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Stories of Faith and Courage from World War II
The primary goal of Stories of Faith & Courage from World War II is to strengthen the faith of its readers by showing the power of others’ faith under the most extreme circumstances imaginable. This is accomplished through 365 one-page stories from America’s greatest conflict presented in a daily devotional format with relevant scripture readings for each day of the year. Additionally, the book presents a unique and concise history of World War II with summaries, maps, and photographs of the major campaigns of the war. On this level, the individual stories provide insights into the war and combat not found in typical historical accounts.
2009 Silver Medal Winner from the Military Writers Society of America
First Place Winner of the 2009 Bransom Stars & Flags Book Award
About the Author
Larkin Spivey is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War and a retired Marine Corps officer. He commanded infantry and reconnaissance units in combat as well as being trained in parachute, submarine, and Special Forces operations. He was with the blockade force during the Cuban Missile Crisis and served President Nixon in the White House. As a faculty member at The Citadel, he taught courses in U.S. military history, a subject of life-long personal and professional interest. He is the author of God in the Trenches and Miracles of the American Revolution. He now writes full time and resides in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina with his wife, Lani, and their four children. He is a lay eucharistic minister of the Episcopal Church and is actively involved in the Cursillo renewal movement and the Luis Palau Evangelistic Association.
Jocelyn Green is an award-winning freelance writer who pens articles for dozens of magazines, including Christianity Today, Today's Christian, Today's Pentecostal Evangel, Baptist Bulletin, EFCA Today, InSite and more. She also writes for nonprofits, universities and corporations such as Juicy Juice, Nestle, Publix and General Mills. Wife of a former Coast Guard officer, she authored Faith Deployed: Daily Encouragement for Military Wives (Moody Publishers 2008). She also edited and contributed to Stories of Faith and Courage from World War II by Larkin Spivey, a 2009 Military Writers Society of America Silver Medal Winner. She is a member of the Evangelical Press Association and the Christian Authors Network. She and her husband have two children, a dog and a cat, and reside in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Larkin Spivey STORIES OF FAITH AND COURAGE FROM WORLD WAR II
This book is dedicated to the memory of James Arthur Norton Jr. and Edward R. Norton. These young men were pioneers of aviation in my hometown of Conway, South Carolina, and served together in the Army Air Corps during World War II. They were killed in action on May 17, 1943, flying together in a B–26 bomber over Nazi–held Holland. The Norton twins were my mother’s younger brothers and my uncles. I was three years old at the time of their death. Their adventurous and heroic lives were legendary in my family, inspiring my brothers to become Air Force pilots and me to pursue a Marine Corps career.
1. German Invasion of the Low Countries and France May 1940
2. Japanese Expansion in the Pacific July 1942
3. The Battle of Midway June 4, 1942
4. Operations in North Africa 1942–1943
5. Advance in the Western Pacific 1942–1944
6. The Fight for Sicily and Italy 1943–1944
7. Across the Pacific 1943–1945
8. Allied Landings on D–Day June 6, 1944
9. Allied Advances in Europe 1944–1945
10. Iwo Jima 1945
11. Okinawa 1945
I am grateful to Jocelyn Green for her many contributions to this book. Jocelyn is a respected freelance writer, editor, and author of Faith Deployed: Daily Encouragement for Military Wives. In addition to her thoroughly professional editing work, she has written a number of daily devotionals in this book herself, each designated on the last line with her initials: (JG).
I wish to express gratitude to my agent, David Sanford, for his encouragement and for creating the opportunity for me to write this book. I am also thankful to Dan Penwell of AMG Publishers for the genius behind the Battlefields & Blessings series and for his confidence in me to be a part of it.
I especially acknowledge the great contribution of Catherine–Alexa Rountree, who has been a faithful research assistant throughout this project and is responsible for much of the material from which its stories are derived. In addition to her many amazing qualities, she is also my loving daughter.
I thank the members of the clergy who have provided their expertise and guidance: the Reverends Robert Sturdy, Aubrey Floyd, and Carol Dickerson.
I appreciate the wisdom and advice given daily by my wife, Lani. Her insights have added immeasurably to the spiritual content of this book. She has been my loving partner in this project, as in every other aspect of our marriage.
Finally, I acknowledge my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whom I came to know late in my life, and who changed my life eternally. My career as a writer and speaker has had one goal: to glorify him. While writing this book I have prayed constantly for his guidance and inspiration. Although I can’t positively assert that he has always provided these things, I can assure the reader that I could never have completed three hundred and sixty–five daily devotionals on my own.
Writing this book has been a privilege and a blessing. I have deep family roots in World War II and have always revered the “Greatest Generation” who endured and won that great conflict. I grew up building models of ships and airplanes from that era and listening to my own father tell of convoy duty in the Battle of the Atlantic.
My previous books have been about God’s providential hand in America’s past, when the nation’s survival was at stake. World War II was clearly one of those times. Victory may seem inevitable now, in retrospect, but history reveals dark days for America and her allies, especially during the early years of that war, when the forces of Germany and Japan were advancing triumphantly around the globe. With obsolete equipment and meager numbers, British and U.S. military forces needed many miracles to survive and slowly turn the tide of the war. God did indeed bless these nations during their darkest hours.
