Australia’s involvement in the Second World War began in September 1939, just 24 hours after the conclusion of the 1939 VFL Home and Away season, when they followed Great Britain’s lead in declaring war on Germany after their invasion of Poland. Astonishingly, this involvement lasted in excess of six years before finally ending in 1945 and claimed an estimated total of over forty million lives around the world, including the lives of just under 40,000 Australians. The dramatic loss of life and the follow-on effects of such a tragic war lasted years and affected almost every aspect of the Australian way of life.
Various levels of Australian Rules football nation wide, including numerous suburban leagues as well as larger leagues such as the South Australian Football League, were not exempt from the effects of the war and the resulting affect it had on players, administrators and fans alike was immense. The services of more than 993,000 young Australians, including many superstars of the VFL at the time, such as Ron Barassi Snr, Len Thomas and Keith ‘Bluey’ Truscott, were required to fight for their country on foreign soil all around the world, most notably throughout the Europe, the Middle-East and Asia. As a result of this, thousands of footballers of all ages and abilities were no longer able to play the game they loved. One of the hardest hit leagues was the VFL, now known as the Australian Football League (AFL), which was and still remains the biggest and most popular league in Australia.
Of the six VFL seasons affected by the war, none were harder hit than the 1942 season which in the eyes of many at the time, should never have gone ahead in the first place. There was plenty of discussion at the time as to whether playing football was necessary during a time of war, however the opinion that football could improve morale amongst Victorian’s took precedence and the season went ahead.
The season started in a terrible way with the Geelong Football Club’s withdrawal from the competition, which resulted in just eleven teams participating and therefore ensuring a ‘bye’ each week. The withdrawal was due to war-time travel restrictions on various highways around the country and also due to the effects of war-time petrol rationing. Players from Geelong were allowed to transfer to other clubs on ‘loan’, with a limit of three players being eligible to play for each other VFL club. Lindsay White, the Geelong forward, was the most sort after player and eventually found himself playing with the South Melbourne Football Club. He proved to be a huge success and finished the season with eighty goals and was largely responsible for South Melbourne’s rise up the ladder, finishing in third position having finished eighth in 1941. Jim Knight, a champion rover who had won Geelong’s Best & Fairest Award in 1941, was also highly regarded and ended up with Carlton where he dominated throughout the 1942 season.
In addition to Geelong’s withdrawal, the 1942 season saw a dramatic decline in the amount of players available for many clubs, often resulting in teams remaining un-finalised just a few hours before their match was scheduled to start. As a result of this, The Argus, a reputable Melbourne-based newspaper in circulation until 1957, often reported updates of the various players currently unavailable due to war commitments.
In the VFL, the club most affected by the loss of players was the previously dominant Melbourne Football Club, who had won the premiership on three consecutive occasions between 1939 and 1941. Despite showing tremendous courage against the odds and winning in the premiership in 1941 with a depleted list, the Demons suffered from a lack of quality players and depth in 1942 and struggled to maintain their dominance, finishing in eighth place and missing the finals. In total, eighteen of the thirty-six players who played for the Demons in 1941 were unavailable and those that were, often couldn’t play on a regular basis. Examples of key players unavailable due to war commitments were Syd Anderson, a speedy wingman who had played fifty-two games before heading to war and Harold Ball, a tall defender who had played just thirty-three games before heading to Singapore to work as a driver with the Field Ambulance. Anderson, who served with the RAAF, was shot down by the Japanese and killed in May of 1944, while Ball was tortured and executed by the Japanese in February of 1942. In addition to Anderson and Ball, both premiership players in 1940, Melbourne had also lost the services of two further premiership players in Ron Barassi Snr, a gutsy rover who had played fifty-eight games and Keith ‘Bluey’ Truscott, a champion mid-fielder who had played forty-nine games before heading to serve with the RAAF as an ace fighter pilot. Barassi, like Anderson and Ball, paid the ultimate sacrifice being killed in Tobruk in July of 1942, while Truscott, despite returning for one final game during the 1942 season, also lost his life after being shot down in the North of Western Australia in March of 1943.
The Collingwood Football Club was also hit hard by the loss of players, with Hugh Coventry and Jack Pimm two examples of key players required to represent their country at war. Coventry, had only played eight games however was seen as a talented future star while Pimm returned to play between 1946-1950, finishing with fifty-eight games. Both players won service medals with Coventry winning the Distinguished Flying Cross and Pimm winning the Military Cross. Another talented young player who went to war and was unavailable for the 1942 season was Norman Oliver, who had played thirteen games for the Magpies in 1940 and 1941. Oliver, like the four Melbourne players mentioned earlier also paid the ultimate sacrifice when his Kittyhawk crashed near Madang, New Guinea in June of 1944. Finishing in eighth position in 1940 and fifth in 1941, the loss of players saw the Magpies drop to second last on the ladder, managing just two wins for the season. In addition to this, Collingwood, along with the Hawthorn Football Club, were unable to field full teams in the VFL Reserves competition, a competition which was played between each VFL club’s seconds’ teams.
With so many players missing and each club being affected to differing degrees, the overall standard of competition during the 1942 season was relatively low when compared to previous years. This resulted in a number of horribly one-sided matches, including Richmond’s round three thrashing of Collingwood by a then record, 138 points. In total, twenty games during the shortened sixteen round home and away season had margins exceeding fifty points, including the Grand Final which Essendon won by fifty-three points.
