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This year Britain will mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day with a Bank Holiday. Internationally recognised as Victory in Europe Day, May 8th is celebrated as the day that World War II came to an end.

 

A number of racecourses played vital roles during the war-time era, ranging from military bases to storage centres and even prisoner of war accommodation. Newmarket Racecourse also played an important racing role, in ensuring that the Derby was able to continue throughout World War II, away from Epsom Downs.

 

Here, we take a look at how some of The Jockey Club’s racecourses were utilised to support Britain’s efforts during the war.

AINTREE

As early as October 1939, men from the 136 Battery, 21st Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery, Territorial Army, had been billeted on the course. For two or three weeks, they were housed in the stables, five to a box, taught first-aid in the Old Weighing Room and given drill practice in front of the stands.

 

After the men were moved on to Cheshire, the racecourse was "reclaimed" by Mrs Topham and the 1940 Grand National was run the following April. Crowds were small but special measures were in place in case there should be an air-raid. The race was won by Bogskar, ridden - appropriately - by Flight Sergeant Mervyn Jones, who just two years later would make the ultimate sacrifice when lost in a Spitfire reconnaissance flight over Norway.

 

By the summer of 1940, the military had occupied Aintree once again with French sailors, Polish airmen and English troops stationed at the racecourse for varying periods over the next 18 months or so. Liverpool as a city suffered greatly in the Blitz, and Aintree itself did not escape. Three bombs and numerous incendiary devices hit the racecourse in May 1941, although fortunately the stands were not damaged.

 

From 1942 onwards, American troops took over Aintree Racecourse and used it as a transport camp. Reputedly, nearly 20,000 jeeps passed through, housed in packing cases from the USA. Troops were again housed in the stables, where one box was turned into a barber's shop, while makeshift showers were installed in the Champagne Bar.

 

At the same time, Italian prisoners of war, used as farm labourers, were housed on the steeplechase course close to the Anchor Bridge crossing. Incredibly, the American troops were still in residence on the racecourse just six weeks before the first post-war Grand National was due to be run. They left on 21st February 1946 and, miraculously, the race went ahead on Friday 5th April, won by Lovely Cottage.

 

As well as Mervyn Jones, three other Grand National-winning jockeys gave their lives in service during World War II - Robert Everett (Gregalach 1929), Tommy Cullinan (Shaun Goilin 1930) and Frank Furlong (Reynoldstown 1935).

CHELTENHAM

During World War II the racecourse was not used as a hospital, as it had been in the First World War. Instead it was commissioned as training quarters for soldiers waiting to be sent to the front line.

 

Several regiments based in west Wales and central England used the facilities during the Second World War.

 

However, despite its use as a military base, the Cheltenham Gold Cup took place every year, apart from in 1942 and 1943.

EPSOM DOWNS

By the end of 1939, Epsom Downs Racecourse was commandeered by the Army and the following January, its race meetings were abandoned until further notice.

 

This prompted the Derby to be moved to Newmarket’s July Course throughout World War II, as it had been during the First World War.

 

A weekend training school was established in the Grandstand in the summer of 1941 to train Home Guard from throughout the South West London area. The school was opened with an elaborate ceremony attended by senior officers from the armed forces and civilian services. On one occasion 5,000 Home Guard from the South-West London area participated in a “tank battle” on Epsom Downs where the Royal Tank Corps played the part of the enemy.

 

The grandstand was again the venue for weekend training in 1943. Home Guard companies from different battalions would take it in turn to set-up defensive positions in the Warren Wood – Langley Vale area. Men from the 56th Battalion would often play the part of the “enemy”.

 

However, the racecourse was also affected by bombing. Parts of the grandstand were damaged and there were craters in the enclosures. Nevertheless, everything was patched up in time and the pre-war carnival spirit was in evidence for the first post-war Derby on Wednesday 5th June 1946, when the crowd was reported as 250,000.

