Track Stats - Bob Roach

The disrupted sprinting career of Battle of Britain ace Bob Roach
His fastest 100 yards in 1938, his fastest 100 metres 11 years later!

By A. Ballard Peck, published in the June 2011 edition of “Track Stats”.

The Great Britain team which made the North Sea crossing to Norway for the 1946 European Championships was a mixed bunch. Some were veterans who had already established themselves in the pre-war years and were now enjoying a new lease of athletics life, and most prominent among these was Sydney Wooderson, who was to win the 5000 metres, having been 1500 metres champion in 1938. Others were of the youthful post-war generation, including Alan Paterson, who would be the bronze-medallist in the high jump and the champion four years later. A third group was made up of a few who had showed promise before the war and were belatedly picking up the pieces of their athletic life, at least for a year or so, and among these were the four sprinters.

The best of them was Jack Archer, of Notts AC and the RAF, who had placed 2nd in the 1939 AAA junior 100 yards and on his return to competition seven years later would win the European 100 metres as a model of consistency with identical 10.6 clockings for his heat, semi-final and final. The others were Tommy Jover (Herne Hill Harriers), Bert Liffen (South London Harriers) and Bob Roach (Polytechnic Harriers), and of these Roach had the best credentials, having won the AAA junior 100 yards back in 1938. It must be said that his performances at the Oslo European Championships were of no great distinction – last in his 200 metres heat and a member of the team which was an unimposing 5th in the 4 x 100 metres – but he has a curious claim to recognition, and what may be a unique one, in that his fastest 100 yards of 10.1 was set in winning that AAA junior title and his fastest 100 metres of 10.7 came 11 years later in 1949!

Robert James Bain Roach had been born in Shanghai on 25 October 1919. His family had left Scotland for China many years earlier and his father was director of the Shanghai Power Company and then joined the Indian army when the Japanese invaded China in 1937. Robert Roach’s mother and sister went to live in Australia while he was sent to school in England, and his father died in an air crash at the end of war.

Young Roach was enrolled at Palmer’s School, at Grays, in Essex, in 1936 and first came to notice as a sprinter when he beat the prodigiously talented John Lockwood in an invitation junior 100 yards held in conjunction with the second day of the Inter-Counties’ Championships at the White City on 6 June 1938. Lockwood had won the AAA junior 220 the previous year by a margin of six yards, and Roach’s achievement was sufficiently impressive to be remarked upon by the athletics correspondent of “The Times”. At the AAA junior championships on 9 July, again at the White City, Roach won by two yards in 10.1 from Cyril Holland, of Short’s AC, who took the 220 and had also been 2nd in the previous year’s 100 as a member of the City of Rochester club. “The Times” said that Roach had “proved himself a remarkably strong sprinter”.

Earlier that year, on 8-9 April, Lockwood and Roach had met at the Public Schools’ Challenge Cup meeting at the White City organised by London Athletic Club. This had been an annual affair since 1899, and the 1938 edition aroused a flurry of correspondence over several weeks in “The Times” in which the writers – mostly schoolmasters or headmasters – seemed equally divided between those who strongly supported the idea of encouraging athletics as a sport for boys and those who thought it was far too competitive. One of the contributors to the debate was the famed coach, Captain F.A.M. Webster, in his guise as Head of the School of Athletics, Games and Physical Education at Loughborough College and director of studies at the AAA Summer School there.

These courses for sports teachers had begun at Loughborough only the previous year and Webster deplored those critics who over the years had been decrying the annual LAC-backed meeting. He wrote: “Our success or failure in athletics depends largely upon the attitude adopted by our public schools since real athletic technique can be acquired only when a boy is still in the plastic stage of adolescence”. There was a record entry of 937 athletes for that year’s meeting, including 71 for the discus and 76 for the javelin, which seemed to bear out Webster’s belief that athletics in schools was at a stage of major development in Britain.

The 100 yards required 18 heats, and then from a second round merely the six winners went forward to the final. This was won by Lockwood in 10.4, which was only one-tenth outside the meeting record set by Cyril Holmes in 1933 and equalled by Alan Pennington in 1935, with N.A. Davis 2nd at a yard and Roach 3rd a further half-yard down. Roach was also a fine footballer, scoring a hat-trick for a Public Schools’ XI in a match against the Stock Exchange, and was a champion swimmer who had to make the choice between that sport and athletics. He was not to be the first sporting international which his school had produced because Guy Holmes was an outstanding amateur footballer with the Ilford club who was a member of the Great Britain team at the 1936 Olympics. Roach would presumably not have known Holmes then because the latter had been born in 1905 and would have left the school in 1923 or earlier.

