Era, era on the wall: 1939 – 1948

PART 2 – A war of attrition

Dick Reynolds poses for the ultimate ‘footy card baulk’

Whilst the Great Depression failed to halt football’s march into the Australian psyche, the onset of World War 2 threatened to stop the game in its tracks.

Footballers were lost to the war effort and crowds plummeted.  By the dark depths of 1942 average attendances dropped below 10,000 for the first and only time on record.  It hardly helped that guilt shrouded players and patrons partaking in such a comparatively frivolous exercise, though an alternate point of view (supported by former PM Robert Menzies) contended that footy served a valuable psychological and social purpose, in addition to contributing money for patriotic funds.

“The public will say so through the turnstiles; till they do footy should go on…As soon as the game interferes with the application of war needs then the game must go… after all, football is of small moment”.
Hec De Lacy, The Sporting Globe

At least these clubs could still field teams.  Having moved from Corio Oval to Kardinia Park in 1941, Geelong were forced to withdraw their troops in 1942 due to travel restrictions and a lack of players.



“It is claimed to be the fastest football game in the world, embodying the science of soccer, the speed of basketball and the vigour and man-to-man clashes of rugby and the American Gridiron game”.

Ron Barassi Snr enters the MCG

Interstate games and the Brownlow Medal were also suspended between 1942-45.  Meanwhile, the MCG, St Kilda, South Melbourne and Footscray grounds became service camps or depots.   Prime Minister John Curtin (a former Brunswick player) was reported as saying big football was undesirable in the midst of world crisis.

Under Frank ‘Checker’ Hughes Melbourne enjoyed their first great run, winning three on the trot between 1939-41.  By 1943 five players from that era had died; Ron Barassi senior, Keith “Bluey” Truscott, Harold Ball, Syd Anderson and John Atkins.  Richmond and Fitzroy tasted brief success but for the rest of the 1940’s it would essentially be the Demons, Blues and Bombers jousting for the pennant.

Kicking over the gasometer at Arden Street

Bizarrely, world peace was a precursor to shameful local hostilities.  The 1945 Preliminary and Grand Finals featuring Collingwood, Carlton and South were two of the most violent games in League history.  The ‘Bloodbath’ Grand Final saw 10 players reported and six suspended for periods ranging from 8 matches to 12 months. The following year another game at Princes Park required police to stop a potential melee when two North players jumped the fence to silence hecklers.



Just 1min 14sec of 1945 Bloodbath footage survives – perhaps a good thing…

Scoring atrophied during the 1940’s.  Suddenly 60-80 goals a season was enough to top the goalkicking table and team score averages gradually declined from the low 90’s to the low 80’s per game.  Fred Fanning was one of few spearheads to buck the trend, famously notching an unsurpassed 18 goals in his final VFL match, and a personal best season tally of 97.  Like a number of stars during the 1940’s and 1950’s, Fanning’s priority was supporting himself and/or his family.  Country club Hamilton paid Fanning three times his salary at Melbourne.  So at the peak of his powers Fred was gone.

On the positive side, when the war was over crowds quickly recovered.  In fact by 1946 average attendances hit 20,000 for the first time in more than 20 years.  The competition also benefited from a sense of uncertainty; five different clubs shared the spoils between 1943 – 1948.

As the after effects of the war slowly dissipated, the period concluded with two nail biting finales.  With 40 seconds remaining Fred Stafford’s goal snatched the flag for the Blues over the Bombers in 1947.  Essendon’s one point loss was galling for the 9 extra scoring shots frittered away.  Worse again, the Bombers had 15 more shots than the Demons in the following year’s decider, only to extract a draw.  Demoralised, Essendon were no match for Melbourne in the replay, the game over at quarter time.

As for the general standard of war era footy, players the calibre of Reynolds, Norm Smith, Foote, Richards, Hughson, Beames and Pannam no doubt shone like beacons amid the sub-standard footballers required to fill the breach. Not that the scant, average quality newsreel footage gives much away.  Full backs predictably waited until the ruckman presented as the target, however kicking at least improved with Jack Dyer’s introduction of the drop punt.  The game was undoubtedly much slower.  Given the lack of running capacity – with brief pre-seasons and training that often entailed little more than kick-to-kick –  basic positional play was the order of the day.

Yet, as unsophisticated as that all sounds, frantic rolling mauls and 36 players flooding one third of the ground isn’t exactly progress either.  Considering the inherent challenges, perhaps the war era wasn’t so bad after all.


Part 3: Safe at home, and away (1949-1959)

The story so far
Part 1: Well oiled machines (1925-1938)



About Jeff Dowsing

Washed up former Inside Sport and Sunday Age Sport freelancer. Now just giving my stuff away to good homes. Not to worry, still have my health and day job. Published & unpublished works fester on my blog Write Line Fever.