I want to assure the reader that I am not suggesting that God causes or even looks favorably on war. I emphasize my belief that this in not the case. Human nature seems to be the completely adequate explanation for conflict between individuals and nations. I believe that God is disappointed when wars occur and does not take sides in such conflicts. I do believe, however, that God has an agenda and can use any human event or condition to further it. I believe that one of his important agendas for mankind has been human freedom, and that this was the basis for his favor of the American and Allied cause during World War II.
As a Christian and one who has fought in war, I condemn it. However, as a wise man said, “They are dead who have seen the end of war.” I have to believe that there are things worth fighting for, and that there are times when God blesses those who do. I admit that my attitudes are colored by my own career in military service. One of my reference works as a young officer made the following statement that I believe is true today:
One may abhor war fully, despise militarism absolutely, deplore all the impulses in human nature which make armed force necessary, and still agree that for the world as we know it, the main hope is that “peace loving nations can be made obviously capable of defeating nations which are willing to wage aggressive war.”1
These words come not from a warrior, but from the great intellectual and pacifist Bertrand Russell.
This book is a daily devotional based on inspirational stories from World War II. Some of these stories reflect God’s miraculous intervention in the larger course of the war, but most deal with the faith and courage of individual soldiers, sailors, and citizens. These stories may reflect to some extent a universal tendency to turn to God in perilous times, however, I believe they more consistently reveal a widespread spirituality among the American and British populace and the leaders of that era. We can only pray that our nation continues to seek God’s favor and to fulfill God’s purpose now and in the future.
As a daily devotional, this book is centered on the stories contained in the readings for each day of the year. There is also information intended to provide the historical context of these stories and to inform the reader about the course of the war at important stages. Each month presents a separate campaign of the war with an historical overview at the beginning of that month. Daily devotionals during the month pertain to that campaign. My selection of this material reflects my own understanding and interests. This book is not a complete history, and many important events could not be included.
The most inspiring image of World War II. Raising the Flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima
In early May 1940 almost two million French and English soldiers waited anxiously for the long-expected invasion of France. Allied strategists were convinced the German attack would come through Holland and Belgium in a sweeping movement similar to the opening of World War I. These expectations were fulfilled on May 10 when massive German forces poured across the Dutch border. French and British units advanced immediately northward to the Dyle River where the opposing forces met in the opening clashes of the war.
Unknown to the Allies, however, the German main attack came as Army Group A, under Gen. Col. Gerd von Rundstedt, penetrated the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes Forest, crossed the River Meuse on May 1213, and broke into open country. This force of more than eighteen hundred panzer tanks and three hundred Stuka dive-bombers knifed through the French 2nd and 9th Armies, reaching the English Channel on May 19. This bewildering success left large French units and the entire British Expeditionary Force cut off and surrounded, with their backs to the sea. This vast pocket centered more or less on the little port town of Dunkirk.
As the German advance from north and south rapidly reduced the size of the Allied pocket, Lt. Gen. Allan Brooke, commander of the British II Corps, succinctly summed up the situation on May 23: “Nothing but a miracle can save the BEF.”2 On May 24 the first installment on that miracle came. Hitler ordered his panzer divisions to halt in place and to regroup. His generals persuaded him that the tanks were needed elsewhere and that the Luftwaffe and infantry units could finish the job of annihilating the remaining Allied forces in the pocket.
To meet this crisis Great Britain mustered every seagoing vessel that could reach Dunkirk, assembling an armada of ships, ferries, tenders, yachts, and small boats to rescue its army. Between May 26 and June 4, more than three hundred thirty-eight thousand British and French troops were rescued despite bitter opposition from German aircraft, artillery, infantry, and patrol boats. Even though this was in effect a “retreat” from France, spirits soared in England at the sight of these returning troops. The new prime minister, Winston Churchill, called the dramatic rescue a “miracle of deliverance.”3 On June 22 France fell to the advancing German forces, but, with a large portion of her army on home soil, Great Britain survived to fight on.
The fight did continue, but the scene shifted to a new battlefield: the airspace over England. By now Britain stood alone, and only the Royal Air Force (RAF) stood between Germany and complete domination of the continent. The Battle of Britain began in late June 1940. Aerial combat was unremitting as German bombers raided British airfields day after day, with the Spitfires and Hurricanes of the RAF rising to meet them.
Encountering unexpected resistance and losses, the Germans changed strategy in early September. Turning away from Fighter Command bases, they focused instead on England’s cities. These attacks became known as the ‘Blitz,’ and would continue for much of the war. Although many cities were devastated, these attacks did not help the Luftwaffe achieve air superiority. The RAF fought on, with increasing effectiveness. On September 15, two massive raids were turned back and fifty-six German aircraft shot down during the Luftwaffe’s worst day. Two days later, Hitler canceled plans for the invasion of Great Britain.
