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One Shot More..Part 18

Monday 8th June 2020

One Shot More..Part 18

Pictured:  Willie Watt's medals. Which is the DFC?

The War Years 1939-1945

“There’s bikes and big lorries parked at my door,

And soldiers are tramping from morning to night,

You get a nice doze and you wake up with a fright,

With officers shouting and sergeants all roar,

And Comber, old Comber’s peaceful no more.”

Fannie McRoberts, resident of Comber Square


Comber Goes to War

Comber Square in 2007 looks a lot different from what it looked like in 1939 as the dark clouds of war gathered across Europe and the local townsfolk braced themselves for the inevitable. For many families it brought back bitter memories of lost loved ones in the horrors of the Great War, memories that are immortalized in the War Memorial sitting under the shadow of the Gillespie statue. Perhaps ominously, the old First World War field gun strategically pointed to the skies, and travellers from Newtownards going towards Killinchy Street took the shortest route across the angle of the square. The War Memorial was erected in 1923 in memory of the 79 brave Comber men who made the supreme sacrifice, and not long after the outbreak of World War Two the old field gun was dismantled for scrap metal for the war effort and an air-raid shelter had been erected.

  It took the rest of the world some time to fully recognize the threat of Adolf Hitler in the Thirties. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and most of America virtually ignored his ruthless anarchy and the ravages caused by the German army as they marched through Poland. Chamberlain’s appeasement policy was cruelly exposed as the German tyrant continued his annexation of his neighbours and when war was eventually declared on 3rd September, 1939, Britain was ill prepared for the conflict. Northern Ireland was equally unprepared, but all over the province in towns and villages like Comber, young men and women joined the forces or went to work in factories that were mobilized for the war effort.

Northern Ireland was soon at the forefront of the German Luftwaffe’s attacks, a precarious position exacerbated by De Valera’s decision to keep Ireland neutral. It allowed the German bombers almost free access along the Irish Coast to the Castlereagh Hills and although Comber and Newtownards were hidden by the blackout, the local people could hear the drones of the hundreds of Luftwaffe bombers as they pitched thousands of tons of explosives on Belfast city. Hundreds of people were killed in the Blitz raids on Belfast and De Valera’s decision to send supporting fire brigades from Dundalk and Dublin was too little too late for many northerners.

Comber was fortunate to miss the brunt of these attacks although many Belfast people evacuated to the town. One stray shell blew a crater in the road just outside the town and two escaped POW German pilots were recaptured at ‘Eusemere’, the home of Lord Justice Andrews.

In truth the war didn’t come to Comber, but Comber went to war.

 Cricket in the War Years

Many members of the club enlisted in the services during the Second World War while others made huge contributions, working in the factories that made munitions, building planes and ships, making clothing and hosting overseas troops. Some served in the Home Guard but, all in all, the townsfolk of Comber, rallied to serve their country in its hour of need.

  But times were tough and cricket, like many sports, had to take a back seat as the war effort was mobilized. There was great uncertainty throughout Britain, but once Winston Churchill became Prime Minister there was a clear focus on the enemy and what each man and woman was expected to do in the service of their country. Churchill was arguably the greatest war leader of all time and in Field-Marshall Montgomery he found a military commander of similar stature. Both had lived through the Great War and learned from its harsh experiences, not least the importance of the war effort at home as much as on the front. Although there were many critics of their strategy, both encouraged sport to be played at home to maintain and boost morale, and after initially banning the congregation of people, the ban was gradually lifted and many sports became important fund-raising mediums that greatly benefited the war effort. Cricket was at the fore of these efforts, although the visiting West Indian tourists didn’t hang around too long in August 1939. As soon as it became clear that war was going to be declared they caught the first available ship and were off home to the Caribbean. It mattered little to the English county season, as within a few weeks of the formal declaration of war, all games were suspended and many clubs saw their membership join the forces, virtually en bloc.

  In 1940 the German army overran Belgium, Holland and France. It was a bleak picture for the beleaguered British troops that were forced back to Dunkirk within days of being obliterated but, miraculously, in the face of adversity, hundreds of boats of every shape and size sailed across the English Channel to rescue them. It was a turning point in the war and, within weeks, many cricketers, including those who had returned from Dunkirk, were on their way back to France as the British war machine started to regain lost ground. The same could be said for the gallant RAF pilots that fought so heroically to preserve British supremacy in the skies, and cricketers throughout Ulster could hear and see their fellow countrymen and women win the historic “Battle of Britain” during the summer of 1940.

Both the Northern Cricket Union and the North West Cricket Union took immediate steps to accommodate the war effort as they prepared for the 1940 season. Many NCU cricket officials had enlisted and were already on active service, while some clubs had folded because their membership was so severely depleted. Committee meetings were held during the winter to determine what cricket, if any, could be played, but the NCU decided to keep the game alive. Inevitably this meant restrictions, especially as clubs couldn’t travel too far due to the petrol shortage, so war-time rules and regulations were implemented. There were no official registrations, teams were allowed to scratch without penalty if the reason was connected to the war effort, union fees were reduced by 25%, no rulebook was printed, interprovincial matches were postponed, committee meetings were reduced, and the union trophies were put into storage. The Senior Challenge Cup final was reduced to one innings and a set of stumps was awarded to the winners, if requested. Otherwise the competition was played much as it is still played today, albeit some teams were often below strength on match days.  

