By Matthew Clark
In the winter of 1943-1944, as allied servicemen in Great Britain trained for the Longest (D) Day, Dieppe veteran Canadian Denis Whitaker took a break from the arduous routine of preparing for the invasion of Europe, to have a pint at a local pub. In the establishment next to him sat an American trooper. The two men started talking to each other about home. To their delight they found out they had something in common. A love of football! For Whitaker it was Canadian football, for the American, naturally enough, it was American football. Inevitably both men agreed that a match between Canadian, and American, military personnel would do wonders for the moral of their countrymen stationed in Britain. Since the rules of the Canadian game, and it's American counterpart, were different, it was agreed that one half of the game would be played according to American rules, the other half would have Canadian regulations.
Whitaker thought the idea a marvelous one, so he immediately went to work promoting the idea to his superiors. He emphasized the moral boosting aspect of the game. Happily the American and Canadian officers agreed. Both nations armed forces wasted no time in putting together a team. An enthuisastic crowd (mostly military) of 30,000 fans packed White City Stadium (London, England) on Sunday,February 13, 1944, to cheer their side (hopefully) onto victory. Allied planes patrolled the nearby skies in case the German Luftwaffe decided to make an appearance (they did not). American Armed Forces Radio, generously aided by the BBC, broadcast the match.
It was agreed that the first half would be played to American rules, while Canadian regulations would prevail in half number two. As a tribute to their United Kingdom hosts the teams titled the game "The Tea Bowl." To the delight of all onlookers both sides were at their intense best, employing hard hitting matched with impressive skill. At the end of the first half the score was tied 0-0.
In the third quarter Captain (rank) Ken Turnbull of Canada recovered a fumble, then returned the turnover for a touchdown. In 1944 a touchdown in Canada was worth 5 points. After the successful convert the score stood Canada 6 United States 0. Anyone who thought the American team would shrivel after such an unfortunate turn of events was sadly mistaken. Quickly Coporal Ben Detterman caught a 35 yard pass for a touchdown. The convert was straight, and true, tying the game at 6-6.
Again both sides bore down. Who was going to triumph? Lieutenant Orville Burke, former quarterback of the Toronto Argonauts, put his team ahead with a gallop into paydirt. Since the convert failed the Canadian lead was a slim 11-6. Anyone who knows Canadian football is aware that outside of Toronto's city limits, the Argonauts are the most hated sports franchise in the nation. Therefore Canadians beyond Toronto's boundary would find it unacceptable to have the margin of victory determined by the score of an former Argonaut quarterback. This could well have been the motivation off Major Jeff Nicklin, in peacetime a halfback for the Winnepeg Blue Bombers. Displaying his competative nature, Nicklin ran the ball for Canada's third major (excuse the pun) of the day. Again the convert was no good. It did not matter. Canada, up 16-6, played like Tigers for the remainder of the match to emerge victorious, 16-6!
Indicating that they were not discouraged by the course of events, the United States players demanded a rematch. The Canadians could hardly refuse. So it was that on Saturday, March 18, 1944, 50,000 folks filled White City Stadium to match the two teams go at each other once again. This game was dubbed "The Coffee Bowl." In an astute move the Americans recruited Tommy Thompson of the Philadelphia Eagles to be their quarterback. Thompson was a man of character. Despite being blind in one eye he played the game better than most men with two good eyes. After the war he would quarterback the Eagles to three straight Conference titles (1947,1948,1949) and two straight NFL championships (1948, 1949). Using Thompson's courage as inspiration, as well as the sting of their previous defeat, the Americans played a superb game, earning themselves a well deserved 16-0 win!
Looking back at the two games events worked out fortuitously for both militaries. Their men were about to embark on a far more important endeavor than that of a contest between grown men playing a little boys game. Experiencing victory, and defeat, would instill the right balance of measured confidence in the warriors as they sailed across the Channel to take on the Axis hordes.
Two players on the Canadian squad never made it home. Jeff Nicklin, Blue Bomber halfback stalwart, perished in a parachute jump over the Rhine River. Hank Living, a former player for the Sarnia Imperials, as well as the Canadian team, died on a bombing mission over Germany.
Although unable to find information on the American players fate after the contest, it seems unlikely they all survived the war. Whatever occurred, the entire crew of both teams are worthy of our gratitude!
In conclusion Ken Turnbull, who's score broke the ice in the "Tea Bowl," gave the best rendering of the two competitions meaning when, in 1996 he recounted, "It was terrific. We got out of the army for two months and had fun."
Considering what these men went through, particularly from June 6, 1944 onwards, we, their descendents, should be pleased they were able to have some fun amidst the Tragedy of the Second World War!
Anthony Wootton, November 2, 2019, NFL: When American Football Came To London In World War Two. BBC Sport.