Sir Tom Finney was probably more well known for his exploits on the football pitch as opposed to the battlefield but during WW2 he served in the Royal Armoured Corps, in this fascinating interview by James Holland we learn about his WW2 experiences. Sadly Sir Tom Finney passed away in February 2014 in Preston, England.
I was fortunate enough to interview Sir Tom Finney at his home in Preston for a chapter in a book I was writing called Heroes. He was a charming man and modest too: despite his achievements there was not one footballing photograph or piece of silverware anywhere that I could see. Anyway, this is the Second World War as seen by one of our greatest ever strikers...
…Nowadays, you won’t get much change out of £50 if you & say 2 nippers go to watch a game.
And that was what you were paid to play for England! I got the impression that as a child, you were definitely football rather than cricket.
I was always took that way; I played cricket as well, but football was my first love.
I am interested in the fact that just because you were just beginning to make your name as a footballer didn’t make any difference at all; you still had to go & do your time. It’s this idea of ordinary people, no matter how skilled or brilliant they might be academically or as a sportsman, or whatever, you all had to go off & do your bit. I am interested in the background; growing up in this part of the world; how you developed as a footballer & then having to go off & this separation from your then fiancée & the fact you were away from home for so long. 3 or 4 years of your life & some people were away for longer than that. One thing that has struck me of all the people I have spoken to who were brought up in those inter-war years, is, I would say that about 50% of them had lost a parent before they were 15, & it really was a different world wasn’t it?
Oh yes & a very sad world in some respects. I was 20 years of age & serving my apprenticeship as a plumber & I was 20 on the 5th of April & I was called up a fortnight after; just got my papers through the post to say ‘Report at Preston Barracks’ & had a chat with the army fellow who was on duty – what regiment you wanted to go in. I wanted to go with my brother who was in Burma. He was called up; he was an electrician & he was 5 years older than me but he was called up at a very early age because he was concerned with the Territorial Army. He went off to camp once a year for a fortnight. We were a family of 4 girls & 2 boys & then my mother died very young & my father was left with 6 of us. He married again & had 2 boys, so 8 in all. He had a real struggle on his hands, particularly in the war years & when us boys were called up…well – the wage earners, although we didn’t get a lot of money in those days really. Didn’t earn a lot as an apprentice.
But it all went into the home kitty?
Your brother was called up immediately?
Yes he was because of his TA experience.
Can you remember what regiment he was in?
He was in the Yeomans.
The Lancashire Yeomanry?
Something like that, yes. He went in the REME because he was an electrician. He often used to say to me when he came back, he learnt more in the army than in his apprenticeship. He was involved in electrical type of work.
Was he shipped off pretty much straight away overseas?
Yes, I think it was about 6 months, or 9 months at the most when he was shipped off abroad.
Can you remember the war being announced?
Can you remember a sense that it was coming? Or were you just young & ….
I think you realised that you’d be called up because the government had stated that men of 20 years of age would be called up & I was approaching that & of course I was called up very quick. I asked to go in the same regiment as my brother but I never heard another thing until I was told to report to the barracks down London way; down south. I actually came back to Catterick which is quite a distance from here & we used to scrounge a life weekends; if a lorry or something was coming that way, that came from Preston area, or Lancashire area, would take you a fair way towards….better than spending it on the railway. I did my training at Catterick. Mostly it was in the tanks; driving tanks. I never drove in my life before I went in the forces but I could drive everything when I came out.
Driving a tank is quite different from driving a truck or a car isn’t it?
It is but it was quite simple; it was all on sticks as we called them.
Did you find it claustrophobic being in the belly of a tank?
No, not really no. I did my training up at Catterick & then was posted abroad & I was in Egypt for 18 months at the base depot there & I think it was mainly because I was a professional football player.
Did you join up with any of your mates?
No, I just went off on my own. Met various lads from Lancashire & Yorkshire.
I know it was your war time debut for Preston, rather than the official league, but did people know who you were at that stage?
Not really, no.
You were just T Finney the private?
