The courage of the D-Day chaplains

On 6 June 1944, 80 years ago, the largest seaborne invasion in history occurred in the Normandy landings. By the end of D-Day 156,000 British, American and Canadian troops had landed on the beaches of Normandy. By 4 July, that figure had reached one million. This operation began the liberation of France, and the rest of Western Europe, and laid the foundations of the Allied victory on the Western Front. The German surrender was signed 11 months later signalling the end of World War II in Europe.

A little-known aspect of D-Day is the ministry of the chaplains who accompanied the troops. There were also 13 chaplains who parachuted in with the airborne troops. In a speech in All Saints’ Cathedral, Cairo, Field Marshall Montgomery, who commanded all the ground forces taking part in the Allied invasion of Normandy, said, “I would as soon as think of going into battle without my artillery as without my chaplains.” Montgomery was the son of a bishop and knew the value of faith in God for his men who were putting their lives on the line in the brutality of war.

The presence of the unarmed chaplains was a great comfort to the men who landed in Normandy on D-Day. More than 4,400 Allied servicemen, many of them young, died and passed into eternity on the beaches of Normandy within 24 hours of the landing. Between June and September 1944, 21 chaplains lost their lives in Normandy. My father-in-law was there on D-Day and survived but didn’t speak about what he had experienced for another 60 years.

Field Marshall Montgomery’s Chaplain-General, the Revd Frederick Hughes said “Many, many thousands of men went forth for righteousness’ sake and for no other reason.” The task of the chaplains was to help with morale and to minister spiritual comfort to the men who saw their comrades being killed or seriously wounded. The chaplains put their own lives in danger to be with the troops in the heat of the battle. Many chaplains assisted at regimental aid posts behind the Front, carrying wounded soldiers, cleaning wounds, and fetching supplies, as well as ministering to the wounded and dying.

The sacrificial service of the D-Day chaplains reminds us of Jesus who said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus came into this world to save sinful people like us by laying down his life on the Cross for us. His resurrection on the third day proclaimed his victory over death which he won for us. His promises are “I will be with you always” and “because I live, you also will live”.

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