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Brief History of the Royal Army Chaplains' Department in World War II

by Museum of Army Chaplaincy

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Contributed by 
Museum of Army Chaplaincy
People in story: 
The Royal Army Chaplains' Department
Location of story: 
Worldwide
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A7247487
Contributed on: 
24 November 2005

EUROPE AND AFRICA
Some thirty Army Chaplains were captured about the time of Dunkirk. The Reverend G F Miller, a Baptist, was the senior chaplain and despite promises of early repatriation under the Geneva Convention he was not released until April 1945. He described his experiences in the RAChD Journal in January 1951. It is an interesting story of courage and perseverance in the face of considerable hardship and frustration. He called it “ A most fruitful ministry.”

The campaign in the Western Desert, with its vast expanses of open land, produced a strong corporate . spirit amongst the soldiers. It also saw the development of a powerful feeling of brotherhood among the Chaplains who served there. This was due largely to the dynamic personality of the Assistant Chaplain General 8th Army -The Reverend F Ll Hughes. A Territorial Army Chaplain, Hughes made such an impression on Montgomery that he took him as part of his team when he became Commander-in-Chief, I st Army Group in Europe. Hughes subsequently became Chaplain General in 1944 and held the appointment unti1 1951.
An interesting feature of the War was the establishment of Church Houses where Chaplains could recharge their spiritual batteries. Such places had been found invaluable during the Great War and were, in a sense, forerunners of Bagshot Park. .
A Roman Catholic Chaplain who was highly respected was the Reverend “Dolly” Brookes. A Platoon Commander in the Irish Guards in World War I, he studied for the priesthood at Downside Abbey and stayed on there unti11939 as a House-master. He had served under General Alexander in the First War and did so again in North Africa and Italy. They were great friends and when Field Marshal Alexander had the first official audience with the Pope in May 1945 he took Dolly Brookes with him.

Several specialist formations were created during World War II. Airborne Forces were an example. It was not long before Chaplains were required for the new formation and it was obviously necessary for them to train as parachutists in the same way as everyone else. It was an Airborne Chaplain, The Reverend J J A Hodgins, who initiated the Padre’s Hour in which the Chaplain had a regular period within the training programme and, using the experiences of the group, taught some of the rudiments of the Christian Faith. And Chaplains went by air to battle with the various airborne formations. One such was the Reverend J Fraser McLuskey MC who parachuted into central France with the Special Air Service. They worked with the Maquis in disrupting German communications miles behind the German Lines.

THE FAR EAST
The disastrous campaign in Malaya, the surrender of Singapore, the fall of Hong Kong and defeat in Burma resulted in 100,000 British, Australian and Indian troops becoming prisoners of the Japanese. There were a number of Chaplains amongst them. The Japanese were suspicious of the Padres and confiscated all religious tracts, hymn books etc. Services were strictly limited and full details had to be submitted in advance. An Australian Padre, Harry Thorpe, being unable to enlist as a Chaplain had joined up as a private soldier. When 5000 British and Australian prisoners left Changi for an unknown destination few Chaplains were allowed to go. Thorpe went with them and found himself on the notorious Burma -Siam Railway. As previously arranged, he then began to work as a Chaplain. Despite the lack of adequate food and medicine, the hard physical work and the cruelty of the Japanese, he held services whenever he could. One day 1000 men attended. It is alleged that a prisoner died for every sleeper of the 350 miles of track. There is no doubt that in the most appalling conditions imaginable, many men were sustained by the devoted work of Chaplains like “Happy Harry” Thorpe and the Reverend H L O Davies.

The Reverend H L O Davies became a prisoner of war in Hong Kong in December 1941. He was one of 5,000 Officers and men imprisoned in Shamshuipo Camp. It was grossly overcrowded, the sanitation was primitive in the extreme, they received small quantities of oriental food and were denied medical supplies although plenty were available on the island. Morale soon dropped, many men lost the will to live, others died from beri beri and later from diphtheria. This became an epidemic and Padre Davies, as well as holding services each day was burying eight or nine men daily. The situation was only saved by a Japanese man who was a Lutheran minister being employed in the camp as an interpreter. He was persuaded to smuggle some serum into the camp thus enabling the doctors to halt the epidemic. Padre Davies claims that survival was largely a matter of determination to hold on, a belief in God and the ability to say a prayer .
During World War II, 96 British Army Chaplains of all denominations lost their lives. A further 38 Commonwealth chaplains died. The Chapel at Bagshot Park was a Memorial to them, and this memorial is now in the chapel at the Armed Forces’ Chaplaincy Centre, Amport House.

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Message 1 - Chaplaincy Museum

Posted on: 24 November 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

as you are representing a museum perhaps a note of correction would not go amiss.
It was my understanding that Gen Alexander was in attendance at an audience with Pope Pius X11 in or around the 8th June 1944, as Rome had been 'entered' by the Allied forces on 4th june 1944.
An OFFICIAL audience may have taken place in May 1945 but that was close to the end of hostilities in Italy and would seem a bit improper that the General had not met His Holiness until that time ?

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