Yeah, & it was only when I was over there in Egypt that there was a lot of football played over there at the base depot & word went round pretty quickly that I was a Preston North End player & I think that helped you know, for me to be kept at the base depot for quite some time & then of course they called an awful lot of people then to go out to Italy; reinforcements really. It was only when I went across to Italy that I joined the 9th (?) Queen’s Royal Lancers & I remember being interviewed by the officer. He said “Have you seen any action yet?” I said “No,” & he said “Well you bloody soon will!” I was off the following day to the Lancers.
That was just as they were about to do their break across the River Po, is that right?
What did you make of Italy?
I didn’t like fighting! I was very pleased when it was all over because the Germans very shortly after that happened at the River Po, the Germans capitulated & then I joined up with the 8th Army team, the team that were going about entertaining the troops; mostly professionals.
I think you said you sailed on the Queen Mary. What can you remember of that journey out?
Only that we didn’t know where we were going.
No idea at all?
Hadn’t a clue; knew it was going to be somewhere warm because we were in tropical gear.
You must have been packed in like sardines weren’t you?
Oh we were; it was just stripped more or less, the Queen Mary, for a troop ship.
What were you sleeping in?
Down in the like base (?) there were bunks.
Were you at all worried about U boats or anything like that?
Not really, no. I think the fact that I lost my mother quite early in my life, we were….you know….fit to look after ourselves. I think it helped….
Do you think that had helped you with your self-reliance?
I think it had, yes.
You learn that independent streak I guess.
Yes, you do; look after yourself.
Regrets about leaving Elsie; regrets about leaving your family & so on? But can you remember any sense of apprehension at all about going?
I think I had but it was a question, when you were going abroad, you were going into action & your thoughts were on would you ever come back, you know. Would you get killed or ….& it changed completely when I went to Cairo & I was stationed at a place called El ??? barracks, the base deport & there was a lot of sport; cricket, football & running, you know, athletics & I think that helped considerably. They sent me on a cooking course & I think it was just to keep me in the base depot.
Presumably, if you hadn’t been a footballer, you would have been packed off to Tunisia or…
Absolutely; could well have been straight into action.
Amazing. Can you remember when it was that you reached Egypt? You joined up in 1942…
December, ’42. It would be 2 or 3 weeks after that. I remember going to, you know… We passed South Africa and dropped anchor way outside there just to refuel, I think, and we saw, we could see the buses and all things.
So that was sort of Christmas ’42, was it?
But just to go back to you leaving England for the first time; presumably that was your fist time at sea, was it?
Yeah, it was really, yeah. First time I’d been away, really, I mean apart from travelling in England, the north end, and going to Wembley. That was a wonderful occasion for me, because I was only 18 and played in the Wartime cup final against Arsenal, who were then really a great side, even though it was a Wartime duty that we played them. There were people like Pat (Book) and the Compton Brothers, you know.
It must have been a strange sight, because I imagine that one week there would have been 11 of you, then the next week one of those would have been called up. Was it like that?
It was like that. I found out in my early days for Preston North End there were a lot of guest players; players that were round about here, kind of thing, where they had camps, & you would just have players…..Blackpool would have a very good side with players like Matthews; virtually an international side because they were stationed there.
The football in Egypt, that was good fun was it?
Oh it was. The pitches were sand; there was no grass.
Easy to pick up injuries I should think.
It was but it was quite an experience & you learnt a lot about placing the ball & playing on hard surfaces.
Did you find you gelled well as a side?
We had this team called the wanderers that went about entertaining the troops & we went on 2 or 3 tours to Palestine & Syria & these sorts of places & I think that helped a lot. They were all pretty well professional players.
Who were you playing?
We played teams like King Farouk’s 11; the Egyptian Army team, things like that & it was quite an occasion for us. I played one time & I didn’t know it, but I played against Omar Sharif; he was playing.
He was playing for King Farouk’s side?
That or the Egyptian Army. I didn’t know til weeks after that he was playing.
Did you ever get to go into Cairo?
Oh yes, we’d go into Cairo & have a meal & go on the tram; it was quite an occasion.
