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Wimbledon and the Armed Forces: A History


November 1, 2018

As one of the UK’s most iconic sporting events and one of the four prestigious Grand Slam tennis tournaments, Wimbledon has been an important part of British culture since it first took place at the All England Club in 1877.

Wimbledon is known for its famous all-white dress code, its close association with the Royal Family and its iconic strawberries and cream. The Championships is also closely linked to the British Armed Forces and has been for many decades.

From being targeted during The Blitz to working with a large team of Army, Navy and Air Force volunteers every year, in this post we’ll look at Wimbledon’s close association with the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom.

The Armed Forces and stewardship at Wimbledon

Every year, hundreds of Armed Forced personnel volunteer as stewards and other staff at Wimbledon. If you attend Wimbledon, the person checking your ticket may be a member of the Army, Royal Air Force or Royal Navy.

The tradition of members of the Armed Forces taking part in Wimbledon dates back to the years immediately after the Second World War. With much of the All England Club damaged by bombing, the Armed Forces started assisting in 1946.

Starting in 1946, members of the Armed Forces helped attendees find their seats, checked their tickets, assisted them in making their way around the grounds and went out of their way to ensure the tournament operated smoothly.

Today, the Armed Forces still play a major role in making sure Wimbledon runs as smoothly as possible. As of 2010, more than 300 personnel from all three branches of the Armed Forces took part in Wimbledon as stewards.

Their work involves making sure audience members are comfortable and happy, as well as some other essential tasks such as ensuring spectators have their phones off during matches so as not to distract players or other tennis fans.

Armed Forces personnel make up roughly half of Wimbledon’s stewards during any given year. Most Armed Forces stewards manage the Centre Court and No. 1 and No. 2 Courts, as well as assisting throughout the grounds.

The rest of Wimbledon’s stewards are made up of volunteers with close ties to the All England Club and members of the London Fire Brigade, who account for almost half of all stewards at The Championships.

Armed Forces members aren’t assigned to Wimbledon – instead, they volunteer to take part in running of The Championships. They also don’t receive any time away from work – stewards give up part of their leave to take part in the tournament.

For Armed Forces members, it’s a sacrifice worth making. Leading Seaman Stuart Linnahan commented on his involvement in Wimbledon in 2010 after joining the Royal Navy more than 15 years earlier:

“I like them to see what I’m doing and if they don’t know anything about the Navy I’m more than willing to tell them about it, so it’s nice for me too.”


Wimbledon during the Second World War

During The Blitz of 1940, London suffered heavy bombing by the Luftwaffe. Bomb targets were spread throughout London, including in many residential areas, in an effort to create a sense of terror and force Britain to surrender.

Amazingly, one of these targets was the Wimbledon area. From October 1940 until June 1941, almost 40 bombs were dropped on Wimbledon Park alone, and even the grounds of the All England Club were bombed.

Would you like to see exactly where bombs were dropped on Wimbledon during the Second World War? Historical map website Bomb Sight has a digital map of London, complete with the Wimbledon area, with all of the All England Club’s bomb targets.

One reason for Wimbledon’s focus as a bombing target could be its purpose. During the war, club members and tennis players were removed from Wimbledon and the All England Club was converted into a location for military personnel.

In early 1940, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding – one of the key strategists behind the Battle of Britain – moved in. Alongside his staff, a hospital and first aid centre was established on the All England Club’s ground to treat injured servicemen.

On the 11th of October 1940, German bombs landed on the Centre Court, destroying part of the stands and reducing its seating capacity by 1,200 people. Because of the strict wartime rationing system, the seats weren’t replaced for almost a decade.

Amazingly, this damage was the event that first brought Wimbledon and the Armed Forces together. During 1946, the first Wimbledon after the war’s end, members of the Armed Forces helped spectators navigate the partially damaged court stands.

Even after the war, bombs remained a serious safety concern at Wimbledon. Since only 90% of the munitions dropped on the Wimbledon area exploded on impact, it took several years to remove all of the unexploded bombs after the war ended.

The Armed Forces and Wimbledon today

If you’re attending Wimbledon 2017, you’ll see Armed Forced personnel performing a number of important jobs, from manning seating areas and information booths to helping people easily make their way to their seats.

Since Wimbledon often coincides with national Armed Forces Day, the tournament is a fantastic opportunity for spectators to salute the efforts of people that serve in the Armed Forces.

Would you like to learn more about Wimbledon and the Armed Forces? Read about the close relationship between the All England Club and the Armed Forces and their work at Wimbledon here.

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