  1. Fascinating piece Jeff.
    3 thoughts
    1. Eric Lambert’s novel The Veterans tells stories of the home front and its corruption.
    2. Also, in the early period of ‘just another European war’, many people weren’t too enthused about the war, although others, including my father, went off to join what still seemed a great adventure. So, not all felt guilt.
    60 million dead people later, not quite Biggles…
    3. I thought I saw somewhere that the then dominant league in American Football also had a bloodbath big match either in 1945 or in the next couple of years. Does anyone know?

    Stephen Alomes

  2. Thanks Stephen – the community’s views on both world wars were as different and complex as the two wars themselves. Eric Lambert’s novel sounds interesting, albeit hard to find these days.

    It must have been a strange experience attending VFL games where crowds of just a few thousand were in attendance. We’ve seen in recent years how tragedy casts a pall on the game. I can imagine feeling rather self-conscious about being too enthusiastic about the game and results having lost so many current players, not to mention friends and family members.

  3. ‘Bluey ‘ Truscott hey, played in two Melbourne flags, 1939 & 1940. He was one of the highest scoring RAAF Aces of the war with 14 kills, 3 probables and 3 damaged.

    Interestingly one of his teachers at Melbourne High School was the then Australian Cricket Captain, Bill Woodfull.

    Truscott tragically killed in a flying accident off the West Australian coast. 26 years of age.

    Vale Bluey


  4. bernard whimpress says

    Terrific piece Jeff. That ’45 highlight clip (without the violence) certainly shows an attractive game, stab passing under pressure, and the players don’t look too sluggish either.

  5. Thanks Bernard – with random camera angles and technical deficiencies it’s tough to get a handle on old footage in assessing the aesthetic appeal, fitness and skill level of bygone eras. I guess like any period there’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ games. Unfortunately with so few matches on film it’s pretty hard to draw first hand conclusions. It’s nice though to come across passages that reaffirm the quality of the game back in the early days. And passages that aren’t light years removed from today’s product.

  6. Luke Reynolds says

    Fantastic second chapter Jeff. Not the pies best era. Have always been interested in the Ron Todd story, reckon he’d be a great subject for a biography.

  7. DBalassone says

    I’m with Bernard re that clip from the ’45 GF. Stunning foot skills and run from the backline – strangely that footage seems to resemble the modern game than the ‘mongrel punt’ era of the 60s and 70s.

  8. Love this, JD.
    Excellent content. Excellent research. And top stories.
    And as Bernard and DBalassone say – that footage is instructive.

    Think of all those people turning up to see their suburban teams.
    Teams full of factory workers and butchers and the unemployed.
    Enjoying the game(s).

  9. JD brilliant series, love the history of the game, also delighting in a piece bereft of Hawk love!….. little bit of sick formed in the back of my throat with the mere utterance!
    Can’t wait for your next instalment which will cover Footscray’s successful period in it’s entirety!

  10. Thanks Luke – the Ron Todd saga and the Pies’ not-so roaring ‘Forties go hand-in-hand. Stupid, petty administrators turned him away when he was set to return and subsequently Collingwood finished 3rd in 1945 & 1946.

    The speed and skills in that Bloodbath clip really are surprisingly good Damian/Dave. The deft little outside of the foot chip by South’s #1 is sublime.

    There is some Dog-love in the next edition Cowshedend featuring a couple colour films (which you might have seen). And it’s the last Hawk-free zone.

  11. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Great stuff JD. Pies led Carlton by over 5 goals early in the last qtr of the 1945 Prelim. Missed opportunity…again. Enjoying the series. Cheers.

  12. Jeff,
    Am really enjoying this series (all over again).
    Thanks for your efforts in pulling it all together.

  13. Thanks Smokie & Phil, hopefully it’s worthy of a broader audience. (I think) it gets better as it goes.

  14. Another mighty fine effort Jeff.

    Ease up on the sympathy for the Bombers. A more accurate Collingwood effort in the 1946 2nd semi final might have denied the Dons the flag that season.

    If not for the draw on September 14 (2nd SF) Australians would’ve gone to the polls on Grand Final day, both Federal Election and season decider originally scheduled for Saturday September 28.

    Looking forward to the next instalment – Remember ’54.


    Go Cubs !

  15. Thanks Mic – ha, don’t worry, I didn’t mean to imply any sympathy for the Bombers!

  16. John Butler says

    When it comes to the ’45 GF, I love the story of Bob Chitty. Days before the Prelim against Collingwood, he chopped a finger off at the top joint. Just got it stitched and played. Then wreaked havoc in the GF.

    It was a different world back then.

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