Sunday, June 1, 2008

A Sermon for D-Day

I had the honour of conducting the annual D-Day service at Victoria Park in London for the 1st Hussars when their padre, Fr. Chris Gillespie, was unavailable. As it was my first Sunday after resigning from my parish, and was the day before my transfer from the reserve to the regular Canadian Forces, it seemed like a suitable employment for a Sunday. 1H as they are known within 31 Brigade have a proud history, including being one of the first units ashore on Juno Beach, making the hazardous journey ashore in their amphibuous duplex drive Sherman tanks to clear the beaches for the Canadian infantry. Here's the sermon, kept appropriately brief for a standing audience of soldiers:

It gives me great pleasure to bring greetings from LCol Millman and all ranks of the Fourth Battalion, the Royal Canadian Regiment. Ever since some soldiers rode to battle and others marched, there as been a rivalry between the cavalry and the infantry, and that rivalry continues between our two units. However, when the stories of D-Day and the Normandy campaign are told, there isn’t a Royal Canadian in A Block who is not proud to have as our neighbours, the gallant Hussars.

Today we gather to mark the sixty fourth anniversary of D-Day. Nothing in military history had ever been attempted on this scale before. For the fifteen thousand Canadians who participated with their Allies in Operation Overlord, it would be the ultimate test of training and of courage. Coming from the air by night and from the sea in the grey light of dawn, Canadian soldiers, supported by airmen and sailors, joined with their Allies in what General Dwight D. Eisenhower called a crusade to free the peoples of Europe from Nazi occupation and oppression.

Just after 0700 on the sixth of June, four squadrons of Canadian amphibious tanks, including two from the First Hussars, began their long slow run into Juno Beach. The crews of these tanks displayed exemplary skill and courage, trusting that the canvas screens of their tanks would keep them afloat in a choppy sea lashed with German gunfire. The phrase “a leap of faith”, a favourite of we preachers, took on a whole new meaning that morning. As Sgt. Leo Gariepy described the moment of launching, the tank would drop off the ramp of the landing craft, sink into the sea until less than six inches of canvas were above the water, and then get underway. Once ashore, the Hussars helped the Canadian infantry overcome the German beach defences and proceed inland. One infantry unit, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, reported in gratitude that “no higher degree of courage or calculated daring could be displayed than that shown by every commander and sub-unit of this gallant Regt” (Regimental history, The Gallant Hussars, p. 124).

In the weeks that followed the D-Day landing, the First Hussars and their colleagues confronted and overcame the best troops of Europe’s best army, at a considerable cost. While the civilian population suffered in the midst of this combat, they always knew that the Allies had come as liberators. This fact is clearly demonstrated in the account of how the Hussars’ famous tank, “The Angel”, earned its celebrated mascot. After the landings, two Hussars were investigating a village when an elderly man asked them to celebrate the village’s liberation by ringing the church bell, which had been silent throughout the occupation. In gratitude, the Hussars were given a metal plaque of an angel, which graced three tanks by that name and was presented to the Juno Beach Centre in 2003.

Christian scripture tells us that angels are messengers of grace and peace. Soldiers make unlikely angels, to be sure, but that summer in Normandy and in the years since, Canadian soldiers have been messengers of peace. They come ready to do battle, and often fight at great cost, but the people of Normandy, like the peoples of Bosnia and Afghanistan, know that these soldiers are to be welcomed as agents of peace and a better future, and need not be feared as occupiers. Today, while we honour our fallen comrades of the Normandy campaign, we are mindful of our brothers and sisters in arms who have laid down their lives in the years since, including the most recent years. We commend them as well today to the mercy of God. We pray that their families may find peace in healing in times of sorrow and grief. Finally, we pray that their sacrifice not be in vain, but that their efforts build a better future for all the world.


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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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