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WWII: The Bombing of Wimbledon’s Centre Court

Every aspect of life in Britain was impacted by World War 2. Between 1939 and 1945, the Allies fought in the devastating conflict, which involved 61 countries and caused the deaths of more than 50 million people around the world. Life changed for everyone.

Even the historic game of tennis and the annual Wimbledon championship didn’t escape unscathed when its famous Centre Court was bombed.

How did the war affect Wimbledon?

The bastion of English sport, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, on Church Road, Wimbledon, suffered the effects of WW2, as did the rest of the district of Wimbledon, in south-west London.

Founded in 1877, the Wimbledon tennis championship has taken place annually in June and July ever since. There have only been three periods in history when play has been suspended. In 1915, the Wimbledon tournament was cancelled due to the Great War, but it returned in 1919. Suspended again during WW2, it was sadly cancelled again this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Second World War had the greatest detrimental effect on the club than any other event in history. Even though bombings in London were commonplace, especially during the constant air raids of the Blitz between September 1940 and May 1941, nobody could have foreseen the disastrous effects on Centre Court.

Why was the All England Club bombed?

During the six years of WW2, more than 1,000 bombs fell on the district of Wimbledon, destroying around 14,000 homes, tragically killing 150 residents, injuring 1,071 and making thousands more homeless.

The All England Club was always likely to be at a high risk of being bombed, as there were two important factories in the vicinity: one manufactured machine guns and the other made spark plugs. They were targets for the Luftwaffe, as was Wimbledon Common, where military training took place and numerous anti-aircraft batteries were located.

Only a few miles away was the strategically-important Croydon airfield. German intelligence also knew that both the War Minister, Leslie Hore-Belisha, and the RAF’s Air Chief Marshal, Hugh Dowding, lived in Wimbledon.

It was almost inevitable that the All England Club would be struck at some point after the first bombs fell on Wimbledon in August 1940. Two months later, the Luftwaffe staged a number of devastating strikes that severely damaged the historic club.

What happened to Centre Court?

During the war, while tennis was suspended, civil defence and military personnel were housed in the All England Club. Detachments of the London Irish and London Welsh regiments took over the club and could often be found practising marching drills. Several buildings were converted so they could be used by the ambulance, fire and first-aid services.

The grounds became home to a small farm stocked with pigs, hens, geese, ducks and rabbits, while one of the car parks was ploughed up to grow vegetables. This was part of the government’s Dig for Victory campaign – one of the most famous wartime campaigns.

On the night of 11th October 1940, five 500lb bombs hit the All England Club’s property. One landed at the north-east entrance in Church Road, two fell on the Wimbledon Park golf course and one blew up the club’s tool house. A fifth caused the most damage – it crashed through the roof of a stand on Centre Court, destroying 1,200 seats, including the competitors’ area.

Did Wimbledon tennis bounce back after the war?

Repairs to the All England Club were ongoing since the night of the fateful bombing. Despite the damage to the stands and other areas, the grass courts were maintained throughout the war. In June 1945, just one month after Germany’s surrender, when the war still raged in Japan, the first tennis competition of the new era was held.

More than 5,000 spectators enjoyed a special tournament, featuring players from the armed forces, including Squadron Leader Dan Maskell, the club’s resident professional, who went on to become the BBC’s voice of tennis as a top commentator.

The Wimbledon Championships resumed in 1946, which was no mean feat considering the damage to the Centre Court stand wasn’t repaired until 1947. In fact, it was 1949 before all the damage to the club was completely repaired, due to post-war building restrictions and the shortages caused by rationing.

The tournament of 1946 was held between 24th June and 6th July, against the unfamiliar backdrop of the bomb-damaged stand. This didn’t spoil people’s enjoyment of the tournament. The prestigious men’s singles title was won by French player Yvon Petra, who beat Australian Geoff Brown in a five-set thriller.

Brown had just returned from active service during the war, as he had been a gunner in the Royal Australian Air Force. He had played tennis before the war and returned to the game as soon as he was demobilised.

The winner of the women’s singles was US professional player Pauline Betz, who defeated fellow American Louise Brough in two sets.

Food rationing meant the usual high standard of food was unavailable at the club for some years after the war ended. Some overseas players imported steaks and kept them in their hotel fridges, as meat remained in short supply in the UK. Rationing didn’t officially end until nine years after the war, as it was gradually phased out.

Wimbledon went on to become one of the biggest tennis championships in the world in the second half of the 20th century – and continued to go from strength-to-strength until the pandemic unfortunately caused its cancellation this summer.

In 2019, it was attended by 500,397 spectators, who consumed 250,000 bottles of water, 190,000 sandwiches, 150,000 buns, scones, pasties and doughnuts, 150,000 glasses of Pimm’s and 28,000 kilos of strawberries – spectators ate so many strawberries that if the berries were laid end-to-end, they would have stretched almost 60km from Wimbledon to Reading!

Officials at the All England Club are tentatively preparing for Wimbledon 2021, which is pencilled in from 28th June to 11th July. They have three possible scenarios in mind, dependent on whether the coronavirus pandemic is under control. If this is the case, the tournament will be played with full capacity. The other options are playing with reduced capacity, or behind closed doors.

We will remember them On the 11th November,  Dragon Courts will be observing the 2-minute silence as a mark of respect for the brave men and women who gave their lives so that we might enjoy a brighter future

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