 

HAYDOCK PARK

Like many racecourses, Haydock Park was closed between 1939 and 1945, with action on the track only returning in August 1946.

 

The racecourse was requisitioned by the military in the immediate aftermath of the Dunkirk evacuation in June 1940. The first troops to be billeted there were around 5,000 Czech and Polish troops. These were followed by 68 officers and 1,794 sailors of the French navy, whose ships had been boarded and taken over by the Royal Navy on the fall of France.

 

For the next couple of years the racecourse was used as a transit camp for various units of the British army, troops being quartered in the stables or in tents out on the course.

 

From September 1942 the course was used by the US forces as a motor transit depot, which caused considerable damage to the area behind the stands and around the paddock, although the track itself remained untouched. At the same time some of the land was de-requisitioned and let out to local farmers for growing crops.

 

In June 1943, as the preparations for D Day the following year began, Haydock was turned into a reception base and repair shop for every conceivable kind of military vehicle from jeeps to Sherman tanks, amphibious landing craft and even gliders until the war in Europe came to an end.

 

KEMPTON PARK

Kempton Park was a major victim of both World Wars, when all racing was abandoned and the site was used for a number of purposes related to the war. During the First World War, the park was used as a transit depot for military vehicles. The racecourses at Gatwick, Hurst Park and Sandown Park adopted Kempton Park’s fixtures until 1919, when racing resumed at Kempton.

 

The site also played a major role in accommodating prisoners of war throughout World War II. The mainline rail station situated on the grounds of the racecourse allowed German and Italian soldiers to be directly routed to the temporary camp set up within the racecourse grounds.

 

After the War had ended it became clear that the events of the previous six years had ruined much of the racecourse and a major reparation project ensued, before racing re-commenced in 1947.

 

 

MARKET RASEN

The first official Jumps fixture at Market Rasen was staged in 1924, meaning World War 1 did not impact the course.


However, during World War II racing stopped and the course and its buildings were used by the Yorkshire Hussars.

NEWMARKET

During the Second World War most sporting programmes were halted. However, horseracing in Newmarket continued and maintained much of its own racing calendar.

 

The racecourses did play a part off the track, too, with the Rowley Mile becoming an official RAF Bomber Command Airbase in 1939. Racing continued over on the July Course, which staged the Derby between 1915-18 and 1940-45, when the race was moved from its traditional venue at Epsom Downs during both World Wars.

SANDOWN PARK

 

The racecourse was requisitioned by the War Department between 1940 and 1945.

 

Having been stationed at the Esher racecourse for a short period during World War I, the Wels Guards’ training battalion were then based there for the whole of World War II.

 

The racecourse has honoured the fact that the regiment went to the Normandy Beaches from Sandown Park, by naming a race the D-Day Reunion Handicap. One veteran even located where he had been billeted during the war for more than two years - in the Weighing Room!

WARWICK

 

During World War II the racecourse was closed so that Italian prisoners of war could be accommodated.

 

The racecourse was due to stage a huge Victory in Europe party to open this year’s May Racing Carnival on Friday 8th May, commemorating 75 years since World War II fighting ended.

 

The mammoth community occasion was to be a centrepiece in the town’s celebrations and had been due to feature a street party for up to 1,500 people in the centre of the course.

 

Despite ‘lockdown’ the entrance to the racecourse has been dressed up with bunting and flags to mark the occasion. A ‘poppy tree’ has also been created, which locals have been stopping to place their poppies on.

 

WINCANTON

During the Second World War racing was abandoned at the racecourse and the site was requisitioned by the military for use as a war-time base.

 

By the summer of 1945 the racecourse was in a sorry state. Its running rails and the stand in the public enclosure had been demolished, and most of the buildings required restoration.

 

Due to wartime restrictions on the use of agricultural labour, the Directors were obliged to make all the necessary repairs to the racecourse themselves, and through sheer hard work, they were successful in holding the first post-war race meeting in October 1945.

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