For 75 years, active-duty members of the British military have served as stewards at Wimbledon, the annual tennis “Championships” held at the storied All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. Since 1946, uniformed men and women from the Army, Air Force and Navy have volunteered at the two-week summer event by taking tickets, directing visitors to their seats, and bringing water to overheated fans.
The friendly military presence at Wimbledon is a reminder of much scarier times during World War II. In preparation for Germany’s infamous “Blitz” bombing attacks on London, the grounds of the 150-year-old British tennis club were transformed into a Civil Defence camp and Wimbledon’s historic Centre Court even took a direct hit from a 500-pound German bomb.
The UK Braces for War
During the 1930s, Great Britain tried to avoid another costly war with Germany through the ultimately failed foreign policy known as “appeasement.” On September 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler marched into Poland, knowing full well that Great Britain and France would stand in solidarity with the Poles. For the second time in just over 20 years, Europe was at war.
Air power had evolved dramatically since World War I and Great Britain braced for lGerman bombing runs over London. As early as 1935, the British Home Office created the civilian-run Air Raid Precautions (ARP) to help safeguard British citizens during bombing attacks. In 1941, the ARP was renamed the Civil Defence Service.
Wimbledon is Conscripted for Civil Defense
The entire nation rallied behind the war effort and the All England Club was no different, says sports journalist Richard Evans, author of The History of Tennis and a former play-by-play commentator at Wimbledon for BBC Radio.
“The whole country was completely on a war footing,” says Evans. “Wimbledon had this amazing complex of space and facilities, and people took for granted that it would be used for the war.”
The ARP moved in swiftly to transform the grounds of Wimbledon into a working farm to provide wartime rations for civilians and soldiers. One of the club’s expansive parking lots was plowed under to plant rows of vegetables, and another was loaded with wooden pens housing pigs, horses, chickens, geese, ducks and rabbits.
“The courts were left alone,” says Evans, referring to Wimbledon’s manicured grass tennis courts. “No one grew anything on the courts, but the carparks were turned into miniature farmland.”
Young troops from the London Welsh Regiment and the London Irish Regiment commandeered the grassy concourse outside Centre Court for marching and parade exercises.
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“If you walked out of the main entrance, you would see soldiers doing their drills,” says Evans.
A German Bomb Rips Through Center Court
The borough of Wimbledon, home to the All England Club since the 1870s, is just 10 miles from London Bridge. And during World War II, Wimbledon was also home to a machine gun factory, a spark plug factory and several anti-aircraft batteries. Which is to say that it was on Hitler’s radar.
“Wimbledon definitely had targets of interest to the Luftwaffe,” says Evans.
More than 1,000 bombs fell on the borough of Wimbledon during six years of German air raids, claiming 150 civilian lives, injuring more than 1,000 and leaving countless thousands more homeless.
On the night of October 11, 1940, five of those massive bombs landed on the grounds of the All England Club. Incredibly, no one was killed or injured. Two of the 500-pound projectiles exploded on the club’s golf course, one crashed into an entrance and another ripped apart a toolshed.
But the fifth and final bomb made a direct hit on the fabled Centre Court, home of the Wimbledon finals, destroying a section of the roof and leaving a crater where 1,200 seats used to be.
“They didn’t have the money or the time to repair it, so they patched it up,” says Evans. “It wasn’t until 1949 that Centre Court was pristine and back to what it should have been.”
With Germany Defeated, the Game Played On
In June of 1945, only a month after Germany’s surrender to the Allied Forces, the very first tennis competition since 1939 was held at the All England Club. It wasn’t the official Championships—those resumed in 1946—but it was a sign that Great Britain, and its beloved sporting tradition, had survived.
The players for that 1945 tournament were plucked from the armed forces and included Dan Maskell, the very first tennis pro employed by the All England Club and a squadron leader in the Royal Air Force. Five thousand spectators came to take in the action, despite the damaged grandstand.
Evans adds that after his pro career, Dan Maskell became a famous Wimbledon commentator for the BBC, saying he was “known as ‘the voice of Wimbledon.’”