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VE Day 75: From our wartime pages

08 May 2020

Today our special online supplement gathers extracts from the Church Times from the outbreak of war in 1939 to VE Day, to mark 75 years since the Second World War ended in Europe. Glyn Paflin introduces the selection


The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, signals to a 50,000-strong crowd from the balcony of the Ministry of Health on VE Day, 8 May 1945

The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, signals to a 50,000-strong crowd from the balcony of the Ministry of Health on VE Day, 8 May 1945

IN AN incident not widely noticed amid the destruction and inconvenience of the Blitz, the proprietor of the Church Times sacked its editor, Sidney Dark, in February 1941, and replaced him with his deputy, the Oxford church historian the Revd Dr Leonard Prestige.

A Left-leaning Fleet Street journalist of 40 years’ experience, with prestigious contacts and prodigious energies, Dark, who had been editor since 1924, found himself no longer going to the Portugal Street office three days a week, and, bombed out of his London flat, took refuge in a Hampshire village, where he wrote the book I Sit and I Think and I Wonder (Gollancz, 1943).

In this vigorous expression of his thinking at the time, he reflected: “It is easy enough to appreciate the follies and the crimes that made the war inevitable. It is amazing that there was hardly any realisation that humanity was hurrying down a steep slope in a sea of destruction.

“The disarmament, for which all parties were responsible, the Labour Party from ignorant idealism (which I shared), and Baldwin because he feared to lose a General Election, was crazy while Germany was frantically re-arming, and nearly lost this country its liberties and independence.

“Appeasement merely put off the evil day, but I was among those who believed that the longer war was postponed the less likely was it to occur. But the failure to realise that Hitler’s deliberate and passionate intention was a war of aggression — this was always recognised in Moscow — was not the cause of the war, though it played into Hitler’s hands. If the League of Nations had functioned as Woodrow Wilson believed that it would function, it would have averted the Second World War.”

Though the United States Congress was partly to blame, Dark wrote, it was Great Britain that “made the League impotent. . . The nation that had acquired the greatest colonial Empire in history could not, it was felt, directly attempt to hinder other nations from modestly following its example unless British interests were obviously threatened. So the League did nothing and aggression was directly encouraged.”

Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Josef Stalin at the Yalta Conference, January 1945

For Dark, it was the spirit of imperialism, and the jealousy and resentment that it inspired, which had led to war. While he refused to draw a parallel between the British Empire’s record and “the horrors inflicted on conquered Europe by the Nazis”, there could never be assured peace until the imperialist spirit was destroyed ­— and even now there was little sign of its destruction in Britain: that very morning, a Conservative monthly had complained of “throwing away” India.

“Here, in the record of the mood of the moment, I am content to point the intimate connection between good Queen Victoria’s golden days and the grim days of her great-grandson.”


DARK, in his latter years on the Church Times, as the lamps were going out again all over Europe, had found the routine coverage of ecclesiastical controversy increasingly irksome: “at least seventy-five per cent of my readers were more interested in the revision of the Prayer Book than in the destruction of the slums.”

Such controversies were not set aside as the first siren sounded: proposals for union of the Anglican dioceses with non-episcopal Churches in the Church of South India received plenty of anxious attention from 1943 onwards, and, in the midst of the Far East campaign, the Bishop of Hong Kong ordained a deaconess to the priesthood to meet a wartime emergency. He had, a leading article thundered, behaved “not like a civilized leader who is himself subject to constitutional authority, but like a wild man of the woods” (28 July 1944).

But the Church Times also provided long articles on subjects such as an East End priest and his church noted for its children’s work, after the departure of the evacuees; the death of the New Guinea missionary Fr Redlich; and an eye-witness account by a Forces chaplain of the conditions found at Belsen concentration camp when it was liberated.

Also, at that time, the first page that was not filled with advertising was a “Summary” of the week’s news, secular and religious. Once the war broke out, a substantial part of this was devoted to it, and provided ample scope for Dark to comment on the progress of the war, which could on occasion draw from him a rhetorical flourish worthy of that other former journalist Winston Churchill himself.

