Ottawa’s Tank Corps: The Story of the 1939 Rough Riders

It’s easy to argue that the only thing that truly slowed down the 1939 Ottawa Rough Riders was bad weather.

Much like the Blitzkrieg that sparked World War Two and overwhelmed Germany’s opposition, Ottawa’s “Tank Corps” (as they came to be nicknamed), smashed their way through every CFL opponent that lined up against them, rolling to a 5-1 regular season record while scoring 146 points and conceding only 44.

In fact, the Rough Rider’s only blemish in the regular season came at the hands of Toronto Argonauts; a 13-8 defeat at home that those in the Nation’s Capital blamed on poor field conditions.

When the playoffs started, the Tanks Corps was a finely tuned machine. Ottawa atoned for their earlier loss to the Argos by pounding them 11-0 and 28-6 to sweep the two-game IRFU (Interprovincial Rugby Football Union) Final. In the Eastern Final, the Rough Riders hammered the Sarnia Imperials 23–1 to secure their berth in the 27th Grey Cup (known then as the Dominion Football Championship), which was held at Lansdowne Park on December 9th. It was the first championship game held in Ottawa since 1925, which was coincidentally won by the Ottawa Senators over the Winnipeg Tammany Tigers with a score of 24-1.

Ottawa Rough Riders, 1939, Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame, Tony Golab Collection, City of Ottawa Archives/CA013389
Ottawa Rough Riders, 1939, Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame, Tony Golab Collection, City of Ottawa Archives/CA013389

While the Rough Riders had a quick turnaround, with only a week between the Eastern Final and the Dominion Championship, Winnipeg had not played since November 18th. Making the most of their extra time off, the Blue Bombers traveled to Hamilton by train and practiced with the Hamilton Tigers. Hamilton was a gracious host, helping Winnipeg prepare for schemes and personnel packages the Rough Riders often used. The first hand scouting information gleaned from Hamilton would later prove to be invaluable to a Winnipeg team unfamiliar with the Rough Riders.

Leading up to the 1939 championship, weather was a major concern. Snow began to fall two days before the big game, causing all kinds of headaches for Eddie Friel, the groundskeeper at Lansdowne Park. Though Friel continually cleared the snow off the field, it kept coming down. As kick off approached, a desperate Friel realized he wouldn’t be able to mark the lines on the field with the white lime that was typically used. Thinking outside the box, he purchased a type of green sawdust which he planned to place atop the muddy snow in order to mark the field.

The night before the game, a final attempt to soften the field proved to be in vain, as the 400 gallons of gasoline poured onto the pitch and burned seemingly had no effect, as the field under the snow remained rock hard. On game day, the temperature dropped and while some of the snow melted, much remained, leaving the pitch a giant crater of semi-frozen mud. Unable to paint any kind of lines on the mud, either with white lime or green sawdust, Friel settled for sticking wooden pickets along the sidelines at five-yard spans so the officials could spot the ball.

By the time the game started at 2pm, it was a frigid -5 ºC and unfortunately for the 11,738 fans packed into the stadium (including 300 who drove from Winnipeg), the quality of football played was sloppy; Winnipeg punted 18 times to Ottawa’s 17 and the two teams combined for a total of 10 first downs. After three and a half quarters of players struggling to gain any kind of traction while running, fumbles and offences mired down in the muck, Winnipeg and Ottawa traded rouges off of missed field goals and were deadlocked in 7-7 tie.

With just over a minute to go in the game, Winnipeg punted but another Rough Rider fumble (this one by QB Orville Burke who pulled double duty as Ottawa’s kick returner) set up the Blue Bombers deep in Rough Rider territory (on Ottawa’s 24-yard line).

Though Winnipeg failed to get a fresh set of downs, the ensuing punt went into the end zone, but this time, it was caught cleanly by Burke. In an attempt to avoid giving Winnipeg a single point, Burke tried to punt the ball back out of the end zone, only due to the poor field conditions, he slipped, and the ball went off the side of his foot and out at Ottawa’s 8-yard line. Winnipeg took over and a few plays later, sailed a punt through the end zone to win the Grey Cup with a rouge, 8-7.

Despite losing in heartbreaking fashion at home, Ottawa’s Tank Corps rebounded the following year and after cruising to another 5-1 regular season record, went on to win four straight playoff games (two two-game series) and captured the Rough Rider’s 3rd Grey Cup victory in 1940.

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).