The 1943/44 season was characterised by two main features. The first was an idiosyncratic league and cup system designed to meet the restrictions of war. The second was the impact of 12,000 American service personnel billeted in Leicester and Leicestershire.
When Leicester City embarked on their fifth season of wartime football in August 1943, they were one of 50 clubs in the Wartime Football League North. This ran alongside the Football League South, which had 18 clubs and the Football League West, which had six clubs.
The League North’s season was split into two separate league competitions. The first competition ended on Christmas Day with each team playing 18 games. Leicester City finished 28th out of 50 teams.
US Troops in Quorn
The 82nd Airborne Division were based in Scraptoft, Quorn.
For the second competition, which ran until 6 May, the six clubs from the League West joined the League North, swelling the number of competing clubs to 56. At the end of the season, Leicester City finished in 14th position in this second competition, with final positions being determined by the number of points gained, irrespective of the number of games each club played, which varied between 14 and 21.
There were two other unusual features about the League North’s season. Firstly, where possible, teams could only play opponents from their own geographical region. All of Leicester City’s opponents in both parts of the season were from the Midlands, apart from Sheffield Wednesday (in the second part of the season).
This was due not only to the size of the league, but also because of petrol rationing. Road journeys of over 50 miles needed a travel permit. It came as no surprise that for the match against Sheffield Wednesday in February 1944, the Club was refused a permit and so had to travel to the game by rail.
Petrol Rationing Book
Petrol rationing meant Leicester City had to travel to their match against Sheffield Wednesday by train.
The second unusual feature was that the home and away fixtures against each opponent ran on consecutive weeks. This arrangement enabled the first 10 of Leicester City’s league fixtures in the second part of the season to double up as two-leg qualifying ties for the knock-out stage of the War Cup.
The next two fixtures, against Birmingham City doubled up as a two-leg tie in the War Cup knockout stage. The four fixtures after that doubled up as two-leg Midland Cup ties.
Throughout the season, it was noticeable that there was a growing presence of American military personnel on the Filbert Street terraces.
This trend had started during the previous season. In 1942, the first of over 1.6M American service personnel arrived on British shores in preparation for the Allied offensives, initially in North Africa and the Mediterranean and then in Europe. This ‘friendly invasion’ of Americans continued throughout the 1943/44 season with Britain serving as the training ground and staging area for Operation Overlord, the massive amphibious invasion of Europe on D-Day on 6 June, 1944.
US troops in Britain
American armed forces arrived in Britain in 1942.
The presence of 12,000 Americans in Leicestershire was high profile. These forces included the 82nd Airborne Division who were based in Scraptoft, Quorn, Evington and Braunstone Park. A memorial to their presence can be found in Victoria Park. The Americans spent time in local pubs, cinemas and dance halls, touring the countryside and befriending British families.
Before they arrived in the UK, each American soldier, sailor and airman was issued with a U.S. War Department leaflet entitled ‘Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain’. Part of this advice included: 'The great spectator sports are football in the autumn and winter and cricket in the spring and summer. See a match in either of these sports whenever you get a chance. You will get a kick out of it – if only for the difference from American sports'.
Following this advice, US military personnel began to visit Filbert Street. Their presence did not go unnoticed by the Leicester City directors. As early as October 1942, the Chairman Alf Pallett suggested: “It would be an excellent idea if a baseball match could be held at Filbert Street for the entertainment of the American troops in the city.”
Baseball at Abbey Park
American GI’s watch a baseball match at Leicester’s Abbey Park.
The American Headquarters were sounded out about the idea. Glasgow Rangers, who had already staged a baseball match at Ibrox, were contacted for advice. The Sunday Express also advised the Club to write to a Captain Gammage, 'who would then no doubt arrange a game for next season'.
Baseball was a summer sport, but despite this, a baseball fixture was finally arranged for Boxing Day 1943. This date was in a two-week window between Leicester City home matches against Aston Villa, which they lost 1-3, and Notts County, which they won 7-2.
A crowd of 3,000 watched this baseball game between two American Service teams. The receipts from the game amounted to nearly £201. In those pre-NHS days, the Club had already donated four endowed beds to the Leicester Royal Infirmary at the cost of £1,000 each and the receipts from the baseball game were added to the funds being raised to endow a fifth bed at a future date.
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