Sidney Dark (left), Church Times editor until February 1941, and Leonard Prestige, who served as editor for the rest of the war

On 8 September 1939, the Church Times declared: “This country is not fighting for Danzig. It is not fighting for Poland. It is fighting for the independence of nation, the liberties of mankind, vital ideals of the Christian religion, a good life. . . If Hitlerism is not destroyed, Europe first, and the whole world afterwards, will be forced back into an era darker than the dark ages.”

Later that month, with the sinking of HMS Courageous, war still seemed to retain something of the gallantry of the past, and the Summary pictured “Captain Makeig-Jones, left alone on his quarterdeck, saluting the White Ensign, and then plunging into the sea. The entire crew showed the same cool courage, laughing and joking while they were swimming for their lives. . .

“The fraternity of the brave does something to mitigate the beastliness of war, and it is the bounden duty of the Christian to recognize the virtues of the enemy and not to exaggerate his vices. . . There is a proper Christian hatred of the ruthless cruelty of the Hitler regime; but hatred of sin does not mean spluttering abuse of the sinner, and some of the references to Herr Hitler in one popular newspaper are deplorable” (22 September 1939).


NEVERTHELESS, evil had to be denounced — the Russian invasion of Finland was “an example of cynical wickedness that might fill Frederick the Great with envy” (8 December 1939) — and the Church Times feared that German propaganda was not being taken seriously enough: “There is . . . a dangerous tendency here to find in Lord Haw-Haw and his colleagues nothing but figures of fun. Dr Goebbels is no fool. His propaganda is having its effect, not only in France, but in the United States, in Italy, in Spain, and in the smaller neutral countries which are by no means convinced that the British Short is the friend and not the German Codlin. And it is doubtful whether this insistent propaganda is being intelligently countered.”

But that did not mean that there were no lessons to be learnt from Europeans. “Rationing has begun. . . It is an old and familiar story that the English are the most wasteful people in Europe. England’s dustbin is the secret of England’s weakness. The dustbins are still being filled and their contents thrown away, while, as Sir Percy Harris has pointed out, on thousands of farms poultry and pigs are being sacrificed for want of food. The first essential is that the English woman should imitate her French sister and by good cooking make palatable and nourishing a great deal that is now thrown away” (12 January 1940).


WITH the intensification of the war, by the end of May 1940, Neville Chamberlain had resigned as Prime Minister and been succeeded by Churchill, who drew together his great coalition. “Most of Mr Churchill’s appointments will confirm the country’s faith in his judgment as well as in his courage, determination and vision. He has reduced the War Cabinet to five, four of whom have no departmental preoccupations. Here party has dictated selection and the personnel is not too strong. But Mr Churchill will be the War Cabinet, as, to a considerable extent, Mr Lloyd George was twenty-four years ago” (17 May 1940).

Days later, after the failure of the Maginot Line to hold back the German tanks in France, it was to God alone that the paper felt able to point its readers: “The Germans have vast material, daring and skill. Their success has been enormously assisted by what M. Reynaud described as ‘incredible blunders’. In this black week the nation may well lift up its eyes unto the hills from whence cometh help” (24 May 1940).

Then with summer came the miracle of Dunkirk: “The steadiness of the troops, the co-operation of the Navy and the R.A.F., the almost unbelievable pluck of the men who brought their small craft across the Channel, together make a soul-stirring story which fathers will tell their sons so long as men value fine deeds and rate above all their fellows him who is willing to give his life for his friends” (7 June 1940).

PAThe enthronement of the Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Neville Gordon, in the ruins of the cathedral, February 1943

Italy declared war on the Allies — “Mussolini is, indeed, Villain No. 2, and he has done exactly what the lesser villain always does. He is the jackal” (14 June 1940) — the Battle of France was lost, and Pétain surrendered. On 28 June, Dark (probably) penned a leader, “The Bastion of Christendom”, which drew a personal letter of congratulation from the Minister of Information, Duff Cooper. “British courage, energy and imagination will once more save Christian civilization,” Dark had declared (28 June 1940).

