Mike Crooks

Five weeks before D-Day I attended a conference for chaplains (mostly Army) who were going over on the day. This took place at the Combined Operations HQ in Whitehall. There were at least 60 of us present. We were addressed by General Sturges and the Second Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Algernon Willis, given briefs about what to expect on the beaches and told to draw morphia from the MO. In addition the Naval Chaplains were asked to draw a Church Pennant from stores, which was to be flown by the ship you were visiting if it was standing off-shore.

On the Saturday before D-Day I joined an American LST (Tank Landing Ship) – LST 529 – at anchor in the Thames Estuary. This ship is designed to carry tanks in the space below and transport on deck. It was fitted out as a hospital ship (of sorts) for the return journey, with rows of folding bunks on each side of the tank space and an operating table in the Ward Room (Officers Mess).

On boarding the ship I found that the troops were feeling the strain of waiting. Al1 ships had been loaded and ‘sealed’ a week previously with nobody allowed to leave – it was stressful. The following morning (Sunday) I had a Holy Communion Service at the intersection of two passages. (Difficult!….like catacombs.) This was a momentous occasion, for those communicants were all aware that in a few days time they might be dead – and some of them were. The Holy Mysteries of Christian Communion probably meant more to them that day in those overcrowded passages than at any other time in their lives. I shall never forget the look in the eyes of some. We were all trimmed down to size at that moment. At the end of the service the ‘sealed’ ship rule was broken for I was given a launch and allowed to go and take prayers and Holy Communion in several other ships. It was a solemn and strenuous day ending with a Service that I conducted on the ramp in the tank space.

The following morning (Monday), the long wait ended. The engines came alive, the rumble of the anchor chain, the engine room telegraph and we were off. It is impossible to describe the feeling of relief. It was strangely exhilarating. The sense of brooding suddenly evaporated and gave way to smiling faces, jokes, light-heartedness and rudery.

Out to sea we went, past North Foreland, Ramsgate, the Goodwins, much too far out in the Channel for my liking. There was France on our left with all its heavy coastal artillery – they must presently blow us to pieces – but strangely not a shot was fired. Two destroyers passed at speed laying a welcome smoke screen and on we went in this ever-growing, awe-inspiring fleet heading for ‘Piccadilly Circus’, that area south of the Isle of Wight where the ships from the East met those from the West and were joined by a monumental armada from Portsmouth, Southampton and the Solent. This was something the world had never seen before, the biggest invasion in history – 7,000 ships and craft. The Spanish Armada had 130!

Night came and another day – D-Day.

All were up and about (did we ever go to bed?). Looking down from the bridge we saw men moving about, some sitting on top of the covered wagons, one playing a banjo, one having a haircut, gunners swivelling their weapons – a spirit of nonchalance. Then came the voice of the BBC Home Service at full volume throughout the ship. ‘Under the command of General Eisenhower, allied naval forces began landing allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.’

The already high spirits went even higher – Jubilation! But this was short-lived for we were approaching a large curious looking object in the water and passed close by it. It was the underside of an upturned landing craft. It had a sobering effect and your imagination is as good as mine.

Soon we were at our appointed landing place and were ordered to anchor off-shore until the beachhead was secure as we were carrying highly secret equipment which must not fall into enemy hands. My church pennant was now hoisted. Canadian and British troops had stormed the defences and we listened to the battle further along the beach and just behind the rising ground in front of us. A signal came from ashore, ‘Send in your chaplain.’ Three US sailors delivered me ashore in one of our assault craft. On grounding they dropped the ramp and I was about to step into the water when I was suddenly swept off my feet by two large sailors and planted dry-shod on the sand. Then they began to dance about with boyish delight at being on JUNO beach on D-Day. I remember thinking at the time – ‘I wish to God they would do it somewhere else.’

I went on my way up the beach walking (like that Old Testament character, Agag, who ‘walked delicately’). There was a Sherman Flail Tank going to and fro exploding mines and I was astounded at the number of them, mostly small but occasionally a big one when the tank would immediately stop (and the chains hang limply down) whilst the driver had time to recover from the blinding blast and concussion right in front of his face. (For about 20 seconds or one minute). At this time things were relatively quiet apart from sniping. Of course, there were artillery shells, mines and booby traps and occasional hit-and-run raids by enemy aircraft. It was no place for German pilots that day for we had 11,000 aircraft in the sky.

