In the course of 1943 in Alyth I was sure that the time had come for me to offer my services as a Chaplain, and so early in the Spring I went to the Kirk HQ at 121 George Street in Edinburgh where the war service of ministers and other Church of Scotland people was being co-ordinated.
I went to find out what I should do to sign up with the Royal Army Chaplain’s Department, and to ask for arrangements to be made for the care of my parish at Alyth when I was away. I recall vividly running into the Very Rev Dr Charles Warr of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, who was one of the chiefs in the Church of Scotland Huts and Canteens, and told me they were looking for someone to take the place of the Rev George Campbell, a very good friend of mine from College days, who was now returning from Cairo to rejoin his parish.
He knew that I was already familiar with the Middle East, and told me that if I joined the C of S Huts and Canteens, I would be sent straight away to Cairo and Jerusalem! That certainly appealed to me, as I had come to love Palestine. If I joined up as a commissioned chaplain, however, I would have to serve in the army for the rest of the war. And so I agreed and Dr Warr took me into the Church Office where I signed on as it were.
A lot of arrangements had to be made, and they speeded them up, medical check by the doctor, a visit to the taylors [sic] to be measured for the uniform required, shopping for other items, etc. Most important, of course, were the arrangements that had to be made for the ministerial care of my dear people in Alyth … My people in Alyth co-operated wonderfully, and one of them, a farmer, who had served as an officer in the first world war generously helped to kit me out.
I had some interesting talks on board [ship] with men and officers who came up to me, clearly concerned with the Christian faith. One Oxford graduate was particularly interested when he found I had been at Oriel and had been a Professor of theology in the USA!
Not a few of those on board asked for copies of the New Testament, of which the Army Scripture Reader had a supply. Throughout the whole voyage I was engaged in pastoral discussion with officers and men alike, which taught me a good deal of what was going on in the army.
We were of course living face to face with death all the time and never knew when or whether we might be torpedoed or bombed, and people’s thoughts were very much with their loved ones at home. Several of them, officers and men, gave their hearts to the Lord. And I started a communicant’s class for those who wanted to become Church members.
There were others, of course, or quite ready to argue about the truths of the faith, but as a rule it was personal issues that were uppermost with them. I found also a young doctor whom I had met in Syria some years before. There was even said to be a man from Alyth aboard but I never came across him among the tens of thousands on the ship!
When it was my turn to take the service we had a good turn out of officers and men – one of the C of E padres had got hold of a piano accordion which helped the singing. The purser and several other Ship’s officers came, and the Captain read a prayer and we had his favourite hymn, “Our blest Redeemer ere he breathed his tender last farewell”.
My sermon was on Christ as personal Saviour and Lord. Afterwards the services I used to visit the men in their sleeping quarters, praying with them, and found the response especially warm when they talked of their home life, although some of them had not very much of it.
One of the young officers told me he had never felt so ashamed as he was when he saw us holding services on deck. He had been at a strict Calvinist boarding school, but had strayed from the faith. I came across a young Congregationialist who had been considering entering the ministry, in which I encouraged him. Several days later we had another service on deck, taken by one of the C of E Chaplains, when there was a good turn-out again.
I think that the voyage was probably memorable for not a few of the troops, for officers and men alike, when their faith was quickened and deepened, and when some found faith for the first time, and others recovered their faith or were strengthened in their faith. What I have said about life and service throughout the whole voyage was a helpful guide to me for my new life in the army and my new form of ministry.
My mobile canteen with its tentage equipment was very welcome to men and officers alike and was a great success. I found the Regiment in high spirits, waiting for battle orders. The men were very disciplined, but once again I was kept busy trying to help sort out family troubles for soldiers. I was horrified to find again and again that their women folk at home behaved rather badly when their husbands were away. We belonged to a Combined Operations Force (i.e. with naval, and air force units, and assault troops), destined, although we did not know it at the time, for an operation in the Aegean Sea in an attempt to capture the Dodecanese Islands including Cos and Leros off the Turkish coast. We were soon moved north into Palestine where we camped near Haifa at a place called Hadera which was infested with scorpions – I had to check my boots for them each morning. Small jackals or coyotes of some kind roamed about at night and kept us awake screaming uncannily like children in trouble.
Normally I was awake at six o’clock in the morning, when the batman brought me a cup of tea. Then I went out for a bathing parade or p.t. exercises, and had breakfast at the other end of the camp. Thereafter Paddy Henderson and I set to work censoring the mail – all my letters had to be censored too – which was a strict army regulation, to prevent leakage of sensitive information to the enemy. At six o’clock in the evening my driver and I opened the canteen, and turned on the wireless for news.