Did you ever get to the Pyramids?
Yes, in fact the camp was right outside them. It wasn’t far from Cairo.
You must have played football in some fearsome heat.
You got used to that; to the heat.
You’ve got to be careful about what water you drink & if you were playing 90 minutes of football….
We never had any problems like that.
No, no, very few of the professional players I played with had problems like that.
Maybe you had tougher constitutions in those days.
I suppose in the camps, it was what they normally drank.
What sort of crowds were you having turning up?
Quite a few; there was quite a passion in the forces to go & support the team that represented them.
Mainly service men who came to watch rather than locals?
They had quite a few watching, but it was mainly forces.
In between times, I know you were doing some cooking & stuff but were you driving as well?
By the time I was in the cook house, you were called up by this team, the Wanderers, which was pretty well a professional side & it was quite an attraction for the troops to support you.
When you were sent to Italy, had you assumed by that time, you wouldn’t be going into action?
Well, it was a surprise in the fact that they suddenly decided they’d got to have more gunnery groups to boost the army, with the Germans on the point of capitulation. They would get them all from Egypt & you were just suddenly taken one particular day & we landed down the bottom at Foggia & then went right up the east coast by truck.
When you joined the Lancers, were you attached to a particular squadron or were
you at battalion HQ?
You were just part of C squadron or whatever it was. There was A, B, C squadrons & we were going out driving & of course I’d driven tanks before & light reconnaissance tanks & then we went into Shermans.
The light reconnaissance tanks, were they Stuarts?
They were very, very quick you know; you could get in & out. What the Germans used to do was let you come through & then we’d go back & report nothing at all & then of course they’d ?? & they would find some resistance.
Did you have any close calls?
I had one or two, yes & the worse I had was going into action & surviving & coming out & having to go back to say rescue 200 tanks that had been knocked out.
So you’d think, phew I made it & then…..
That was pretty scary yes.
And shell fire going on & mortars….
That’s right; I was never in a tank that was hit or anything like that.
But presumably you could hear explosions going off all around you?
Did you ever come into contact with any Germans?
Only prisoners that were walking back. They’d given themselves up; capitulated & were coming in virtually in their 100’s, past the tanks with their hands up. You just felt that they were just like you were; lads that had been called up & probably had no say in whether they went in the army or not.
What was the atmosphere like in the battalion?
Nice bunch of lads?
You were welcomed in & absorbed in?
Oh yes; just one of the troops you know. You were lined up in front of the tanks & you’d have an officer in the tank & he was in charge & it was all on him to ? on the earphones.
Did you always stick with the same tank crew?
Oh yes; once you were in….
They were good guys?
Oh very good.
When you were there, presumably you were on the hop the whole time, so when it came to getting your head down, you’d just kip down wherever you could?
Yes, kip down wherever you could.
And food & rations? Bully beef & that sort of thing.
You didn’t mind that?
No, no; just accepted it.
Would you say in a way you were glad of the experience or could you have done without it?
I could have done with out the experience. I think you just accepted it; everyone was exactly the same as you were.
War is a great leveller; when you think how elevated our sporting stars are now. You couldn’t imagine Becks just mucking in & becoming a trooper in a tank regiment could you?
Well, I don’t think you got the opportunity to think about that. But when you think about present day ones now, if they were called up now, I don’t think they’d have them; I don’t think they’d go.
Can you remember when victory was declared?
I do; we had a bit of a celebration on the River Po; firing the guns & one thing & another when it was declared that war was over. We were wondering how long it would be before we got back & I was fortunate in the fact that I was in the building trade & I got out 3 or 4 months before I should have done because of the fact they were short of building workers.
I was fascinated that you played your first England international in Switzerland before you’d even played your first first division league game for Preston North End. That was very unusual.
It was unusual & I remember the officer – it was 2 or 3 in the morning when he got this telegram to say that I’d been selected to play for England in Switzerland & he wasn’t very pleased about it. It turned out that he was our solicitor, Clifford Thornton, & he was an officer then & he wasn’t very pleased about me being selected because we were in Austria & he had to find transport to Naples to get an aircraft that took me back to England. Then of course when I got back to England, we weren’t allowed to enter Switzerland in uniform so they had to get me a suit. Stanley (?) Rowse who was then secretary of the FA took me into London & got me a suit.