He was praised for “the very splendid lead” that the Church Times was giving to its readers. Dark, who thought Cooper “a bumptious little man”, wrote back suggesting that, if this was so, the CT should be given priority in securing paper supplies over a frivolous publication such as Comic Cuts.


IN AUGUST 1940, as the Italians launched offensives in North Africa, the Germans launched their Blitzkrieg on London. Ever attentive to the ecclesiastical calendar, the Church Times noted: “Hitler, so it was reported, had fixed the Feast of the Assumption as the date for the final overthrow of Great Britain. For once he is behind his schedule, but we may be quite certain that the next few days will see a tremendous effort to obtain, at whatever cost, some spectacular successes, since the months are approaching when both sea and air aggression will become more perilous and more difficult” (16 August 1940).

The paper joined in praising “the few” of the RAF, but also the men of the ground batteries and the sea. The Nativity of our Lady would coincide with a National Day of Prayer, and the Church Times encouraged the Archbishops to request “continuous intercession for twenty-four hours in every parish church in the kingdom” (23 August 1940). Londoners were facing the heavy raids with “unconquerable good humour” (13 September 1940), and among the heroes of the Blitz were parochial clergymen and bomb-disposal men (20 September 1940).


IN NOVEMBER, Italy invaded Greece. “Mussolini is in one respect showing a small improvement in decency. He invaded Albania on Good Friday. His troops crossed the Greek frontiers on the Feast of St Simon and St Jude, a day of far less sacred significance” (1 November 1940).

At home, German raiders swarmed over Coventry. “The bombing of Coventry was a dramatic example of the frightfulness of modern war. It is declared by the Nazi newspapers to be a reprisal for the bombing of Munich. Coventry possesses important industrial works, and in the endeavour to destroy them, the enemy has gutted a cathedral, wrecked a city of charm and character, killed and badly wounded a thousand civilians, and rendered many thousands more homeless. À la guerre, comme à la guerre. This is war as it is waged to-day” (22 November 1940).

In December, there was good news: “The brilliantly planned and gallantly carried out operations in the Western Desert have, from many points of view, outstanding historic importance” (20 December 1940: the Church Times didn’t know exactly how tough the North African campaign was going to be, of course); and, in February, even more good news, with the American Lease-Lend Act, which gave Roosevelt “authority to make his country the great war arsenal for Great Britain” (14 March 1941).

In April, under the new editor with his drier and more donnish style, the dictators’ disrespect of the Church’s calendar was still, however, being noted as significant: “In the Totalitarian scheme of life, the worse the deed, the holier the day. Being pressed for time, Hitler could not wait until Good Friday to make his attack on Greece and Yugoslavia. But he followed Mussolini’s precedents with sufficient closeness when he chose Palm Sunday for his latest aggression, and gave notice of his intention to the Greek Government some fifteen minutes after he had started to carry it out” (10 April 1941).

PAThe Italian Prime Minister, Benito Mussolini, is met by Adolf Hitler in Munich in June 1940

In May, Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, landed in Scotland, and an encouraging conclusion was drawn: “It shows a crack in the Nazi machinery, and that at least one of the directors of the gang has realized the patent truth, that by their failure to ensure victory this year, the Germans have in fact lost the war” (16 May 1941).

The Italians surrendered in Abyssinia (23 May 1941), the Bismarck was sunk (30 May 1941), and then, in June, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. “The whirligig has spun. Hitler’s genius for treachery has made Britain, with its jealous regard for personal liberty and an inheritance traditionally Christian, the associate in arms of the godless and persecuting Soviets,” the Summary commented. “One does not stop to ask the casual assistant in a rough and tumble to display his certificate of baptism, before accepting his services in the general effort to dispose of a homicidal maniac.”