Sometimes I brought the gramophone over to my tent and played Mozart records. Paddy Henderson and I used to scour the towns round about to buy stores for the canteen, which we could not get in the army NAAFI. I was constantly trying to enhance the facilities of the Canteen. Thus I got a removable canvas canopy which could be attached to the side of the Canteen to provide a convenient meeting place for entertainment and in which from time to time we held discussions about the Christian faith. These facilities were to be greatly enlarged in due course, as the army came to value the service we offered, if only for the morale of the troops, and provided us with extra transport.
Our strength was increased by a heavy artillery battalion made up of Masuto troops from Swaziland. They were a cheerful lot, some of whom were anxious to get baptised, and to have large baptismal certificates (like their Roman Catholic friends, but more elaborate than theirs!), which I arranged to have made in Jerusalem. They were later to distinguish themselves in Italy firing at the enemy over open gun sights!
I had quite a few visits to make to people in army hospitals, both to see the sick, but also on one occasion, at the urgent request of some nurses at the 19th General Hospital, I undertook the difficult task of trying to disentangle a love affair between a soldier and a nurse – she was besotted with him, but he was really no good, and I told her so. I did not hear what happened to them.
When the new Mobile Canteen (cum Caravan!) was being constructed I stayed a good deal at the C of S Centre at Abbasia – for it was to there that I had returned, where I was given various jobs to do. There I became friends with a young Greek who knew Cairo very well, and helped me to make my purchases.
I had accumulated a large sack of tea which he persuaded my to sell on the black market (!), so that I could have extra funds to buy a stock of penknives, scissors, and other things I knew the troops wanted. I preached again in St Andrews Church in Cairo and saw a good deal of Colonel Alexander, who put more pressure on me to enter the R.A.C.D. (Royal Army Chaplain’s Department) but I steadily declined … I was doing the work of a Chaplain now anyway. It was a good rest for me to stay at Abbasia in some ways, but I did not take to some of the people in charge there! And I was afflicted with bed bugs again … what I did was was to fill four small cans with paraffin and put them under the legs of the bed, which prevented the bugs from crawling up onto the bed and into the bed clothes.
The General and his ADC [Aide de Camp] joined us from time to time, which was a great boost to the work we were trying to do. He wanted me to wear a kilt, and asked me to send home for one!
One of our main problems in the canteening business was with the supply of clean water – but one day when I was visiting a REME unit, I found that Ten Brigade had abandoned a broken down Bedford water tank. I asked the officer in charge whether they could repair it for me, which they had declined to do for the Brigade. He and his men readily agreed to do it for me. They made a very fine job of it, which was an immense boon, for it meant that we could have our own mobile water supply wherever we went!
One day Ten Brigade’s new water tank broke down, and we were able to loan them their old tank back again for a short time! The Division were so pleased with what we were doing that they allocated us two more vehicles, with drivers, to help bring up to the front supplies of sugar and flour and other necessities, but also to help in running the canteen arrangements, which we were trying to establish in different sections of the advancing Division across very difficult terrain in the face of enemy harassing fire. I soon had an establishment of 17 men. From our moving base at Divisional B Echelon we constantly looked for ways to serve the forward troops whenever that was possible in their advance, as when they were taking a short break. In those conditions where it was not possible to hold services, it was the personal pastoral care that really counted, which of course was my part, not that of my team, but it was shared with the regular chaplains of the units concerned.
The Battalion Chaplain was a good solid type, but not inspiring, and not, I thought, a great help to the troops. I found out that the wives of about four hundred of the battalion had been unfaithful, so that the others were wondering how their own wives were behaving at home. That was fearfully bad for their morale.
The doctor did not always seem to be in control of himself, which was not helpful! He was desperately hard worked treating the wounded. One day shortly afterwards when the battalion was under a fierce assault and he could not cope with all the casualties, he seemed to run amok, and wanted to shoot himself. Many of the men had been away from home for nearly four years which was a shame. I reported the state of affairs to the General when I returned, and so when the opportunity came, they were relieved by a battalion from another division, and were given two months leave, to rest and reorganise. After my month of mule-riding and muleteering on mountainous terrain with the Manchester [Regiment] my bottom was rather sore! I returned to my canteen set-up at Rear Division HQ to get scrubbed clean, get rid of fleas in my clothes, get some rest, and catch up on mail from home…
As soon as it was possible, I motored to Quaracchi, the Franciscan Publishing house nearby. The door was opened by a tall Franciscan Monk, an Alsatian, who said angrily, “One of your shells destroyed my printing press”. I told him it was not mine, and that he should be grateful that we had delivered him from the Bosche. What do you want? he asked. I said, You publish the works of Peter Lombard and John Duns Scotus, which I would like to buy. I am a Scottish Padre and a theologian. His whole demeanour changed, and he became very friendly. He sold me the two-volume set of Peter Lombard’s Sentences which they had, but they had only one volume of the Opus Oxoniense of Duns Scotus, which I bought also … I carried the Lombard’s Sentences in my Jeep for the rest of the war, and made myself very familiar with it – my old teacher in Basel Karl Barth would have been pleased!