Myron Maycock was a British soldier who spent much of World War II as a prisoner of war. During his many trials he was comforted by a short poem:
I see not a step before me
“Through the difficult days of captivity this verse was constantly before me, suggesting, as it did, a brighter path in the distance, to which the course of time with faith must ultimately lead me,” Maycock said. “The full beauty of these words came to me at the close of my last hour of freedom.”5
This poem is appropriate for any day, but is especially perfect for this day. This is the time to look forward and not back. The past cannot be changed no matter how hard we try and is truly in God’s hands. Neither do we know what lies ahead, and it is just as useless to worry about that. Jesus’ instruction on this point is crystal clear: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”6 What we can do is concentrate on our actions in the present and look forward to the future with a joyful hope. Even though we have problems looming ahead, we don’t have to face them alone. Our Savior walks with us and guarantees us the strength to endure and to overcome. There is no darkness that will stand against the light of his presence.
Christmas 1939 came in the dark winter of fear for much of the world. Britain and France had declared war on Germany after Germany’s invasion of Poland. An eerie calm settled over Europe as armed conflict drew inexorably closer. To provide a word of encouragement to his subjects, King George VI made a radio broadcast heard by millions. Not usually an eloquent speaker, his words on that day resound for all time:
King George VI. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)
What more can any leader do in a time of crisis than to show his own belief in the source of ultimate safety in this world? By articulating this faith to your soldiers, your employees, or your own children you give them a source of strength and comfort that can be found nowhere else. However dark the situation God’s hand is always our light.
On the day Germany invaded Holland, Neville Chamberlain realized he could not continue as prime minister of Great Britain. At 5:00 p.m. on that day he went to Buckingham Palace, tendered his resignation, and advised the king to send for Winston Churchill. An hour later, Churchill was prime minister.
At that moment the new leader was a controversial figure. Many doubted his ability to hold together a coalition government and to lead the nation in a time of such crisis. He clearly came into office in the most perilous circumstances ever faced by a new prime minister. Riding back to his office after his appointment, he commented: “I hope it is not too late. I am very much afraid it is.”8
His first speech as prime minister was delivered to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940. Though he was received coolly at first, his words carried great weight:
Winston Churchill began to build his authority through his words. He didn’t sound like a politician. In a time of great uncertainty he did not consult opinion polls or use vague language. Jesus Christ demonstrated who he was in many ways, but his authority was evident from the beginning of his ministry by the nature of his amazing words. When the crowds heard his Sermon on the Mount, they knew that he was no ordinary teacher.
Winston Churchill’s first radio broadcast as prime minister came on May 19, 1940, the day the German advance in France reached the English Channel. The military situation in Europe was deteriorating rapidly. Fear and uncertainty were growing at home. Churchill spoke to the British people and adapted a quotation from 1 Maccabees 3:58–60, a book of the Protestant Apocrypha.
Winston Churchill making a radio broadcast. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)
With a biblical reference Churchill called his people to be courageous in the face of great danger. Throughout the Bible we find examples of men and women who faced danger and found their ultimate source of courage in God. Peter and John were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin for openly proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ. They refused to recant their public witness and told their accusers, “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed” (Acts 4:10).
As British and French troops began pouring onto the beaches and areas surrounding Dunkirk, some units were amazing examples of good order and discipline. The Queen’s Own Worcestershire Yeomanry marched smartly into the perimeter singing “Tipperary” to the accompaniment of a mouth organ.11
The commander of the 8th King’s Own Royal Regiment reminded his men that they wore the badge of one of the oldest regiments of the line and that it was up to them to set an example for the rest. They marched to the beach with arms swinging in unison and weapons slung properly, in perfect formation.12 The 2nd Grenadier Guards marched in as if changing the guard at Buckingham Palace, erect, clean-shaven, and boots echoing on the cobblestone streets.13 The 1st Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders wore their kilts.14
It is easy to see the benefits of belonging to a strong, closely knit military unit. Each member can depend on the other and draw strength from those around him. For Christians, unit integrity is found in the body of Christ, his church. There we find the support that we so urgently need to persevere in our beliefs and actions. We have safety in numbers and strength to do his work, as we are called by the old hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers”:
Like a mighty army moves the church of God;
Our churches may not be perfect, but they are functioning the way Christ intended when we support and complement each other and move as one body toward the ultimate goal: reflecting the glory of God.
Many units did not arrive intact on the beaches at Dunkirk. Countless men were separated from their units during days and nights of rear-guard fighting. Many units seemed to dissolve as they were drawn piecemeal out of the front lines, usually under cover of darkness, with vague instructions to move toward the beaches. Crowds of disorganized troops began to appear on the beaches, adding to the growing confusion.
At one point an old Irish Guards captain, Tom Gimson, restored order in his area by commanding all present to “Fall In!” Amazingly, all within earshot complied with the familiar and age-old command known to every military man and woman. Everyone lined up as on parade. The captain then exercised them in close order drill. The familiar orders seemed to instill a calm confidence in the men. Order was restored and the embarkation was able to continue.15
The men on the Dunkirk beaches recognized a voice of authority. They responded accordingly to the benefit of all. Our challenge is to recognize God’s voice, our ultimate authority. For his own reasons he seldom commands us directly or issues orders in an overt manner. He expects us to seek him and to make the effort to discern his guidance. In answer to our prayers, he speaks quietly. He works subtly through our conscience and through our Christian friends. Most often we hear him in Scripture. When we have a measure of familiarity with the Bible, we will hear God’s calming voice whenever we need it, even in times of strife.
