CHAPTER 6 — LIBYA 1941
IN wartime the chief purpose of the soldier is to fight and the chief purpose of the chaplain is to look after the spiritual health of the soldier. But, as the soldier overseas spent only a small proportion of his time in action, it follows that a chaplains' history is largely concerned with the periods between the campaigns. The Libyan campaign of 1941 lasted a short month for most of the Division but it was preceded by three months' training in the desert at Baggush. This was a chaplain's paradise. He could lead a settled life in the heart of his own unit. The one difficulty was lack of buildings. In daytime this was no hardship as the weather was always good enough for open-air services, but large open-air meetings at night were almost useless because of the need for a blackout.
Because of the danger of air attack units were spread over wide areas, and each company or battery formed a happy little community of its own. In many places the ground was soft enough for the men to make dugouts, and these were fitted with lights, cooking arrangements, and other comforts. Every night the chaplain would choose a company area and pay a number of calls. He would meet two or three men in each dugout and in time got to know them well. This was far easier than walking into a crowded hut at Base; and the chaplain was welcome. Since there were practically no evening amusements the men stayed ‘at home’ at nights and looked forward to a visitor, provided he entered by the door and not through the flimsy roof—a mistake that was easy to make in the dark.
Sunday services were usually held on a company basis, four or five in a morning, and there was a warm, informal, civilian atmosphere about them. The early morning celebrations of Holy Communion or Mass were made impressive by the clear, cool freshness of a desert morning as the men stood or knelt round the back of a truck with the tailboard acting as an altar; it was the same at night when the darkness was pierced by the shaded light of an electric torch as the chaplain read from his Prayer Book or Bible.
Every night in the desert with the coming of darkness the same miracle happened. The harsh glare and heat of the day gave place page 35 to the kind of peaceful gloom that might be expected in a great unlighted cathedral. At times there were sandstorms and rain, but the peace of these Sunday evening services remains in memory. Congregational singing was confined to well-known hymns which in the darkness could be sung from memory, but on occasions when a soloist could be found he would use a small light to read by.
Perhaps this was the finest type of singing ever experienced in Army services. A soldier writing home once said of it:
I have just come back from an evening service, although it's a Friday. I wonder if I am too easily impressed; it seemed a very impressive thing to me. The sun had set and the night had fallen by the time we gathered round. There was no moon at this time and you could see the dim forms of men standing round in a half circle. I think most of the squadron must have been there. The Padre opened with ‘Abide with Me’ and I had the privilege of holding the torch for him. I wonder what it sounded like a few hundred yards away. I know that it was rather wonderful to hear that old hymn sung unaccompanied—the singers all hidden from one another in the darkness—and it was sung very well…. After that there were more short prayers; then the Padre spoke on the first petition of the Lord's Prayer. ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. He spoke very simply, and just for a few minutes, then pronounced the benediction. It all turned my thoughts to home, to all you dear people, what you are doing. the thousand and one things we think out here.1
In out-of-action periods the Roman Catholic chaplains often worked in teams of two or three and this passage written by Father J. L. Kingan2 recaptures magnificently the solid work achieved and the spirit in which it was done:
As often as possible when not in action, Fathers Forsman,3 Henley4 and I would meet together. From the group gathered for Confession individuals would peel off and enter the bull ring. There before the whole world would three priests and three penitents pace up and down in three different directions, setting page 36 things right with the Three Persons that count most in the lives of us all. Meanwhile enquiring eyes from all quarters would look puzzled, and questions would be asked…. However, this sort of thing was soon almost as much taken for granted as lining up in the mess for meals, and would be summarily dismissed with the casual remark: ‘Oh, the Doolans are at it again’.
The men were happy at this time. There was hard and interesting training during the day, with opportunities for glorious bathing at lunch-time or in the late afternoon. The YMCA open-air cinemas began their magnificent work and functioned when air raids permitted. The food was good and canteen supplies plentiful. Football was firmly established and the Division played it from Cairo to Tunis. Many trucks carried a ball, and during the short halts on a long desert journey the men would start punting it about and stretching their cramped limbs. The Maoris won the Divisional championship: the story is told of an irate Maori company commander in one campaign going back fifty yards over a rise and ordering two or three men to stop playing football and to come and get on with the battle.