Then you went all the way back to Switzerland together as a team?
That’s right; we flew over. We had 2 games; we lost one & won one.
Italy was pretty devastated by the end of the war, can you remember being shocked by that?
Battles here there & everywhere. I got friendly with one or two Italians & with the families you know when you got in these villages & were stationed there. They took it very, very well I think, But it was a bit of a shock to them in the sense that they were seeing Germans one minute & us the next.
Did you always get a warm welcome if you liberated a town or whatever?
Oh yes you did, yes.
You got the impression they were pleased to see the back of the Germans?
That’s the impression we got.
Did you ever come into contact with any Italian Partisans?
No; we read about them & one thing or another, but we never heard anymore about them. In fact I learnt more when I went on this trip recently, with the BBC; they called it Tom’s War & I went over to places we been & of course it had changed completely to 50 or 60 years ago.
Has that been broadcast yet?
Oh I missed it; I’ll see if I can get a copy.
I went with my son Graham because he’s never been to Italy & it was quite interesting. We mostly stopped in the places we were billeted; where I’d been stationed but I didn’t recognise any of the places because they’d changed completely.
When you were with the battalion, you were with C squadron were you?
What did you think of the Sherman? How did it compare to the lighter tanks?
We didn’t see a lot of them really, apart from coming in as POW’s.
No, the Sherman tanks.
We didn’t see a lot of German tanks, apart from in action & you hadn’t time to worry about what they were like. We saw a lot of the tanks & what not but we never drove them. We just drove these American tanks.
Were they all American tanks that you drove in the Lancers?
No, the light reconnaissance tanks were Honey tanks. They were very quick & easy to drive. I thought the Sherman was very, very easy to drive, just on the sticks. The left stick that held the track & you turned left with the left track.
When they were first used in north Africa they were known as Ronsons because they had this propensity to blow up if they were hit because of where the diesel tanks were.
We were very fortunate in the fact that we never had any hits on the tank. The worst experience I had as I said was going into battle & coming out & thinking you’d got out free & then having to go in again.
You don’t remember breaking down or anything like that?
No, no I think you just accepted it as part & parcel of the job. The sad part was you’d see someone in the morning when they were going out & they were killed so you didn’t see them at night.
Did you have any particular mates out there?
No, not really; you had a few friends amongst the troops because you were with them so often.
Did you make any life long friends when you were with the Wanderers?
There were one or two that were English….well, they were all English or Scots. Willy Redpath who was with ? Juniors, but he went back & represented Scotland. Willy Hartness who played for Queen of the South. We met one or 2 people – Willy Thornton, a player with Glasgow Rangers & it was rather funny because in 1946, my first game against Scotland at Hamley Park Willy was playing for Scotland. Montgomery had been the commander of both of us while we were over in Italy & he just had a word ?? he sent me a photograph “Best wishes Montgomery.” It was quite nice.
Did you ever see any of the commanders while you were in Italy?
They came to visit where we were but it was very brief. We were mostly scrubbing stones to make sure they were welcome & everything was in apple pie order.
It must have been a great relief to get back to Preston & playing football.
It was a relief. I got married – I flew home – I hadn’t had any leave for 3 years & if you served for 3 years abroad, you got leave automatically & I came home – I’d made arrangements in my letters that we’d get married whilst I was at home. Got married in 45 & then I came home in 46.
What were you doing when you were back in Italy?
Nothing; the war had finished & I think really we were just passing the time of day. The village we were in called Vignona (?) it was a little – very small village & it had a football field. The corporal at the time used to take the lads out training & for walks & runs & one thing or another & then play on the pitch on various days.
So you’d give them a bit of football coaching would you?
Try to, yes. That was quite enjoyable apart from the fact that you wanted to get home now that the war was finished.
When you finally got to go home, did you fly back?
