A chaplain’s D-Day mission

06 June 2014

Seventy years ago, Leslie Skinner was the first army chaplain to set foot on a Normandy beach on D-Day. He left a candid diary. Paul Wilkinson tells his story

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9 September 1944, Captain Skinner and a Private wrap the body of a dead soldier in sackcloth in Normandy. The cigarettes were supplied as an antidote to the smell of decomposition

9 September 1944, Captain Skinner and a Private wrap the body of a dead soldier in sackcloth in Normandy. The cigarettes were supplied as an antidot...

IN THE early morning of 6 June 1944, the Revd Leslie Skinner was so close to the action that his involvement in the D-Day landings almost ended before it began, when a mine detonated beneath his landing craft. Two soldiers beside him were wounded, and the blast threw him against an armoured vehicle, leaving him dazed, and badly bruised.

But he managed to gather himself, and pressed on up the beach, to begin a mission among the tank crews of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry which continued through northern France, and into Germany for the final victory a year later.

A Methodist minister, who was given the rank of Captain, he meticulously documented his experiences in a personal diary that exposes in a brief, often matter-of-fact way the gruesome tragedy of warfare.

This is how he recalls that first day, as his unit stormed ashore on Sword Beach: "Up 0500 hours; cold, wet, sea rough. This is it. Running for beach by 0700. Under fire by 0710. Beached 0725. Man either side of me wounded. One lost leg. I was blown backwards on to Bren carrier, but OK. Made it to beach, though I had hell of pain in left side.

"Bed on ground about 0130. Dead beat. Fell asleep beside half-track."

The diary reveals how he made it his duty to record precisely the burial site, and personal details, of each of the 153 men of the regiment who were killed in action during his time as their padre. It was a task he completed in all but six instances - and those only because he was away from the front line, recovering from wounds. Even then, his CO had to give him a direct order not to go forward, because it was too dangerous.

EXTRACTS from his observations have now been made into "The Padre's Trail", part of the "Normandy Experience" exhibition that marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, Cambridgeshire, where his original wartime notebook is preserved.

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They show how he set himself the duty of assisting medical staff caring for the wounded. His entry for 8 June, two days into the invasion, reads: "Late evening Lt Verner brought in, sniper wound to left chest - serious. Doctor dressed wound and I helped evacuate Verner to Advanced Dressing Station riding on rear door and bumper all way, holding bottle giving blood drip - nearly five miles of rough going."

The next day he wrote: "Spent day touring all medical units back to beach area in search of regimental casualties." The entry goes on to report the news that the noted war poet Captain Keith Douglas had been killed by enemy mortar fire near Bayeux. "Forward on foot and found bodies of Keith Douglas and Lt Pepler. Buried separately near to where each lay. Occasional rifle fire while digging graves."
 

BORN in 1911, the son of a York hairdresser, Leslie Skinner had his first job on leaving school in his father's business. He was a keen sportsman, swimming for York and playing football, rugby, and cricket.

He received his calling to ministry early, and became a local preacher before being commissioned as a Methodist minister. He was 25 when he was given his first appointment, in northern India, but it was cut short by the onset of deafness, which was to afflict him for the rest of his life.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, he joined the Royal Army Chaplains' Department, serving in Persia, Iraq, and Egypt before an artillery bombardment in the Western Desert, in 1942, made his deafness worse, and he was sent home as unfit for overseas service.

He was passed fit again in March 1944 - just three months before D-Day - and posted as senior chaplain to the 8th (Independent) Armoured Brigade. There he was attached to the Sherwood Rangers - the only Territorial Army unit in a force given the difficult and dangerous responsibility of punching a hole through the concrete and steel defences of Hitler's Atlantic Wall along the French coast.
 

CAPTAIN SKINNER's D-Day diary recounts the harrowing job of recovering the remains of dead soldiers from destroyed tanks. It tells how he refused to let other tank crews help, because he did not want them to see the way in which their comrades had died, in burned or smashed Sherman tanks - known among German troops by the macabre name "Tommy Cookers", because of their tendency to catch fire when hit.

His entry for 4 August reads: "On foot located brewed up tanks. Only ash and burnt metal in Birkett's tank. Searched ash and found remains pelvic bones.

"At other tanks three bodies still inside. . . Unable to remove bodies after long struggle - nasty business - sick."

