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Chaplains in the Royal New Zealand Air Force

Chaplains in the Royal New Zealand Air Force

What has been written so far in this chapter has applied to the work of the Department within the Army. Side by side with the Army there was the Royal New Zealand Air Force, an ever-expanding Service undertaking more and more commitments in the war in the Pacific. Another chapter has dealt with the RNZAF chaplains who served overseas.

Early in the war a call was made for a few chaplains to serve with the RNZAF. Unlike the Army, the Air Force had no chaplains on commission prior to the war, although certain clergy were regarded affectionately by the men of the few air stations as their ‘Padre’. There was therefore no Chaplains' Department functioning as such within the RNZAF. In the early years of the war, chaplains were supplied by the Churches at the request of the Air Secretary. Possibly it was a sense of ‘not belonging’ that caused these chaplains to gather together from time to time in ‘schools’ to talk over the problems peculiar to their task.

In October 1942 the Air Secretary accepted the offer of service made to the Air Board by the Chaplains' Dominion Advisory Council. From then on the Council functioned as the liaison between the Churches and the two Services, Army and Air. Soon it page 186 was concerned with the question of obtaining for the Air Force chaplains pay according to the rank they held and with increasing their number to twelve. (Ultimately the figure rose to twenty-nine.) This increase took place at the time of the reduction in the number of Army chaplains, so that a few of the latter transferred from one Service to the other.

One matter in which the Council took some pride and gained a deal of satisfaction was the provision of small but suitable chapels in most of the larger air stations. These chapels gave the chaplains a definite centre for their work. Likewise, a very successful conference of Air Force chaplains held at Wallis House, Lower Hutt, from 1–3 August 1944, did much to cement the bonds of comradeship among the chaplains and provide them with a sense of unity in a Service that was building up a worthy tradition. At this conference the Air Secretary and the chairman of the Council were included in the panel of speakers.

Another matter which the Council felt it should press was the promotion of RNZAF chaplains. Because of the peculiar conditions of the Service, by which a man did a tour of duty of about nine months in the Pacific and then returned to New Zealand for a period, it was impossible for him to qualify on the Army chaplain's basis of two and a half years' overseas service for promotion to the next higher rank. In view of this the Council requested that a total period of four years' service within New Zealand and beyond should be counted as sufficient for an Air Force chaplain to qualify for promotion. Although the Air Board eventually agreed to this proposal, the Government refused its approval. Finally it was agreed that tours of duty outside New Zealand aggregating two years and six months be accepted as qualifying for promotion, but no RNZAF chaplain had so qualified by the end of the war.

As in the case of clergy having the right of entry to military camps, so likewise the same held good in the air stations, but with a difference. Officiating chaplains, nominated by the Council from among the civilian clergy or ministers of neighbouring Churches not represented by a full-time chaplain within the station, were appointed. They were paid a small remuneration according to the number of their members on the station.

Much that has been written already regarding the difficulties that page 187 had to be overcome in the Army, and about some of the necessary facilities made available to the chaplains, could well be written of the chaplains of the RNZAF and of the endeavours on their behalf by the Council. Suffice it to say that there gradually grew an efficient working arrangement that enabled the chaplains to operate with a minimum of let or hindrance. Certain measures were not clarified, but the experience of the war years was such that a measure of tradition was built up by the chaplains in the RNZAF that will stand the Department and the Service in good stead in years to come.

No such account as this could well be concluded without an expression of appreciation of the part played by the welfare services and by the Churches themselves. Only chaplains who have had experience within the Service camps and stations can fully appreciate what the various welfare huts meant both to the men and to the chaplain himself. In Services where garrison churches are not yet the established order of things, and where no large building is set aside for specifically spiritual work, the chaplains were more than ready to work in and through the welfare huts. It is true that these huts were provided primarily by religious organisations and usually had a small chapel attached to them, but it will be acknowledged that they were regarded by both the men and the Army authorities as places set aside for the social life of the men—reading, writing, billiards and other games, as well as concerts and pictures, and the not-to-be-forgotten canteen. It was in this setting that the chaplain made his centre of operation, a room usually being set apart for his use for a quiet chat with a man or for conducting a study group. Chaplains of all denominations would wish this tribute to be paid to the authorities responsible for the provision and the staffing of the huts—the Young Men's Christian Association, the Church Army (Church of England), the Catholic huts, the Salvation Army, and the all-embracing National Patriotic Fund Board.

Finally, recognition must be given to the fact that the Churches of New Zealand, never at any time to be thought of as in any way over-staffed, by dint of sacrifice and re-arrangement of internal affairs were able to provide somewhere between 120 and 140 chaplains in the field at one time, receive back those who had to return page 188 through sickness or other cause and make still others available for service, and at the same time maintain their regular civilian ministrations. Many of these ministrations were affected by the loss of personnel to the Home Guard as well as to the Armed Services. The whole tenor of life in some Churches was disrupted by such losses at a time when more and more demands were being made for the Churches' services. It is well to be reminded that a great deal of what was done by the chaplains was made possible by the continuance in service to the Church at home of many clergy and ministers who were due for retirement, or who had retired and who came back to carry on when their young colleagues were required in foreign parts. But perhaps it is not thanks or any like thing that should be expressed towards the Church here, or anywhere, for the part she played in ministering to the men of the Armed Services during a time of national trial. Her service, however difficult it may have been for the chaplains or for her ministers who served at home, would be regarded as the privilege of her calling, and all her servants would join in uttering the words of the hymn:

Praise in the common things of life,
Its goings out and in;
Praise in each duty and each deed,
However small and mean.