Saturday Snippet: A chaplain at war


Back in the 1960’s, one of my all-time favorite naval historians, the late John Winton, edited a volume of short memoirs of naval history during World War II.  It was part of a trilogy called the “Freedom’s Battle” series:  the other two dealt with war on land and war in the air.  His was titled simply “The War At Sea“.  It’s long out of print, but still available as a used book.  (I have all three volumes of “Freedom’s Battle” in my library.)

After the Falklands War of 1982, Winton started to gather stories from the servicemen who went to the South Atlantic to recapture the islands from Argentina, in the same way that he’d gathered them from World War II naval personnel a couple of decades earlier.  He published a collected volume of their accounts in 1995.  It was titled “Signals From The Falklands“.

It’s a great source of material for writers on modern naval warfare and related subjects, including one of the most challenging logistics and resupply environments in the history of naval warfare.  I’ve read and re-read it from time to time in search of ideas and information.

One of the vignettes it contains is by Rev. Charles E. Stewart, a Scottish Free Church Chaplain aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes.

This is written against the background of conflict. The situation is still very turbulent, even though Port Stanley has fallen. What the future holds for us is still largely uncertain. Defence stations and quick threat responses are still part and parcel of our daily lives.

It is not a report on how others have coped and reacted to the pressures of a modern, technologically dominated warfare. There is no privilege or place for standing back and observing others. Everyone is, literally, in the ‘same boat’. What affects one affects us all. We are all subject to the same internal pressures that 2,000 men living in very close proximity to each other, in a restricted environment, for months on end and in rough weather – can generate. The external threat, whether from land, sea, under the sea, or air, is ever-present. Exocet missiles are no respecters of persons, as sadly we have come to experience these past weeks.

But there is a bond of colleagueship that has been forged out of the heat of our corporate experience together in this floating metal community (some would say monastery)! So I offer some impressions of our common experience and how they have left an indelible imprint on my life.

Even before we set sail from Portsmouth Naval Dockyard on 5 April I was deeply conscious of the tremendous sense of common purpose from every quarter. Items of stores, which normally would have taken months to collect, suddenly appeared overnight. Red tape was ditched as Dockyard workers achieved results, which even now we find difficult to comprehend. Everyone – civilian and Service personnel – formed part of a team, the membership of which transcended uniforms or boiler suits. We were identified as a people with each, in a way I had never before experienced. There was a common sense of purpose and direction. Everyone’s contribution, however small, was acknowledged to be worthwhile, for it was directed to a common goal. It is significant that the title given to the Task Force operation was ‘Operation Corporate’, for it is a theme that has characterized this venture from the outset.

Our departure was an extremely emotional affair. There was not a dry eye on board at the breakwater, in spite of claims that it was owing to the strong winds across the flight deck.

Up to and including our arrival at Ascension Island we firmly expected a political solution to be forthcoming. As we left the warm and pleasant climate of that region and headed for the stormy and unpredictable waters of the South Atlantic, the chilling realization gradually evolved that a bloody confrontation was on the way. Jovial banter about the possible outcome of conflict, prior to arriving at Ascension, was largely conditioned by the mass media, which all too often glorifies and trivializes war. This gave way to a more sombre attitude. Preparations that had been made as part of the course now took on a much deeper significance. Will forms were completed and professional determination was uppermost in our minds. If we were required to act then it would be so.

Talks dragged on and eventually petered out. The announcement that the Argentine cruiser had been sunk was met with silence and a genuine sadness by all on board. That attitude was to change somewhat in the coming weeks ahead.

For the sake of brevity I move to the occasions when we were constantly under attack from the air from dawn to dusk. Several of our ships had been sunk. Good friends had either been killed, badly burned, or maimed. To say that it was a terrifying experience fails to capture the intensity of the emotion. The chilling sound of the Action Stations alarm will forever send shivers down my spine. When the ‘Stand to’ order came – i.e. ‘Hit the deck, fast’ – it generally meant that a missile had been released at us. During those wretched moments of utter silence, lying on the deck at our action station post, which for me was the sick bay, you waited, helpless to do anything but trust that your colleagues on the bridge and defence systems could take the appropriate actions to prevent the possible obliteration of our ship.

Those moments, and there were many, will always remain vividly clear for one reason; the utter calm and peace that I received that, whatever happened, I was secure in the presence of God. The words of the Psalm ‘Be still my soul’ and indeed many of the Psalms, were to take on a clarity never before perceived. Indeed, the word of God throughout this sad affair has captured my experience with a tremendous clarity. It is alive and pulsating.

Because of the torpedo threat the ship’s Chapel, which is situated below the waterline, was out of bounds. Worship was, therefore, conducted in the most unlikely places; store rooms, offices and dining halls. Cassocks and gowns gave way to boiler suits and anti-flash headgear. Loins were girded with life-jackets, respirators and survival suits. I was encompassed, not as in the past, by choir members but crates of stores and sacks of potatoes. And yet, those times of worship and communion are amongst the most spiritually uplifting. The presence of God was shared deeply by all present. Likewise the mid-week Christian Fellowships, which met twice weekly in the catering office on Tuesday and Thursday evenings after sunset, since at that time there was less chance of air attacks. Nevertheless, the group was drawn hastily to a close on several occasions with the dreaded sound of the Action Stations alarm.