Contemporary observers were amazed at the fortuitous turns of the weather during the Dunkirk evacuation. Surf conditions were critical to the boarding and movement of small craft along the beaches. Offshore winds kept the waters amazingly calm for all but one day, a very unusual occurrence in the English Channel. On the day after the evacuation, the wind shifted to the north and great breakers came rolling in along the Dunkirk coast.16 One noted weather expert commented, “By a twist of fate, or better yet a meander of the jet stream… the one set of conditions that most favored the Allied evacuation persisted for days.”17
Most of us read about biblical miracles and don’t question God’s ability to perform such great acts. Still, I have heard Christians wonder why God did these amazing things only in the ancient past. It is my belief that there are many examples of his miraculous intervention in much more modern times. In the details of our wars we can see evidence of God’s providential hand moving to change the odds in crucial situations. Dunkirk was clearly a very critical episode to the survival of the Allied cause. The “Miracle of Dunkirk” was real and much more than a catchy phrase.
The Luftwaffe staged numerous devastating raids on the port, beaches, and areas around Dunkirk. However, their effectiveness was mercifully limited by frequent low clouds, rain, fog, and smoke. Even though the sun shone brightly at the Luftwaffe bases, flying conditions were impossible over Dunkirk on May 28 and 30, and for parts of May 27, 29, and 31.
Henry Bond was an engineer with the 700th Construction Company. His unit reached the outskirts of Dunkirk on May 27, and for two days they waited anxiously for instructions to embark, all the while under frequent artillery and air attack. When the call finally came, no vehicles were available, so the move had to be on foot, the slow and dangerous way. Bond wrote:
In addition to the beneficial changes in surf conditions, the “providential” rain over Dunkirk was an equally amazing manifestation of God’s miraculous intervention. During biblical times there were many examples of God bringing changes in the weather. On the catastrophic level he brought the Flood, ultimately to give mankind a new beginning. On another occasion, he brought drought to Israel under the misguided reign of Ahab. He has often intervened in history, just as he does in our lives, to fulfill his own plans for mankind and for us individually.
Captured British soldiers at Dunkirk. (National Archives)
Soldiers wait to be evacuated. (Imperial War Museum, HU 1135, Collection of Major H. E. N. Bredin)
Troops lined up on the Dunkirk beaches. (Imperial War Museum, NYP 68075)
Nineteen-year-old Bill Towey was a medic with the 11th Casualty Clearing Station whose unit treated casualties throughout the campaign in Belgium and during the long retreat toward Dunkirk. Early on May 31 his commander announced that the time had come to pull back to the beaches. However, five volunteers were needed to stay behind with the wounded. The command was given, “Volunteers, one step forward, march!” More than half the unit responded. The process was repeated until, on the third try, Bill Towey found himself standing with four other men. They remained to care for the wounded until the end.19 Their thoughts are not recorded as they watched their comrades depart for the beaches and safety.
Every modern recruit hears the age-old barracks advice, “Don’t volunteer for anything!” I have heard great Marines and selfless leaders repeat this advice. In military service you face inevitable risks. Why expose yourself to ones you can avoid? Everyone understands this logic and even pays lip service to it. However, in times of need, I have seen many unlikely men step forward in response to the call. God has given each of us gifts, and he expects us to put them to good use. However, he seldom commands. He waits patiently for us to volunteer. We each have to carefully discern our own call to action and take our own “step forward.”
On June 1, Bill Towey was still caring for his wounded comrades. He was now with the last British forces defending the shrinking beachhead at Dunkirk. To honor fallen comrades, an officer in his unit held a hurried and informal funeral service for a score of soldiers laid out in rows in the darkness of the night. With no hope of conducting a proper Christian service, the officer gave his best effort, reading by flashlight. He chose a reassuring passage from Revelation:
At this point in the long and harrowing campaign, these men had begun to feel as if hope was gone. Weeks of pain, sorrow, and death had begun to eat into their souls. John’s vision of a New Jerusalem brought hope and a spiritual uplift to those gathered in the darkness. In Towey’s words: “It would be difficult to convey the great impact of those words, in those special circumstances, made upon a very impressionable and religious 19 year old lad, but the scene has remained indelibly impressed on my memory in the 63 years and more since it happened and, no doubt, will continue to do so until my dying day.”20
God doesn’t promise to shield us from trouble. He does promise that he will be with us through every trial. There is always comfort and hope to be found in his Word, no matter how dire our crisis might be.
