The coffee & tea bowls: football classics: Canada vs. the United States in wartime London as Spitfires fly cover.
The differences between the British and the Canadians and Americans were far greater than a preference for cricket or football. Half a million Canadians and more than three million Americans served in Britain during the war years, and it sometimes seemed as if language was the only thing they had in common. The Canadians and their customs and games merely puzzled the British; the Americans--"over paid, over sexed, and over here"--bewildered them.
The Canadians had been in Britain since December 1939, with the arrival of the 1st Division at Aldershot in Hampshire, and they considered themselves old hands by the time the Americans appeared on the scene; experts in the ways of the British. The posting to permanent barracks at Aldershot was meant as a favour; the Canadian Corps in World War One had spent an infamous first winter in Britain under canvas on the soggy Salisbury Plain, swamped by 24 inches of rain in the first four months. The Canadians, however, didn't quite appreciate the favour, as the barracks dated from mid-Victorian times and lacked central heating. It had been the coldest winter since 1894 and fences, park benches, and seats from bus shelters quickly disappeared into open fireplaces.
The locals in this old British Army garrison town weren't particularly welcoming either, regarding the Canadians as just another horde, blighting the landscape like those before them. The adjustment was difficult on both sides with mail censors reporting that "Boredom, homesickness, and a feeling of not really being needed appear to be the main reason that nearly all Canadians grumble. The recent bad weather has made them dislike this country considerably. The insufficiency and bad quality of the food also annoys them. They do not understand the English and the English do not always understand them."
The wartime black out was almost as great a torment to the Canadians as the weather and the food. Pedestrians walked at night in mortal fear. Driving was a horror. Morale hit bottom and General Andrew McNaughton, the Canadian Army Commander, was plagued with complaints about drunkenness, disorderly conduct, dangerous driving, theft and trafficking in Army property. The Christmas season saw a rash of fights between British and Canadian troops that often escalated into feuds between whole units. The censors attributed this to "general inaction," judging that all the men "are spoiling for a fight and would probably prefer to expend their energies on the enemy." A civilian wrote to a friend: "I must tell you that it is like being in Hell over here for one can't move for Canadians and I can't bear them."
The Canadians moved to the Northampton area in May 1940 to a warmer welcome. Earlier difficulties and misunderstandings were gradually overcome, and the Blitz and a shared sense of danger brought the British and Canadians closer together. "We have now Canadians, quite the most charming creatures I have ever met in this war, and as for the French ones among them, words fail me to describe their delightfulness," a woman in Littlehampton wrote. "We had been led to expect that a French Canadian and an Apache Indian were synonymous terms, but how far from the truth, and as we have experienced the London Irish and the Welsh, we are good judges of savages."
Morale improved. Friendships were formed in pubs, local people entertained soldiers in their homes, and romances bloomed. By war's end 44,886 British women would marry Canadian servicemen.
The reaction of Canadian airmen and sailors to life in Britain Was similar to that of the soldiers. They too learned to adjust to the English but found that they were more warmly received in Scotland. A very special relationship was formed with the Scots. An airman's letter from Galashiels was typical:
"I don't like the climate in Edinburgh or the lack of heat in the hotels or houses, but I surely do like the Scotch hospitality. I don't know if it is on account of the uniform and the 'Canada' badge, but I have never known such people for friendliness, and that goes for bus conductors and civilians and in fact every person with whom I came in contact."
Morale improved even more as the trappings of home became available. Early in 1940 the BBC began broadcasting the final period of NHL hockey games, and was soon providing several hours of Canadian programs a week. Johnny Canuck's Revue was the most popular. Canadian concert parties like the "Tin Hats," "Airscrews," and "Haversacks" were formed. The Salvation Army, the Knights of Columbus and the YMCA became active, providing movies and canteens, recreational and sporting facilities. Softball and baseball were popular. In 1943, the London International Baseball League was formed with four American, three Canadian, and a British team. The same year, 32,000 servicemen watched over 2,000 athletes compete in the Army-RCAF track and field finals. Facilities were even found for hockey with the "Y" taking over the Imperial Ice Rink at Purley in South London. Over 200 men played hockey there daily and there were 500 to 600 skaters on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
The Coffee and Tea Bowls, like many an affair in wartime Britain, were the result of a chance meeting in a pub. One cold, wet winter evening in 1944, Major Denis Whitaker of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry--a former quarterback with the Hamilton Tigers and one of the few officers to survive the ill-fated raid on Dieppe--found himself sitting next to a lieutenant in the American recreational services. The conversation turned to football and the lieutenant told Whitaker that he had recently received enough equipment from the States to field six teams. Several rounds later, the idea of an international match had taken hold, a challenge issued and a toast proposed before each went his separate way into the London black out.
Whitaker approached Lieutenant-General Kenneth Stuart, the Chief-of-Staff at Canadian Military Headquarters whom he had known at the Royal Military College. General Stuart, a rabid football fan, was enthusiastic and suggested that a team be formed. Meanwhile, across town at the U.S. Army Central Base Section, Private First Class Frank Dombrowski began to muster a team he called the "Pirates." Equipment was loaned to the Canadians and an order was placed with a London silversmith for a trophy--an eight-inch high sterling silver teapot.
