1939-40 – A Season For Remembrance
1939-40 – A Season For Remembrance

by William Sheridan
A season of remembrance
● Forthbank Park, home to King’s Park, was partly destroyed by the Luftwaffe in July, 1940. These were dangerous times and football was not immune. (DR)

As his tenth full season in charge drew to a close in the springtime of 1939, manager Donald Turner had his troubles. They had fallen from 7th in 1937-38 to 11th in 1938-39. It was a mid-table finish, but the expectancy these days was to be in the upper third. And what was he to do with McKennan? Ma Ba' was the darling of the terraces, but he just couldn't get him to agree to the financial terms of a new contract. As it transpired, the 20-year-old player was soon conscripted, and the problem was taken out of the manager's hands.

On the 12th August 1939, Thistle kicked-off the new campaign with a 1-1 draw at Tynecastle in front of a healthy crowd of 23,000. Those in attendance could not possibly have foreseen how the season would develop, although there can be no doubt that there was an ever growing sense of unease and anxiety in the air, as an almost unbelievable sequence of events continued to unfold just several hundred short miles away. If Donald Turner thought he had problems in April, well, his personal molehill had become a collective mountain by September.

A season of remembrance
● Thistle manager Donald Turner, pictured in 1935. (DET)

With enough, supposedly intelligent, white Aryan Germans buying into the baffling concept that much of Europe was born subhuman, the majority of the continent was under severe stress in 1939, as the continuing territorial demands of the Third Reich reached wider and further with ineffectual resistance. When Poland was fixed into the sights of the crazed Hitler regime, wherever there was sanity, alarm bells were ringing to maximum levels.

Ever since the Nazis had demanded the return of the Free City of Danzig to Germany in March, Britain had offered a guarantee of Polish independence, and this uneasy stand off was, from thereon, a nagging worry which preyed on British minds over the summer. In the press and on the radio, the diplomatic endeavours were reported with an ever increasing regularity, and with an ever decreasing sense of hope, as the inevitable, dreaded consequence loomed ever larger on the horizon.

Within three weeks of season’s kick off, the tension was verging on unbearable, and speculation was rife as to the imagined impact in many walks of life. On Wednesday 30th August, SFA secretary George G. Graham confirmed that, having had no information to the contrary, the Scottish football card would be carried through on Saturday, as arranged.

The following day, on Thursday August 31st at 11.07am, the order came from the Home Office that all children living in the “danger zones” should “evacuate forthwith”. Their intelligence reports were highly accurate.

17 hours later, the Invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany began. At 4:45 a.m. on Friday 1st September, the Luftwaffe attacked several targets in the country and by 8:00 a.m., troops of the German Army launched an attack near the Polish town of Mokra.

That same morning, many urban children all over Britain turned up at their local schools for a day that they would never forget. The bewildered kids were equipped with a gas-mask, a toothbrush, a change of underclothes, and a label. In Glasgow, they made their way to the nearest railway station and were variously transported to such destinations as Perthshire, Kintyre and Rothesay, where they were all to be adopted, until further notice, by the publicly spirited families of the countryside and seaside towns. This process was repeated on the Saturday and Sunday; all told, almost 120,000 Glaswegian children were evacuated over the course of a long, distressing weekend.

A season of remembrance
● Hundreds of school age evacuees carrying gas masks in boxes prepare for departure to safer areas of the country. (MDW)

Later that day, the cruise ship SS Athenia, under Captain James Cook, departed Glasgow for Montreal via Belfast then Liverpool. There were more than 1,400 on board by the time she left Merseyside for the open Atlantic. It’s said that cries of “Cowards!” were hurled at them from Belfastian dock-workers.

On the humid Saturday, the day after Germany had invaded Poland, tens of thousands of Glaswegian children continued to partake in the evacuation process. Mothers were also allowed onto the trains if they had toddlers. The United Kingdom and France issued a joint ultimatum to Germany, requiring German troops to evacuate Polish territory, with an expiration deadline of 11:00 a.m. on the Sunday morning. In this context, a football match seems almost surrealistic. However, Thistle beat Alloa 2-0 at Firhill in the afternoon, and went joint-4th in the First Division after the 5th round of games. This proved to be our last “peace time” game of the 1930s.


On Sunday 3rd September at 11:15 a.m. BST, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made the announcement that everyone in Britain had been dreading… “This country is at War with Germany”. In Glasgow and district, the declaration was heard to a background of thunder. The sky was overcast and rain fell in a downpour as Mr. Chamberlain’s message unfolded.