After the 2:00 a.m. funeral service, Bill Towey waited through another long, dark night of uncertainty. He and his comrades continued to seek out the wounded and to get them to their makeshift aid station. Just before first light on June 1, an officer called the remaining medics together and told them that the Germans were just down the road and would soon overrun their position. He didn’t want them all to be killed or captured, but, again, they couldn’t abandon the wounded. To make a terrible decision, he put twenty pieces of paper in his hat. Eight had numbers, representing those who would stay behind. The men drew their lots. Towey drew a blank lot and was immediately dispatched with the others to the beach. He made it off the beach with the last of the survivors.21
I believe that God blessed this officer’s attempt to be fair to all his men under the extreme conditions of the Dunkirk beaches. There are even biblical examples of the Israelites resorting to the casting of lots for certain decisions. In normal circumstances, however, God would not be pleased if we made our decisions by drawing lots or flipping coins. He expects us to go to great lengths to discern his will, including prayer, Bible study, and consultation with other Christians. We need to incorporate this thoughtful approach into our decision making and make every effort to hear God’s voice and his guidance for choices that we have to make.
Only the men could be rescued at Dunkirk. Everything else had to be abandoned and, to the extent possible, destroyed. Thousands of vehicles were drained of oil and left running until the engines seized. Mountains of uniforms, blankets, and equipment of every description went up in flames in the fields around the beaches. The voluminous smoke actually was a blessing as it helped screen activity on the beaches from air attack. One officer was observed trying to board the Brighton Belle, an old paddle steamer, with his golf clubs. A bearded sailor remedied this situation by dispatching the clubs into the surf. Arthur May suffered with the destruction of his battery’s howitzers. He was with the 3rd Medium Regiment, the same unit his father served with during World War I. As bad as times were then the 3rd never had to destroy its own guns. May’s conscience plagued him that he had “let the old man down.”22
If the port facilities at Dunkirk had permitted evacuation of equipment perhaps the decision would have been different. We will never know. As it was, only the men could be saved. In a well-known Bible story, Jesus once healed a sick man at the expense of a herd of pigs. The townspeople were incensed over the loss of their property, ignoring the value of a human life. If we think about it, we have a choice in our lives that is even starker. We often have to choose between our spiritual condition and our possessions. Jesus clearly taught us where to put our priorities. If anything gets in the way of our relationship to God, we need to “leave it behind.”
Pilot Officer G. W. Spiers was flying patrol over Dunkirk in a twin engine Blenheim IV light bomber when his aircraft was attacked and fatally damaged by a formation of German Messerschmitt 109 fighters. He knew he had to ditch the aircraft and struggled to keep it level as the water came up to meet him. After a violent impact, water rushed into the cockpit as a dam bursting. Spiers tried to get to the escape hatch over his head but his feet were slipping and he could make no progress toward it. He found himself underwater. “I had never prayed to God with such agony or earnestness… as I realized that I would not escape,” Spiers said. “I tried to suck water into my lungs to hasten the end, but I was unsuccessful and only swallowed it. My lungs were bursting and my pulse pounded in my eardrums, brilliant flashes and yellow spots appeared in front of my eyes.”
Starting to drift downward, Spiers somehow found the reserve to give one more kick with his right leg: “I had sufficient consciousness to realize my right leg was straight and not in contact with what I thought was the floor of the aircraft. Thinking this may be a way out, I drew my left leg up to it and paddled my way down… after I had descended several feet I slowly backed away and then swam to the surface.”23
A friendly trawler picked up the brave airman and delivered him back to safety in England where he was hospitalized for a broken ankle and other injuries.
Fortunately, few of us are taken to the absolute limit of either our endurance or our patience. However, we all experience situations where “one more kick” might make the difference between success and failure. We sometimes call it “going the extra mile,” often so important in business and sports. We sometimes forget that such effort is also needed many times with friends and family. Meeting someone more than halfway can save a relationship. God is always there to provide that extra reserve when we need it and call on him for it.
Arthur Davey was an ambulance driver in the evacuation to Dunkirk. Air raids interrupted several attempts to bring his convoy to the port, and he endured two days of anxious waiting outside the town, as the bombs seemed to fall ever closer. Finally, late in the afternoon of the second day, an officer came with instructions to move to the port, one ambulance at a time, in three-minute intervals. The officer promised that this time, there would be air cover for the embarkation. Davey described what happened next:
The British soldiers apparently used the term “nerve tonic” to describe lies told in tense times to calm them down. I doubt that the practice was widespread, because such a breach of honesty would destroy a regular unit over time. Soldiers have to trust their officers and vice versa. The same is true in all organizations, including our families. It’s easy to make promises that we fail to follow up on later. We all are tempted to downplay the negative and to give hope for something good to come. However, false hope is good for no one. Sooner or later, reality must prevail. We can all deal with reality better than a loss of trust in a parent, friend, or employer.
The evacuation of the army from Dunkirk offered hope and a brief respite for the British people. However, the Germans continued their drive through France, and the fate of Great Britain hung in the balance. Many British politicians were beginning to consider accommodations with Hitler that would allow the nation to avoid complete catastrophe. They wondered what would happen when the country stood alone against a Europe dominated by the Nazis. In this hour of fear and uncertainty, Winston Churchill addressed the nation to illuminate the difficult, but clear path ahead:
Looking back we can now appreciate these bold words as heroic and inspiring but how easy it is to forget the uncertainty prevailing at the time they were spoken. It must have been tempting for Churchill to hedge his bets. He could have alluded to the possibility of some accommodation with Hitler that would have guaranteed Britain’s continued existence. He knew, however, that there was only one difficult path to long-term survival.
