Armed Forces Day: Rangers' World War Heroes

When War was foisted upon the World on two occasions in the last 100 years, Association Football in this country ground to a halt. Players signed up to fight for King and Country, and the fear of having large amounts of people congregated in one place to watch a match proved too much for the Government, who imposed strict crowd restrictions in order to make it more difficult for the Luftwaffe to inflict many casualties. Rangers players of both era's signed up to fight for our tomorrow, below is the story of a few of them, starting with World War 2...........

World War 2

The wartime period of 6 years was to be one of the most succesful in the clubs history. Winning 25 out of 34 first team competitions primarily because they had a talented team which of course was subject to the same restrictions as every other club. Rangers played a total of 210 league fixtures throughout the period, winning 155 and losing 26. An additional 'honour' was reported on the 1st of November 1942, when it was announced that 'Rangers' had won the Championship of a Prisoner-of-War Camp in Germany. Fourteen teams had competed, all with names of English and Scottish First Division Clubs. Preston North End were second!

The success of Rangers throughout World War Two has led to misinformed accusations that the club, in particular Bill Struth, deliberately placed players in reserved occupations in order that they might avoid active service. Accusations that have no basis in fact and a study of Rangers players who saw active service during World War Two is enough to dispel such a myth.

Indeed, two Rangers players served their country with much distinction and were officially recognised by the Armed Forces for their heroism........

William Thornton - Military Medal

Thornton (centre) in 1937 walking to school, having already signed for Rangers

One of the greatest players in Rangers history, Thornton spent his entire career with the club. He made his debut for Rangers as a 16 year old in a reserve match v Partick Thistle at Firhill in March 1936. Alongside him also making his debut was a 15 year old William Waddell. Thornton developed into a 'thoroughbred' centre forward, magnificently skilled in the air and with a deft first touch, he was a perceptive passer, stylish and sophisticated. 4 League Championships, 3 Scottish Cups and 3 League Cups, including the first treble won by any club in Scotland, he was the first post-war Rangers player to score 100 goals, and in a total of 432 games from 1936 until 1954, he scored 255 goals. Described as ' a gentleman in the fullest sense of the word', he was never once in his career ordered off, never once booked. Not just an Ibrox legend because of his deeds on the field of play, but also because of his character. His wartime service reinforces that view.

At the outbreak of hostilities, Thornton signed up with The Duke of Atholl's Scottish Horse as a Trooper. Serving six war years with his regiment, which saw him go two years without pulling on the famous Blue jersey, Thornton saw service in Tripoli, Sicily and Italy, in unforgettable battles at Anzio and Monte Cassino as the Allies liberated Italy. It was during the Invasion of Sicily, on 18th November 1943, where the heroics of Thornton won him the Military Medal, "for Acts of Galantry and dedication to Duty under fire" and entitled him to sign his name as William Thornton MM. The Military Medal was awarded to personnel ' For Bravery in Battle on Land.' The Scottish Horse Regiment in six years of fighting during World War Two saw only 19 Military Medals awarded.

The Military Medal and Thornton in his Rangers jersey

After the war ended, Thornton returned to play professional football for his beloved Rangers. Having done his part for King and Country, his goal scoring exploits helped Rangers win trophies and gave people something to cheer about at a time when they were rebuilding shattered lives.

Thornton playing for Scotland after the war, shaking hands with Field Marshall Montgomery. Montgomery was in overall charge of the Allied Forces during the Invasion of Sicily, where Thornton's bravery won him the Military Medal

Ian McPherson - Distinguished Flying Cross

Only 563 men were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by the RAF. The DFC was awarded for 'an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy.'  Ian McPherson of The Rangers was one of those heroes.

Born in Glasgow in 1920, he signed for Rangers in 1939. A goal scoring winger, he made his senior debut in a 3-1 victory v Arbroath at Ibrox. This match turned out to be the penultimate match in the Scottish Football League before the competition was suspended at the outbreak of World War Two. I suspect he knew little of what the outbreak of war would mean for him as a 19 year old professional footballer.

McPherson was to play a big part in the rest of his first season, as Rangers competed for and won the Scottish Regional League Western Division. He played 11 times in the 1939/40 Season scoring 11 goals including a hat-trick v Clyde at Ibrox in a 3-1 victory. As well as the regional title, he helped Rangers to the Glasgow Merchants Charity Cup in May 1940. The next season saw him play in matches 2 and 3 of the Southern League, scoring 2 goals v Hibs in a 5-1 victory, before duty called.

