arranging unoffical friendly away fixtures against local opposition and promptly recruited the Searchlight Battery to form a rugby team!
The committee minute book records a result for Saturday 21st October, arranged by invitation of the Royal Artillery, "Eccles vs Army XV, WON 20 - 6". Many such matches were to take place on the ground between various military personnel, with a good fraternity existing between the teams and players loaned to even up the contest. It would appear Eccles were ahead of the game.
On 11th November 1939, perhaps recognising the potential boost to national morale and the predicted enlistment of players, the RFU issued a statement recommending that county committees should encourage clubs to arrange fixtures with service XVs. Of particular interest to Northern Clubs were resolutions regarding ‘outlawed’ Rugby League Players.
Resolution 1 - A Rugby Union XV may play against a Service team containing players who have played Rugby League Football.
Resolution 2 - A Rugby Union XV may include Rugby League players belonging to HM forces, when playing matches against Service teams.
The war was to make an impression on all aspects of life, including the reporting of sport. The attached article was published in the Eccles Journal, 8th December 1939, reporting a game between Eccles and Ashtonians and confirming a future fixture against an Army XV to be played “Somewhere in Barton”! No giving away the position to the enemy here!
As the unofficial 1939/20 season progressed more players were called up and the club endeavoured to carry on as best it could. Following the outbreak of war Eccles played 15 away matches (W8, L7) against teams including Tyldesley and Old Salfordians - commendable in the circumstances. The final recorded match was on 27th April 1940 which Eccles lost 23-6 at Warrington. This was to be the last game played by Eccles RFC until 1946. Six years of war would cut short many promising playing careers .
Members of Eccles RFC were to serve in all branches of the Services and Civil Defence. Today, on 11th November, 80 years on, we remember them and all those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the security of our nation.
To be continued...
PART 4 / CHRISTMAS BLITZ
In September 1939, the officers and members of Eccles RFC were determined to maintain morale with some ‘friendly’ action, but with the progression of war and the club’s facilities occupied by the army it became clear that rugby would have to cease.
On Monday 22nd April 1940, at the Eccles RFC Annual General Meeting, held in the Rock House Hotel, Barton, a Lancashire Rugby Union Circular stated the county’s decision to abandon all activities until the conclusion of hostilities. Following considerable discussion it was agreed that a War Emergency committee would run the club for the duration and messers Rider and Shaw would act as trustees of the funds held at the District Bank, Patricroft.
Within the month the King asked Chrurchill to be Prime Minister, British troops evacuated from Dunkirk and the country prepared to fight them on the beaches as the threat of Nazi invasion loomed. On 17th August 1940, as the RAF and Luftwaffe battled for Britain, the rugby posts at Redclyffe Road were taken down. It would be 6 years before rugby was played there again. Eccles however would soon see plenty of activity of a different kind.
Oppostite the Eccles pitch stood Barton Power Station, essential to Trafford Park, a world famous concentrated industrial centre with a work force of 75,000. As the home of vast Metropolitan Vickers engineering facilities, Avro aircraft manufacturing, Rolls-Royce Merlin Engine production (used in Lancasters, Spitfires and Hurricanes) and food processing it was an important target for enemy bombers who would use the Manchester Ship Canal as a navigational aid to attack under cover of night.
The Christmas Blitz of Manchester 1940 killed an estimated 684 people and injured more than 2,000 when 467 tons of high explosive and 2,000 incendary bombs were dropped on the city over two consecutive nights, inflicting wide spread disruption and destruction. Salford alone suffered over 200 fatalities and 8,000 destroyed homes.
On Sunday 22nd December blackout restrictions had been in place since noon and evening church services were cancelled following taunting Nazi propaganda radio broadcasts by Lord Haw-Haw. At 6.35pm air raid sirens sounded as Fighter Command observers reported streams of bombers approaching Manchester from the south east. Families ran to shelters as the first wave of the attack rained over 1,000 incendiary bombs down on the city centre, Salford, Hulme and Stretford. Albert Square was the first place to be hit. The Town Hall was missed but the Royal Exchange, the Free Trade Hall and Piccadilly were soon ablaze.
