8 May 2020
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch on a time when war did not stop racing at Henley.
Seventy-five years ago, on 8 May 1945, VE Day, the war in Europe officially came to an end; Germany had surrendered unconditionally the day before. The war with Japan would not be over until for another three months but, in a speech to the nation, Prime Minister Churchill said: ‘We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing’. The Henley Stewards took the great war leader at his word and arranged a one-day ‘Royal Henley Regatta’ (as opposed to ‘Henley Royal Regatta’) for Saturday, 7 July 1945. The last normal Henley had been in 1939, the centenary regatta.
The ‘Royal Henley’ of 1945 is a less well remembered event than the 1919 ‘Peace Regatta’ that followed the First World War, the centenary of which was marked with much ceremony last year (I was only reminded of it by a recent tweet by @BennJurij). The 1945 Regatta was, admittedly, a much simpler affair than the one that followed the 1914 – 18 War. There were only three events, and these were to be run over a course just short of one mile, starting at the Barrier. Crews raced three abreast if necessary and there were booms only over the last 300 yards.
There were 24 boats in the open Eight-Oared Race, all competing for the Danesfield Cup presented by Stanley Garton.
Twelve crews entered for the Public Schools Eight-Oared Race for the Hedsor Cup presented by Harcourt Gold.
A Sculling Race for the Barrier Cup presented by HA Steward attracted six scullers.
Radically, ‘amateurs’ were allowed to race against ‘tradesmen’. In the Eights, the latter were Thames Tradesmen, Gladstone and (probably) the Metropolitan Police. Further, the Australian Air Force crews could well have contained men who would have been defined as professionals.
The Royal Australian Air Force ‘A’ crew contained experienced – if out of practice – rowers and they were the favourites for the Eights. They had trained for three weeks and told the press, ‘Win or lose, we don’t mind. Racing at Henley was all we wanted’. Two of the ‘A’ crew were recently released prisoners of war. The Times reported:
Some of the best racing of the day was seen in the semi-finals, and few better races took place in pre-war days than that between the Royal Australian Air Force and Magdalen College (who) failed to withstand a final effort by the Australians, who won a thrilling race by three feet.
In the Eights final, the RAAF were passed by Imperial College ‘A’ in the last 200 yards, partly because the Aussies were weakened by their earlier semi-final and partly because Imperial (allegedly) took the rate up to 50 at the finish.
In the Public Schools’ Race, The Times reported:
The final was a great race, with Eton, who were favourites, starting off at 40 and leading at the end of the first minute. Both Radley and Bedford, however, hung on, and the former drew level near Fawley, but there was never more than a few feet between the three crews… (Approaching the enclosure) Radley spurted and … drew away… and won by a length, with Eton beating Bedford for second place by three feet.
In the sculls, as expected, WEC Horwood of Quintin BC, the National Amateur Rowing Association champion, beat HP Henry of Staines in the final. In a heat, Henry had beaten EF Woods of the U.S. Army.
The regatta was held in brilliantly fine weather and a newspaper report noted that, ‘Holiday-makers thronged the banks, and flags flying in the bright sunshine at the Leander Club and other boathouses gave Henley the appearance of the great days of old’.
My father, Adrian Stokes (who has already featured twice in HTBS), then aged seventeen, rowed in the Winchester College eight in the schools race. He says: “This was my first Henley. We only got through one round, but it was an amazing experience after the drab war years.”