On 17 August he wrote: "Place absolute shambles. Infantry dead and some Germans lying around. Horrible mess. Fearful job picking up bits and pieces and re-assembling for identification and putting in blankets for burial.

"No infantry to help. Squadron Leader offered to lend me some men to help. Refused. Less men who live and fight in tanks have to do with this side of things the better. My job. This was more than normally sick making. Really ill - vomiting."

His work earned him the respect of the men he served with, and, besides being mentioned in dispatches by his CO, he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with palm, and the Belgian Chevalier of the Order of Leopold II with palm.

On 25 June he reported the realities of the front line: "In burst of machine gun fire I dived into slit trench on top of young soldier . . . it was his first show and he was all alone. I assured him that the machine gun fire was way up in the air. . . he picked up a ration box lid and held it above ground. Burst [of fire] cut it in two. It shook me. When firing stopped I moved out. He, poor devil, had to stay.

"About 11:30. . . Shrapnel got me across forehead and knocked me out. Lots of blood but soon conscious."

HE HAD married Etta Atkinson, his fiancée of five years, in 1941, and she encouraged him with regular letters and parcels. On 11 October he recalled: "Wrote Etta. During morning parcel [arrived] from Etta with coffee. Rain stopped and sun shining.

"All afternoon doing follow-up Casualty Letters. Feeling tired after sad job. Another letter came late from Etta. Wrote replies and thanks for parcel."

He also recorded how the enemy showed their respect for the dead and wounded as he went about his gruesome task. On 2 September, he wrote: "Left driver and truck, entered village via ditch. . . Made way to village parsonage. Bodies of Sgt Cribben and Trooper Sharp beautifully laid out in white shrouds having been washed. I stitched the bodies up. Curé in robes led funeral cortège down street.

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"The Germans had watched the funeral procession and seen the service from their tank without interference."

One of his comrades, Ken Markland, recalled Captain Skinner driving him and another injured soldier in a specially converted jeep past German troops. "He commented to us quite calmly as we lay on our stretchers that he felt fairly confident they would respect the red cross flag he was flying."

There were also moments of humour. One diary entry recalls how firing suddenly broke out from both ends of a village street. "I dived into a shop for cover," he wrote. "It was a barber's shop; so I had a haircut while waiting for things to simmer down. Only later did it strike me as somewhat unusual to have one's hair cut while a bit of a battle went on outside."

AFTER the war, his ministry took him to Higher Broughton, Whitefield, and Altrincham in the north-west; Stockwell, in south London; Chessington, Surrey; and Corby, Northants. His final appointment was as superintendent minister on the Walton and Weybridge circuit in Surrey.

Retirement in 1977 freed him to publish his diary privately under the title The Man Who Worked on Sundays. He continued as a minister, serving as a supernumary in Epsom for a further 20 years.

Captain Skinner's daughter, Annette Conway, who was born in 1942, recalled how her father never talked about his wartime experiences. "The men didn't talk about it, and everyone was in the same boat.


"As a child, I had difficulty sorting out the man who was fighting the Germans from the man who came home to me as my father. My father's wartime story came out when he published his diary."

She told how her parents returned to France in the late 1940s to help the War Graves Commission identify some graves. "The War Graves Commission man said, 'Well, you said there were apple trees: there aren't any apple trees,' and my father said: 'There were when I buried them.'"

Captain Skinner remained in the Territorial Army after the war, rising to deputy assistant chaplain general for the London district in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, the highest a TA chaplain could hold in peacetime. He died, aged 89, in October 2001.

His obituary in The Guardian was written by one of the tank commanders he accompanied ashore on D-Day, Captain John Semkin, who described his diary as "one of the most vivid and illuminating of all war memoirs".

He recalled that Captain Skinner had commanded the "respect and affection" of everyone in the regiment. "By popular demand, he wore, on his chaplain's uniform, the regimental shoulder flashes.

"He was supposed to be travelling with the medical officer, but he had obtained - unofficially - a lightweight motorcycle to pursue his self-appointed mission of ensuring, at whatever risk to himself, that no family should suffer the uncertainty of having a relative reported missing, if he could possibly be traced; and, if dead, given a Christian burial.

"His compassion was boundless, practical, and unsentimental. I remember him as a tower of strength, and a living testimony to the Christian faith."

For more information on the Imperial War Museum's exhibitions and events marking the anniversary of D-Day, visit www.iwm.org.uk.

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