The ill-fated 1939-40 Wallabies tour

Dubbed the ‘tour of a lifetime’, it was expected to be a ten-month, 28-match tour of Great Britain for an Australian representative side.  Whilst the players made the journey half way around the world, they would not get the opportunity to play a single game of rugby in the British Isles.

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Winston Ide had impressed selectors with his performance against the All Blacks in 1938 and had gone on to win the Interstate Series with Queensland in the run up to the Wallabies tour.  He was thrilled to be selected for the team heading to Great Britain in 1939.  This was not just his first rugby tour, but also presented his first opportunity to travel abroad.  Asked what it felt like to be involved in such a grand tour, Ide confessed “he did not know, because he had not yet had a proper realisation of it”.  However, the 24 year old was sure that he wouldn’t be playing rugby the whole time he was away, taking a bag of golf clubs in his luggage to take advantage of the great British golf courses.  Ide was the first to leave his home state of Queensland for Sydney, where he would board the ship the Mooltan, along with his selected team mates on July 21st 1939.

The Sporting Globe believed that the 1939 touring side was just as good as the team that toured South Africa a few years earlier, but wasn’t sure the side was up to the standards of veteran Australian teams, such as the 1908-09 Wallabies.  Ex-Wallaby Paddy McCue agreed, suggesting that there were too many tall forwards on the 1939 side who would “buckle up with a hump like a camel” in a scrum.  The Wallabies Tour Team Manager, Dr Wally Matthews, insisted that he was “very confident that this team will have a successful match record and will win great popularity on and off the field.”

Many newspapers reported that the team had an uneventful trip over, but this was not exactly the case.  Most men suffered from sea-sickness, including their scrum-half Cecil Ramalli.  The Warwick Daily News labelled Ramalli ‘the hero’ after “he made three attempts at dinner on Friday and dashed away, amidst the cheers of seasoned travellers.”  In early August, it was reported that the Wallabies had their first casualty of the trip – Smith had slipped on the deck and dislocated a finger.  The majority of the players suffered from the effects of vaccination, and as such physical exercise was temporarily cancelled.  Once recovered, the team spent their time on-board playing deck games and taking part in physical training during the mornings as “many need(ed) improvement to their condition.”  Brisbane’s Courier-Mail noted that by the time the team had reached France at the end of August, “all the forwards are heavier, and look a solid lot.”

1939 wallabies team

Many miles from home, the Wallabies experienced “a novel but disquieting experience” when the Mooltan remained in black-out during the evenings from Marseilles to England.  The Mooltan arrived in Plymouth Harbour on September 2nd 1939, the day before Britain declared war on Germany.  It was soon-after decided that the rugby tour could not proceed.

The Wallabies tour was supposed to start on September 16th at Devonport against Devon and Cornwall and culminate with a grand finale at Twickenham against England on January 6th 1940.  Upon arrival in England, Matthews was summoned to Twickenham where it was explained that due to the declaration of war on Germany, the tour would have to be immediately cancelled.  In his tour diary, Matthews wrote: “what a disappointment it will be to the boys.” Whilst it was so, it didn’t stop the team from getting stuck in and seeing a little of England before their voyage home.

On a trip to London, the Wallabies were received by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. Whilst there, forward Stan Bisset, whose fine voice had indeed seen him accepted into the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, was introduced to the Queen as the team’s choirmaster, to the great amusement of his fellow Australians.
The team did have a song committee, which Bisset surely would have been a member of.  The committee composed a nine verse team song which opened with:

We’re Rugby players all
From sunny, Fair Australia;
We’re young, and strong and some are tall
And all can take a failure.

Good friendship is our aim;
Before we journey homewards
We’ll play a rugged game,
With speedy backs and forwards.

No chance for a game at Twickenham, the team visited Twickenham Stadium as tourists, rather than players.  Instead of being greeted by cheering fans, the Australians were greeted by empty benches and piles of Air Raid Precautions equipment; the stadium being transformed into a home for decontamination squads.

It wasn’t all just touring around seeing the sights that the Wallabies took part in.  They literally dug in for the war effort digging sand, filling bags, and carrying and stacking them before the men had to head back home.  Ten days after they arrived in Britain, that time did come and Matthews told the players, “we have one job in front of us now…to return and get into Australian uniforms without delay.”

The Wallabies boarded their ship back to Australia exactly two weeks after their arrival in England.  At the time they were walking up the gangway the team should have been playing their first match against Devon and Cornwall.  The Wallabies left Captain Vay Wilson behind on the wharf with in tears.  Wilson, torn between remaining in England to begin his postgraduate studies and heading home to join the war effort, decided to stay in England for the time being.

North Stand filled with supplies

Air raid equipment in Twickenham Stadium’s North Stand during the Second World War.

The return voyage was a more serious affair than the journey over.  A warning against sitting on deck railings was issued from the chief officer of the liner during a talk to the passengers: “In ordinary times it is the custom when a passenger falls overboard to stop the ship and cruise round, lower boats, and do the utmost to effect a rescue; but in the present circumstances, if such an accident happened the ship could not even slacken its speed.”  From that point on, no passenger was observed sitting on deck railings, it was reported.  Black-out was also taken seriously, with officers parading the deck to ensure that not even a cigarette was lit.

Desperate to play at least one game of rugby on the tour, the team took advantage of a stop-over in India on the way home.  Taking on a team of ex-pats at the Bombay Gymkhana Club XV, the Wallabies wore their green and gold, beating the Bombay team 21-0.

The Wallabies spent 14 weeks away from Australia, 12 of which were at sea.  The team arrived back in Sydney on October 25th 1939.  Matthews forecast the end of the war the following year, and was confident that there would soon be a tour of Great Britain – hopefully with some of the same players selected again.  Whilst Matthews’ optimism was admirable, the reality was that most of his team would sign up for the war effort, a few coming home with injuries that stopped them from playing rugby ever again; some that never recovered from the horrors of their experiences and some that never made it home at all, including Mac Ramsay, John Turnbull, John McDonald, Mick Clifford and Winston Ide.


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4 Responses to The ill-fated 1939-40 Wallabies tour

  1. frederic1892 says:

    Great story!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic article. The war time experiences of many from this team are captured in Greg Growden’s new book Wallabies at War.

    Like

    • R Steele says:

      Agreed on all counts. Greg Growden’s new book contains an excellent and admirably detailed chapter on this unlucky touring team.

      Like

  3. Pingback: Winston Ide: From Wallaby to Prisoner of War | World Rugby Museum: from the vaults

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