THE sudden recall of the Division to the Western Desert in June 1942 interrupted the ordered and peaceful life of Syria, and instead of well-organised services every Sunday the chaplains once again had to look for spare moments when small groups of men would be free for public worship. Some remarkable changes appeared in the Division during its three months' static warfare in the Alamein Line. Plans which had been well laid in the early months of the year began to bear fruit, the experience gained in three short campaigns added a certain confidence and efficiency in battle, and the whole Division began to work as a corporate entity.
The man in the ranks began to have more respect for the administrators and leaders. Of course the man in the ranks had himself changed. He now knew a great deal more about Army life and about battle conditions; he understood the reasons for many regulations which in the past had seemed meaningless. The same kind of change was taking place in the Chaplains' Department. The chaplains were becoming more sure of themselves and more useful. They knew the bounds of their work, and their position was recognised with encouraging sympathy and support.
About this time the whole Department was delighted by the announcement of the first decorations for gallantry won by chaplains. The Military Cross was awarded to Padres Spence and Dawson, who had served with the 20th and 18th Battalions respectively in Greece, Crete, and Libya. Special mention in the citations to these awards was made of their bearing in extreme danger, their help with the care of the wounded (on occasions Padre Dawson acted as anaesthetist during operations), and their zealous devotion to duty at all times.
On the long journey to Tunisia the stocks of the Department rose steadily. Units without chaplains began to apply to the Senior Chaplain for one of their own, while small groups kept asking for services. In the early days Church services had sometimes been suffered as an affliction, but now it was common for the chaplain to receive special requests to go somewhere to hold one. This made page 52 all the difference. When a chaplain knew that he was really wanted, he could prepare for the service with confidence and give of his best. But there were few service during the four long months in the Alamein Line. The Division was surrounded by barbed wire and minefields. Anywhere inside the Alamein Box was subject to shellfire and bombing, though the infantry on the southern and western sides had the hardest life.
Occasional services could be held at night, and sometimes a handful of men would walk back for a service in one of the tents of an Advanced Dressing Station. But for the most part the work of the chaplain lay in visiting his men, going from group to group, having a few words with everyone he met. By now the chaplain had become a personality in the unit, and he could speak with knowledge of everyday conditions and sometimes soften the hardship of heat and flies with a word of comfort or humour; for he knew his men and understood their life. And the soldier was beginning to know him, too, for people lived very close to each other and it was easy to see if a man practised what he preached.