Rugby warriors: the rugby-playing heroes of the First and Second World War

No other sport can boast such an illustrious record in the service of its country during times of war. Gavin Mortimer profiles players from the past who were heroes not just on the pitch but on the battlefields of war too…

Irish rugby fans in London for the international match between Ireland and England at Twickenham Stadium, 13 February 1937. (Photo by E Dean/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

On the night of 10 December 1941, ten British soldiers crept towards the aerodrome at Tamet, a coastal town midway between the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Benghazi. The aerodrome was held by the Axis powers of Germany and Italy. The Britons were deep inside enemy territory yet supremely confident in the challenge confronting them. They belonged to the newly formed L Detachment of the Special Air Service Brigade and were led by a huge Irish officer called Blair Mayne.

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Once on the aerodrome the men moved quickly from aircraft to aircraft, silently placing bombs on the wings of the machines. With that done, Mayne walked up to the pilots’ mess and, in a subsequent letter home, he described what happened next: “I kicked open the door and stood there with my Colt 45, the others at my side with a Tommy gun and another automatic. The Germans stared at us. We were a peculiar and frightening sight, bearded and unkempt hair. For what seemed an age we just stood there looking at each other in complete silence. I said: ‘Good evening’. At that a young German arose and moved slowly backwards. I shot him… the room was by now in pandemonium.”

25th November 1871:  A scene from an early rugby union game at Kensington Oval. Original Publication: The Graphic - A Match At Football: The Last Scrimmage - pub. 1871 Original Artwork: Engraved by E Buckman  (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

The SAS soldiers left behind them several dead Italian and German airmen, as well as 24 enemy aircraft destroyed or badly damaged. This hit-and-run raid was the first of a type that would be repeated dozens of times in the coming months, many of them led by the fearsome ‘Paddy’ Mayne.

At the war’s end, Mayne was one of the most famous warriors in the British army, feted as much for his bravery (he won the DSO – Distinguished Service Order – on four occasions) but also for the fact that he was a rugby player of some repute. From 1937 to 1939, the 6ft 4in (1.93m) tall Mayne had played for Ireland, winning plaudits for his athleticism and aggression, and earning himself a place on the British Isles rugby union tour to South Africa in the summer of 1938. Mayne’s success with that team (made up of players from the British Isles and later dubbed the Lions) echoed that of another Irishman 42 years earlier.

Leading the charge

Tom Crean had dazzled for the British Isles team when it rampaged through South Africa on the tour of 1896, winning 19 of its 21 matches. One local newspaper described the irrepressible young doctor as “standing head and shoulders above everyone”, and Crean for his part loved South Africa so much he decided to remain and open a medical practice in the Transvaal. Another Irish member of the tour party, Robert Johnston, also opted out of the trip home and went into business not far from Crean’s surgery. The pair continued playing together, turning out for a team in Johannesburg, and when Britain and South Africa went to war in 1899 the teammates enlisted together in the Imperial Light Horse in September that year.

A month later Johnston won the Victoria Cross during the battle of Elandslaagte when, as the citation for the decoration stated, he “very gallantly rushed forward under this heavy fire and rallied the men,” leading them in a charge that broke the enemy resistance.

1902 C.B. FRY

A little over two years later Crean won a Victoria Cross of his own during an engagement at Tygerkloof. Serving as the Light Horse’s medical officer, the Irishman tended the wounds of several men under heavy fire, continuing to do so even after being shot in the stomach.

The courage of Crean and Johnston was celebrated back at the Wanderers club in Dublin, the side for whom the pair had played before emigrating to South Africa. Remarkably, the Wanderers were able to toast the gallantry of another former player during the course of the First World War when Fred Harvey made it a hat-trick of Victoria Crosses in 1917 ten years after making his debut for Ireland.

Harvey’s feat of arms was repeated in 1918 by another rugby international, an English naval officer called Arthur Harrison who had been a member of the England side that won the Five Nations championship in 1914. Four years later Harrison was one of the men who volunteered for the daring raid on the German-occupied port of Zeebrugge, which was being used by the enemy as a submarine pen.

The raid’s objective was to sail three outdated cruisers into the port and scuttle them, so trapping the submarines. It was audacious and largely successful (though the Germans soon cleared the ships) but came at a devastating cost: 200 men dead and 384 wounded. Among the dead was Harrison, gunned down as he led an assault against a German machine gun emplacement.

A fellow naval officer, Alfred Carpenter, later described his comrade’s demise in what to modern eyes is frivolous prose: “Harrison’s charge down that narrow gangway of death was a worthy finale to the large number of charges which, as a forward of the first rank, he had led down many a rugby football ground.”

Members of Preston Ladies' Football Club (formerly Dick, Kerr’s Ladies) pose while carrying out leg exercises during practice, March 1937. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Courage off the pitch

Though Harrison and the three Irishmen are the only international players to have won the Victoria Cross, scores of their peers were decorated for gallantry in the two world wars. There have been 72 DSOs awarded, 86 Military Crosses and 16 DFCs (Distinguished Flying Crosses), two of them awarded to Group Captain Ralph ‘Sammy’ Sampson, who played for Scotland before and after the Second World War, and in between displayed immense skill and courage as a Spitfire pilot.

No other sport can boast such an illustrious record in the service of its country during times of war. Football and cricket have both produced a handful of wartime heroes but nothing to compare to the scores of rugby players who fought with such distinction.

Though Sir Tasker Watkins never represented Wales on the international stage, he was a talented club player who later became president of the Welsh Rugby Football Union. He was also awarded a Victoria Cross in 1944 during the battle for Normandy. Not long before his death in 2007, Watkins explained in an interview with The Daily Telegraph how rugby had helped in his own act of outstanding bravery.

“The team ethic was huge, which is one reason I believe there to be such a correlation between rugby players and good soldiering,” said Watkins, adding: “Leadership and patriotism are two virtues that translate wonderfully well from the rugby pitch to battle… [so] that top rugby players had an independence of thought and deed that marked them out as leaders.”

Gavin Mortimer is the author of Fields of Glory (Andre Deutsch, 2001). His latest book, The SAS in World War Two: An Illustrated History, will be published by Osprey in November.

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This article was first published in the October 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine