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6th Airborne Division:
Royal Army Chaplains Department
Since time immemorial armies have had with them men of the cloth; chaplains to attend to the spiritual needs of the fighting man.
The existence of the Royal Army Chaplains Department “RAChD” came officially into being in 1796 under the Chaplain General, the Reverend John Gamble. Since then chaplains have been beside the fighting solider from the Peninsula Wars, to the Indian Mutiny, and World War One.
To be an army chaplain, the qualities one had to show were ‘zeal in his profession and good sense, gentle manners; a distinctive and impressive manner of reading Divine Service; a firm constitution of body as well as of mind’. This was no less the case upon the formation of the airborne forces in 1940. Chaplains went through the same training programmes at Hardwick Hall and Ringway as the rest of the men that were a part of the 1st & 6th Airborne Divisions, and went by air to battle into North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, and Arnhem to name but a few.
When the chaplains jumped , or came in by glider, they did not carry with them the normal weapons of the airborne soldier, nor any other soldier for that matter; they only had with them the simple accoutrements of a priest in "in the field"- a small Bible, a copy of the Army Prayer book, a specially designed Airborne communion set, some shell dressings, and his faith.
Chaplains in the Airborne Forces
The first chaplain recruited into the newly formed Army Air Corps was the Reverend J J A Hodgins. He was approached directly by Lieut.-Gen. F A M Browning. The Reverend Hodgins designed the "Ministry to the Airborne Forces", and created the "Padres Hour" subsequently copied by the rest of the British Army. The Reverend Hodgins remained the senior chaplain until until early 1944. At that both the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions received new senior chaplains; the Reverends Harlow and Hales respectively.
Further chaplains were recruited, all of which went through parachute or glider training, receiving the appropriate parachute wings or glider qualification badges, and also the appropriate qualification pay.
Some chaplains chose not to become airborne chaplains preferring to minister the average infantryman. Others took on the task of being an airborne chaplain enthusiastically; in one case Father W C T Briscoe of 5 Parachute Brigade was forbidden to jump by Brigadier Poett until Op. OVERLORD as he always jumped as often as he possibly could. He still continued though; when a chance to test out the newly introduced drop leg bags arose he took it. He was spotted by Lt. Col. Pine-Coffin whilst lining up to emplane and remarked to him "not a word to the Brigadier, Sir!".
Jumping out of an airplane, however enjoyable to the likes of Father Briscoe, even tested the faith of the chaplains. At the Tatton Park / Ringway Parachute Training School, the WAAF parachute packers worked long shifts, sometimes round the clock. An admonitory sign hung above them ‘Remember, a man’s life depends on every parachute you pack’. Theirs was an incredible achievement in pressurized circumstances. One Padre confessed that for 32 years his whole trust had been in God, but that for five seconds – until his parachute opened – his confidence and faith was transferred to a young WAAF parachute packer.
During Op. OVERLORD and MARKET GARDEN a number of Airborne Chaplains were killed in action. In Op. OVERLORD the Reverend G E M Parry was killed at the Regimental Aid Post in the churchyard in Benouville on the 7th June 1944 when it was overrun by German forces.
The Reverend J Gwinnett, padre to 9th Battalion, was lucky to survive the drop on D-Day. A number of the battalion had drowned landing in the flooded areas and fields because of the weight of their kit. However on landing he went about his business collecting wound in a captured German truck. Two days later he was seen sitting on the bonnet of a jeep that had been sent from the Main Dressing Station to attend to the German wounded. To try and give themselves some form of protection Rev Gwinnett waved a Red Cross flag. He did something similar again two days later . Because the fields and ditches around the Chateau St Come were filled with rotting German corpses something need to be done about it. Gwinnett got a hold of a 'white flag' and was able to help with the collecting of the wounded and dead. The Germans did stop shooting, expect for one. Colonel Otway recalled Gwinnett standing up there, turning around and saying in a most un-parson like manner "You stupid bugger. Can't you see my bloody dog collar!".
Gwinnett continued to attend to the morale of the men as well. On the 12 June 1944 things were not going to well. At a critical moment Gwinnett took the Pegasus flag that had been presented to them shortly before the operation and marched through the Bois de Monts gates with it and over to the right hand corner of the drive. There he proceeded to nail the Battalion's flag to a tree. Many of the troops saw this, and with word of his actions spreading quickly, it steeled their determination not to move from their positions whatever happened.
For Father McVeigh he had dropped wide at the start of Op. OVERLORD and was captured shortly after landing. Unfortunately for his captors Brigadier James Hill has given him a shillelagh before the operation for self-defence. After get a bit fed up at being interrogated he set about his six captors with the shillelagh and made good his escape. Father McVeigh was recaptured, but this time the Germans refused to believe he was a priest and stripped him of his dog collar. He spent the remainder of his war in a Baltic prison camp.
There were also acts of remarkable bravery at Arnhem. In Op. MARKET, though not directly involved in the fighting, the Reverend R T Watkins MC, the Padre of 1 Para, effectively took command of the Battalion because of the ensuing chaos in Arnhem. He went from position to position when the Battalion was hard pressed on the outskirts of the town; this included the placing of machine gun positions below the Hartenstein Hotel.
Father D McGowan MC, padre to 133 Field Ambulance, assisted many men who were on the run in the Arnhem area. In the St Elizabeth Hospital, locked in the mortuary and in the care of the Royal Army Medical Corps was a weapons store. On the 3rd October 1944, Father McGowan distracted the attention of the German guards whilst men went into the store and split twenty Sten guns, three Brens, a German Spandau, grenades and ammunition between two stretchers and laid a blanket over each to make them seem to be dead men. Father McGowan and his party, which included Captain Lipmann-Kessel, carried these stretchers outside and buried them with the usual religious ceremony, though anyone in the vicinity who had a grasp of Latin would have quickly understood that McGowan was reciting complete nonsense. Two weeks later, the Dutch Resistance exhumed these items.
The Rev A W H Harlow, 1st Airborne Division's senior Chaplain, was posted missing at Arnhem on September 25th 1944 and later found to have been taken a prisoner of war. The Rev Harlow had decided to stay behind to look after the wounded where he felt his duty lay. The was the second time during the war that he had been taken prisoner. The first time when he was senior Chaplain to the 50th Division in the Middle East when they were fighting a rearguard action towards Alamein. He was repatriated in 1943 after which he moved to 1st Airborne.
Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, Army Chaplains have continued to serve wherever British soldiers have been sent.
Airborne Chaplains: 1944
Please note: There were no Padres at Brigade level, however the Padre that was assigned to the Field Ambulance was often employed at Brigade before operations.
Airborne Chaplains, 1st Airborne Division: Operation MARKET
Maj. / Rev. A H W Harlow
(Albert William Harrison Harlow – MiD North Africa, Captured & DSO at Arnhem 1944, served Suez Canal 45/6, subsequently parishes at Middlewich (1937-1940 & 1946-1947), Calstock/Surrogate, St. Andrews, Gothenburg, Easebourne, Essex, Retired to Southern Australia)
1st Parachute Brigade
Capt. / Rev. R T Watkins, att. 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment
(Robert Talbot Watkins - MiD Sicily, MC & evacuated Arnhem -subsequently parishes at Oxford Hall, Manchester/Salford, Southpost, Bristol & Sheffield, TA Reserve until 1968, died 15/3/73)
Capt. / Father B M Egan, S.J., MC, att. 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment
Capt. / Rev. E L Phillips, att. 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment
*16 (Para) Field Ambulance – (not recorded)
4th Parachute Brigade
Capt. / Rev. A C V Menzies, att. 156th Battalion, Parachute Regiment
Capt. / Rev. R F Bowers, att. 10th Battalion, Parachute Regiment
Capt. / Rev. H J Irwin, att. 11th Battalion, Parachute Regiment
Capt. / Father D McGowan, MC, att. 133 (Para) Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps
1st Air-landing Brigade
Capt. / Rev. J J Rowell, att. 1st Battalion, The Border Regiment
Capt. / Rev. A A Buchanan, att. 2nd Battalion, The South Staffordshire Regiment
Capt. / Rev. J G Morrison, att. 7th Battalion, The Kings Own Scottish Borders
(James Gilbert Morrison, Church of Scotland, Captured at Arnhem, subsequently permanent commission; MiD 1957 Malaya, retired 1970 – Presbyterian Minister Rotterdam till 1981)
Capt. / Rev. S Thorne, att. 1st Light Regiment, Royal Artillery
Capt. / Father B J Benson, S.J., att. 181 (A/L) Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps
(Bernard Joseph Benson, died of wounds 27/9/44 aged 30, Arnhem, Oosterbeek War Cemetery)
Airborne Chaplains, 6th Airborne Division: Operation OVERLORD
Lt. Col / Rev. J C Hales
Thereafter Maj. / Rev. AP Cameron (Op VARSITY))
3rd Parachute Brigade
Capt. / Rev. J McVeigh, att. Brigade Headquarters
Capt. / Rev. G A Kay, att. 8th Battalion, Parachute Regiment
(George Alexander Kay, married, of Watermillock, Cumberland, KIA 7/6/44 Normandy, aged 36)
Thereafter, Capt/Reverend W T Ogilvie (poss KIA Op VARSITY 24/3/45)
Capt. / Rev. J Gwinnett, MC, att. 9th Battalion, Parachute Regiment
Capt. / Rev. G A Harris, att. 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion
Capt. / Father JW Kenny, att. 224 (Para) Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps
5th Parachute Brigade
Capt. / Rev. G E M Parry, att 7th Battalion, Parachute Regiment
Thereafter, Capt/Reverend W H C Hyde;
Thereafter Capt/Reverend AL Beckingham (Baptist)
Capt. / Rev. J O Jenkins, att. 12th Battalion, Parachute Regiment
Capt. / Rev. W Foy, att 13th Battalion, Parachute Regiment
Capt. / Father W C T Briscoe, att. 225 (Para) Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps
6th Air-landing Brigade
Capt. / Father J MacMurray-Taylor, att. 1st Battalion, The Royal Ulster Rifles
Capt. / Rev. A Nimmo, att. 2nd Battalion, The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry
Capt. / Rev. J W Hall, att. 12th Battalion, The Devonshire Regiment
Capt. / Rev. J P Vaughan-Jones, att. 53rd Worcestershire. Yeomanry. (Op. VARSITY only)
Capt. / Father M McGowan, att. 195 (Para) Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps
Glider Pilot Regiment (attached to both Divisions)
Capt. / Rev. G A F Pare, att. 1st Wing, Glider Pilot Regiment, Army Air Corps
(George Arnold Francis Pare – MiD, Arnhem and escaped 1944, subsequently parishes at Maid's Moreton, Buckinghamshire. St James Church, Warrington, Lancashire. St. Bridget's, West Kirby, Cheshire, and retired 1977, believed to have died in 1979)
Capt. / Rev. W R Chignell, att. 2nd Wing, Glider Pilot Regiment, Army Air Corps
Capt/Reverend J Fraser McLuskey MC (MC, France 1944)
Note of Thanks: We would like to thank the Rev. Paul Abram, formerly Chaplain to the Tower of London, for his assistance in the compilation of some of the above information.
Lest We Forget...
Some of the Padres...
Rev A W H Harlow, Senior Chaplain, 1st Airborne Division
The Rev. Gwinnett, 9 Para
The Rev. Harris, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion
The Rev. Jenkins, 12 Para
No, not an actual Airborne Padre! Of course this is John Gregson from "The Longest Day", believed to be based partially on Rev Gwinnett, but more of a composite character.
The Rev Egan, 2 Para
The Rev D McGowan, 133 Fd Amb
Rev J Vaughn-Jones, 53rd Worcs. Yeomanry
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