Army Chaplain Training for D-Day, 1944
The following information is drawn from Alan Robinson’s excellent book, Chaplains at War: The Role of Clergymen during World War II (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008)Chaplains taking part in the D-Day landings and action in Europe beyond that began to receive special training for their tasks.
By 1944 concerns had grown about the amount of army chaplains being killed in action, many through taking unneccesary risks to tend to their men. An earlier order to leave wounded men on the battlefield if the chaplain himself was in danger had proved unhelpful, so in early 1944 a training course was established to prepare chaplains for D-Day and beyond.
Rev. I.D. Neill, Senior Chaplain to the 43rd Division, organised a five day course for his chaplains which included vehicle maintenance, cooking, radio communication, avoiding mines and booby traps, camouflage, security, first aid, map reading and night marches. It was then decided that all chaplains who were to take part in the Normandy landings should undergo similar training.
The battle school for chaplains was established at Church Stowe in Northamptonshire. Around two hundred chaplains of all denominations, including Catholics, undertook the course in February and March of 1944. Additional topics included mine lifting, digging slit trenches, identifying battle sounds to distinguish between rounds passing close by and the general noise of battle, a night navigation exercise, evacuating wounded soldiers and a rigorous assault course. The assault course included crawling under barbed wire with machine guns firing overhead, jumping into a stream and crawling along trenches.
Unfortunately one chaplain, Rev. Geoffrey L. Treglown, was blinded and had his hand blown off when he used his helmet to smother a stick of explosive that fell in front of him.
Any chaplain failing the course would be posted to bases and lines of communication rather than the front line.
Chaplains attached to the Parachute Regiment received specialised training. Major-General Browning, commander of the 1st Airborne Division obtained permission from the War Office to put his chaplains through the same training as his officers and men. Chaplains who joined the Parachute Regiment were all volunteers and motivated by a sense of adventure and a wish to test themselves. It was a sure way of experiencing combat. The parachutists spent two weeks training at Hardwicke in Derbyshire. They had to complete runs of up to 10 miles, assault courses and gym training. One chaplain, the Rev. Goode was said to be good at `smiting his opponents in the boxing ring in a most unclerical and unbrotherly fashion.’ They also had to pass interviews with psychiatrists to see if they were mentally robust enough for parachute operations. If they passed the training course and interviews they were sent to RAF Ringway near Manchester for specific parachute training.
Rev Bernard Egan, one of the few Catholic chaplains to complete airborne training wrote:
There was no doubt that the position of a parachute chaplain made all the difference to his relations with the men. He could truly say that he was one of them, and the men, for their part, liked to feel that the chaplain was undergoing the same trials as themselves, and their mutual feelings of discomfort, nervousness, and exhilaration, were equally shared. Personal relations with the men mean so much to a chaplain that he feels, these having been so well established, that the difficulties he is likely to encounter have been more than halved.
Rev Bernard Egan
If you would like to know more about the links between Christianity and the Second World War, you may be interested in my book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith From the First World War. It contains twenty case studies of Christians of all denominations and outlooks. The majority of them are based on original interviews or documents in private hands and never before seen. For a copy, priced at £16 + £4 p+p, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org