The apostle Paul also painted a clear picture of our spiritual path and the urgency required to successfully pursue it. He left no room for half-hearted efforts.
From the opening of the war to the evacuation at Dunkirk, the British Army suffered one traumatic setback after another. It became a soldier’s battle at every point as the “fog of war” descended over the vast battlefield. Coordination was difficult, reliable information scarce, and rumors were rampant. The junior officers, sergeants, and individual soldiers saved the army from disintegration by taking the initiative to keep their units together in the confusion of retreat. It was not pretty, but it worked. Instead of the greatest military disaster in British history, the army’s successful retreat and miraculous escape from Dunkirk became a source of national inspiration and hope. As one historian noted:
Across the Atlantic, sensing this new spirit of defiance in the people and government of Great Britain, The New York Times proclaimed:
An American bishop asked an Englishman after the war, “How did you British survive that period during World War II between Dunkirk and the coming of the American personnel and supplies?” John Marsh, the principal of Mansfield College in Oxford, replied:
It may be difficult to quantify Winston Churchill’s contribution to the war effort, but there is no doubt that his moral leadership was pivotal. There was an Old Testament leader who also had to help his nation overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. King Asa was the third king of Judah and was known as a man of great integrity. During his reign he instituted a moral revival and a renewal in purity of worship to God. When his country was invaded by a vast Ethiopian army, he was also able to inspire his troops by ensuring them that they were on the “right side.” He placed himself and his kingdom under God’s providential care and, through his faithfulness, led his nation to a great victory.
As the British Expeditionary Force retreated toward Dunkirk, the Green Howards Regiment was part of the rear guard fighting to delay the German advance. This unit, like many others, had endured days and nights of constant action, and every man was bone tired, hungry, and anxious. On May 29 orders finally came for withdrawal to the evacuation beaches. A Green Howards rifleman described what he saw:
Many men were reassured and comforted on the beaches of Dunkirk as they turned to God both individually and in small groups. In the midst of this chaotic and dangerous ordeal these soldiers were able to go to a quiet place inside, where God always waits. We don’t know how each prayer was answered, but we do know that each man was touched in some way and strengthened by God’s presence. This is God’s promise to each of us: if we call out to him, he will listen, and he will be there for us in every crisis.
Twenty-one-year-old Pilot Officer John Beard was flying his Hurricane fighter at 15,000 feet, waiting for an attacking formation of enemy bombers and fighters to appear. Suddenly, his flight leader called out that he had them in sight. From a distance the other aircraft seemed like an unusual cloud formation, at first quite beautiful. Then, as they drew closer, the details began to stand out:
I doubt that all pilots were so calm going into combat. But it is surely a priceless ability to be able to quiet oneself in the midst of chaos. Some are able to accomplish this through the force of their own will power. Whether you and I have that capability is an interesting question. Fortunately, we know that we don’t have to rely on our own resources in times of trouble. Christians are blessed with knowledge of the sure path to inner tranquility in all situations. When we place our trust in Jesus Christ, we are assured of the most lasting and perfect peace possible to human beings.
John Beard found himself in the midst of a swirling melee of fighters and bombers. At one point a German Dornier 17 flew across his path followed by a pursuing Hurricane. Behind the Hurricane came two Messerschmitts. With a kick of his rudder he lined up on the German fighters, thumbed his gun button, and opened fire.
Checking his cockpit, Beard saw that his fuel supply and ammunition were low. He knew that he couldn’t take on two enemy fighters. At that point, however, the Messerschmitts broke off their attack and turned for home. A flood of relief washed over him as he put his nose down and did the same thing.
A religious person might attribute this flash of “instinct” to God’s saving grace. A skeptic would undoubtedly chalk it up to good luck. As a former skeptic I can understand the latter attitude. In thinking about my experiences in combat, I have wondered about the amazing extent of my own good luck. Did God intervene on my behalf? I can’t prove it to a skeptic, but I believe earnestly that he did. I thank God daily for watching over me in the past and for keeping my family and me safe through all the dangers we face now. The question for me is no longer Has God saved me? but Why has he done so? And what should I be doing in response to this amazing grace?
Hugh Godefroy was one of my great heroes: a Spitfire pilot during World War II. In 1940 he was an engineering student at Toronto University. He left school to volunteer for the Royal Canadian Air Force and to join the air battle in defense of England. Early in his training he encountered the difficulty of flying in clouds with no horizon or other outside reference points.
In the early days often I found myself sweating. I felt as though I were spinning in a spiral dive. One had to say to himself, ‘The instruments are right, and I am wrong.’ Finally I would break cloud, and find to my great relief that I was flying straight and level. We never worried in England at that time over what else might be flying in the same cloud. We never gave it a thought.32 In the early days of aviation, pilots had to fly “by the seat their pants.” There were no instruments to guide them. Now there are myriad devices that enable flight in darkness or clouds without visual references. Like most pilots I have experienced the overwhelming sensation while flying on instruments that the aircraft was doing something totally different from what the instruments were telling me. It became a struggle between my feelings and my knowledge of what was correct.