On 25 July 1941, the paper welcomed the Prime Minister’s adoption of the V-for-Victory sign, and its “effect in sustaining the confidence and hope of the oppressed, like the arms of Moses uplifted in Rephidim”. The following month, the Atlantic Charter was signed: “The political initiative has now been wrested from the enemy.” The increasingly menacing attitude of Japan (24 October 1941) culminated in the attack on Pearl Harbour (12 December 1941), while Hitler’s advance into Russia had been checked. “For the first time in this war, a well trained German army ran” (5 December 1941), and Hitler assumed personal control of his land forces (24 December 1941).


THE following year, there was depressing news from the Far East. Singapore fell, putting Burma under greater pressure. “Chinese troops . . . know the Japanese too well to mistake their paratroops for innocent coolies,” reported the Summary (20 February 1942).

In Europe, the Allies began obliteration bombing of German cities. The moral issue was noted, and then set aside: “There is no good pretending that raids on such a scale are anything but horrible. The casualties among operatives and their families, either working in the bombed factories, or sleeping in the areas round them, cannot but be enormous. Such is the method of warfare enforced by the Nazis on the civilized world. It is a war not only of troops upon troops, of machines against machines, but of the factories which produce the machines and supply the troops. They and the people who work them are all in the front line and must face destruction together” (5 June 1942).

“Exit Rommel. Exit Darlan. Exit Vichy. The past week has been the most dramatic since the fall of France” (13 November 1942): this announcement was followed by even more encouraging news: “A ringing cheer is echoing round the world of free nations for Premier Stalin, for his city of Stalingrad, and for the glorious troops under his direction” (27 November 1942). By the following summer, Mussolini had fallen: “As midnight descends on Fascism, a gleam of dawn appears for Italy” (30 July 1943).

The appointment of General Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander was welcomed. “All those who have worked under him agree that he is an outstanding figure, and it is to him at least as much as to anyone else that the Allies owe the accomplishment of a practical unity in campaigning unparalleled by anything in military history since war first became a really complex operation” (31 December 1943).


WITH the D-Day Normandy landings — “four years and a day after the completion of the evacuation from Dunkirk. . . bloody fighting between masses of men and machines” (9 June 1944) — the final phase of the war in Europe was entered. But it was followed by a return of the terrors of the Blitz in a new high-explosive form. The Church Times dismissed the new “pilotless aeroplanes” (V1s), stuffed with explosives, as an “extravagantly childish” exploit (23 June 1944), and recorded the destruction of the Guards’ Chapel and its own close shave: “The Bankruptcy Court, close to The Church Times, has been wrecked, happily out of office hours” (14 July 1944).

The paper’s first response to the outcome of the Yalta Conference of “the three big men who . . . make the Big Three big” was “of thanks to Almighty God” (16 February 1945), although Roosevelt was mourned in April, and succeeded by President Truman, “essentially a humble man of simple origins and simple tastes” (20 April 1945). In May, there was more to give thanks for in Rogationtide, which coincided “with the incipient strains of V-Day, with hopeful if impishly mysterious warnings by Mr Churchill that there might be an ‘announcement of decisive importance justifying celebration’” (4 May 1945).

PABritish soldiers return to England after being evacuated by the Royal Navy from Dunkirk in June 1940

“All are beginning, very naturally, to slacken the tautness of their nerves, but for Christians the proclamation of our Lord’s ascent to glory must be the major subject of thanksgiving. With it this year will go a deep realization that but for sin the present horrors would be unknown, and that everyone has a life of reparation and repair ahead.”

Ahead, too, lay the undreamt-of (at least in Portugal Street) horror of the Allies’ atom bombs exploded over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima — on the feast of the Transfiguration — and Nagasaki: they cast a cloud of shock and unease over the thanksgiving for VJ Day (Victory over Japan) on the feast of the Assumption. The desecration of Christian festivals was not all one-sided, it would seem.

But for now, the Church Times could encourage its readers to withdraw their children from school for a full day’s holiday on Ascension Day, and rejoice (11 May 1945) that “the designation of Sunday for national thanksgiving is natural, and corresponds to a spontaneous wish of the people that, whether they as individuals worship God or not, there should be no neglect of the Almighty in the apportionment of gratitude and praise for victory.”

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