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The Tea Bowl: How American football boosted morale in wartime London

BY Anthony Wootton

9th Feb 2024 Sport

5 min read

The Tea Bowl: How American football boosted morale in wartime London
In December 1943, a chance encounter in a London pub between a Canadian and an American officer led to the staging of an American football game a few weeks later: the Tea Bowl
With the Super Bowl happening this weekend between the Kasnsas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers, roughly 80 years ago an American football game happened in London between American NFL stars and Canadian CFL players turned troops took the field to compete in the Tea Bowl. 30,000 Canadian and American troops, as well as some confused British spectators, were gifted respite at White City Stadium from the blackouts and Blitz of the Second World War. 
"Roughly 80 years ago in London, Canadian and American players turned troops took the field"
In his fascinating story about the Tea Bowl (and the rematch known as the Coffee Bowl, both in 1944 in London), The Greatest American Football Story That Has Never Been Told: How Gridiron Stopped the War, Antony Wootton dives into one of the most fascinating untold sports stories. 
The extract below sees Wootton talk about the arranging of the event and American football (just called "football" in North America) heroes who played in the Tea Bowl.

Boredom

Football games had been played in England and abroad throughout the Second World War. As we have established, there were competitions, and their purpose was to provide motivation for young men who were otherwise bored.
By the time Denis Whitaker entered that London pub during the Christmas period of 1943, he too was bored. He was fed up with the waiting. Preparations for Operation Overlord were in full flow. They were training for it, but there was no indication of when it would take place. 
Even for Whitaker, a celebrated hero of the war, this gloomy winter was taking its toll. The cold, wet, relentless training in the Hampshire countryside had become too much.
Therefore, the chance encounter with the officer from the USO in that pub invigorated him. He had little pushback from the Canadians’ Chief of Staff when he approached him with the idea at the Canadian Military Headquarters.

All-star team

Canada and the US captains at the Tea Bowl in 1944 after Canada's victory
Lieutenant-General Kenneth Stuart and Whitaker had a history from their time together at the RMC. The Tea Bowl had been given a date: February 13, 1944, at White City Stadium in west London. The game was on.
As we have discovered, the Canadians were blessed with talent, "It really was an all-star East-West team when we finally put it together," said Denis Whitaker. "There was quite a few Toronto Argonauts stationed in Britain, including Captain George Hees, Captain Ken Turnbull, as well as Don Grant, a half-back, Bill Drinkwater, and Fred Brown. We were lucky to get Hulk Welsh, one of Canada’s greatest punters, who played for the Hamilton Tigers and Montreal Wing Wheelers."
The two-time Grey Cup winner and three-time Western All-Star, Jeff Nicklin, was brought in as the Canadians’ back.
"There is no doubt the Americans would not have expected to be facing the Canadian Football League’s All-Pro line-up"
Fullback Andy Bieber was a team-mate of Nicklin’s at the Blue Bombers and he won the Grey Cup with them in 1939 and 1941. Alongside these Winnipeg winners was another Grey Cup champion, Orville Burke.
Added to the all-star cast of CFL icons in Europe was Sarnia’s All-Star centre, Nick Paithouski.
Whitaker was constructing a roster fit for a Grey Cup. Paul "Pappy" Rowe of the Calgary Bronks was another All-Star back.
There were around 30 players signed up for the Canadian Mustangs. Their coach was Major Chicks Mundell, a doctor in the Army Medical Corps. Mundell had played football at Queen’s and coached Denis Whitaker at RMC. Their training was hard, but it was a welcome break from the rigours of the war.
If the Americans were anticipating an easy game, they were about to be in for a big shock. There is no doubt they would not have expected to be facing the Canadian Football League’s All-Pro line-up.

Rules of engagement

Denis Whitaker
It was decided that the game would be played half under American rules with American referees, and half under Canadian rules with Canadian referees.
There have been many rule changes to Canadian football since the mid-1940s. The American game has remained true to its original form, apart from a few adjustments. Even in the 1940s, both the American and Canadian formats were different, which was a test for both teams.
Denis Whitaker said, "We had, in fact, to learn two completely separate sets of plays and strategies for the two halves. Paul Rowe, who once played for Oregon, was a great help in developing our American offence."
Whitaker and his team were taking this contest seriously. Victory for the Canadians would provide a massive shot in the arm after a dreary winter.

The American Dream

The game had captured the imagination of the Americans. A preview article appeared in the Stars and Stripes publication on February 4, 1944. The reporter, Gene Graff, wrote, "Football smacking of international flavour will be the dish Sunday, Feb 13, when the CBS Pirates tackle the Canadian Army Mustangs in the 'Tea Bowl' game at White City Stadium before an anticipated throng of 25,000 Allied forces and civilian fans."
Graff also wrote, "The contest, marking the first time American and Canadian gridders have squared off since the war began, will be an interesting experiment in comparative merits of football as played in the neighbouring countries. Determined by the flip of a coin, American rules will be observed in the first half, while the second will be played according to Canadian style."
"American rules were observed in the first half, while the second was played Canadian style"
At that time the main variations between the two countries were: the Canadians scored five points for a touchdown instead of the six in the American League; Canadian rules had three downs to advance ten yards; and blocking beyond the line of scrimmage was prohibited by the Canucks.
Canada had no restriction on the number of players in the backfield who were allowed to be in motion before the ball was snapped. And there was the rouge, the CFL’s quirky rule where the kicking team is awarded a point if the team either misses a field goal or punts the football, and the receiving team does not get the ball out of their end zone.

Taste of home

The game was billed as having colourful pageantry, including marching bands, organised cheering sections and half-time entertainment. It was bringing the best of football, and a taste of home, for troops from both North American countries.
"The Tea Bowl brought a taste of home for the troops from both of the North American countries"
News of the game was filtering across Canada. Canadian Press had sent a preview piece on its wires; even the small town of Lethbridge in Alberta, which is 132 miles south of Calgary, was running it in the Tuesday sports section of the Lethbridge Herald on February 1. Its headline read, "Canucks to Battle Yanks in 'Tea Bowl.'"
The article listed Canada’s stellar line-up and details of the event. Whitaker’s beer-fuelled brainwave was making international headlines.
book cover
Banner photo: Jean Daniel Francoeur
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