CHAPTER 8 — ALAMEIN
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.
The unit chaplain came to enjoy something of the position of the family doctor who is helped in his diagnosis and treatment by his knowledge of the homes and lives of his patients. The chaplain lived at unit headquarters. He often attended the Colonel's conferences and learned much of the inner life of the unit. In action and at other times he nearly always lived next to the doctor, and often the two became firm friends. When a new chaplain came to a unit he usually found a ready-made friend in the doctor, who could outline his work as it had been done by his predecessor and also give much wise counsel about the unit. With very rare exceptions the New Zealand doctors gave the chaplains the maximum of friendly help and advice.
The young platoon commanders took their commands and responsibilities very seriously, and often they enjoyed the chance of discussing their hopes and fears with the chaplain, expressing intimate thoughts which they would have hated brother officers to ear. It was inevitable that the chaplain came to know the officers well as he shared the same mess in all periods outside battle; and he also page 53 came to know what the men thought of the officers. A wise chaplain could do much to inspire the right spirit in a unit by judiciously expressing the men's point of view, and by reminding the men that even the officers had to obey orders and were not therefore personally responsible for every regulation and restriction.
On occasions the chaplain would approach the commanding officer direct on some aspect of unit life. Of course the sympathy of the Colonel was of crucial importance. An Eighth Army chaplains' handbook states this succinctly: ‘There may be two opinions but there is only one colonel. Go first to him, ask him what he wants, and work to that. No other plan can possibly work.’ Some colonels were not sympathetic, but they were rare exceptions. More frequently they were friendly but without much knowledge of organised religion, though some were good churchmen and thoroughly understood the chaplain's work and desires.
In the Navy, in the close confines of a ship, there is sometimes danger of the ‘lower deck’ looking upon the chaplain as the Captain's spy, but this danger was not apparent in the 2nd NZEF.
The chaplain had to make his position in a unit. Until he had proved himself and was known, his influence and preaching could not take full effect, but when he was accepted his power was considerable. In this respect notable service was given by Padre Spence with the 20th Battalion, Father Kingan with the 26th, Padre H. G. Taylor1 with the Divisional Cavalry, and Padre Palmer with the 5th Field Regiment. These chaplains sometimes presented a problem to the Senior Chaplain. He might want to give a new chaplain Divisional experience or else he might feel that a really successful chaplain ought to be rested for a time at Base. But the Senior Chaplain would only have to suggest such a change and he would receive a volume of protests from the chaplain concerned and from his unit, which did not want to part with him. Once or twice a Senior Chaplain in these circumstances made the mistake of asking such a chaplain what he wanted to do: would he like a rest? No man whether chaplain or combatant should be asked whether he would like a rest from the front line. Honour nearly always page 54 triumphs over common sense and the answer is usually an emphatic denial.
A good chaplain came to enjoy some of the freedom of the ancient court jesters, and at the right time would be no respecter of persons. A witty word of rebuke could often ease the strain and tension in a mess when tempers were running high, or some outright remark might break down smouldering jealousy or suspicion. On the other hand few chaplains would have dared to speak as Padre Taylor did on one occasion. Only a man with his record and personality could, in a Church parade, vigorously denounce those who, he considered, had succumbed too easily to nervous exhaustion in battle.
In spite of the need for denominational compromise, limiting as it did clear and direct doctrinal teaching, the life of a unit chaplain brought great rewards and many opportunities, and no finer title could be sought than that of being known as ‘Our Padre’. But that title had to be earned and its implications cannot be better expressed than by a certain formula in the same Eighth Army handbook: ‘The show was going long before you came. It is a close-knit family; when you have earned a place in it by humility, service, and worth, they will take you to their heart and back you through thick and thin. If it is not so YOU will normally be in the wrong.’
Except for certain duties at Base and in hospitals the chaplain was always entitled to the service of a batman-driver. At the beginning of the war the chaplain's batman was an administrative problem. Where was he to come from? Was he subject to the normal rota of fatigues and duties? Did his appointment end as soon as the chaplain left the unit? Eventually it was recognised that the batman had a full-time job in looking after the chaplain, and often it was possible for the chaplain to keep the same batman-driver through several postings.
The batman-driver, as his name suggests, looked after the vehicle as a normal driver, and looked after the chaplain as a normal batman. But the chaplain was not a normal officer and his batman had many special duties, sometimes as a sacristan looking after Church property, sometimes as an altar server. He prepared places for services, handed out hymn books, and packed up afterwards. page 55 He supplied never-ending cups of tea to the many people who called on the chaplain, and often he had to be a Master of Ceremonies in evening activities.
The position of batman carried with it a certain opprobrium, smacking of servility, safety, and privilege. The New Zealand civilian soldier did not at first see why the officer should have a personal servant, and he felt that democracy was in peril if someone else cleaned the officer's boots. And yet the batman gave outstanding service through the war. In combatant units many batmen had to face all the normal dangers of battle and additional ones when they acted as messengers. Time and again the devoted work of a batman helped an officer to give the maximum of service and keep going. In action an officer had little time to think of himself, and it was the batman who supplied the regular meals, insisting that time be taken to eat them; it was the batman who dug the slit-trench and made sure that the officer had a few hours' sleep.
A chaplain usually liked to have a man of his own denomination as batman. It was important, too, that he should be sober, friendly, and interested in the chaplain's work; and once a good man had been found it was desirable, in spite of administrative difficulties, that he should stay with the same chaplain when he was transferred from one unit to another. The New Zealand chaplains received wonderful service from their batmen-drivers, some of whom were killed in action, and it is only fitting that this tribute should be paid.