Within hours of the announcement, France, Australia, India, and New Zealand made the same declaration – they too were at war with Germany.


A season of remembrance
● Athenia in Montreal Harbour in 1933. (WIK)

In the early evening, the SS Athenia became the first major British casualty of the War when a German U-Boat, in breach of the German Navy’s own rules, torpedoed the cruise ship in the Atlantic, some 200 miles west of the Hebrides, killing more than 100 people, with Britons and Americans bearing the brunt of the fatalities. I would like to think that the guilt hit hard with those Belfastian dock-workers.

A season of remembrance
● John F. Kennedy with Lord Provost Patrick Dollan and two rescued children, September 1939. (DR)
The citizens of Glasgow, and indeed the entire nation, were outraged and shell shocked, and the harsh reality of our grim situation had been underlined in action, barely seven hours since Neville Chamberlain’s words had been broadcast. Europe’s troubles were now right here on our doorstep and one can only imagine how distressing this must have been for everyone in this country. Even today, we can get a small sense of it. Partick Thistle fan and blogger Paul Climie lost his granduncle, Ian Donnelly, who was an assistant steward on the ship and he was inspired to write a wonderful piece external-link.png in his memory.

Hundreds of the survivors were brought back to Glasgow where the Lord Provost, Patrick Dollan, organised a warm welcome for them, ensuring access to medical treatment and accommodation in some of the city’s finest hotels. He even launched a special relief fund for the survivors, with the people of Glasgow contributing more than £3500. At the Grand Central Hotel, the American survivors were greeted by the US Ambassador’s 22-year-old son – he who would become President John F Kennedy.

It's understood that Kennedy’s first public speech was given in front of what is today Champagne Central, the hotel’s main public bar. Kennedy toured hospitals and met 150 bruised and bloodied survivors at the Beresford Hotel – a well-known art deco building which still stands (as flats) close to the city’s dental hospital. Kennedy said at the time: “I have never seen people more grateful for all that has been done for them by Glasgow, than those to whom I have spoken today.


Meanwhile, the civil servants at the Home Office were working round the clock on overtime schedules, issuing all sorts of guidelines and directives. Included in their closure orders of 4th September were “indoor and outdoor sports gatherings where large numbers of people might be expected to congregate.” Following the order, Glasgow City Council ordered the suspension of all grades of football until further notice.

The SFA met on Wednesday 6th September to discuss the position, and Emergency Committees were formed on a district basis. At that time it was not expected that football in any form would be permitted for several weeks. League and Club officials were already anticipating that there’d be considerable restrictions on crowds and venues. Competitive football was not expected.


In reality, it turned out that there was only one weekend without football. The return to normality in civilian life, so far as that was possible, was hastened somewhat by a relaxation of many of the initial Home Office restrictions. On Sunday 10th September, the Home Office announced that football may go on in “neutral areas”. Mr J. C. Lyon, chairman of Hamilton Academical, expressed the view that, even on a restricted scale, war-time football in Scotland could be made interesting and attractive alike for enthusiasts of the game. His suggestion was that the leading League clubs in Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and Ayrshire should each adopt a city club “for the duration” and give it, on alternate Saturdays, the hospitality of its ground for a home fixture. He explained “Fir Park might, for the time being, be the recognised home centre of both Motherwell and Celtic, while Cliftonhill could, on alternate Saturdays, be the home territory of Albion Rovers and Partick Thistle. It seems to me a plan of that kind, if it could be worked out, possesses great possibilities.” Mr. Lyons excellent plan never came to fruition – as it transpired there was no need – but what a great thinker. His kind would be a most welcome addition to the board of the SPFL today!

A season of remembrance
● This poster produced for the Ministry of War Transport uses a humorous football themed cartoon to encourage its employees to unload their vehicles more efficiently. (IWM)

In the Scotsman of the 11th September, the relaxation was reported thus: “The Government are well aware of the value of football as a public “safety valve” and, with all football officials keen to carry on, something should be accomplished. Many men have been called up for national service in one form or another, but with the majority of junior clubs going to the wall there should be plenty men available, especially since there will be no bar in the way of transfer or registration.

At the outbreak of war, the government made it compulsory for all men aged 18-41 to take part in military service in some shape or form, and most professional footballers were in this age group and had to ‘sign up’. Footballers played for their own team when they could but that depended on where they were posted in the army and whether they could get time off. Many football clubs had to make up teams with whoever was available week to week, including players from other teams, fans, and even the people who ran the club. Often, this meant there were changes to the team line ups at the last minute.

The question of allowing football in Glasgow was commented upon by the Lord Provost, Patrick Dollan: “If football were allowed in Glasgow, the crowds would not be as large as in normal times. Those attending would, of course, do so at their own risk. They would also have to put up with some inconvenience, as the usual special transport facilities would not be available.


A season of remembrance
● First Division, 2nd September 1939, competition voided 11 days later. (SC)

The Scottish Football League met on the 13th September and made the announcement that everyone had been expecting, but it was still dramatic all the same:

In view of the decision of the Scottish Football Association today by which only friendly games can be played, the League competition has been abandoned. In order to be prepared for the position when the ban is lifted, the Committee have appointed a sub-committee to prepare a scheme for Territorial Leagues, comprising the Clubs in the League. When the ban is lifted, the Management Committee will confer with the Scottish Football Association. The Emergency Committee of the S.F.A. unanimously agreed that it must be the policy of the Association to carry out absolutely the wishes of H.M. Government with regard to the playing of football matches.

Clubs got busy arranging friendly matches, post-haste. As the old song goes, we are indeed “fitba’ crazy and fitba’ daft”.

The Home Office initially restricted attendances to be 5,000, or half the seating accommodation, whichever was the lesser. In Scotland, complying with the conditions meant that the biggest possible crowd could be 5,000 at Ibrox, the only stadium with 10,000 seats or more. The majority of clubs would be looking at general averages between 2,000 to 3,000, many would be far less. “Fantastic and farcical” was the view expressed by a League authority when questioned about the Home Office intimation.

On Saturday 16th September, Thistle played their first game of the Second World Wartime. Rutherglen, deemed to be just within the “neutral zone”, was our destination and we were defeated 3-1 by Clyde in a friendly at Shawfield.

On Monday 18th September, a Home Office statement was issued, outlining the conditions in which football could be allowed. Some concession was made with regards to the crowd limits. In regards to the “danger zone” (a key point of interest to Partick Thistle), the statement specifically stated “The spectators at any one match must not exceed 8,000 in number, or half the capacity of the ground, whichever is the lesser.” Dispensation could be given for certain teams in certain games, but a special application had to made, and police permission had to be obtained. The Home Office edict further added: “The spectators must be evenly distributed in the stands and terraces available.

Within 5 days of the “danger zone” ban being lifted Thistle were in friendly action at Celtic Park. What are we like?


There were two big developments on the 26th September – good news and bad news. The bad news was that the SFA announced that their national competitions were to be suspended. There was to be no Scottish Cup this season. The good news was that the plans briefly alluded to by the SFL in their 13th September meeting, were effectively rubber-stamped by the Home Secretary when he granted permission of sorts via certain guidelines which were to be followed, “that teams must be able to travel back and forth on the same day” and that sort of thing. With the imposition of the blackout, the directives made sense. Only the very foolish would knowingly venture out in the pitch black of a wartime night. If you weren’t banging into a lamppost, chances were you could be knocked over by an equally foolish motorist scuttling around with his sidelights on. British road fatalities doubled in the Second World War.

Following the Home Secretary’s decision, Mr. McAndrew of the Scottish League issued a statement that very same evening. He proposed that there should be two Regional Divisions, Eastern and Western, each consisting of 16 clubs. The competing teams were also outlined. From the Thistle point of view, we would lose 8 of the clubs that had started in our 20 team First Division and 4 local teams would be slotted in from the Second Division – Airdrieonians, Dumbarton, Morton and Queen’s Park. Much talk and debate followed in the days to come. The Edinburgh clubs were not happy.

On 7th October, the Football Pools resumed, and comprised of Irish matches and English and Scottish friendlies. It was another small step forwards in the quest to find a new wartime routine as close to normal as possible.


On the 11th October, a Scottish League EGM, by votes of 31 to 7, approved the two-league regional plan that had been outlined two weeks previously. It was stated that the competitions were to start on Saturday week, the 21st October, and that the fixtures would be announced in the next few days. It had been suggested that a sufficient number of clubs, particularly from the East, would vote against the plan to ensure that it did not receive the necessary two-thirds majority, but, as the figures show, the threatened boycott never materialised. Indeed, the meeting was fairly brief, and the business was completed in about an hour. It was learned after the meeting that the seven clubs who voted against were those who were to be left out of the competition – Brechin City, East Stirlingshire, Edinburgh City, Forfar Athletic, Leith Athletic or St Bernard’s, and Montrose. It was further learned that, following the meeting of the League, the management committee had considered the position of Leith Athletic and St Bernard’s, one of which was due to be “axed” under the two-league plan. The committee decided that St Bernard’s should be the club taking part in the competition, and that Leith Athletic should drop out.