Availability of players wasn’t the only concern during the 1942 VFL season, with the home grounds of four VFL clubs (Melbourne, St. Kilda, South Melbourne and Footscray) being turned over and used by Allied Forces. These grounds included the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), the Junction Oval, the Albert Park Ground and the Western Oval. The MCG in particular was used by the American Services and became known as “Camp Murphy”. Despite this loss of traditional VFL grounds, a number of grounds were made available due to the Victorian Football Association (VFA) suspending competition before the beginning of the 1942 season. The VFA executive decided that despite the VFA’s growing popularity, due to the increasing severity of the war the competition needed to be suspended for three seasons before resuming in 1945. Of the four clubs to lose their grounds, Footscray used Yarraville Oval, St. Kilda used Toorak Park, Melbourne used Punt Road Oval and South Melbourne used Princess Park.
The smaller stadiums played a part in seeing crowd numbers during the 1942 season being significantly lower than those of previous seasons, however other factors such as less disposable income and a focus on the events overseas also kept the crowds away. This was highlighted at the beginning of the 1942 season when only 30,000 people attended the opening round. Although this improved as the season went on, the average attendance for each round of the 1942 season was just 58,000 people, which pales into significance with the averages of 76,000 in 1941 and 100,000 in 1941 respectively.
Another significant event during the 1942 VFL season was the suspension of the leagues most prestigious individual award, the Brownlow Medal, which continued it’s suspension until being re-introduced in 1946. The Brownlow Medal, awarded to the fairest and best player in the competition each year since 1924 as voted on by the umpires, was suspended as it was deemed inappropriate to award such an award whilst many talented footballers were fighting far greater battles on foreign soil. One such example was previous Brownlow Medal winner from 1933, Fitzroy’s Wilfred ‘Chicken’ Smallhorn who enlisted after four rounds of the 1940 season and served three years in notorious Changi prison after being captured in Singapore.
Away from the football field, of the fifty-six VFL footballers who gave their lives fighting various battles during World War Two, eight were killed during 1942. These included Melbourne’s John Atkins, Harold Ball and Noel Ellis, South Melbourne’s Alf Hedge and Gordon Sawley, Len Johnson from Essendon, Ralph Lancaster from Geelong and Morris Shapir from North Melbourne. With so many talented young men paying the ultimate sacrifice on foreign soil, it’s hard to imagine how the young men, fortunate enough to still be playing at the time, were able to maintain their focus with the constant bad news being reported.
Despite all the negatives, the 1942 season did have some highly memorable moments, arguably none more so than Melbourne’s Keith ‘Bluey’ Truscott’s only game for the season. In May of 1942, Truscott, who had recently arrived home on leave, was selected to play against Richmond at Punt Road in what turned out to be a celebration of one of the games true champions. Having left for war stranded on forty-nine games in 1941, Truscott lead his beloved Demons onto the field as captain, wearing the number one jersey in his milestone match. Despite losing by seventy-nine points, the day will always be remembered by the 15,000 fans in attendance after Richmond’s captain, Jack Dyer, walked Truscott to the wing in front of the Richmond faithful and called for three cheers. The crowd responded encouragingly and the cheers echoed around the ground for several minutes. Truscott was a popular character amongst all Australians given his highly publicised achievements as a Squadron leader in the RAAF, which resulted in him being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In addition to this, amongst all of the chaos and heartache that the 1942 VFL season delivered, the Essendon Football Club and their loyal supporters will have many fond memories of the season that delivered them their seventh premiership, after easily accounting for Richmond in the Grand Final by fifty-three points. The Grand Final, played in front of just 49,000 people at Princess Park, was of a much smaller scale than that of previous seasons at the MCG where the attendance figures ranged between 69,061 and 96,834. Having finished the season on top of the ladder, one game clear of second-placed Richmond, Essendon were highly fancied to continue their dominance during the finals series, however it wasn’t the walk in the park that many expected. Having been defeated by Richmond in the Second Semi-Final by twenty-two points, they fought back in the Preliminary Final against South Melbourne to win by twenty-eight points, after being down by five goals halfway through the second quarter. The Grand Final however was a blow-out with Essendon dominating after quarter time and cruising to the premiership.
Finally, arguably one of the most important aspect of the 1942 season was the way in which the VFL, amongst other competitions, helped support the Australian public financially during the tough times of war. When the Japanese entered the war and fighting reached northern Queensland, the VFL decided to donate one penny with every member’s ticket sold and 5 percent of total profits from each game into a war fund. In addition to this, player payments were slashed from £3 per match to thirty shillings. The VFL wasn’t the only competition to take such measures, with fifty percent of all match receipts from South Australian matches deposited into a war-chest which would be distributed to Australian troops and their families. This act of generosity highlights just one of the many important roles that football played during the Second World War.
In conclusion, despite the occasional highlights which were often extremely emotional for both players and spectators, the 1942 VFL season will always be known as one of the most affected seasons as a result of war. At the time, there was a high level of debate as to whether or not the season should have gone ahead and that debate still remains with experts still sharing differing views. One thing that is commonly agreed upon though is that football did play an important part in lifting the mood of Victorians during the depressing times of war, as it offered Victorians an escape from the harsh reality they were experiencing, albeit only for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. Many lives were lost, many of which were just beginning careers which had endless potential and every club was affected in some way or another. Which ever way historians choose to view it, the 1942 season, full of it’s highs and lows, will always be remembered.