Roach gets his chance of European Championships selection

Cyril Holmes (no relation to Guy Holmes) went on to become the best of Britain’s sprinters in the immediate pre-war years, but he retired after the brief 1945 season to concentrate on rugby football, and this partly opened the way for Roach to gain his international place the next year. The other salient reason was that the Trinidad-born Emmanuel McDonald Bailey, who was serving in the RAF in Britain and was much the best sprinter in Europe, was ludicrously declared ineligible for the European Championships even though he was an established British international. At the AAA Championships McDonald Bailey had beaten Archer by two yards at both 100 and 220 yards, with Liffen 3rd in each.

Also in the 100 yards final were Roach, who won his heat in 10.2, and Tommy Jover, and so both merited their places in the relay team, but Roach’s selection at 200 metres remains a mystery. He had shown no form of any note at the event and Liffen and Paul Vallé, of Enfield AC, were far better qualified. For the medley relay in a match against France at the White City before the team departed for Oslo, the 220 stages were run by Liffen and Vallé, and maybe it was simply a matter of economics regarding the European Championships selections that Roach, who was going to Oslo anyway for the relay, was also put in the 200 to make up the numbers. In the relay the British quartet finished 0.9sec behind the winners, Sweden.

In a subsequent meeting in Bergen on 27-28 August, Roach was very modestly 3rd at 100 metres in 11.4 behind Liffen, 11.1, and Jover, 11.3, and was 4th at 200 metres in 22.9, half-a-second down on a Dutchman, Gabe Scholten, who had also been eliminated in the heats in Oslo. The next year Roach had a minor victory in the Wiltshire 100 yards at Salisbury in 10.2, and in 1948 as a Flight-Lieutenant he won the RAF titles in 10.4 and 22.7, which rather paled into insignificance in comparison with McDonald Bailey’s meeting records of 9.7 and 21.8 set in the immediately preceding years. Oddly, Roach’s performances as a junior and then after the war are not mentioned at all in the Polytechnic Harriers’ club magazines of those years.

At the RAF Championships of 1949 Roach lost his 100 yards title to an otherwise unknown Aircraftsman Morgan, who ran 10.1, and was 3rd at 220 yards to Sergeant Les Laing (22.5). Nothing of greater note was registered for Roach, and so his 10.7 for 100 metres set in a heat of the Inter-Allies’ Championships in Bordeaux on 3 September came very much as a bolt from the blue – well, he was in the RAF. The final of that event was won in 10.5 by Laing, Roach’s air force team-mate, who was an established athlete of the finest class, having reached the 1948 Olympic 200 metres final for Jamaica, and who would eventually be a 4 x 400 metres relay gold-medallist at the Games of 1952. It may be that Roach ran another meritorious time behind Laing in the final, but the full results of the meeting are not known.

Did Robert Roach have his day of days in Bordeaux ? It is not at all beyond the bounds of probability because it was an oft repeated experience for British sprinters to find unexpected extra yards of speed on a rare overseas venture in that era when the conditions under which they ran on home ground were so often to their great disadvantage.

Roach was in the thick of things as a young Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain in 1940, which was only two years after he had left school. Promoted from Acting Pilot Officer to Pilot Officer in December 1939 he shared in the shooting-down of a German aircraft off Dunkirk on 15 August 1940, claimed another “kill” on 7 September, and then four days later was forced to bale out over Billericay, in Essex, after being hit by enemy fire. He attained the rank of Squadron-Leader during his RAF service and joined the Old Palmerians’ Association in 1956 when he was living at Layer Gardens, Acton, West London. After his retirement in 1965 he took up a post as secretary to Newquay Golf Club, in Cornwall, but he continued to take a great interest in athletics, coaching youngsters at Newquay Sports Centre and transporting them to meetings throughout the county, until his golfing duties took precedence. He lived in the nearby village of St Columb Minor – birthplace of Sir William Golding, author of “Lord of the Flies” – and he died in Newquay on 11 September 1994.

My thanks for their help go to Mrs Shirley Roach; to Ruth Hunwick, of the Old Palmerians’ Association; and to John James, historian for the village of St Columb Minor.