RAF 105 Squadron, based at Marham, was Pilot Officer Ian McPherson's new club. Flying Mosquitos, a multi-role combat aircraft with a two man crew, McPherson was to see action on the front line over Germany in this fast fighter-bomber aircraft. Assigned to fly with McPherson on the majority of his missions, his navigator tells of three occasions their aircraft was hit by German Anti-Aircraft guns and had to return to Marham on a single engine. Another time, having lost their electrics and a lot of fuel, they were not able to identify themselves coasting over the English Channel and were fired at by their own gunners who fortunately missed. The pair also had the ordeal of a crash landing after their landing gear was punctured by shrapnel.

The De Havilland Dh.98 Mosquito, the aircraft which got McPherson home safely from Germany over 102 sorties.

The Distinguished Flying Cross was awarded to McPherson in June 1944, having flown 57 sorties over enemy territory. In January 1945, having been promoted to Flying Officer and by then a veteran of 102 sorties behind enemy lines, he was awarded a Bar to add to his DFC. His recommendation read....

"Since the award of his Distinguished Flying Cross, Flying Officer McPherson has completed numerous sorties. Throughout all his operations he has consistently displayed exemplary courage and tenacity of purpose which, together with outstanding skill and fine leadership, are worthy of high praise"

The Distinguished Flying Cross, and McPherson in his Arsenal days up against Stanley Matthews, who guested for Rangers during WW2, and won a Glasgow Charity Cup Medal

At the cessation of hostilities, McPherson returned to professional football. Having guested for Arsenal during his time at Marham, he signed with them on a full time basis. He went on to play 163 games for the Gunners between 1946 and 1951, playing 29 games during the Championship winning 1947/48 season. The War Hero and former Ranger died in 1983, aged 62.

Carl Hansen

Not so much a tale of heroism from Denmark's first ever player to play professional football outside the country and Rangers first ever Scandinavian player, but more a tale of bravado that had dire consequences. Signed in 1921 from Danish team B 1903 for £20, Hansen spent 4 years at Rangers and became a cult figure. Known as 'The Great Little Dane', he was the first foreigner to score in an Old Firm match. He helped Rangers to the 1923, 1924 and 1925 league titles before a broken leg sustained in a reserve match ended his career. He returned to his native Copenhagen, which is where this World War Two tale of woe begins.

As part of the Danish Resistance, Hansen was arrested in 1943 in Copenhagen. The story goes that, after a night out with his brother, he 'harassed' a German soldier, was arrested and incarcerated firstly in Copenhagen, and then transferred to a German Concentration Camp in Neumunster for 4 months at the behest of the Nazi Occupation Forces.

After World War 2

Victory in Europe Day was declared on the 8th May, 1945, and not long after that on 17 October 1945 Rangers flew to Hanover, Germany for a game against the Combined Services in order to entertain the British Army in occupation of the Rhine. Rangers lost 6-1 in front of 50,000 servicemen, Waddell scoring Rangers solitary goal. The Rangers team that day was Dawson, D Gray, J Shaw, Watkins, Woodburn, Symon, Duncanson, Ventners, Waddell, Williamson, Johnston. Unbelievably, it was a former Partick Thistle player who scored a hat trick against Rangers. Peter 'Ma Ba' McKennan signed for Partick in 1935, and found himself playing for the Combined Services that day!

The Rangers team 'buckle up' for their Military Transport to Hannover!

As stated above, the myth that Rangers placed players in reserved occupations in order that they might avoid active service can easily be debunked by listing those Rangers players who did see active service.......

British Army - David Kinnear, Tom McKillop, James Galloway, Willie Thornton, Alistair McKillop, David Marshall, Willie Paton, Donald McLatchie (gunner in the Royal Artillery), Thomas Soutar(Captain in the Royal Scots Fusiliers), Sammy Cox(Gordon Highlanders), David Gray(served in the Middle East), Archie Macauley(Army Physical Training Corps), Dr. Adam Little(Royal Medical Corps), Joe Johnston, Willie Knox, R Cowan, P Grant, A Beattie, GDF MacKay.

RAF - Chris McNee(Flight Lieutenant) Ian McPherson, Eddie Rutherford,Jimmy Simpson, Alex Stevenson.

Royal Navy - Jimmy Parlane ( Derek's Auld Man!), Billy Williamson, Bobby Brown(Petty Officer - Fleet Air Arm)

Former Ranger Jimmy Parlane, whose son became King of Ibrox Park

World War One

World War One also saw the Rangers contribute a great deal to the War Effort. When Britain declared War on Germany in August 1914, the 1914/15 Season was 10 days old. The Government allowed the game in the country to continue, they saw football grounds and football crowds as prime recruitment opportunities - there was no conscription until the last year of the war. International games, however, were suspended, and the SFA decided to withdraw the Scottish Cup Competition for the duration.

