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Tuesday, 11 October 2016 11:23 AM BST
From the archive: Wimbledon after the war looks back at The Championships before and after World War Two. READ MORE

Tuesday 11th October marks one of the more sombre anniversaries in the history of the All England Club. During the Second World War the borough of Wimbledon was struck by more than 1,000 bombs, which killed 150 people and made more than 2,000 homeless, and on the night of 11 October 1940 the AELTC took a direct hit.

Five 500lb German bombs fell on Centre Court and the surrounding area and it would be more than eight years before the damage was fully repaired. By the time the war was over a total of 16 bombs had fallen on Club property.

Although there were more important targets for the Germans to attack in other parts of London, Wimbledon was always likely to find itself in the line of fire following the declaration of war in 1939. 

There were two factories in the borough important to the war effort, one producing machine guns and another spark plugs, while Wimbledon Common was regularly used for military training and was the site of several anti-aircraft batteries. The strategically important airfield at Croydon was only a few miles away and German intelligence was aware that both Leslie Hore-Belisha, the War Minister, and Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, of the RAF, lived in Wimbledon.

The first bombs to hit the borough fell in August 1940 and two months later the All England Club was struck. Of the five bombs that hit Club property that night, two fell on the golf course at Wimbledon Park, one landed in Church Road at the north-east entrance, one demolished the Club’s tool house and one fell on Centre Court. The latter device tore through the roof of a stand where competitors used to sit and destroyed 1,200 seats.

Bomb damage was by no means the only evidence of wartime activity at the All England Club between 1939 and 1945 as a number of buildings were converted for use by fire, ambulance and first-aid services.

Indeed most of the premises were put to use in the war effort. “One of the car parks was ploughed up to grow vegetables,” John Barrett recalls in the official history of Wimbledon. “Another housed pigs, chickens, ducks, geese and rabbits in temporary wooden homes, while the main concourse echoed to the marching feet of detachments of the London Welsh and London Irish regiments.”

The courts themselves, nevertheless, were maintained and in June 1945, just a month after Germany’s surrender, more than 5,000 spectators attended a tournament featuring players from the armed services, including Squadron Leader Dan Maskell, the AELTC’s resident professional, who would later become the BBC’s voice of tennis.

When The Championships were finally staged again the following year – which was by no means a straightforward decision given the difficulties involved - they were held against an unfamiliar backdrop. Because of post-war building restrictions the damage to Centre Court was not fully repaired until 1949 and there were many other logistical challenges, including those caused by rationing. For some years afterwards many overseas players imported their own steaks, which they kept in their hotel fridges.

In the circumstances it was perhaps surprising that the geographical spread of competing nationalities did not change much between 1939 and 1946. In the Gentlemen’s Singles of 1939 there had been 56 home players in a 128-strong field that included representatives of 25 different countries. Seven years later there were 47 British players in a field comprising entries from 23 countries. By 1967, the last year of amateur competition at The Championships, there were just 13 home players in the Gentlemen’s Singles.

By 1946 the ground was already being laid for decades of domination at The Championships by Americans and Australians. Ten Americans and seven Australians lined up in the Gentlemen’s Singles that year, with France (13 players) the only visiting country with more representatives. Australia’s Dinny Pails was the top seed but was beaten in the quarter-finals by the eventual champion, France’s Yvon Petra, who had been a prisoner of war in Germany. Petra also accounted for Tom Brown, the last American left standing, in the semi-finals and went on to beat Australia’s Geoff Brown in the final.

The 96-strong line-up for the Ladies’ Singles was dominated by home players. There were 64 British players in the field, with France and the United States the next best represented countries with eight entries apiece. There was only one Australian, Alison Burton, who lost in the first round.

Americans had won the Ladies’ Singles title at 10 of the last 13 Championships before the outbreak of the war and after the end of hostilities they won it 13 years in a row. Five of the 1946 quarter-finalists were from the United States: Pauline Betz, who won the title in her only visit to The Championships; Louise Brough, who would win the title in 1948, 1949, 1950 and 1955; Margaret Osborne, the champion in 1947; Doris Hart, who triumphed in 1951; and Dodo Bundy, who was playing at The Championships for the last time.

Americans made a clean sweep of the doubles competitions. Brough and Osborne won the Ladies’ Doubles, Tom Brown and Jack Kramer the gentlemen’s doubles and Brown and Brough the mixed event. It would be a sign of things to come.

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