One morning after a series of battalion engagements I found myself in a German Officer’s Mess, and read the magazines and newspapers they had left in a hurry. It was quite exciting to get this insight into the German home front, and to get some idea of the war from their angle. We were to learn much more about that after our armoured forces had advanced beyond the Tiber-Anno basin and over the High Appenines, and then overran German positions at Forli and Faenza in the plain.
The assault on the hamlet of San Martino was given to the King’s Own next day. For 48 hours massed artillery behind us had been hammering the German positions, and our men knew they were up against it, and were clearly afraid, though never cowardly … It was a two-company operation, one led by Major Rhodes swinging round to the right, to surprise the enemy and attack his rear, a move carried out with great dash, and the other company led by Major Warren swung left, skirted the village, and engaged in a frontal assault on the enemy’s forward units entrenched on the hill from which we were overlooked. In view of the fearful situation Bill Beresford the Battalion Chaplain and I decided to go with the leading company to help give the men spiritual and moral strength they needed.
During the day I had crept forward as unobtrusively as I could to discover the lie of the land we had to cross, but was driven back by mortar fire. As the men were waiting I distributed among them lurid covered paperback “Wild Westers” to keep their minds off what was to take place. When the moment for the attack came I advanced with the leading company toward a five or six foot ridge beyond which the enemy were waiting for us, over which I knew it would not be easy to get the company across silently. I had with me a crude walking stick which I had made several days before, wound round with German plastic covered field telephone wire, to give me a good grip. When we came in silence to the ridge, I climbed up and let down my stick, and helped to haul a good number of the company over the ridge, when they with others on their right and left fanned out waiting for the Company Commander’s word to attack.
Almost at once the fire from German spandau and schmeiser machine guns rained upon us – some pigs were hit at once and gave out an unearthly hullabaloo which mingled with the rattle of the guns – but our men bravely charged forward and with surprising speed put the machine gunners out of action, and overran the hamlet. During the battle Bill Beresford and I found ourselves taking refuge in the angle or corner made by two farm walls to escape the machine-gun fire, but we were detected. I shall never forget those few moments – as tracer bullets came our way I flattened myself up against the door of the barn, which was slightly set back in the wall, and Bill flung himself down at the bottom of the wall at right angles to where I was, only a few feet away.
The tracer bullets streamed past my body and rattled against the wall above Bill’s head. As soon as that firing had been put out of action, I went in search of the stretchers (with which I had always made one of my duties in action) – and finally found two stretcher bearers hiding behind a wall of the cemetery round the corner from the barn where we had been, cowering in abject fear – one of them I heard crying out in terror, repeating a prayer that he had learned at his mother’s knee. I got them going, and we set about looking for the wounded, as the firing died down.
When daylight filtered through I came across a young soldier (private Phillips) scarcely twenty years old lying mortally wounded on the ground, who clearly had not long to live. As I knelt down and bent over him, he said “Padre, is God really like Jesus?” I assured him that he was … As I prayed and commended him to the Lord Jesus he passed away.
The next day Bill and I were out burying some of our dead on a near-by hill in full observation of the enemy. Unfortunately we did not have a red cross flag with us, which the Germans sometimes respected, and they opened fire on us with mortars. Bill did not like wearing his “tin hat” or steel helmet, and so as we set off I picked it up and carried it with me in the Jeep. I shall never forget those fearsome minutes, as we collected the dead and set about burying them. I had to scoop up the brains of one of our men, a Scot called Stewart, who had been shot in the head when watching the enemy looking through a make-shift observation post, and put them in the grave with his body. When Bill had started his prayer, I clapped a helmet on his head, and a few seconds afterwards a bullet or piece of shrapnel bounced off it…
The final stages of our Italian Campaign had been reached. Along with the Tenth Indian Division, the British Armoured Division on the right, and the New Zealanders on the left, converged in a drive down the mountains and across the plain for Ferrara and the Po Crossings. He last real battle was fought on the Argenta-Idice line, when the Germans were routed. The Tenth Indian Division was happily squeezed out on that front, but was briefed for possible action in some hill fighting ahead, where the ridge of Colli Euganei interposed as a barrier in front of the city of Padua. The King’s Own came under shell fire, I presume to try and hold them back from overrunning the German retreat on that sector. It was so heavy that I got out of the Jeep and took refuge behind great oblong stacks of straw in a field.
As I got back into the Jeep, a sheet of paper covered with writing flew by, and I got out to grab it and read it. I was stunned: it was the extraordinary attempt of some terrified German soldier to compose a prayer, the prayer of a man who did not know how to pray, but who was desperate to pray – it was in fact a fearful despairing cry out of the dark depths of his soul, with no hint of Christian faith. I prayed for him in the name of the Lord Jesus, the saviour of us all. That prayer seemed to reflect the terrible darkness of soul brought on German youth by the Nazis.