Came back by sea. We were in Austria & then we went to this little place called Assignana (??) – I was up there playing football – then went back & travelled by 3 tonner til we got to France & then we came across on a boat & then a train.
Was your wife & family waiting for you?
I wrote to say I was coming but I couldn’t give them any particular dates. Contacted them when I landed in England to say I’d be coming up on such & such a train & of course the trains in those days were often 2 or 3 hours late.
But eventually back & in time to play the first game in the new post war league.
That’s right; played the first game which was late August I think, against Leeds United & we won that game & I scored & then I was capped for England shortly after in September.
Do you think the selection was due to obviously your appearances for Preston, but also what you’d done in the war, & the Switzerland game?
That’s right, it was. I was selected for England shortly after coming back.
That must have been a great moment.
It was, it was; I remember my father & my brother came across to Ireland because we went by boat from Liverpool I think it was. Neil Franklin (?) who was just my age, he was one of them that played in the side; Billy Wright that went on to gain 105 caps I think it was. He still holds the record for playing for England the greatest number of times.
You must be quite high on the list aren’t you?
Yeah, I suppose so.
You must be in the top half dozen I should think.
Now of course they play a lot more games. I was 24 when I came out the forces.
Reading between the lines in your book, I got the impression that while the war years robbed you of several years of international….I got the impression that your football skills went up a notch by playing in those games in the Middle East & that you learned an awful lot; experience that you could take back with you to Preston North End.
And perhaps it made you a better player.
I think it did; playing on the different surfaces & one thing & another helped me considerably.
So no hard feelings about having to go off & do your bit?
It was just what you accepted. It was just as it was. You’d no say in the thing at all. You knew you were going to be called up at 20 years of age & you didn’t know where you were going.
You obviously felt a great sense of honour & loyalty to Preston….
Did you ever have a sense of sort of patriotism, honour, loyalty about going off & serving your country in the army or was that a thought that was never even articulated?
It was never a thought. You just knew in those days that you were going to be called up at 20 years of age. You didn’t know where you were going to end up or whose regiment you’d be in kind of thing; you just take it for granted.
Your brother got through Burma ok?
Yes, he did, unfortunately with malaria though.
He was obviously a useful footballer himself?
He was; he played – he signed – with Blackburn Rovers who were an amateur side. Played
wing half; played with one or two decent players. He were like semi-professional.
Did he continue after the war?
Oh yeah, he played semi-professional in one or two clubs. Played with Meadowfield (?) up north. Played with them for quite a while.
I guess most of the guys you were playing with had also been off to the war?
Oh yes, they were all pretty well in the forces & some of them were on cushy numbers & didn’t go abroad & others were posted abroad like me.
Just to mention Palermo, if when you went up to the Board – you said you were interested – you had this offer & you were interested in going & they’d just said no way, what would have happened if you’d said “I don’t care; I’m going anyway.”?
In those days it was different. Once you’d signed, you were their player & they could decided. They could say “You’re not going,” & that was it.
If you’d pushed it they could have sued you & all sorts of things?
It would have been a confrontation with them. You’d have to tell them you wanted to consider the offer. I didn’t even get to see the Board; I just saw the chairman & he said what’s it all about? & when I told him about all this money, he said “Well, if he doesn’t play for us, he doesn’t play for anybody,” & that was it.
But you’ve no regrets?
Oh, no regrets. When you sat down to consider & had a wife to think about & a young family & there would have been all sorts of problems.
Do you find now that you think back on the past a lot?
No. No I don’t. I enjoy watching Preston. I enjoy the football generally on TV & one thing or another that wasn’t there when we were youngsters.
The coverage is incredible.
Do you think the standards are pretty good?
They are, oh yes, I think the standards are pretty high.
What do you think of England. They did look good the other day.
I think they’ve got a chance depending who they draw with.
You’re still very involved?
Since my wife died in November last year, I’m pretty well tied up. I’m at Birmingham on Saturday & Sunday & Monday I’ve got 2 engagements, so a busy week. But better that way than the other.
You want to keep active; keep busy.