Season 1916/17 saw many of the darkest days of World War One, and football in many ways seemed less and less important. On active service were Rangers players Dr. James Paterson, Andy Cunningham, Jimmy Gordon and William Reid, leaving the club to find youngsters to fill out the team.

Dr. James A. Paterson - Military Cross - Captain 14th Battalion London Regiment, London Scottish

Born in London but brought up in Glasgow, Paterson was on the books of both Rangers and Queen's Park as an amateur, whilst training as a doctor. With the outbreak of World War I he joined the London Scottish Regiment and served as a medical officer, winning the Military Cross for his bravery in action in France. Thankfully after the war ended, he returned to the club, and played 36 games in the Title Triumph of 1919/20 season, scoring 11 goals.

Other Rangers players who served with distinction during the Great War included Fred Gray, 2nd Lieutenant, 9th Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) who was awarded the Military Cross, Finlay Speedie and James Spiers were awarded the Military Medal and Jock Buchanan the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Sadly, with war comes death and despair, and World War One saw four men who had played for Rangers make the ultimate sacrifice for King and Country.

David B. Murray - Private, 8th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, 15th Scottish Division

Sadly, any trace of David Murray seems to have been buried with him. He was killed in action on 6th October 1915, and is buried at Lapugny Military Cemetery in France.

James Hamilton Spiers - 2nd Lieutenant, 7th Battalion Cameron Highlanders, 15th Scots. Division

A striker who played for Rangers between 1905 and 1908, he played 62 games scoring 29 goals. He went on to play for Clyde, Bradford and Leeds before retiring from the game in 1915. He enlisted to his regiment upon 'retiring' from football despite him not being required to do so, his two sons making him exempt from the nationwide conscription. Winning the Military Medal for his deeds at the second Battle of the Arras, he was promoted to Sergeant and shipped into the Battle of Passchendeale which was well underway. Before going over the top, he wrote a letter to his wife informing her that his men would be 'going over the parapet tomorrow.' On 20th August 1917, James Spiers was killed in action a few hours after writing that letter and is buried at Dochy Farm New British Cemetery, Zonnebeke, 7 miles north east of Ypres, Belgium.

John Fleming - Corporal, Cameron Highlanders

Fleming played for 4 games for Rangers in the 1915/16 Season, scoring 1 goal v Queens Park at Hampden in a 6-0 victory. He died of injuries received during the Battle of Langemarck, at Richmond Camp in Yorkshire, and is buried at Inveresk Parish Church, Midlothian.

Alex Barrie - Corporal Highland Light Infantry

Alex Barrie played 14 times for Rangers during the 1907/08 Season, scoring 1 goal v Hearts in a 2-1 victory at Ibrox. He was killed in action on 1st October 1918 and is buried at Flesquieres Hill British Cemetery North, France.

The loss of life of those with Ibrox links extended beyond the playing staff, for the sons of directors William Craig and William R Danskin were also killed in action, whilst the son of director Walter Crichton was wounded. In addition, Rangers players Finlay Speedie, Tommy Muirhead, John Clarke, Jimmy Low, Jimmy Bovill, Willie Kivlichan, John McCulloch and James Galt were wounded in action.

A Royal Visit

During the years of the Great War, a memorable event in the annals of the Rangers history took place. His Majesty King George V visited Ibrox Park for the purpose of holding an Investiture on the field. Decorations and Medals were presented to men and to the next-of-kin of soldiers who had fallen in the fight. At the conclusion of the Investiture, Sir John Ure Primrose and William Wilton had the honor of being presented to the King by Lord Provost Dunlop. The proceedings bore the official hallmark, and the Rangers Cub and Ibrox Park had the pleasant distinction of having their names recorded in the Court Circular.

Video of King George V Investiture at Ibrox

The letter sent by Lord Provost Dunlop to William Wilton, 1917

The above is not an exhaustive list of all those Rangers who have served their country during both World Wars, and indeed at any other Battles around the World. I have omitted the great Harold Davis, whose heroics during and after the Korean War are documented in his magnificent book, Tougher Than Bullets, and deserves an article of its own! Bobby Brown's War Service is covered in detail in this article I wrote earlier this year.

'They gave their today for our Tomorrow, Lest We Forget'


Gary Havlin is a lifelong Rangers fan and ST holder at Ibrox, started @RangersFACTS on Twitter after being gifted a Rangers Trivia Book. Blog can be found at