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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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