For their part the clubs recognized the difficult circumstances and some recruited new players from clubs that had struggled to keep playing during the war. Clubs were also encouraged to play matches against the services and to accommodate any forces personnel who wished to play at a club. There were no challenges to the NCU during the war years and this made administration much easier. Lisburn, Muckamore and Holywood enlisted some outstanding military men in their ranks and North Down benefited in the same way.

 Cricket had answered the call and while many players went off to war, there were many others playing their part at home in the war effort against tyranny and oppression.


 Service to the Cause

The war years marked a major decline in the fortunes of North Down, a decline that was to last virtually another 36 years. For a club steeped in success since 1887, this was a total transformation, and although there was never any alternative to the 100% commitment to the war effort, it was always expected that the good times would return when the conflict was over. Sadly it was not to be and the golden years between the wars became distant memories for the old hands during the barren 1950s and 1960s.

Two of the club’s most distinguished players led the way when it became apparent war was inevitable. It was reputed Mr. Willie recruited over 70 people to the services and this is not hard to believe given his strong sense of loyalty. Willie also held a captain’s commission in the Royal Army Ordinance Corps (RAOC) until 1943 before joining the Royal Navy, while James Macdonald joined the Territorial Army in 1938 and was called up in 1939. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and his regiment in the Royal Artillery was said to be the only one that returned from Dunkirk with all its guns. He was later awarded the OBE (Military Division). 


HMS Hood

North Down entertained a team from HMS Hood on the 16th June 1932. The following is a brief summary of her encounter with Bismarck in 1941 and her demise

On May the 24th 1941, the two titans located each other.

At 05.52 AM, Hood opened fire on Bismarck. Two minutes later, DKM Bismarck responded to Hood' s gunfire and the Battle of Denmark Strait began.

At 06.00, a gigantic explosion with a thunderous flame ripped the Hood into two and Hood disappeared. In less than ten minutes of battle, Hood was lost. Only 3 men survived, and more than 1400 died aboard the battlecruiser.

Hood was very powerful, fast and a beautiful ship. She had 8 X 38 cm. main guns and a top speed of 31 knots, but her armour was not as thick as battleship armour. When Bismarck's heavy 38 cm. shells hit and penetrated her citadel armour and detonated inside an ammunition store, this battlecruiser' s end came quickly.

Within 1-2 minutes, the massive 42.000-ton battlecruiser sank due to a thunderous explosion.

Thankfully no one who played at The Green was listed as a crew member at that time.

Just as intriguing, three of the HMS Hood team weren't listed as crew members in the official annals in June 1932!

HMS Hood 164 for 8 (Lieutenant Commander Robinson 47 not out, Cadet Vavasour 44, Cadet Chetwode 25, Cadet Manners 24; GA Macdonald 5 for 50, J Macdonald 2 for 71, N Petts 1 for 24)

North Down 227 for 3 (J Macdonald 93, GW Spence 74: Leading Telegraphist Tingley 1 for 23, Cadet Manners 1 for 50)

HMS Hood in batting order: Cadets Vavasour, Manners, Chetwode, Midshipman Banon, Lieutenant Commander Robinson, AB Howlett, Midshipman Slater, Paymaster Lieutenant Tompkins, Paymaster Lieutenant Robinson, Chief Stoker Williams, Leading Telegraphist Tingley

North Down in Batting order: GW Spence, J Macdonald, W Andrews, N Petts, DGR McKibben, W Watt, GA Macdonald, H Donnan, AE Anderson, J Dearden and Pearson (Pro)

The crew of the HMS Rodney produced a team that played at The Green on the 28th June 1933; unaware of the historic and momentous part the ship would play eight years later in the sinking of the German Battleship 'Bismarck'. 

Pay back time.


 Twenty North Down members were on active service during the war and this decimated the playing ranks to such an extent that the club faced the possibility of folding on numerous occasions. But to their credit the members kept the flag flying in the face of adversity and serving soldiers home from war duty were always welcomed with open arms. The spirit of the club was resilient at a desperate time, and despite enduring the worst cricketing seasons in their history, North Down Cricket Club survived the war years and played its part at home and away from the conflict in Europe.


Jim Montgomery was an excellent hockey player and useful cricketer who made many valuable contributions to the North Down club before the war.  He played in the 1939 cricket Senior Challenge Cup final before joining the RAF. Early in 1941, while serving as an air gunner, he received a serious foot injury but after a 14-month break returned to war and was again wounded.  In early 1944 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) by His Majesty the King and later was feted with a great party held in the Andrews Memorial Hall.


Jim Montgomery: Airman, Cricketer and Hero

Harry Morgan played at North Down in 1932 before moving to Ormeau. He lost a leg during the D-Day drop into France where his brother Reggie was killed and young Tom McLeod who played for the 3rd XI was killed in an air crash while serving with the RAF.

William Thompson Hamilton Watt (Bill) was born in Comber in 1911, educated at Comber National School and the Belfast College of Technology and joined the Air Force in August 1940.  He took part in a large number of sorties, including numerous attacks against many of the major and most heavily defended industrial targets in Germany.  The success of an attack against railway sidings at Cham in Czechoslovakia was mainly due to Flight Lieutenant Watt’s skilful navigation, and his citation reads:

“This officer has proved to be an excellent leader who by his skill and courage has inspired confidence in all the crews with whom he has flown.”

Bill, like so many of his colleagues at the time, was adept in most sports and he was a keen golfer who helped design the clubhouse at Mahee Island and later became club captain in 1969. These members, and many more, made their contribution and sacrifice to enable us to live with the freedom that we enjoy today.


Willie Watt: Cricketer, Airman, Hero


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