My first encounter was with three Canadian soldiers who were still miraculously able to walk. They had been in a slit trench, five of them, when a bomb landed in one end. When it exploded so did a petrol bowser across the road. Those three men had no hair on their faces – no eyelashes – no eyebrows – no hair below the line of their helmets, and their faces were scorched scarlet. They were in a sorry state, scarcely knowing where they were. I asked about the other two.

‘Couldn’t find a trace of the first; the bomb was on him, and the second is in there – all we could find of him.’ He pointed to a sack on the ground. You could pick it up with one hand.

They had made tea, boiling the water in half a jerry-can and throwing in cubes – of tea, sugar, milk from their emergency rations. It looked awful, but was welcome to them in their condition. They deserved to survive. Having stayed with them for a time I moved on to the wounded on stretchers, (the majority of them were Germans as they had suffered a fearful bombardment from sea and air before our landing), and then on to the burial of the dead. These casualties were later exhumed and moved to war cemeteries.

There was much work to be done that day – ‘the longest day.’ The briefest survey must include my admiration for the doctors and sick bay attendants.

Being now in my eightieth year, memory is unreliable for the sequence of events as I had at least 16 Channel crossings in the ensuing weeks. But I vividly remember the rows of dead German soldiers all carefully laid out on the ground by our orderlies with the contents of their pockets and identity discs in bags attached to their uniforms, subsequently to be sent to their next of kin. They looked so young compared with our more mature soldiers. I remember the farmyards and paddocks near Courseulles, where horses and cattle lay dead in the fields, pigs with their feet in the air and groups of cows still alive, crying out pitifully to be milked.

There were two exciting days and infernally noisy nights with vehicles, tanks and armoured cars, pouring ashore past our high and dry landing craft in a constant stream, everybody blazing away with their guns at the sound of aircraft passing over. It is impossible to describe the volume of noise, and flak going up like a firework display to end all – and of course our own shrapnel coming down like rain. We were all in danger of being killed by our own gunfire.

And then the journey home on the third night, all bunks filled with wounded. We did our best for them, but there was always a feeling of inadequacy – we wanted to do more.

At Theological College we had not been taught how to cope with dying young men, whose bodies were beyond recall. But in those college days wise men were there who were able to detonate the latent ideas in our minds, and how to come to grips with the purpose of existence. My own concept of God had a long way to go in order to comprehend the mystery of our Christian religion. In that process the Hand of God was with us.

The Crucified One was strangely with us – and was still there on D-Day when the support of His strength, His suffering and His Holy Spirit were desperately needed. He was with us. Looking back upon the momentous events of that time, unequalled in history, I maintain that the troops were marvellous. Remember, those soldiers, sailors and airmen were businessmen, teachers, bus-drivers, lawyers, factory workers, writers, road sweepers – you name it. They didn’t want war. They didn’t want to be there. Their place was at home. But we were all called upon to fulfil a function, a necessary task. no matter how awful. The Chaplain’s role was one of rare privilege, carrying out duties of compassion, healing, evangelism, moral support.

These are the words of a BBC announcement broadcast about a week after D-Day. ‘Many thousands of men went forth for righteousness sake and no other reason. The Chaplains were asked, and strongly asked, to make our men as Christian as we could.’

Today, I have a golden opportunity to turn that the other way round and declare – as I remember the fortitude of those young men, their devotion to duty, comradeship, laughter and winning sense of humour – they were the ones who made me a better Christian than I ever was before.

And now, my final words to you for the present and the future. What better than the quiet Celtic Benediction of that splendidly chosen anthem:
Deep peace of the running wave to you;
Deep peace of the flowing air to you;
Deep peace of the earth to you;
Deep peace of the shining stars to you;
Deep peace of the gentle night to you;
Moon and stars pour out their healing light on you;
Deep peace of Christ, the light of the world, to you;
Deep peace of Christ to you. Amen.