Chaplains in World War II: Means of Grace, Hope of Glory
Here’s What You Need to Know: The courage and compassion that British and American chaplains demonstrated throughout the war left their mark in the hearts and minds of the men they ministered to—and even upon some of the enemy.
They carried no weapons, only holy books and rudimentary vestments, a crucifix or a Star of David and sometimes a little Communion kit. But they were towering figures on the battlefield, symbols of something eternally good in a pitiless world of cruelty, horror, and death. In two cataclysmic world wars, American and British military chaplains served everywhere the armies and navies went, bringing peace where there was no peace and security where there was no security.
When World War I ended in 1918, a total of 2,363 chaplains had seen yeoman’s service with the United States Army. Father Francis Duffy, senior chaplain to the 42nd Division, drew crowds of soldiers who were waiting for him to hear confessions aboard a transport bound for France. In action, Duffy was always near the heaviest fighting, often going to the forward dressing station of one of the division’s units. He ended the war with both the Distinguished Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal.
“Live With the Men, Go Everywhere They Go”
The British chaplaincy had been established by royal warrant in 1796. During World War I, some 172 British chaplains were casualties. Thousands of British soldiers remembered Chaplain Studdert Kennedy, a tiny Irishman whom the soldiers called Woodbine Willie for his habit of passing out Woodbine cigarettes in the trenches. Kennedy’s personal philosophy spoke for all the chaplains of that war: “Live with the men, go everywhere they go. Make up your mind you will share all their risks, and more, if you can do any good. The line is the key to the whole business. Work in the very front and they will listen to you. Take a box of fags in your haversack, and a great deal of love in your heart and go up to them; laugh with them, joke with them. You can pray with them sometimes, but pray for them always!”
During the war, three British chaplains received the Victoria Cross and dozens more were awarded other decorations. Courage seemed to run in their bloodlines. Throughout the bitter fighting in France in April 1918, British chaplain Theodore Bayley Hardy repeatedly went out under heavy fire to pull wounded men to safety, “absolutely regardless,” as the official description put it, “of his personal safety.” Rescuing wounded soldiers as far as 400 yards in front of British positions, and as close as 10 yards to a German pillbox, Hardy personally received the Victoria Cross from King George V, who appointed Hardy his own royal minister in the hope of keeping the chaplain off the battlefield. That proved impossible. Hardy had already received the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross, making him the most decorated noncombatant in the war. By mid-October, he was back with his beloved soldiers, and he was fatally wounded by German machine-gun fire at Rouen.
In March 1916, Chaplain Edward Mellish prowled the shell-swept ground between captured German trenches. On the first day he brought in 12 badly wounded men under fire so heavy that three of the wounded were killed before he could get them to safety. On the second day, Mellish got 12 more, and on the third night he took a party of volunteers out to recover anyone who remained. A British officer wrote later that Mellish “walked out into a tempest of fire with a prayer book under his arm as though he was going to a church parade in peacetime.” That same year, in Mesopotamia, Reverend W.R.F. Addison received the Victoria Cross for similarly rescuing wounded men under heavy fire, carrying one man to safety on his back.
Chaplains in World War II: From 169 to 3,700
The British padres responded to fire with extraordinary heroism. The peacetime establishment of 169 service chaplains grew in number to 3,700 before the war ended. After France fell to the onrushing Nazis in 1940, some 50 British chaplains passed into German captivity, where they carried on their ministries. Many prisoners were helped by the optimistic faith of the imprisoned chaplains. Years after the war, one chaplain was stopped on the street in Edinburgh, Scotland, by a man who had been a fellow POW. He had never forgotten, said the man, that in the depths of his own depression, the chaplain had called to him, “Cheer up, boy, God will do his stuff yet.”
Senior commanders knew well the powerful force of the spiritual. British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery once observed that “battles are won primarily in the hearts of men. The most important people in the Army are the nursing sisters and the padres—the sisters because they tell the men they matter to us, and the padres because they tell the men they matter to God. And it is the men who matter.”
The Italian Campaign
During the assault crossing of the Rapido River in Italy in 1943, Reverend Ronald Edwards drove his jeep down to the river with machine-gun bullets spattering all around him. Edwards stopped, got out, and waved a Red Cross flag, which did nothing to deter the German fire. Undaunted, Edwards loaded wounded men into his jeep and drove them to safety. Returning to the river bank, he stripped off his vestments and swam across the river to minister to wounded men on the far bank. He managed to bring back some of the hurt men, along the way helping to clear assault boats that were obstructing movement across the river.
During that same Italian campaign, Chaplain Paul Wansey drove his jeep casually into the open to rescue four badly wounded men. Even though stretcher-bearers had been unable to reach the men, Wansey managed to do so, receiving the Military Cross for his service. Then there was Reverend John R. Brookes, somewhat irreverently known as “Dolly.” An infantry platoon leader in World War I, Brookes was now a priest with the Irish Guards. He was “very much the old-style officer of the brigade,” noted one veteran, “tall, slim and immensely elegant.” He was also, said the man, “very jolly and an excellent companion.”
Brookes, who was awarded a Military Cross during the fighting in Italy, knew the hearts of his military parishioners. “A priest,” he said, “must show himself to the troops to be not only their chaplain but their friend. The closer men get to the battlefield the more they desire the help and consolation of their religion, not out of fear or cowardice, but because they have come in contact with reality and what they need is a clear conscience and peace of mind.”
Chaplains in the Airborne
After the epic fight of the British Airborne at Arnhem—the controversial “bridge too far” in World War II history—those troopers who could do so escaped by night across the Rhine. Some were wounded so badly that they could not move. Reverend R. Talbot Watkins, chaplain to the Airborne, helped 50 badly hurt soldiers to an assault boat, then returned to the east bank to look for more. He found none, but remained in hiding on the German bank throughout the next day, swimming back to safety the following night.
Other chaplains also brought survivors back across the Rhine. Three were captured, two with wounds, the third with a jump injury. Seven others, physically able to escape, volunteered to remain behind with the wounded who could not be moved. Reverend Selwyn Thorne, chaplain to an Airborne light artillery regiment, spent all of his time during the fighting at the gunners’ aid station, where nobody could move inside the house except by walking on stretcher handles laid above the wounded. He fed and comforted the injured, buried the dead, and prayed with the living. In the end, Thorne passed into captivity with the survivors.
Reverend Father Daniel McGowan engaged in a most unchaplain-like plan to aid the Dutch Resistance, which had helped the paratroopers at Arnhem in every way they could. McGowan solemnly left St. Elizabeth’s hospital in Arnhem following two shrouded stretchers, reverently reading from his missal. The two blanket-covered “corpses” were in fact a machine gun, three Bren guns, grenades, and a load of ammunition.
Another chaplain, Reverend J.F. McLuskey, a Military Cross recipient, dropped far behind German lines with his SAS parish to work with the French Resistance. He jumped unarmed, as all chaplains did, but carried a substantial load in addition to his rations and other equipment. In his pack were prayer books, hymnals, New Testaments, an oak cross, Communion vessels, and a silk altar cloth dyed Airborne maroon. McLuskey held regular services, although the volume of the men’s hymn-singing sometimes had to be muffled to avoid attracting the interest of a nearby enemy. Other chaplains jumped on D-Day. In a single British airborne brigade, two chaplains were killed and a third captured.
America’s Chaplains in World War II