In Gilda Brook Road Eccles, a bomb exploded killing 12 including a family with three children. Another bomb hit a house in Monton Road, killing three children and a sailor home on leave. There were fatalities on Cawdor Street, Eccles and two homes on Cook Street, Patricroft (behind the Wellington Inn, less than 700m from our clubhouse today) were destroyed killing five members of the Ward Family.
Amateur crews of local residents used hand pumps to fight fires in the streets where they lived and attempted to recover the bodies of their neighbours. Power and telephone lines were cut leaving the injured to be treated by candlelight. At 9.50pm a man and a 16 year old girl were killed when bomb crashed through Greengate Arches in Salford hitting the bus where they had taken shelter.
The second wave targeted the hundreds of fires ignited by the earlier attack and the bombing was relentless until dawn. At 6am Manchester Cathedral suffered a direct hit, the last of the night, and at 6.30 am the all clear was eventually sounded. 270 Luftwaffe aircraft had taken part in the bombardment.
The attack continued on the following night, 23/24 December, with bombs raining down on firefighters who were still attending to burning buildings from the previous evening’s raid.
Trafford Park and the Docks were targeted with bombs falling across a wide area. Both of the city's railway stations and the bus station were hit. Several properties on Eccles New Road were hit. Manchester Royal Eye Hospital and Salford Royal were both hit by and school boys worked in stretcher parties to evacuate the patients. In Hulme, the Manley Arms pub was obliterated killing 14 people attending a wedding party. Shortly after midnight on Christmas Eve, the all clear siren sounded. More than 31 acres within a mile of Albert Square lay in ruins.
There would be few silent nights in the months that followed. The Police headquarters and both cricket and football grounds in Old Trafford would be wrecked by bombing raids.
At Barton a parachute mine hit the roof of the Power Station but failed to explode. With a fierce fire raging metres away, Naval Lieutenant Denis James Patrick O’ Hagan rendered the mine safe by boiling out the explosive with steam from a railway locomotive, an act of ingenuity and bravery for which he was awarded the George Medal for gallantry and devotion to duty. O’Hagan was to undergo commando training and survived the D-Day invasion of Normandy to make it back home to Canada.
Remarkably, Barton Power Station and Eccles RFC both survived the war - as evidenced in this photograph taken in March 1947, a few months before the club moved to its new home at Gorton Street for the 1948 season.
As we gather to celebrate Christmas this year let’s reflect on those who suffered and battled through the atrocities of a blitz 79 years ago so that we might enjoy peace and our way of life today. We have much to be grateful for.
PART 5 / RECOGNITION
PART 6 / VICTORY AND REVIVAL.
Friday 8 May 2020 will mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day (Victory in Europe). Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945 and although hostilities in the Pacific would not cease until 15th August, the surrender of Nazi Germany sparked massed street celebrations in Britian and across the western world.
The Manchester Guardian reported "At ten o'clock Albert Square had become a great dancing floor, upon which partnerships were formed on a free and easy plan. Music came from the town hall and reached the crowd through loudspeakers. The men of the Navy and the girls of the WAAF and the ATS showed a readiness to climb on to the roofs of the air-raid shelters to dance, amid a good deal of cheering.” The jubilant citizens of Eccles and Salford also partied in into the night, no doubt many of them shedding a tear in memory of those they had lost, overseas and at home during the bombing.
In his 1997 centenary book, our former club Treasurer, Arthur Gilbody, paid tribute to the Eccles players who had sacrificed their lives in the service of their nation including Bill Walker (British Army), Joe Dickinson (Royal Navy) and Keith Bradburn (Royal Air Force).
Henry Keith Bradburn had served as a RAF sergeant in 37 Squadron, which flew Wellington Bombers in the Middle East Campaign and was moved to Italy in January 1944. Keith died on the 3rd April,1945, aged 39, just a few days short of VE day and was buried in Malta by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Keith left behind his wife, Evelyn, and there is a plaque in his memory at St John's Church, Pendlebury.
