Bruce Andrew is one of the true greats of Australian football. He played in two Collingwood Premierships as a member of our fabled Machine teams of the late 1920s, before embarking upon a lifetime of work promoting the wider game of football through decades of service with the Australian National Football Council, as well as his work on TV, radio and in the press. It can safely be said that nobody has done more to promote Australian football than Bruce.

But he also has a remarkable – and much less well-known – story of service for his country in the Second World War.

Although he’d retired from senior football in 1934, Bruce was still only 31 when the War broke out, and 32 when he enlisted in 1940. He wanted to join the RAAF as part of the air crew, but was considered four months too old for that role. He was told that the age limits might soon be expanded, and to take an administrative role in the interim. He did so but, as you might expect from a footballer, soon grew tired of waiting. In a letter he sent to HQ begging for a transfer to the AIF, Bruce wrote:

“Since the beginning of the War, I have been anxious to get into the fighting zone. Several personal friends have been killed or wounded and … my desire to enter the fighting zone is becoming an obsession with me.”

For reasons that aren’t clear, the RAAF refused his request. But they did agree to send him closer to the action, and relocated him to their London HQ. On the ship over, and in his training camps before leaving Australia, he was regularly seen wearing one of his old Collingwood jumpers.

Once in London, Bruce threw himself into his new role on two fronts. He was appointed Photographer and Liaison Officer attached to 453 Squadron, RAAF, which was a Spitfire squadron that landed in Normandy shortly after D-Day. He became a virtual war correspondent, filing stories for Australian newspapers but also commanding other journalists who wanted to get closer to the action – sometimes into dangerous territory.

The squadron initially flew protection patrols off the east of Scotland, then moved to London, flying fighter sweeps over occupied Europe and providing bomber escort. It later flew a mix of bomber-escort missions, fighter-bomber sweeps and defensive patrols designed to keep German reconnaissance aircraft away from the invasion fleets.  But Bruce somehow still found time to indulge his love of sport, and his seemingly innate ability to know how to promote it.

Bruce was involved in a series of sporting events that have gone into Australian military folklore. He played alongside the legendary Keith Miller in the RAAF cricket team (Bruce himself was a fearsome fast bowler who’d played District cricket for Collingwood), including one famous game against Britain’s RAF at Lord’s.

In 1943, Andrew accidentally became known as "the rugby sensation of the year" when he filled in for a RAAF rugby team that was one short, and starred – despite never having played the game before. He was an automatic selection in services rugby from then on. And, almost inevitably, there was football. He helped organise several games of Australian football, and captained one of the RAAF teams in the most famous of those matches, played at Hyde Park in London.

But as the War dragged on there was less time for games. By June of 1944 the squadron had moved into the Normandy beachhead. Bruce arrived there less than a week after the famous invasion known as D Day, and as the squadron spent the next six months directly supporting the allied armies, so did Bruce’s role take him to increasingly dangerous places. 

He was on the ground in the strategically important town of Caen soon after its liberation, and was among the first allied officers into Paris after its liberation in August 1944. The Mayor of Paris was so overjoyed that he presented Bruce with the French tricolour that had flown above City Hall.

But there was no way for Bruce and his colleagues to file their stories, so they had to commandeer a car to take them to the coast (he was lucky to survive a nasty car accident along the way), from where he requisitioned a light plane to fly back to England and file their stories. Their journalistic duties completed, Bruce and his team returned to Europe and this time found themselves caught up in fierce fighting near the Dutch town of Arnhem (the Battle for which has since become famous as one of the last German victories of the War).

“We managed to get within two miles of Arnhem,” Bruce wrote in his diaries, “the furthest point reached by the British patrols sent to the relief of our gallant airborne forces, who were being cut to ribbons by the numerically superior German forces. Those who could find a way out were returning in ones and twos, battered and weary. Our line was too narrow, our reinforcements too few and the enemy too strong.

“Their magnificent heroism will remain one of the epics of the western battles. It was a daring gamble which did not succeed as planned but historians will prove that Arnhem was worth the risk despite our losses.

“The next day we were strafed and bombed by German jet aircraft using canisters of anti-personnel bombs with a tremendous lethal range.”

Bruce and a colleague were standing outside their mess tent one day around this time when they saw one of their Spitfires shot down in a dogfight and crashed in an adjoining field. They went to investigate, but were forced to shelter there when hit by further air attacks. When they returned to the mess tent, it was no more. Two of the colleagues they had been talking to just hours before had been killed, and others were injured.

Despite the scares and near-misses, Bruce and his colleagues eventually made it back to London, and then home to Australia. From there he would, of course, go on to live out the rest of his extraordinary football journey – a pioneering football evangelist whose impact on the game was far-reaching and profound.

Bruce Andrew’s life was devoted to football, and family. But his service to his country shouldn’t be forgotten either.

Bruce’s daughter, Fran, will be presenting the match football to the umpires before the game on Anzac Day.