D-DAY: Captain Leslie Skinner, a chaplain in the British Army, was about to disembark from the landing craft on to the Normandy beaches with the men he ministered to and served with. It must have been hell. In his diary, he notes that the seas were rough and, from the moment he set foot in the water, he was under intense machine-gun fire. The man next to him had a leg blown off; Skinner was hurled into the air by the blast. He gathered himself, made it on to the beach, and three hours later managed to snatch some rest, sheltered by a half-track vehicle.
Skinner was one of the very earliest chaplains ashore on D-Day, and was with his unit — the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry — as they battled inland. It was gruesome work, as his diary reveals: “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.”
Skinner spent his time conducting funerals, digging graves, and praying with the dying and wounded. At one point, he went alone into a “cooked” tank full of burned human remains so that the men didn’t have to do it. He wanted to protect them from some of the horror.
He was one of many service chaplains who were in battle alongside the men, although they carried no weapons. In the Second World War alone, 96 British army chaplains were killed, and another 38 chaplains from the Commonwealth. As we remember the joy of VE Day, it is appropriate to pay tribute to the work of the chaplain.
THE practice of sending religious leaders to accompany the army dates from at least biblical times: the Israelites took their priests into battle with them. The Army Chaplaincy department was formed in 1796, and chaplains have been in the thick of it ever since. Today, there are more than 150 chaplains (both Jewish and Christian) serving with the British Army. They wear uniform, and are known universally as Padre.
It is a tough vocation, that calls for much valour. No fewer than four Victoria Crosses have been awarded to army chaplains. Take Captain Theodore Hardy, who served in the First World War. When he tried to enlist in the army, he was turned down on age grounds (he was in his fifties); so he signed up as a chaplain. He was subsequently awarded the Military Cross, Distinguished Service Order, and Victoria Cross. The VC citation is intensely moving. After an attack had left some soldiers terribly wounded, and just a few feet away from a German pillbox, Hardy crawled out to be with the men, and stayed all night, despite being under fire.
On another occasion, he helped to rescue wounded men trapped in the mud in no man’s land. Realising that one man had been left behind, he returned to be with him, stayed for hours, and eventually brought him back to safety. Like our Lord, he went to recover the one sheep who was lost. The citation describes him as a quiet man, unobtrusive yet full of devotion to the men.
This kind of heroism is standard practice for chaplains, and helps to explain why they are held in the deepest respect by all three branches of the armed forces.
I have a particular reason to be thankful for army chaplains, having been entrusted with an odd family secret. At a family party, I got talking to my uncle, who was very old and infirm (he died within the year). Amid the hubbub of the conversation, he told me how glad he was that I was a priest.
My uncle had been a soldier in Korea, and had seen battle on many occasions. I always admired the kind of calm reserve that he had. I used to say that, if I was in battle, I would want him in the trench with me. On this occasion, he held my hand — which was unusual — and told me this story. “Steven,” he said, “when I was in Korea, I was out on patrol one day when one of the enemy jumped out in front of me. He was pointing his gun at me, and was just a few feet away. I shot him in the head, and killed him right there.”
He explained that, when he got back to base, he was overwhelmed with emotion. He was shaking, and didn’t know what to do with himself. I think he was shocked at how he felt, and worried about what to do next. No one knows how they will react to the raw violence of pulling the trigger.
“I talked to the padre, and he calmed me down and helped me. I think I might have gone mad if I hadn’t spoken to him; and he prayed for me.”
My uncle and I had a quiet moment, reflecting on the compassion of the padre, and the fact that padres were — and are — men (and women) of the world. Nothing shocks them. They see a lot, which helps them to have empathy with the fighting soldier, and is what seems to make them so trusted. They don’t judge, and they understand what happens when people feel in peril for their lives.
“You need to be like that padre, Steve,” my uncle said. “Padres are the only vicars you can swear in front of and they don’t mind. Be that kind of padre.”
I didn’t answer him then, but if I had, I would have said, “I will try. I will try.”
The Revd Steve Morris is the Vicar of St Cuthbert’s, North Wembley, in the diocese of London.
Listen to an interview with the Revd Steve Morris on the Church Times Podcast.