Many chaplains played too or helped to organise and referee matches. In the test match at Baggush in November 1941 against the 1st South African Division the referee was Father Kingan, once sports master at St. Patrick's College, Silverstream, and the New Zealand team was trained by Padre Frank Green,5 a former South Island representative.
The weekly chaplains' conferences were held in, or just outside, Bishop Gerard's dugout at Divisional Headquarters. Services were arranged for those units without chaplains, and guarded information given about the next campaign. On Friday, 7 November, Bishop Gerard held a confirmation service in a small marquee and a few days later the Division moved towards the Libyan frontier.
Fighting in Libya
In some ways this campaign may have been the Division's most effective battle, and certainly the casualties were very heavy, comparable with those of the 1st British Airborne Division at Arnhem in September 1944. But it was a battle which did not lend itself to clear reporting by the war correspondents as it was fought by page 37 small, isolated, and independent groups over a period of three weeks of perpetual movement and constant attack.
The spirit of those days finds fine expression in a poem by Father Forsman.
What though they lie in trackless wadis deep
Or by some barren lonely sand-knoll sleep
Among strange dead; they are not dead who Christ
Upon the altar daily sacrificed,
Received with reverent knee on arid, pathless sands.
They drench with grace bare unrepentant lands
Until the cross above their desert tomb
Bursts peace abundant in effulgent bloom.
Then shall hushed hermits rise in vocal throng.
And singing slake the solitude with song.
So God the Holy Ghost the earth rebuild.
With these the temples Thou once filled!
No full story can be told of the chaplains' work in this campaign. Many used their vehicles to ferry wounded from the battlefields to dressing stations, while others for a time became medical orderlies, and one or two at least had their first experience as anaesthetists. Because of the constant movement it was very difficult to arrange burials, which often had to be conducted under shellfire, and it was difficult to mark the graves clearly. There was seldom time to get an accurate map reference and the chaplain would look around in desperation for some landmark in the desert. On several occasions the only mark on that featureless waste was the well-defined track the unit had just made through the virgin sand, but woe betide the chaplain who used that track on a sketch map to show the position of the grave, for time and again transport would pass that way and the little track be widened to more than a mile across—a poor landmark for a six-foot grave. In this campaign one chaplain was wounded—Padre C. E. Willis,6 with the 25th Battalion—and six were taken prisoner: Bishop Gerard, Padres Willis, R. G. McDowall.7 H. A. McD. Mitchell,8 K. J. Watson,9 and page 38 Father W. Sheely.10 These men had good records of service, three of them—Gerard, Watson, and Sheely—being mentioned in despatches. Five others were in enemy hands for a week: they were Padres M. L. Underhill,11 F. J. Green, N. E. Bicknell,12 and Fathers E. A. Forsman and J. L. Kingan. Padre C. G. Palmer13 also spent six weeks as a prisoner at Bardia.
Seven of these chaplains were taken prisoner at the same time and in the same place: six of them were temporarily attached to the four medical units captured by the Germans while the seventh was a patient. The three Roman Catholics had been moved from their units to the dressing stations as soon as the action began, according to their instructions and policy, and the three others, who came from Divisional units, were also temporarily posted to look after the wounded. The three Main Dressing Stations were all together with the addition of the Mobile Surgical Unit, and at the time of their capture they contained not only the large medical staff but also nine hundred wounded, including two hundred enemy wounded. These captured chaplains had much to do in visiting, helping the medical orderlies, and conducting burials.
The Germans later handed over to the Italians, and when they decided to move all the walking wounded to Benghazi, Father Sheely and Padre McDowall volunteered to go with them. Fortunately the whole force was rescued before another party could be moved off.
The hospital area was in the centre of a desert battle and under constant shellfire, which caused a number of casualties including some who were already lying wounded. Food was short and there was practically no water. These conditions, as well as that of being captured, were difficult in the extreme and the chaplains spent their time comforting the sick and helping the wounded. A wounded man can be very frightened as he lies helpless on a stretcher under page 39 shellfire with no chance of getting into a slit-trench, and the presence of a chaplain beside him was appreciated.
Every day the chaplains went around each tent administering Holy Communion privately or saying a few prayers with each man. and in the evenings short services were held in the tents. Sometimes a soloist would sing one of the peaceful evening hymns as a lullaby. Going back into that tent several hours later the chaplain would often hear the tune of that hymn being hummed by some man who could not sleep.
