Back to War – how a hockey great, a man of medicine and a small British town crossed paths in World War TwoPosted: 04/01/2017
Please note – all references are at the end of this piece
Great Britain is a sporting nation, however Basingstoke would certainly not be a place that springs to the mind of many when thinking sport nor would ice hockey be considered part of the British sporting mainstream. Situated about 50 miles south west of London, Basingstoke is regarded by many as an unexciting place, more famous for its roundabouts and sometimes uninspiring architecture, than as a place of athletic prowess.
However one thing Basingstoke does have is an ice hockey team; one that after a few years in the wilderness in terms of results and at times even flirting with oblivion is currently atop the mountain. The Basingstoke Bison won their first league title in over two decades in March 2016. The club is arguably in something of a golden age as the league title combined with a cup and playoff success in 2014 which means the club has won every trophy on offer for clubs in the British second tier, the English Premier Ice Hockey League in the past 3 seasons under current head coach, Canadian-born Doug Sheppard.
The club was established in 1988 in large part thanks to former US International University player, Don Yewchin, who helped found the club. However 40 years before the then Basingstoke Beavers took to the ice, Basingstoke had its own brief brush with worldwide ice hockey royalty in a tale that mixes the town’s role in World War Two with a man responsible for the development of a branch of medicine in the 20th century and one of the most influential figures in the sport’s existence.
The National Hockey League is the pinnacle of the sport of ice hockey and one of its most famous organisations, the Toronto Maple Leafs would not exist without Constantine Falkland Cary “Conn” Smythe. If you’re unfamiliar with ice hockey, Smythe’s importance to the NHL isn’t just shown by his 1958 induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame but he once had a division of the league named after him and the trophy awarded to the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the “Conn Smythe Trophy”. However all that was yet to come.
By the start of the 1940s, Smythe was a man at the height of his powers. Having enlisted in the Canadian Army whilst a university student in 1915 he came back from the Great War having joined an artillery battery, earned the military cross, transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, got shot down by the Germans at the end of 1917, reported dead and spent the rest of the conflict as a prisoner of war. He then finished his engineering degree, started a sand and gravel business and in the evenings he coached the University of Toronto Varsity Blues.
His successes with the Varsity Blues saw him hired to help construct the first ever New York Rangers roster in 1926 but was fired before the season started in a dispute over pay and a player Smythe wanted to sign. He returned home and applied to coach the Toronto St. Pats but was turned down. Shortly afterwards with the St Pats doing poorly and seemingly about to be sold and on its way to Philadelphia, Smythe managed to get a group together to keep the team in Toronto, got himself put in charge, changed the name of the team to the Toronto Maple Leafs and the colours to blue and white.
In the middle of the Great Depression of the late 1920s/early 1930s with the world’s economy in the basement, Smythe managed to secure enough financing to construct Maple Leaf Gardens to replace the club’s old arena and won the Stanley Cup in 1932. He’d also managed to keep the gravel business going, own a lot of thoroughbred race horses, get married and have 4 children.
Much to the chagrin of his wife and the military authorities, Smythe wanted to re-enlist in the Canadian Army in 1940 despite being 45 years old and technically too old to do so. He felt it his duty to go back into the forces and not just to sit on the sidelines but to be in a combat position. His superiors felt that a public figure like Smythe was of much more use on the home front for morale purposes but for Smythe, fighting meant literally fighting so he tried to force the army’s hand. Using his own time and (more importantly) his own money to put together his sportsman’s battalion in the hope and probable knowledge that a fully formed unit, volunteering to go overseas and fight would give the army no choice but to send him into the fray. Smythe was still in Canada when the Leafs won the 1942 Stanley Cup, Toronto rallying from 3-0 down in the series to beat Detroit 4-3 but he would eventually get to Europe, arriving in Britain in October 1942.
While Smythe was rising the ranks of the business and hockey worlds, another former member of the Canadian army was also making advances in his own field. Dr Colin Kerr Russel volunteered as a medic in the Canadian army in World War One and ended up being regarded as something of an expert on shell shock after his work in a military hospital in Ramsgate, Kent. After the war he became professor of neurology at McGill University in Montreal then in 1934 he joined the Montreal Neurological Institute as one of the chief neurologists.
When war broke out in 1939, Russel was called back into the army and was put in charge of a project to organise a specialised neurological unit for the army overseas. Whilst by today’s standards Russel’s theories on how to treat certain neurological issues are somewhat outdated, at the time they were widely read and together with his colleague in Montreal, Dr Wilder Penfield, this new project was going to do things differently and that meant the neurologist were in a team with neurosurgeons to treat the wounded soldiers who came to them. Established thinking was that during war, you kept surgeons of all sorts together. You never knew what could come in so you had access to all as needed. This was also the position of another prominent neurologist, Dr Kenneth McKenzie of Toronto General Hospital. Whilst the team would be led by a Montreal man, they needed the doctors from Toronto to function. Russel and Penfield were insistent on what they wanted but a compromise between new and old school thinking was eventually reached.
They got agreement that the mobile hospital would take to the field with Canadian troops heading to France. Some of the team were in England by Christmas 1939 and based at Aldershot. Stuck in the “phony war” that defined the start of conflict, the enemy wasn’t bullets or bombs but colds, flu and an outbreak of German measles. By the time Colin Russel arrived it was May 1940 and Dunkirk was being evacuated. Instead of looking to head to France as a field unit, Russel hunted for a premises to house the hospital in a more permanent setting and the owner of The Daily Telegraph, William Berry, the Viscount Camrose offered his home at Hackwood Park.