It has also been, for many of us, a time of deep personal sorrow, for we have lost friends. We know the widows and the children. One loss, which cut me up, was a member of the SAS. On one of the sorties he had sustained some injuries which required him to spend some time in our sick bay. In spite of the particular image of the SAS he was the epitome of gentleness and understanding. Even whilst injured he cared for his fellow patients, many from the Sheffield sinking. To see this man hobbling across the floor to give a drink to a badly burned colleague was indeed moving. We formed a close friendship, having long chats into the wee sma’ hours about our wives and children and life. The day he was discharged from the sick bay he was drowned in a helicopter accident.

We buried the dead from other ships in simple committal ceremonies from the quarter deck. The bodies were wrapped in a canvas shroud, weighted and draped with the White Ensign. I well remember the bitterness I felt. We had just committed a young man from one of those ships when the Action Stations alarm sounded. The planes, whose results we had so clearly witnessed, were back again. As our Harriers took off to engage them, my thoughts were only for the victory of their action.

You learn down here to weep silently in your cabin at man’s folly.

Throughout the weeks of conflict, the situation, with its disrupted sleeping and eating habits, has, by some strange alchemy, distilled its own very effective veneer remover. Even the fairly rigid rank structure of the Royal Navy has been penetrated. People across the ranks are more understanding. There is a greater degree of empathy for those who are having a down phase. (We were all subject to those.) Much of the veneer, which so often attends professional life, has been removed, exposing how vulnerable we are. We are indeed frail children of dust, needing to love and be loved. I see this a gentle moving of the spirit, as many on board are beginning to ask themselves what are life’s real and lasting priorities. Suddenly questions of love and relationships become significantly greater than ambition. Many have become conscious of how much they have taken for granted the love of their wives.

People have certainly changed and I would say for the better. They are more open to their feelings and personal needs. Many admit that, when the time comes to return home, they will find it difficult to control their emotions as we swing into Portsmouth Harbour … such a different attitude from when we left.

One cannot but be impressed by the response of the wives. They are the ones who deserve the medals. We on board have had the support of our shipmates to sustain us. For so many young wives with young children, coping on their own, very often separated from family, I have nothing but deep admiration for the major unsung contribution they have made to this operation. And for my shore-based chaplains, working flat out with families and those bereaved, their ministry has had a tremendous impact for the Kingdom of God.

One cannot but be impressed also by the overwhelming response of the British public. We on board Hermes have received thousands of letters – anything from a nine-year-old telling us how they dislike green cabbage but like writing to sailors (all this with blunt pencils), to one dear old soul who had lost her own son at sea during the Second World War and who enclosed a box of red roses from her garden ‘to be thrown on the waters of the South Atlantic to commemorate our lost colleagues …’

And so I could go on with example after example. But one impression gained from many of the letters sent to me – which kindly mention how important Chaplains must be during hostilities – was the inference that somehow God is only concerned with those experiences like death, suffering, fear and anxiety. Is there not a tendency to push God out onto the periphery of those areas that conflict brings – but that come the day of peace He has little relevance to the normal central issues. My task as a Naval Chaplain, serving the Kirk in the Royal Navy, has not changed from its peacetime role. People have the same basic needs. Probably the crisis has penetrated the surface, allowing more readily the deep to relate unto deep. God is still calling man into a loving relationship of Faith.

I have no idea what the future may hold for us here in the South Atlantic. I do know that it has been my privilege to minister in God’s name to a remarkable group of people, some of whom are only 16½ years of age, whose professionalism, courage, devotion and compassion – not to mention their own distinctive sense of humour, which, alas, I doubt I could use at the Women’s Guild – has for me returned, for the highest reasons, the Great back into Britain.

My last and most certain impression is that I know whom I have believed in and am certainly persuaded that, come what may in the future, He is able to keep that which I’ve committed to Him – MY LIFE.

It’s a sad reflection on modern politics and the incessant greed of the welfare state that today, Britain’s Royal Navy no longer has enough ships, personnel or weapons to repeat its victory at the Falklands if it should become necessary.  All it could do is blockade Argentinian ports using its nuclear submarine fleet, and hope that such interference with trade would apply sufficient economic pressure to prevail.  That’s by no means certain, particularly when dealing with South American machismo.



  1. Powerful testimony to what people CAN accomplish when needs must… And you're right, unable to repeat that today. I'm not sure we could either…

  2. Argentina has also suffered from socialism and corruption. The British Navy is not what it was, but their two carriers, 8 destroyers and 12 frigates would still curbstomp the 3 poorly maintained Argentine destroyers and miscellaneous support craft.

    The Argentine Airforce is even worse, if reports are correct. They had 36 A-4's, but only 6 are supposed to be operational. Their other jet aircraft model is considered a trainer, as the Pampa has a maximum speed of 505mph (only 6 of these as well). Their armament is also suspect.

  3. I've heard from Peruvian friends that a number of fighters (and their pilots) from the Peruvian Air Force were sent to Argentina in this conflict. Peru still has ill will towards the British for arming and training Chile so they could invade and conquer parts of Bolivia and Peru in 1879 ("Guano War") so the British would be assured a supply of nitrates.

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