In our daily lives, our “instruments” are God’s words as revealed in the Bible. Sometimes biblical instructions are also counterintuitive. Jesus’ entire Sermon on the Mount is a departure from what then was considered ‘conventional’ wisdom. Even when our hearts attempt to steer us in the wrong direction, we must instead move in the direction God provides in his Word.
British Spitfire fighter. (Imperial War Museum, E(MOS) 1348)
Children in London after bombing. (National Archives)
As a Spitfire pilot with combat experience, Hugh Godefroy took some pride in his lack of superstition. He summed up his own attitude: “I was not superstitious, and finding someone who was, had always made me want to prove them wrong.” One day he was preparing for a patrol over enemy territory. One of his fellow pilots pointed out that it was the 13th of the month, also reminding him that he had been hit several times before on that day. In spite of his disdain for such thinking, he was suddenly struck with a mortal fear that he had never before experienced. For the entire mission he flew with a sense of dread. He unaccountably kept repeating the only prayer that he could remember: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”
When a group of enemy fighters attacked, he suddenly found himself flying and fighting for his life. He fatalistically resolved to sell himself dearly. Finally, grey with strain, nauseated, and out of ammunition, he sensed the end. With a Focke-Wulf 190 still on his tail, he turned for England, straightened out, and closed his eyes. After waiting for what seemed an eternity, he opened his eyes to see the enemy aircraft beside him, the other pilot looking over. After a few seconds the German broke off and headed back to France. Alone, on the ground, sitting in his cockpit, Hugh surveyed the holes in his damaged Spitfire and contemplated the folly of his own emotions. He resolved never again to let a superstitious reaction take over in the cockpit.33
While in combat I have also fought off dark thoughts about my chances of surviving and of my “luck” running out. Unfortunately for me, I was a spiritual skeptic at that time and can attest to the fact that such thoughts can be overpowering without a strong faith in God and a sure knowledge of a place in his kingdom.
In September 1940 Kathleen Rainer was working in the fields near Ewhurst, Sussex, with her mother and brother. That day she observed an unforgettable incident in the sky above. As a dogfight between Allied and enemy fighters was raging overhead she saw a parachute appear. She realized it must be an Allied pilot when, to her horror, German fighters began to make passes, firing their machine guns at the helpless aviator. Then she saw an amazing sight:
A big part of Great Britain’s success during the Battle of Britain is attributed to the survival rate of her invaluable pilots. The great advantage of fighting over home soil was the fact that so many of these young men were able to make it safely back to base, even if their aircraft were lost. For this to happen, however, it took teamwork and a strong belief in the value of each pilot’s life. Again, we see how important it was then to have strong, close-knit units in the face of danger.
We need the same sense of urgency now in supporting and protecting each other within our own spiritual units of the body of Christ. The dangers may not be as obvious as those of actual combat, but the battle for our hearts and souls is just as real. We need each other—our brothers and sisters in Christ—if we hope to come through unscathed.
Fighter pilots had to live with their own thoughts of death. Most, such as Squadron Leader Peter Townsend, were able to keep such thoughts at a distance:
As a religious skeptic during wartime, my thought process was similar to this. In moments of panic, I prayed to God, even though I didn’t know him and didn’t really expect an answer. When the crisis of the moment was over, I never gave him credit for the result. During the lulls in action I fought off the same dark realizations expressed by this British pilot. A lonely death could come at any time. I had a good enough imagination to know that it could happen to me. Still, I tried not to dwell on that fact.
When you only expect a void after death, the best you can do is to avoid thinking about it. What amazing peace is available to us in any crisis when we are confident in our relationship with God and in the knowledge of where we are ultimately going. The apostle Paul gave us the classic statement of reassurance:
During the Battle of Britain hundreds of Americans went to Canada to enlist with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and to join the fight against Nazi Germany. Eighteen year-old John Magee was one of these daring young men. After training he was sent to England where he joined No. 412 Fighter Squadron, RCAF. Flying his Spitfire in fighter sweeps over France and England he achieved the rank of pilot officer.
One day while flying at the extremely high altitude of 30,000 feet, he was struck with inspiration for a poem. On the ground he finished his poem and put it on the back of a letter to his parents. The words of the young airman continue to paint a vivid picture:
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
Unfortunately John Magee was killed three months after writing this poem. His majestic words have been quoted often, most notably by Ronald Reagan, eulogizing the Challenger 7 crew after their tragic loss in 1986: “They waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”37
To say that you have ‘touched the face of God’ may sound presumptuous. However, I believe that we all desire to come closer to God, and that there are moments when we feel his presence. The beauty of a sunset, a storm, many natural vistas, all evoke thoughts of God and his majesty. In quiet moments of prayer we often sense his presence and tender mercy. These moments are real and open to us daily as a sure way for each to “touch the face of God.”
