The Nazis at Tottenham: Why did the swastika fly at White Hart Lane?

Adolf Hitler
We are part of The Trust Project What is it?

The turn-out

As kick-off approached, however, tension mounted. To all observers, the size of the police presence was staggering. Over 800 police – mounted, on foot, as well as Special Branch members – were on duty. A temporary police station had been set up close to the ground, while reserves were secreted in the pavilion of a neighbouring school. Policemen lined the road to the ground, while inside, they were positioned round the pitch at 10-yard intervals.

Protests took place all the way from the railway stations to White Hart Lane. A large parade of placard-wielding anti-Nazis left Bruce Grove station two hours before the match and proceeded towards the ground handing out leaflets. As they drew closer, the police moved in, tearing down the placards which proclaimed ‘Fascist Sport is Jew-Baiting’, ‘Our Goal, Peace: Hitler’s Goal, War’; ‘Hitler Hits Below The Belt’ and ‘Keep Sport Clean, Fight Fascism’.

Anyone shouting slogans was arrested; leaflets were grabbed and torn up. Other protesters scattered pamphlets from trams and buses while men wearing sandwich boards proclaiming ‘Stop the Nazi Match’ chanted at the visitors. There were some scuffles with pro-Nazi sympathisers, although Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, the British Union of Fascists, were absent. Anti-semites, however, had painted two huge swastikas with the words ‘Perish Judah’ on hoardings close by White Hart Lane.

Congestion around the ground made journeys by car almost impossible: many German coaches took more than an hour to travel the last mile. The ground wasn’t completely full at kick-off as thousands remained in queues outside. It didn’t lead to aggravation, however: Trevor Wignall, writing in the Daily Express, stressed that “a better-tempered or more good-humoured crowd has never been gathered together”.

The 10,000 Germans were accommodated in the East Stand. As the teams ran out, they waved small flags bearing swastika symbols, despite what had been negotiated by the Government. As David Aspinell and his Friary Band from Guildford played the German national anthem, the visiting supporters were astonished and delighted. They had been under strict orders not to sing any political songs, but now responded with gusto.

"That Nazi flag is hated in this country"

And then came the salute: the German team assumed the stiff-armed position and, in response, thousands of fans – in all sections of the ground – followed suit. The band then crashed out God Save The King while above them all, over the main stand, the German swastika flag blew in the breeze.

One man in particular, though, was offended. Ernie Wooley, a tool-maker from Shoreditch and a long-time Spurs fan, had noticed that the attention of the police was wholly concentrated on the fans and that no one was watching the flag. Ernie walked to the end of the West Stand and clambered up and along the gutter. Cheered on by a handful of spectators, he edged towards the flagpole, pulled out a knife and slashed the lanyard, causing the flag to fall onto the grandstand.

As he climbed down, Wooley was arrested. He didn’t mind. “That Nazi flag is hated in this country,” he informed the arresting sergeant. Within minutes, the banner was hoisted again (at half-mast, following the death of a minor Royal a few days before). Now, just the game itself remained.

Perhaps understandably given the furore surrounding it, the match failed to ignite. Rather like the flag overhead, everything felt stuck at half-mast. Jimmy Catton, writing in The Observer, felt that the Germans were intent on not being overwhelmed in the first 20 minutes as the Italians had been at Highbury earlier in the year. “Defence was their policy,” he wrote. “They entered the arena with a conviction that they would be satisfied to draw. Eight of them were engaged in defence. The game was more like a ceremonial parade than an encounter.”

England attacked relentlessly without scoring. But as the first half drew to an anti-climatic close, Middlesbrough centre-forward George Camsell controlled a long pass from Manchester City’s John Bray and fired a curling shot past Germany keeper Hans Jacob to make it 1-0.

After 65 minutes, blond glamour-boy Szepan – the only German to make much of an impression – missed a good chance. The Germans were instantly punished. Arsenal’s Cliff Bastin dashed down the right, put in a high centre and Camsell nodded home his second. Two minutes later, Camsell returned the compliment, sliding in a ball for Bastin, who slotted home England’s third with his right foot.

"At the final whistle, the scene was a virtual love-in"

Though the German forwards demonstrated some slick passing, they made little impact on Arsenal’s defensive trio of George Male, Eddie Hapgood and William Crayston. England ran out 3-0 winners, although it hadn’t been a vintage performance: forwards Stanley Matthews and Raich Carter had endured poor games, with Matthews uncharacteristically missing three good early chances.

“I found myself up against a defender called Muezenberg,” he said afterwards. “I used my trademark body-swerve to race past him, but when I looked down, I didn’t have the ball! Muezenberg had tackled me with lightning speed and was racing for the England goal. Again and again, he outwitted me. I’d never found anyone who could outpace me in domestic football, and this was a shock.” The England legend later described the match as one of his worst moments in football, and he had to wait another two years for his next cap.

At the final whistle, however, the scene was a virtual love-in. The players left the pitch arm-in-arm, while German fans – who were under orders to be out of the country before nightfall – were waved and cheered at by England fans. The Daily Express declared that there had been “not one boo, not one real foul - the cleanest game ever seen”.

News from Germany’s Der Angriff, meanwhile, reported that the event had been an “unrestricted political, psychological and also sporting success”, adding: “Hermann Goering expressed his regret his team hadn’t managed a goal, but of course, the British are in a class of themselves in football.”

At a reception dinner for FA and German officials at the Victoria Hotel after the match, FA president Sir Charles Clegg castigated the TUC for interfering. “The sooner political bodies learn that football matches are not their business, the better it will be,” he said. W. Erbach, leader of the German team party, responded: “Your greetings made us forget we were apprentices at the football craft, attempting to compete with the masters.” A toast to Adolf Hitler was pledged immediately after one to the King.

But the back-slapping couldn’t last. The concerns of the Jewish community and anti-Nazi groups were soon proved correct, and within four years the two countries were at war. A football match between England and Germany could never be played without political connotations again.

This feature originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

New features you'd love on