Whitaker dubbed his team the "Mustangs" and began to scour the Forces for players. Among them were Major Jeff Nicklin, a veteran of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Lieutenant Orville Burke of the Ottawa Rough Riders, and Captain George Hees, late of the Toronto Argonauts. Thanks to General Stuart, the team was relieved of regular duties and allowed six weeks of hard training.
In the 1940s, Canadian football's governing body was still called the Canadian Rugby Union. Ontario Rugby Union teams from smaller cities like the Sarnia Imperials and the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen contended against the big-city teams of the "Big Four"--the Ottawa Rough Riders, the Montreal Alouettes, the Toronto Argonauts, and the Hamilton Tigers--for the right to represent the East in the Grey Cup. Sarnia had won the Cup as recently as 1936. The Western Interprovincial Football Union consisted of teams in Winnipeg, Calgary, and Regina.
It was a much different league from today's CFL. Whitaker and his teammates were semi-pros, fairly well compensated for a few months' part-time work, but only the stars made a living wage. Warren Stevens, quarterback of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association Club that won the 1931 Grey Cup, found a $20 bill tucked in his shoe after the game. Another player in the early forties received $15, two pounds of butter, and a pound of tea. What the teams offered instead was employment off the field, often in jobs provided by municipal governments and team boosters.
Some teams, like the Ottawa Rough Riders, were run on a shoestring. Players were paid in cash each week--five dollars a game, ten if the team won. After road games a couple of bushels of apples were put on board the train for the ride home, followed by boxes of sandwiches. "Let them eat those apples first," manager Jimmy McCaffrey would say, "and they won't be so tough on those expensive sandwiches." When McCaffrey spotted a prospective player, he would offer him a tryout, but the player had to provide his own equipment and then if he made the team, he would be provided with a proper pair of cleats.
All that was in the past now, as the players flocked to the colours and the league suspended operations. In the last wartime Grey Cup final in 1940, the Ottawa Rough Riders defeated Toronto Balmy Beach. The game was a crashing flop at the gate with an all-time record low 1,700 paid admissions and gate receipts of only $1,798. War charities received $32 and 82 street car tickets as their share of the take. For the duration the Grey Cup had been played, but the challengers were service teams--the Toronto RCAF Hurricanes, the Winnipeg RCAF Bombers, the Hamilton Flying Wildcats, and the Montreal-St-Hyacinthe-D'onnacona Navy--and the matches were staged events designed to bolster morale. Overseas, the Coffee and Tea Bowls were anticipated with more excitement than a Grey Cup.
On February 13, 1944, some 30,000 servicemen and bemused civilians, wrapped in scarves and fortified with rum to ward off the chill of an English winter, poured into White City Stadium. Spitfires took off from nearby airfields to provide air cover for the game was played at the height of the "Little Blitz"--a renewed Luftwaffe offensive that would claim more than 900 lives. Above the crowd, Captain Sir Edward Leather sat down at a microphone to broadcast the game across the British Isles.
The first half was played under American rules, and at half time there was no score. The bands then took to the field to dazzle the now boisterous fans. In the second half, under Canadian rules, the Mustangs took charge, scoring a touchdown moments after the bands had cleared the field. Orville Burke, who played one of the greatest games of his career, then threw a 40-yard pass to Whitaker who romped home in the clear for a second Canadian counter. The Americans rallied and pressed the Mustangs deep into their own zone. In the last minute of play, with the score 11-6, Burke threw a pass to Nicklin who crossed the line just as the whistle blew to win the game 16-6. Part of the crowd went wild.
Whitaker's agreement with the Americans had been that there would only be one sudden-death game. However, after the game General Stuart agreed to a rematch with an American general who proposed that the Mustangs meet a team from the U.S. 29th "Blue Division." Unfortunately, Stuart was not informed that the 29th's star player was Sergeant Tommy Thompson, a former all-star with the Philadelphia Eagles. In the meantime, the Mustangs had been disbanded and Whitaker, Nicklin, and Hees were no longer available.
The sequel, known as the "Coffee Bowl," was played on March 19 at White City before a crowd of 50,000. Thompson dominated the game and the Blues, reinforced with a contingent from the University of Iowa Cornhuskers, ran roughshod over the Mustangs. A Canadian officer, trying to put the best face on things, sighed and wrote home: "The fine display put on by the massed bands compensated to some degree for the outcome of the game." The Canadians lost 18-0.
The outcome of the games was really irrelevant. What counted was the camaraderie, the friendly competitiveness, and the sense of shared purpose. These were qualities that would be very much in demand in the months to come.
On June 6, 1944, less than three months after the games, the Allies invaded France. The U.S. 29th Division landed on Omaha Beach, where many of the players in the Coffee Bowl were killed or wounded. Among the Canadians, George Hees was wounded on Walcharen Island in the Netherlands. Fortunately, he recovered and went on to serve as a distinguished Member of Parliament and cabinet minister in the Diefenbaker government.
Jeff Nicklin was killed in action on March 24,1945 while commanding the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion during the Rhine crossings. Today, the Nicklin Trophy is awarded to the CFL's outstanding rookie.
Denis Whitaker survived the war to become a Brigadier General and one of the country's foremost military historians. He passed away in 2001. At his home in Oakville, Ontario, among the souvenirs of a long and distinguished career, pride of place was given to a tiny silver teapot. A memento of a bright moment in a dark winter of war.