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Fighting in Libya

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.