Martin Reagan: women’s football boss was D-Day hero

Martin Reagan, manager of the England women’s football team between October 1979 and December 1990, is a World War Two hero.  Tyneside-born Reagan turned 90 last month and has led a life straight from the pages of Boy’s Own. While today’s feckless teens spend their time sniffing “meow meow” or filming “happy slappings” on their mobile telephones, Reagan showed the stuff to be made a Tank Commander at age 19. The date 20 October 1944 will be forever etched in his soul:  at a farm outside Ijzendijke, The Netherlands, a massive explosion killed more than 40 British and Canadian men.



Twenty-years-old and newly qualified as a Tank Commander in the Royal Engineers, future England manager Martin Reagan took part in the D-Day landings in Normandy.


When the Allies battled their way up into Holland, Lance Sergeant Reagan was pulled aside and given a deadly mission.


His Churchill tank would be modified to shoot a rocket-propelled hose across a field, fill the hose with nitroglycerine and then blow it up.


Code-named “Conger” (after the eel), the modified tank’s exploding hose would blast a pathway across the field, clearing any lurking landmines from the Allied advance.


It sounds like an accident waiting to happen.


And so it proved: the unstable nitroglycerine never made it that far – its container lorry exploding in the tinderbox farmhouse where it was being stored.


41 British and Canadian soldiers died at the scene. Chillingly, many were simply pronounced “missing”.


Missing, presumed vaporised.


Reagan’s tank should have been parked next to the lorry.


Miraculously, he cheated death with a series of lucky breaks which kept him away from the farmhouse fireball.


First he was kept behind by having to fix his tank’s UV lights, after removing them for a stealth mission back in Calais.


Then he took a wrong turn and trundled into the town – relief was palpable when his tank met Canadians not Germans.


Then the road to the farm collapsed where it went over a dyke and there was a backlog of other vehicles being hauled across.


At about 1:00PM Reagan was sat on his jerrycan, scoffing lunch, when the explosion ripped through the farmhouse a few hundred yards away.


Reagan’s driver pal “Ginger” Hall cried out in agony, his leg shredded by white-hot shrapnel.


After instinctively hitting the deck, Reagan opened his eyes to a great smoking hole in the jerrycan where he’d been sat.


After giving Ginger the once over, lionheart Reagan sprinted TOWARDS the farmhouse – still loaded with other combustibles.


Amidst chaotic scenes survivors were pulled from the burning wreckage.


Reagan’s hare-brained mission was scrapped and the barmy practice of using nitroglycerine consigned to the history books.


A hastily held Court of Enquiry the following day had hushed up the affair, and Reagan never got the official answers he wanted.


In the following months his unit doggedly battled their way across the Rhine and swept into Germany.


More on Reagan’s wartime exploits here:



Strong and fit from his army training, Reagan found fame in the Football League, turning out as a nippy winger for clubs including Hull, Middlesbrough, Portsmouth and Norwich. He later threw himself into the role as England women’s boss, revamping the entire structure and telling everyone exactly what modest work needed to be done to stop England falling behind. Sadly no one with the clout to make it happen lifted a finger. He was cack-handedly sacked by a dysfunctional Women’s Football Association (WFA) in December 1990. Reagan never forgot the events of 1944 and returned to the scene exactly 50 years later with his three proud sons. In 1997 the Dutch town unveiled a memorial to his comrades who never made it back.

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