On June 6, 1944, the British had designated the Red Cross on the Beach Dressing Station for the wounded soldiers coming in from their landing on Gold Beach in the invasion of Normandy.
An Anglican priest was ordered to go about a mile to the local field dressing station where there wasn’t yet a chaplain. He entered what was previously a girls’ school and began ministering to scores of wounded British soldiers.
He wrote in his journal of one soldier he comforted, giving him hope that he would be returning home. He wrote: “I buried him the next day ... the sea was too rough when they arrived so the (wounded) men were brought back to the FDS. The return must have been too much for this man, too much for his spirits to bear, and he just died on the way back.”
On the same day, this chaplain entered a small hospital tent where six men were being treated for severe burns. They had been in trucks with a cargo of high explosives when they were strafed by Nazi planes. They left their vehicles and ran from the scene when a bomb hit a truck and the whole lot blew up.
“Only six of these men were found and, frightfully burned, three of them totally blind,” the chaplain wrote. “Just as I entered, one of these three said through his bandages, ‘Will someone hold my hand?’ I put mine into his and stayed and talked to him for half an hour before his grip relaxed and the morphine sent him to sleep.’”
These vignettes are samples from an amazing journal published in May from British Army Chaplain Alexander “Sandy” Reynolds entitled “To War Without Arms: The D-Day Diary of an Army Chaplain.”
It narrates his story as an army chaplain, but reveals the mission and unsung work of military chaplains who served with all Allied forces on D-Day:
The chaplains who comforted the sick and helped bury the dead soldiers. The chaplains who led services for their parishioners, gave counsel to soldiers and, most importantly, provided hope to men going into battle and those suffering from their excruciating wounds. The chaplains who helped prepare these soldiers to return to their lives at the conclusion of World War II.
The world commemorates this week the 75th anniversary of this pivotal military campaign on the shores of France, which laid the groundwork for the beginning of the end of the reign of Nazi tyranny and oppression.
For me, D-Day is personal because my father was on the landing vessels on the first day of Operation Overlord at Utah Beach. My gratitude and awe of what he and a 160,000 troops from the United States, Great Britain, Canada and Free French forces who hit the five sectors of Normandy that cloudy morning will never end. It should remind us all about sacrifice and heroism.
Yet, the great movies we watch about that historic occasion never adequately capture the heroic work of the chaplains, including priests, ministers and rabbis who also landed on the shores and tended to spiritual needs.
This journal is a tribute not only to Chaplain Reynolds but to all the chaplains who served and who died pastoring these brave young men.
At the end of the book, the editor, British historian Dr. Simon Trew, included the remarks from British General Bernard Law Montgomery. He wrote:
“I do not believe that a commander can inspire great armies, or single units, or individual men, and lead them to achieve great victories, unless he has a proper sense of religious truth.”
Furthermore, Montgomery wrote: “The most important people in the Army are the Nursing Sisters and the Padres — the Sisters because they tell the men they matter to us, and the Padres because they tell the men they matter to God.”
The future of the world hung in the balance on D-Day. Freedom was at stake.
The chaplains brought humanity to these soldiers at their last breath, or so that they could continue on and fight. Their prayers, psalms, and religious services, along with just holding a soldier’s hand, made a difference. Let us never forget their role and their service.