Hackwood Park was about 2 miles out of the centre of Basingstoke, at the time a town of about 25,000 residents compared to around 107,000 today. The original house on the site was razed by Oliver Cromwell and rebuilt in 1683 after the restoration of the monarchy. During World War One whilst Smythe was firing artillery shells and Dr Russel was working in military hospitals, the property housed the Queen of the Belgians after the Germans invaded her homeland. The then Sir William Berry acquired the house in 1935 and he agreed to lend it to the Canadian Army for free on the proviso it was returned in the same state in which it was first given to them.
The move to Hackwood got its sign off from all sides and the Canadian No.1 Neurological Hospital was started with 200 beds in September 1940 and up went the Nissen Huts. Everything had come together at such a pace at Hackwood that Wilder Penfield reported to Russel “I hear a rumour that you are living in the stable. At least that will doubtless keep the rain off, and not even a Bosche (a term used to describe the Germans) would bother to bomb a horse”.
The plan for a long time remained move operations to France when the time came but it was eventually abandoned as an idea in 1942, around the time a 65 year old Russel returned to McGill University to be replaced as consultant neuropshyciatrist by Colonel FH Van Nostrand. In 1943, Hackwood was re-designated as Basingstoke Neurological and Plastic Surgery Hospital.
Russel left Britain as Smythe arrived in the country. His self-made unit, the 30th Battery spent time in Eastbourne supporting the raid on Dieppe as defence against Luftwaffe air raids. The raid on Dieppe, seen partly as a way to probe German defences and partly as a way to involve the Canadian forces in a major engagement was a disaster with nearly 1000 Canadians killed and nearly 2000 taken prisoner.
1942 rolled into 1943 into 1944 with no front line action that Smythe craved for. All the while he was micromanaging the Leafs from Britain by telegraph and letter; sending back instructions for his subordinates with regards to signings and contract negotiations.
However the call for him to enter the fray wasn’t far away. In the wake of D-Day the order finally came for the 30th Battery to head over the channel. Just before departure, disaster struck as Smythe broke his ribs in a collision during a game of softball. By a mixture of cover up and threatening a senior officer with his service revolver he managed to get himself onto the boat over to France on 7th July 1944. Conn Smythe was finally going back to war.
A few weeks later on the night of 25th July 1944, a German plane dropped a flare to light the way for the following bombers to do their damage. The flare landed on an ammunition truck and set fire to the tarpaulin sat on top of a large amount of high explosives. Smythe ran out of his trench to try and get the tarpaulin off before anything could explode but he couldn’t manage it in time. A chunk of shrapnel lodged itself in Smythe’s back and he couldn’t feel his legs. After a nightmare plane crossing back to Britain where he had someone dripping blood on him for the entire journey, Smythe ended up at Hackwood. His eldest son, Stafford managed to get leave to come to see him. The sight of his father covered in bandages and tubes reportedly caused Stafford to faint on sight.
However Smythe was in a good place to start his recovery. The hospital was more than adept at dealing with his kind of injury (it saw over 150 of this kind over the course of its operational life) and the problems that came with it; the largest being that it was a huge issue for the patient to relieve oneself and the risk of urinary infections was high. This was coupled with other potential problems like pressure sores. However the work done at Hackwood was vital not just in terms of getting troops back to the fighting but making sure people had a life left to live
Smythe’s stay in Basingstoke was short, only 6 weeks. In September 1944, he was transported first by boat back to Halifax, Nova Scotia before returning to Toronto and started recuperating at Chorley Park Hospital. Never one to ever really rest, one of his first guests upon his arrival was George McCullagh, the publisher of the famous Globe and Mail newspaper. Smythe relayed his own story and that of others he had met in a statement that was published on the front page of the 19th September 1944 edition. It caused something of a political crisis in Canada, nearly bringing down the government of the day. Smythe would eventually regain the use of his legs though would walk with a limp for the rest of his life as he embedded himself as one of the most important people in Canadian sports and hockey history. The Toronto Maple Leafs organisation is currently its 100th season of active play.
More than 16,500 soldiers were treated at Hackwood Park before the Neurological and Plastic Surgery Hospital moved to Park Prewett Hospital in nearby Rooksdown and the site was eventually returned to its owners. The current owners of the 260-acre estate put it up for sale in April 2016 with an asking price of £65 million.
Dr Colin Russel left his role at McGill University in 1945. A lifelong son of Montreal, he passed away in the city in 1956.
Information on Conn Smythe: The Lives of Conn Smythe; From the battlefield to Maple Leaf Gardens: a hockey icon’s story by Kelly McParland, Fenn/McClelland & Stewart Press, Toronto 2011. Ch12-14
Picture of Conn Smythe in uniform access from Interesting Canadian History: https://interestingcanadianhistory.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/conn-smythe.jpg
Information on the life of Dr Colin Russel and the history of the setting up of Hackwood Park as Canadian No.1 Neurological Hospital: Canadian Health Care and the State: A Century of Evolution, edited by C. David Naylor, McGill University Press, Montreal, 1992 – “The Development of Neuropsychiatry in the Canadian Army (Overseas) 1939-1943” pp67-81 by Terry Copp (https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=GaYZg51npnkC)
The image of Colin Russel, Wilder Penfield’s full letter to Colin Russel and the image of Hackwood House are part of the McGill University Digital Collection in the Osler Library of History of Medicine.
General information about the Royal Canadian Medical Corps and the treatment regime at Hackwood House: Official History of the Canadian Medical Services; https://www.royalcdnmedicalsvc.ca/virtual-museum-3/virtual-museum/historical/world-war-ii/
The history of Hackwood: The Story of Hackwood; – http://www.friendsofwillis.hampshire.org.uk/story_of_hackwood.htm
Thanks to Jen Conway and Scott Wasilewski for fact checking help and Jono Bullard and Stuart Coles for editing/checking of general sense.