Story File: The Team that Went to War
The Team that Went to War ran in Battle Picture Weekly over nineteen weeks in the spring and summer of 1976, and was reprinted in Roy of the Rovers in 1985. Before preparing this post I’d only ever read one or two episodes, and thought it fairly run-of-the-mill war tales stuff, but reading the whole in one sitting led to a far greater appreciation of a cleverly constructed story – derivative and sentimental, sure, but still an imaginative take on some crowd-pleasing ideas. This was written and published five years before the classic war-and-football film Escape to Victory and I think it would have lent itself to an equally entertaining and enduring movie of that era. What the hell, how about a TV serial drama of this era?
The story tells the stories of the eleven first-team players of the ‘mighty’ Barchester United – the leading English football team of the pre-WWII years. After their exhibition match against a combined forces team is interrupted by an attack by a rogue German bomber in April 1940, the team decides as a group to volunteer for service. They are posted around the world and the following weeks tell the personal war story of each member of the team in turn – all heroic, some tragically so, and each demonstrating a particular characteristic that the payers had contributed to the success of United. In the final week, the eight surviving members of the team are reunited to play a special match to remember their fallen comrades and to celebrate the end of the war.
In the order in which their stories were told, the Barchester United line-up was:
Reg ‘The Voice’ Munger, right-half, who was the heart of an infantry troop under siege in France.
Bill Long, goalkeeper, who was a POW in Germany, who gave his life helping his fellow prisoners escape. The panel illustrating his death scene – a grenade exploding in one of his famous ‘safe’ hands – was particularly upsetting.
Sam Cartwright, team skipper, who was captain of a Lancaster bomber in the RAF, taking charge of a rookie squadron tasked with destroying a key German aqueduct.
Harry Hopwood, right-winger, who was a daredevil pilot, killed when single-handedly deflecting a surprise attack on his airbase during the Battle of Britain.
‘Big Joe’ Hardisty, centre-half, who became a veteran of the Merchant Navy, shipping vital cargo across the Atlantic battleseas.
Mike Sheldon, inside-right, who was a risk-taking, injury-prone commando on secret operations in occupied Norway.
Danny Doyle, right-back, a tank commander inspiring his fellows in the fightback against Rommel in the Western Desert.
Norman Dance, left-winger, who was a Swordfish torpedo bomber plotting to sink an ‘indestructible’ German battleship. Norman was suspected by other pilots in his squadron of being a coward for refusing to fly directly into the heart of battle, but he proved that he was in fact a fighter of cunning, able to find space and strike when least expected.
Andy Macphee, centre-forward, who was an infantryman fighting the Germans in Italy. He lost his life when leading a successful charge into enemy territory, dribbling a football to inspire the troops and surprise the enemy.
‘Baby’ Bryn Evans, left-back, who, aged 22, was the youngest member of the team, and experienced even more horrors than the othersat the hands of Japanese torturers in Burma. He overcame his nerves to rescue tough-guy Frank Clayton, against whom he had played football before the war.
Albert ‘Twisty’ Ferris, inside-left, who was part of a troop fighting stragglers in a German town just before the end of the war in April 1945. Trapped in the ruins of a football stadium in which he had once played, he drew on his memories of the ground to win a dogged shoot-out.
I’m not sure who wrote this story, but it was drawn for all but the last two episodes by Mike Western – a veteran of war and football comic art. The finale’s artist was Jim Watson.