Why Hibs played in Allied-occupied Germany before four-game tour of Czechoslovakia in the 1940s
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The Scottish Football League suspended competition on September 13, with a committee hastily established to explore the viability of regional league competitions in order to keep some sort of regular fixtures on the go. Nearly two weeks later, after the Home Secretary gave the green light, the 1939/40 Scottish War Emergency League was established with matches starting the following month. Two divisions – Eastern and Western – were created, with 16 clubs each. There was no room in the temporary structure for Brechin, East Stirlingshire, Edinburgh City, Forfar, Leith Athletic or Montrose, who had all been part of the league before the war.
The Scottish War Emergency League ran for just one season with the remaining war years given over to regional league and cup competitions. The Southern League was brought in for 1940/41 and the following year a North-Eastern League was added.
But 1946 was to be the most interesting year as far as Hibs were concerned. The Easter Road side had had a mixed few seasons on the football front, finishing eighth in the Eastern division of the War Emergency League before winning the Summer Cup in 1940/41 and the Southern League Cup in 1943/44. They were Southern League runners-up in 1941/42 and 1945/46; a precursor to their league success in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
After Germany’s surrender in May 1945, the country was occupied by Allied troops, including a large British contingent and as part of efforts to entertain those stationed in Germany, a scheme was devised to send professional football teams from England and Scotland to play exhibition matches against soldiers – a chance for troops to face their hometown teams on foreign soil. Between September 1945 and November 1946 more than 60 matches were played involving the ‘Combined Services’, the ‘United Services’, the ‘British Land Army’ (BLA) or its successor the ‘British Army of the Rhine’ (B.A.O.R.).
And so on May 1, between a league game against Dundee and a Victory Cup tie against Hearts Hibs travelled to Lower Saxony, to the town of Celle, where they were billed as facing a B.A.O.R. Select. Details of the match are scant but newspaper reports suggest Hibs ran out 3-0 victors and even had time for a visit to Hannover, accompanied by manager Willie McCartney’s son John, who was stationed in Germany at the time. On returning to Turnhouse Airport the following day, bystanders reported seeing a large green and white flag flying from the aeroplane as it prepared to land.
First-team regulars Willie Finnigan and Sammy Kean had suffered injuries in Germany but Hibs still ran out 3-1 winners against Hearts at Tynecastle in front of nearly 40,000 fans. Jock Weir opened the scoring after 15 minutes, only for Archie Kelly to restore parity five minutes, but another from Weir ten minutes before the break and a third by utility man Willie Peat secured victory. Hibs reached the final of the Victory Cup, seeing off Partick Thistle after a replay in the third round, and Clyde in the semis, but lost to Rangers in the final.
Just hours after losing the final the squad set off for Czechoslovakia for a summer tour that would include matches against Sparta Prague at Stadion Letná in the capital on June 20; SK Židenice in Brno on June 22; SK Vítkovice Železárny at the Městský stadion in Ostrava on June 25 and finally back to the capital to face Slavia Prague on June 28, again at Letná. The rivals were groundsharing at the time as Slavia’s stadium had been destroyed by Nazi forces during the Prague Uprising the previous year.
Hibs defeated Sparta in their opening match, winning 3-1 courtesy of a Weir double and a strike by Gordon Smith in front of an estimated 43,000 spectators. They lost to Židenice, with no apparent record of the scoreline, before trouncing Vítkovice Železárny 7-1. Smith and Weir both grabbed braces along with Arthur Milne on one of his final appearance for Hibs, with recent signing from Queen’s Park Johnny Aitkenhead also on the scoresheet. The final match against Slavia ended 3-2 for the home team but the tour was considered a success.
A local newspaper later paid tribute to Hibs, writing: “After last month’s not very successful visit of Derby County the arrival of another British team in Prague drew far less attention. It was evident that British soccer – after having been represented by Derby County – had lost a lot of its fame and popularity in this country. Great was the surprise of the 40,000 spectators when Hibernians put a team on the field which played a better game than any seen for a long time. This time referee Jaroslav Vlček’s task was an easy one, as the game, although a hard fight throughout, was clean. The Scots re-established our faith in British sportsmanship, shaken by Derby County’s recent performances.”
Despite that, McCartney was scathing of the refereeing performances. ‘The worst I have sampled,’ he fumed, adding: “It is obvious that the officials will require to be properly educated in the laws of the game.” But he was effusive in his praise for the ‘wonderful people who gave us a welcome the warmth of which affected us very much’, hailed his players as ‘ambassadors of our country… on and off the field they were highly popular’ and of the standard of play said: “The Czech football has succeeded in maintaining a standard comparable with their pre-war grafting.”
Sparta later that year toured the UK, playing games against Arsenal, Birmingham, Derby, Rangers, and a rematch against Hibs – with the visitors exacting revenge for their summer defeat by winning 3-1 in front of 20,000 at Easter Road, after Sammy Kean had given the hosts a tenth-minute lead.