As Britain celebrates the 75th anniversary of VE Day, Lions historian Dave Sullivan details the goings on at Millwall during that historic time...
In celebrating 'Victory in Europe' as a nation, the masses now could let their hair down and enjoy the ensuing festivities. But, the return of the normal League football was still 15 months away.
As far as Millwall were concerned normality couldn’t come quickly enough, but a 2-1 victory at Watford four days after VE Day (8th May) enabled them to leave Clapton Orient to pick up the 'wooden spoon', as The Lions finished 17th out of 18 in the Football League South.
Justice prevailed when the original Boxing Day fixture against The Hornets was abandoned on the hour due to heavy rain with Millwall leading 3-0 - a shame, because one of the goals was scored by Stan Mortensen - the Blackpool centre-forward - in his one and only game for The Lions.
However, the season wasn’t without a piece of history making, with Millwall reaching a Wembley Final for the first time as they faced London neighbours Chelsea. As both teams usually played in royal blue it was Millwall who had to change colours, with The FA coming to the rescue by loaning them England shirts for the match. A 2-0 defeat in what was dubbed the ‘Land-lease Final’ saw no less than 12 guest players, eight of whom were in Chelsea’s team.
On the Saturday before VE Day Millwall entertained Queens Park Rangers in a benefit game for the dependents of Freddie Fisher, who left a wife and five children, and was Millwall’s one contracted player to lose his life whilst serving in the RAF. The weather and another good British tradition, a transport strike, kept the attendance down in what was a worthy cause.
Two personalities lining up for The Lions were England goalkeeper, the indomitable Frank Swift, and Frank Broome, the Aston Villa outside-right. A final score of 3-2 in Millwall’s favour seemed most appropriate, with Roy Evans (2) and Russ Phillips the marksmen. To their credit Rangers, deferred any expenses from the game. Following the announcement of VE Day, Charlton Athletic and Millwall arranged to play at The Valley on the spring bank holiday (21st May). The encounter finished in a 2-2 draw.
Despite their poor League form, their effort to reach a Wembley Final saw Millwall produce much better results in their group games of the South Cup, winning four of their six matches. One of the defeats, however, came at Brighton - a 6-2 mauling, in fact. Included in the Lions XI that was another England centre-forward, the renowned Tommy Lawton of Everton.
A story to evolve following the rout down at Hove, Lawton recounts seeing a Millwall player buying one of the directors a drink on the train on journey home. His thoughts were the deed should be
- 1) the director doing the buying and
- 2) the player concerned ‘buying’ a place in the team
With this in mind, Lawton decided that if that was commonplace at the club he wanted no part of it - and so ended his Millwall career after just one game.
Having survived two penalties against Arsenal in the 1-0 victory in the League South Cup, Millwall then conceded another one in the 3-1 loss at West Ham United a week later; Charlie Bumstead saving Lewis' spot-kick by shooting straight at The Lions' 'keeper. The consolation from defeat against The Hammers was Millwall’s goal - the best of the game - from Tom Stevenson. Picking up the ball in midfield, he weaved his way past three men and side-stepped another to complete his fine solo run with a crisp cross shot into the bottom corner. When Stanley Matthews appeared for Arsenal in a League match against The Lions it attracted a gate of over 21,000 at White Hart Lane - Benny Fenton opened the scoring, but Millwall went down 4-1.
During the course of the 1944/5 season the ground staff at The Den adopted a black cat, who ages earlier had wandered into the dressing rooms when Millwall were in the ascendancy. Much fuss was made of the feline by groundsman Elijah Moor, who fed the cat with some tit-bits in order to keep him on site. One fateful morning, the lucky black cat was found drowned in a water tank, and ever since, Millwall’s persistent run of luck began from that day.
Those Millwall players to resume their careers after the conflict were Ted Smith, J.R. Smith, Jimmy Jinks, Benny Fenton, George Fisher, Len Tyler and Tommy Brown. Bill Voisey, a great Millwall stalwart, saw his son Harry appear a couple of times during the season too.
With thanks for Chris Bethell for the photos