Father Forsman could speak German and Italian, and he often played an important part in demanding better treatment for the wounded. On occasions he acted as the official interpreter between the German and Italian commanders, and later cheered our men immensely by regaling them with accounts of the quarrels and misunderstandings of the Rome-Berlin axis.
On the day before rescue things had become desperate. There was just enough water for the evening meal and no more. The battle had died away and there was no shellfire. This was the first opportunity for a big Church service. It was decided to hold two at the same time, one conducted by the Roman Catholics and the other by the three other chaplains. All the medical staff who were free attended, besides a great number of walking and crawling wounded. The congregation consisted mostly of men on crutches or swathed in bandages, their faces strained and unshaven, their voices cracked and dry; but the spirit was wonderful and many a man felt that his prayers had been answered when rescue came next morning.
Padre Palmer was captured with Headquarters 5th Brigade at Sidi Azeiz on 27 November 1941 and taken to Bardia. All officers were removed by submarine, but the padre asked permission to remain with the other ranks in the cold, bleak compound. In the next six weeks he conducted services, helped in the organisation of the compound, and did much by his presence and example to keep morale high. For his work he was mentioned in despatches.
Padre Palmer's work at Bardia is mentioned by Brigadier Hargest in his book Farewell Campo 12:
On the Sunday we had a church service at which Padre Palmer officiated. He was a grand little New Zealand chaplain, whose page 40 sermon that day was a model of brevity, hope and encouragement to weary men from all parts of the Empire. All together we sang our hymns, and at the end the National Anthem, with the mixed guard of Germans and Italians standing on the walls looking down at us over their machine guns. That night in our shed a few of the fellows began singing choruses. These gave place to hymns, which were more widely known. Then the Padre read a little from the prayer book, and the meeting developed into an evening service in which nearly everyone joined.
When the chaplains discussed this campaign afterwards they felt that they could draw no new conclusions about policy in action. A chaplain could only follow his conscience, use his common sense, and work as the occasion permitted.
The Position of Senior Chaplain
When Bishop Gerard was taken prisoner near Sidi Rezegh his position as Senior Chaplain had to be filled. This office entailed many responsibilities, for in the 2nd NZEF the Senior Chaplain had to do the work of a Deputy Chaplain-General. In the Royal Army Chaplains' Department the Chaplain-General remained at his headquarters in London and appointed Deputies (DCGs) in the different theatres of war. The senior chaplain with the Army was an Assistant Chaplain-General (ACG) with the rank of Chaplain, 1st Class. The senior chaplain with a corps was a Deputy Assistant Chaplain-General, with the rank of Chaplain, 2nd Class, while the senior chaplain with a division was called the Senior Chaplain (SCF) with the rank of Chaplain, 3rd Class. In the 2nd NZEF there was some confusion in regard to titles, for wherever there was a group of chaplains, many or few, one was always known as the senior chaplain, and it was necessary to add some qualification such as: SCF, Troopship, or SCF, 2nd New Zealand Division, while the most senior of all was known as SCF, 2nd NZEF. The SCF, 2nd NZEF, had to organise for an expeditionary force, and, subject to the Chaplains' Council in New Zealand and the GOC, he had to use his own initiative. It might have been simpler if he had had some distinctive title such as Principal Chaplain. He had 2nd Class rank, although his responsibilities and authority were equivalent to those of a Deputy Chaplain-General.
Duties of SCF, 2nd NZEF
The duties of the chaplain in charge of the Chaplains' Department, 2nd NZEF, were:
To be the official liaison between the Chaplains' Department, the Army, and the Chaplains' Council in New Zealand.
To maintain close relations with the GOC. the administrative staff, and the senior officers.
To secure the best available equipment for his chaplains.
To try to place every chaplain in work that he would enjoy and be suitable for.
To watch the War Establishment, the balance of denominations, deficiencies, casualties, and the ministration of small formations and units temporarily attached.
To visit his chaplains regularly in order to know them well, keeping in mind the fact that such visits demonstrated to a unit that their chaplain belonged to an important and influential Army service.
To be readily accessible to all his chaplains, giving them plenty of time to state their problems and experiences.
To keep abreast of everyday affairs in Army life so that his Department would always be ready to give the fullest service.
To consult the senior chaplains in each denomination on matters of policy or posting, for officially his authority extended only to chaplains of his own denomination.