All sorts of temporary rules were framed to ensure that no club could allow its interests to interfere with any work of national importance. Wages were to be capped and matches were only to be played on Saturdays, holidays excepted. Players could register for other clubs where it suited, without the need for an official transfer. It was stated that the annulled First and Second Division competitions, and the status of the clubs therein, would resume upon “the resumption of normal conditions”. With regards to the new Regional Leagues it was also made clear that the winners should not be regarded as the champion club for the season, and that they “shall not be entitled to any reward, unless the management committee resolve otherwise”. Triumphalism and the frivolous use of precious metal resources would have been deemed to be in bad taste at this time. No-one argued against that.


A season of remembrance
● Blundell Park, Grimsby, echoed to the sound of an air raid warning in October 1939. (DR)

On 21st October, after seven weeks of uncertainty, Thistle played their first competitive game of the Second World War. Our first game in the new Scottish Regional League (Western Division) finished as a 2-2 draw at home to Queen of the South. In England, the start of the match at Grimsby was delayed due to an air raid warning. It was another chilling reminder to all, most especially to those in “danger zones” such as Glasgow.

A season of remembrance
● Peter McKennan posing for the Sunday Mail in the 1940s. A real Thistle hero, before, during and after the war. (SM)

Attendances, for safety reasons, were generally not issued by clubs during this season, despite some considerable press interest in the subject. However, it is estimated that average turnouts were down to about 25% of normal. There was even talk that some clubs may be forced to close down. After expenses, clubs split the gate receipts and the home club were obliged to guarantee £50 for the visitors. On 30th October, the Scotsman reported: “One has to note that Aberdeen, reckoned to be one of the best drawing districts in the country now, had only a few more pounds more than the guarantee to give their opponents in their first home match, while St Johnstone did not even draw the guarantee at the gates. Heart of Midlothian, it is understood, face a loss of £50 every time they get no more than the £50 guarantee, which will be frequent in away matches.

Some degree of attendance understanding can be fathomed from our game on the 9th December. Celtic, who were having a wretched season and would finish as Glasgow’s fifth best club, were the visitors to Firhill. We weren’t doing much better ourselves if truth be told. In fact, to be completely honest with you, we were bottom of the League. Thistle won 4-2 and, in doing so, consigned Celtic to the rock bottom spot in our place. Many strange things happened in wartime!


The crowd was reported for this one as 3,500, a whopping drop of 86% from the corresponding fixture in season 1938-39, which drew 25,000 by comparison. On the scoresheet that day was the famous Ma Ba' McKennan. You'll recall that Peter had been in a wrangle with the club over terms back in April, and his early conscription to the army had widened the gap between the adored player and club. His re-appearance on that day must have beeb a real tonic for the Firhill faithful. In their excellent “Legends” book, Niall Kennedy & Tom Hoise relay the story:

On his first spell of leave in December 1939, Peter arrived at manager Turner's office with minutes to spare before the game against and asked with a smile, "Any chance of a game?" Needless to say, Peter stripped and played, scoring one of the goals in a 4-2 win. Peter and Partick Thistle had solved their differences and when he was home on leave he would always make an appearance for Thistle.

My colleague Donnie MacIsaac is writing the story of the Thistle players and managers who served and survived during the war and we're all looking forward to seeing it on the Archive. He tells me that Peter served with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He landed at Normandy two weeks after D-Day, and was involved in the Battle for Caen. He was one of only four survivors of his section in one engagement. Peter was mentioned in dispatches for patrol work, in recognition of his gallantry.

McKennan's random drop-in seems to have inspired the team. The very next week, and for the first time this season, back to back victories were achieved when Airdrieonians were defeated by 2 goals to 1 at Broomfield. Alex Younger and James Douglas scored for Thistle whilst Bobby Flavell, the tiny tormentor, scored for the home side. Bobby was a Scottish internationalist and averaged over a goal per game for Airdrie. The Thistle side featured two notable ever presents, Sammy Picken at outside left, and Jackie Husband at left half, both of whom played all 30 games in this new Regional League competition. Sammy bagged 9 goals to finish as our top Regional League marksman and the chances are fair that Jackie may have provided some assists via his long shy prototype!