It was Sheila Delaney’s eleventh birthday, but after school, sadly, there was no party. In the fall of 1940 the usual routine for her family was to move to the bomb shelter at about 6:00 p.m. Soon after that the air raids started. The bombers were heard droning overhead searching out their targets. This night it was Sheila’s town, Birmingham. They were comfortable enough in the shelter with their flask of tea, flashlights, and extra clothing for a long night. They could hear bombs exploding all around, but tried to keep occupied with singing and talking. Lying on a bunk, Sheila eventually drifted off to sleep, peacefully unaware of the bomb that was about to destroy her shelter. Later, she said:
What could be more random than the path of a falling bomb? Imagine life in an air raid shelter. Where is the next bomb going to fall? Undoubtedly, thousands of prayers went up to God during the Blitz, and many survivors could claim God’s protection. However, we know that many who prayed did not survive. Did God answer some and not others? No one can answer such a question. We know that death and destruction do occur in this world, and God doesn’t promise to protect us from all earthly harm. He does hear each of our prayers, and he does promise to be with us always.
Fighting for your life has to change your outlook on life. Dennis Robinson was nearing his home base after a long mission. Even though he knew better, his guard was down.
At this point Robinson’s aircraft was without power, defenseless, and gliding down. He began frantically searching for signs of the enemy fighter. Miraculously, he found himself alone in the sky. He managed to crash land his Spitfire in a field near Wareham and walk away with only a bullet graze on his leg. He felt strangely elated:
This young pilot’s combat experience is a good reminder for us living in comfortable surroundings. We need to periodically and intentionally reappraise our own value systems. The problems and crises in our lives often take our attention away from what is truly critical: our relationship to God the Father. We realize what is unimportant only when we grasp what is ultimately important.
Norman English was seven years old in August 1940 and lived adjacent to an RAF base. Bombs fell on and around the base often as the anti-aircraft guns returned fire. To a child it was very exciting:
God bless the little children. I am sure that the parents of these were gratified to see them acting their age even under the direst of circumstances. Jesus also admired the openness and honesty of children, and, in fact, stated that only those like children would be able to enter his kingdom. By this he meant that we all should cultivate a childlike wonder at the world and ability to accept simple truths. Jesus’ message is the ultimate in simplicity. Most children understand it immediately. We can’t work our way to God. God’s grace is a gift.
Watching dogfights high in the sky. (Harry S. Truman Library)
Fighting fires during the London blitz. (National Archives)
Forty days after the German invasion of France and Holland it began to appear that all was lost. The French army was largely routed. The noose was tightening at Dunkirk. Panic was beginning to ripple through Great Britain at the specter of her army being annihilated on the beaches of France. In utter desperation the church leaders of England, with the support of King George, many political leaders, and much of the nation’s press, called for a National Day of Prayer on May 26. On that Sunday church attendance mushroomed as thousands flocked to the altar, turning to God in the hour of their greatest trial.
As we know in retrospect, these prayers did not go unanswered. Hitler’s panzer divisions continued to hold back from an assault on the beaches at Dunkirk. Amazingly, the weather on the French coast and English Channel seemed to be finely tuned to benefit the desperate soldiers on the beaches. Somehow the Royal Air Force stemmed the tide of the Luftwaffe. Many years later the Reverend Clive Duncan of St. Mary’s Church delivered a sermon about these events:
If there ever were a time for people to quake with fear, this would have been it. But regardless of how they may have felt, the people of Great Britain found the strength to behave courageously. Their faith sustained them during their darkest hour. In the same way, whenever we feel daunted by circumstances beyond our control, we should call upon God and move forward courageously in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Elizabeth Batten was five years old when World War II started and had vivid recollections that she shared with her daughter, Ellen. She saw the sky light up over Liverpool during the bombings and heard the sounds of aerial combat overhead. She spent hours and sometimes all night in a shelter under the stairs. She cried a lot and forever after had an aversion to small spaces. She consoled herself by sticking Bible verses and Sunday school pictures on the walls of the shelter. She took special comfort in a picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and the image of him watching over her and her family.
In recent years Ellen Batten was leafing through her mother’s Bible and found a picture of her grandfather with an inscription on the back, “To Betty, lots of love, Daddy.” She thought about her mother’s prayers and how they were eventually answered when her father came home from the war. Her mother’s faith had sustained her through many difficult years. Ellen realized that her mother’s faith had also profoundly influenced her own spiritual life:
The key to Ellen’s faith, modeled after the faith of her mother, was that it was based not on what men do, but on who God is. It is a lesson that would serve all of us well to remember in every trial we face. The character and power of God is unchanging.
The Battle of Britain was raging. Every resource of Fighter Command was engaged in defense against the attacking Luftwaffe. On August 20 Winston Churchill went before the House of Commons once more to inform and reassure his countrymen. In this speech he coined the phrase “the few” to refer to the fighter pilots of the RAF. The phrase would stick.
We know from the outcome of this great struggle the effectiveness of a few good men. There are other examples of this phenomenon from previous wars. In biblical times, Gideon faced the army of Midian with thirty thousand of his own troops. God told him that he had too many men. Twenty thousand were dismissed, and, still, God told Gideon that he had too many men. Finally, three hundred were selected to battle the powerful Midianites. God did this to ensure that Israel would know that he had saved them, and not their military might. God also knew that a few good men could be more effective than a nervous horde.
A British air raid shelter. (National Archives)