John (Jackie) Roberts was born in Swansea on 30th May 1918. A talented footballer he represented Wales at schoolboy level. Roberts also played football for Cumbwie Juniors before being signed by Charles Foweraker, the manager of Bolton Wanderers.
A right-back, Roberts made his debut in 1937. At this time the team included players such as Harry Goslin, Don Howe, Ray Westwood and George Eastham. Bolton finished in seventh place in the First Division that season. In the 1938-39 season they dropped to eighth.
On 15th March, 1939, Adolf Hitler ordered the German Army to invade Czechoslovakia. It seemed that war was inevitable. Roberts, Harry Goslin, Don Howe and twelve other members of the Bolton Wanderers squad decided to join the Territorial Army.
The government imposed a fifty mile travelling limit and the Football League divided all the clubs into seven regional areas where games could take place. Bolton Wanderers was put in the North-East League.
Of the 35 players on the staff of Bolton Wanderers, 32 joined the armed services and the other three went into the coal mines and munitions. This included Harry Hubbick, who resumed his career down the pits and Jack Atkinson and George Hunt served in the local police force. A total of 17 players, including Jackie Roberts, Harry Goslin, Danny Winter, Billy Ithell, Albert Geldard, Tommy Sinclair, Don Howe, Ernie Forrest, Ray Westwood, Jack Hurst and Stan Hanson, joined the 53rd (Bolton) Field Regiment.
On 12th May, 1940, Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of France. The 53rd (Bolton) Field Regiment was sent to help the French but came under attack from the advancing Panzer divisions. Roberts, Ray Westwood, Harry Goslin, Don Howe, Ernie Forrest, Jack Hurst and Stan Hanson, were lucky to make it back to the French port of Dunkirk where they were rescued by British ships.
The 53rd (Bolton) Field Regiment spent the rest of 1940 and the whole of 1941 at various army camps around Britain. According to the authors of Wartime Wanderers: They spent their time "building coastal defence constructions, manning anti-aircraft batteries and patrolling potential enemy landing sites all along the East Anglia coastline, variously stationed at Beccles, Nancton and Holt." This enabled them to play the occasional game for Bolton Wanderers in the North-East League. The team that year included Jackie Roberts, Harry Hubbick, Jack Atkinson, George Hunt, Danny Winter, Billy Ithell, Walter Sidebottom, Albert Geldard, Tommy Sinclair, Don Howe, Ray Westwood, Ernie Forrest, Jack Hurst and Stan Hanson.
On 22nd March 1941, George Hunt, the club's leading scorer for the last two seasons, was moved to right-half and replaced at centre-forward by the 15 year-old Nat Lofthouse. Bolton won the game 5-1 with Lofthouse scoring two of the goals. Lofthouse immediately formed a good relationship with his inside-forward, Walter Sidebottom. In the first six games together they scored 10 goals between them.
Bolton Wanderers beat Blackburn Rovers 2-0 at Burnden Parkon 26th April 1941. Lofthouse and Sidebottom scored the goals. It was to be Sidebottom's last game for the team as he now fell into the latest age qualification group to be conscripted into the armed forces. Sidebottom was sent to join the Royal Navy.
On 15th July 1942, the 53rd (Bolton) Field Regiment was told to mobilise for overseas service. The following month they arrived in Egypt and immediately became involved in defending Alam el Halfa. On 30th August, 1942, General Erwin Rommel attacked Alam el Halfa but was repulsed by the Eighth Army. General Bernard Montgomery responded to this attack by ordering his troops to reinforce the defensive line from the coast to the impassable Qattara Depression. Montgomery was now able to make sure that Rommel and the German Army was unable to make any further advances into Egypt.
On 22nd October 1942, the 53rd (Bolton) Field Regiment took up battle positions. The following day General Bernard Montgomery launched Operation Lightfoot with the largest artillery bombardment since the First World War. The attack came at the worst time for the Deutsches Afrika Korps as Erwin Rommel was on sick leave in Austria. His replacement, General George Stumme, died of a heart-attack the day after the 900 gun bombardment of the German lines. Stume was replaced by General Ritter von Thoma and Adolf Hitler phoned Rommel to order him to return to Egypt immediately.
The Germans defended their positions well and after two days the Eighth Army had made little progress and Bernard Montgomery ordered an end to the attack. When Erwin Rommel returned he launched a counterattack at Kidney Depression (27th October). Montgomery now returned to the offensive and the 9th Australian Division created a salient in the enemy positions.
Winston Churchill was disappointed by the Eighth Army's lack of success and accused Montgomery of fighting a "half-hearted" battle. Montgomery ignored these criticisms and instead made plans for a new offensive, Operation Supercharge.
On 1st November 1942, Montgomery launched an attack on the Deutsches Afrika Korps at Kidney Ridge. After initially resisting the attack, Rommel decided he no longer had the resources to hold his line and on the 3rd November he ordered his troops to withdraw. However, Adolf Hitler overruled his commander and the Germans were forced to stand and fight.
The next day Montgomery ordered his men forward. Lieutenant Harry Goslin and the 53rd (Bolton) Field Regiment joined the pursuit. The Eighth Army broke through the German lines and Erwin Rommel, in danger of being surrounded, was forced to retreat. Those soldiers on foot, including large numbers of Italian soldiers, were unable to move fast enough and were taken prisoner.
The British Army recaptured Tobruk on 12th November, 1942. During the El Alamein campaign half of Rommel's 100,000 man army was killed, wounded or taken prisoner. He also lost over 450 tanks and 1,000 guns. The British and Commonwealth forces suffered 13,500 casualties and 500 of their tanks were damaged. However, of these, 350 were repaired and were able to take part in future battles.
After spending time in Baghdad, the 53rd (Bolton) Field Regimentmoved to Kirkurk on 8th January 1943. They were eventually relocated to Kifri which was to become their main base for the next five months.
The 53rd (Bolton) Field Regiment joined General Bernard Montgomery and the 8th Army in the invasion of Italy. On 24th September, 1943, Lieutenant Harry Goslin and his men landed at Taranto. Three days later the men had reached Foggia without too much opposition. However, when the men were ordered to cross the River Sangro the regiment took part in some of the most difficult fighting of the Second World War.
At the end of November Don Howe was wounded and evacuated to a dressing station. After another enemy air attack Ray Westwood and Stan Hanson came close to being killed. The shelling continued and on 14th December, 1943, Harry Goslin was hit in the back by shrapnel. He died from his wounds a few days later. The Bolton Evening News reported: "Harry Goslin was one of the finest types professional football breeds. Not only in the personal sense, but for the club's sake, and the game's sake. I regret his life has had to be sacrificed in the cause of war."
What was left of the 53rd (Bolton) Field Regimentmoved to Monte Cairo, five miles north-west of Monte Cassino, on the main road from Naples to Rome. The Allied Commander-in-Chief, General Harold Alexander, told his men: "Throughout the past winter you have fought hard and valiantly... tomorrow we can see victory ahead. We are going to destroy the German armies inItaly." On 11th May 1944 the great British artillery programme bagan. Ernie Forrest and Jack Hurst, like many of the men serving in the artillery, began to suffer hearing loss because of the noise of this bombardment.
Jackie Roberts was caught in the blast of an enemy shell and had taken heavy shrapnel in the face, detaching the retina, and was immediately invalidated out of Italy and returned to Bolton. However, most of the Bolton players in the 53rd Field Regimentcontinued in the advance on Rome.
Jackie Roberts died in 2001.