It's interesting to note that half of Jackie Husband’s appearances came in wartime. With Jackie's trade being classed as a reserved occupation (he was a patternmaker in the shipyards), he was exempt from military service, but he served in the Home Guard at Blytheswood nonetheless, combining this with his full-time job, as well as being a near ever-present for the Jags. Airdrieonians were doing quite well in mid-table, so this pre-Christmas win was very welcome for Jackie and for Thistle, who continued to climb away from the bottom. Not that it mattered too much; even relegation was rationed – there was none for seven seasons in a row!


At the turn of the year, the War Emergency Cup was announced as a stop-gap for the suspended Scottish Cup. All 32 teams from the two Regional Leagues were in the hat for the draw, although Cowdenbeath were forced to withdraw ere a ball was kicked. They had failed to fulfil one of their fixtures (many of their players had joined the armed forces) and were fined £5,000. Unable to pay, the club was forced to resign. Harsh! The Emergency Cup was anticlimactic as far as Thistle were concerned, although it heralded the dawning of an exciting development in terms of the playing personnel.

A season of remembrance
● The emergence of young Willie Sharp was Thistle's bright spot of 1939-40. (RVC)

Considering the circumstances, a very healthy 5,210 had assembled excitedly at Firhill for the 1st Round 1st leg match versus Dundee United in late February. As my fellow Archivist Jack Little tells in his first class potted reports, Bobby Morrison gave Thistle the lead from an Alex McSpadyen cross, but United led 3-1 at half-time (the 2nd goal a penalty). Thistle were second best to a good United team, and by the time Sammy Picken scored to make it 4-2 Thistle were well beaten. We had it all to do in the 2nd leg.

7 days later, the 17-year-old Willie Sharp made his competitive debut in the return leg. Back in September, Willie had scored a debut hat-trick in an 11-3 friendly win over Glasgow Highlanders. Could he make an impact? It was a big ask for the youngster. 9,772 were at Tannadice for the match - this was a sure sign of the hunger which existed for the real competitive stuff. Thistle started well enough but McSpadyen's miss in front of an open goal was telling. A goal by the same player earned a 1-1 draw but it wasn't enough for an aggregate win. “I'm disappointed…but they fought didn't they?” was the post-match reaction of manager Turner in the Daily Record.

The brightest spot of the season followed the cup exit, in the form of the emerging star striker, Willie Sharp. Between March and May he played in 10 of the Regional League games, netting 7 times. Our new wonderkid scored in an excellent 2-2 draw away to Rangers, the runaway winners of the League. Thistle played their best football of the season that day and were just 2 minutes away from a famous victory at Ibrox.

The final Regional League game of the season, a 1-3 loss at home to Rangers, spoiled Willie's 18th birthday. Thistle finished the season in 11th place, but at least we were above Celtic, a small, but nonetheless welcome, consolation prize.


A season of remembrance
● Allied troops huddle on the beach waiting for evacuation from Dunkirk, May 1940. (GI)

On the 27th May, just two days after Willie's 18th, “Operation Dynamo” was underway. By the time of its conclusion on 4th June, a total of 338,226 soldiers had been rescued from Dunkirk by a hastily-assembled fleet of over 800 boats. It was a monumental effort by all concerned.

The Scottish League had intended returning to the pre-War set-up, but the events at Dunkirk changed the thinking. It was now crystal clear that the conclusion of this war business was going to be a long and arduous process. The League Committee decided to suspend the League for the duration of the War, but allowed its member clubs to form their own competitions in the meantime. This prompted sixteen clubs to create the Southern League, and a year later eight teams to set up a North Eastern League.

With regards to the stray bomb which hit Forthbank Park, the Stirling Journal (25th July 1940) gave some indication of the local feeling:

Nazi airmen have consistently diplayed their most unsportsmanlike qualities since last September, but, as one Scottish football fan said the other day "It's going a bit too far when they start bombing our football grounds, and by fuck we'll make them pay for it yet!"

The Nazis were eventually defeated, but a heavy price was paid. The liberation of Europe cost almost 400,000 British military personnel their lives. To them, we owe an unimaginable debt of gratitude.

Publishing date Originally published on 16-Dec-2013 (WAT)
Thistle Archive publishing date Republished here on The Thistle Archive, 03-Sep-2022.
Latest edit date Latest edit version 05-Sep-2022.

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