On October 11th, 1940, in the middle of the Blitzkrieg, the gruesome Luftwaffe was dropping bombs in the Wimbledon area. The All England Club, the scene of the London-based tournament, was transformed into a military and civil storage base, and was heavily, and for a long time, touched by this attack.
It is precisely 5:20 p.m in London on this October 11th, 1940. The sun is starting to set in the sky, which the inhabitants of the English capital have started to watch everyday, with anxiety, for over a month. Since September the 7th exactly when Hitler started the Seelöwe operation, its main goal being to invade the United Kingdom. France has just fell to the hands of the Nazis and they are determined to carry on their Blitzkrieg on the other side of the Channel. However, it is impossible to get there through the sea, as the British Navy is ruling the waters. It’s in the air that the Führer has decided to attack, by asking the Luftwaffe to spread terror on this enemy land. Since the first day of this blitz, 320 bombers escorted by 600 fighter jets have started to pound London and its surroundings. Buckingham Palace is quickly damaged, as well as the St-Paul cathedral. The bombings are becoming daily life, and now hitting all the strategic cities in the country. They generally take place during the night, with groups of 150 to 200 aircrafts.
Roof teared off, 1200 seats destroyed
This famous October 11th, 1940, is the day chosen by the German Air Force to terrorise a little more this damned english people who refuses to give in. On this day only, 480 enemy aircrafts are engaged, notably in Liverpool, where 4 ships are sunk. In London, the sirens ring out at 5:20 p.m to warn the civilians, and ask them to take shelter. And there goes the fire. In the Wimbledon area, 5 bombs weighing 220 kilograms each are targeting the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. One of them reaches the target and heavily damages the stadium in which the Wimbledon tennis tournament is organized every year. A big chunk of the roof and 1200 seats are notably destroyed. Hopefully, the attack has made no victim but the material damages are huge, to the point where colonel Duncan MacAulay, in charge of rebuilding at the end of the conflict, will spend several years trying to accomplish his mission. If the organizers insisted that a new edition of the tournament was played as early as 1946, players took place in an under work Wimbledon stadium, until 1949.
Decontamination unit, morgue, pigs, rabbits…
Meanwhile, during the conflict, the All England Club of Wimbledon was seized as a storage base by the British authorities and the army. Ambulances are parked there, as well as firetrucks and vehicles of the British Home Guard. You could also find a decontamination unit, a morgue, and even a reserve of rabbits, porks and chickens ! Therefore, a question remains : was the Wimbledon central court deliberately targeted when it was attacked on this October 11th, 1940 ? Hard to say, as the Luftwaffe bombings were often uncertain and their precision was far from being surgical. Maybe the five bombs which fell in the London neighborhood were only meant to « empty » the aircrafts before their return ?
The next day, Hitler gives up on his invasion project
One thing however remains certain : the following day of the attack, on October 12th, Hitler gave up on his project of invading Great-Britain, and asked his Air Force to focus on the eastern front. Firstly deferred, the Seelöwe operation is definitely abandoned in 1943. Three years later, the sporting events can carry on. In the men’s draw, the first post-war tournament is won by the French Yvon Petra, an ex-prisoner in the conflict. In the stands, to guide the spectators in the middle of the ruins, armed forces positioned on site since the attack are acting as stewards. It is still the case 70 years later. If you plan on going to Wimbledon, servicemen are asked to handle the installation of the public at the All England Club. Today, it is the last visible trace of this historical interlude in the tournament.
By Régis Delanoë