Joseph Dickinson died, aged 35, on 15th June, 1944, whilst serving as an Able Seaman aboard HMS Blackwood, a Captain class frigate which had seen action in the North Atlantic sinking U-Boats U-648 and U-600 in November 1943. Following D-Day, HMS Blackwood was on patrol as part of the 4th Escort group in the west end of the English Channel protecting the ships bound for the Allied Invasion of Normandy when she was attacked by U boat U-764 off the coast of Brittany. Fifty-seven crew members, including Joe, were killed in the attack. Joe's parents were also members of Eccles RFC - his mother Elizabeth had served with the Ladies committee and his father George with the General committee. The committee minute book records that on the 18th March, 1946, Club Chairman Norman Bisbey read correspondence from Mr Dickinson who forwarded a donation to the club funds as, "a small token of remembrance of late club member Joe Dickinson who had been lost at sea during the war.” Joe left behind a wife, Dorothy, in Swinton.
At the club's AGM on 9th June, 1947, a fourth war-time casualty was announced when, "a minute's silence was observed in remembrance of J.D.Lomax who passed away last year from war service injuries received from Merchant Navy service and exposure to extreme hardship." John Lomax had served on HMS Cheshire, an armed merchant cruiser during the war years. On 14th October, 1940, it was struck by a torpedo N.W. of Ireland. The crew was evacuated to other ships and HMS Cheshire was repaired at Liverpool only to be struck again on 18th August, 1942, whilst escorting a convoy in the Atlantic. John Lomax died at Peel Hall Hospital, Little Hulton, in September, 1946.
Earlier that year on the 8th February, 1946, the club's Inaugural post-war General Meeting was held at the Cross Keys Hotel, Church Road, Eccles. Demobilisation had gathered pace and many former teammates and friends attended, optimistic and keen to revive activities. New members were welcomed and Club Captain Tom Povey, took up the role he had held in the seasons prior to war. It was reported that there was a lot of work to do at the ground at Redclyffe Road (close to Barton Bridge which had survived the bombing) and also on the pavilion, which had been commandeered by the local Home Guard who had left a generous hole in the floor caused by a fire!
Although beginning from scratch, the committee had prudently guided the club through six years of war so that rugby could be resumed once again. In April 1946 fifteen jerseys were purchased at £10/6s/3d from Tyldesley & Holbrook sports goods on Deansgate and a permit for two cases and six bladders was requested from the RFU! Arrangements were made with the farmer landowner Mr Farnsworth for two pitches at Barton and the old groundsman “Keg” Kirwin was appointed to help get the club ready for the new season. However, there was one more significant obstacle to overcome before play could commence - the goalposts had been burnt on a VE Day bonfire!!
After a lapse of seven years and four months Eccles RFC fielded a 1XV and an ‘A’ team against Central Old Boys on Saturday 7th September 1946. By 12th October the club was in a position to also field a ‘B’ team against Tyldesley, one of our oldest opponents and games against Waterloo, Orrell, Winnington Park, Oldham and Kendal would soon follow. Incidently, annual subscription was set at £1 and 10 shillings for under eighteens (about £40/£20 today) and importantly, a pint of beer cost 1s/4d (about £2.40 today). Eccles would continue to play its fixtures at Barton for another season whilst the goal of securing the club's future with a permanent home gained momentum. One Sunday morning in early Autumn of 1947 members of the committee went to inspect a former anti-aircraft gun site in Peel Green - a rough, lumpy field of long grass, full of concrete blocks and holes! Perfect!
In October 1948 Eccles RFC trotted out of a second hand Army hut to play its first rugby at Gorton Street, and the rest, as they say, is history.
This concludes the WW2 story of Eccles RFC.
When we began writing it last August we could not have foreseen the parallels with our current pandemic situation.
Once again the world is disrupted, sport suspended, people separated, lives and livlihoods lost.
Overcoming this threat and returning to life ‘as it was’ still seems a distant prospect for us today, but nothing is ever permenant.
Let's stay safe and stay positive.
We'll meet again.
The history of Eccles RFC, before and after WW2, can be read HERE .