Senior Chaplains in the 2nd NZEF
Bishop Gerard: Bishop Gerard was the first Senior Chaplain in the 2nd NZEF. He had served as a combatant officer in the First World War, winning the Military Cross. Formerly a prominent footballer, he was a man of great strength and physical stamina, a forthright speaker, and a tireless worker. He travelled constantly amongst scattered New Zealand troops and, in addition to giving them services, often used his own mobile cinema to entertain them. He had all the difficulties of transforming a crowd of strangers of different denominations into one loyal, friendly, and efficient Chaplains' Department. His transparent sincerity and unselfishness did much to break down suspicion in those early days, while the austerity of his life and his self-discipline commanded respect and made him a worthy leader. His talents found fullest scope in time of danger and in action.page 42
Padre McKenzie: After the capture of Bishop Gerard, Padre J. W. McKenzie was appointed Senior Chaplain. Padre McKenzie was a Presbyterian who had won the Military Medal in the First World War, and in the Second World War had served as a padre with the Artillery in the Greek campaign. When he was appointed Senior Chaplain it was laid down by Headquarters 2nd NZEF that his place should be at Base with this headquarters, though every liberty would be given him for regular visits to his chaplains with the Division. This was a wise instruction and worked excellently. Padre McKenzie was an outstanding success as Senior Chaplain. He did not find preaching easy, but he had statesmanlike qualities and a natural gift for friendship that were of inestimable value in the Department. He was most zealous in visiting his chaplains in the field, haunting the forward areas like an old war-horse, while at Base he was always accessible to his chaplains and always made plenty of time to listen to them. He played a big part in introducing courses for chaplains, showed great wisdom in postings and replacements, and in all his work was delightfully unmilitary. He encouraged all his chaplains to call him ‘Jim’, and he always seemed to give each one the job he wanted, except that there were never quite enough jobs with the Division. He was overseas for four years and did not return to New Zealand till 1944, when, still at the height of his considerable talents and still in splendid physical condition, he admitted to the amazing age, for active service conditions, of 56 years.
Padre Spence: Padre G. A. D. Spence14 followed Padre McKenzie as Senior Chaplain in Italy. He had served with the 20th Battalion in Greece, Crete, Libya, and Egypt, had proved himself one of the most successful and respected unit chaplains, and had won the Military Cross for bravery and devotion to duty in these campaigns. In his new position he found the Chaplains' Department well established and enjoying the very best co-operation from the Army authorities. He was not called upon to pioneer in Departmental organisation but to keep a well-designed machine functioning smoothly, and this he did very well. He visited the Division regularly and also found time to see something of the many scattered page 43 outposts in Italy, besides making a short trip to Base Camp at Maadi. His humility and mild appearance belied his conscientious pursuit of duty and his high administrative talents.
Senior Roman Catholic Chaplain
Father L. P. Spring15 sailed with the First Echelon and for the whole war, save for one short trip on a hospital ship to New Zealand, was the Senior Roman Catholic Chaplain. In the Greek campaign he was attached to the Machine Gun Battalion. Afterwards he chose duties which gave him most opportunity for controlling the widely scattered work of his chaplains. He was largely responsible for the good relations which existed between his denomination and other members of the Department. By good sense and patience he was able to evolve the most useful arrangement of postings for his chaplains, and to soothe the doubts and fears of many officers who did not realise that the work of Roman Catholic chaplains had to differ in many respects from the work of the others. Father Spring had a very friendly disposition and was widely respected by his own Church members and by many others.
Senior Chaplain at Divisional Headquarters
After the SCF, 2nd NZEF, made his headquarters at Base it was necessary to appoint a Senior Chaplain for Divisional Headquarters. His duties were to attend to all the immediate needs of the Divisional chaplains in regard to transport and equipment, and to make sure that they were fit for their work and receiving proper co-operation from their units. He also had to see that all the smaller Divisional units had adequate religious ministration. On several occasions when the Division was at a great distance from Base he had to make postings on his own initiative. He took the chair in the chaplains' conferences in the field, and kept in the closest touch with the Senior Chaplain at Base. Padre Moore was the first to hold this position, and he was followed by Padres Jamieson, Buck, Spence, and F. O. Dawson.16
1 ‘Titch’ of the Div. Car.; A Memoir of L-Sgt P. L. Titchener; published by Presbyterian Bookroom.
6 Rev. C. E. Willis (C of E); Cambridge, England; born England, 29 Jun 1907; wounded and p.w. Dec 1941.