Sunday, May 3, 2009

"They Don't Look Much Different From Us": A Sermon for Battle of the Atlantic Sunday

Preached at St. Mark's Protestant Chapel, 14 Wing, CFB Greenwood, 3 June, 2009

I was asked to step in at the last minute and preach at one of the two church parades and commemoration services that are especially important and beloved in the Air Force community, the other being Battle of Britain Sunday in September. The task of preaching on these occasions is tricky - one doesn't want to engage in triumphalism and say that God is on our side and always has been. However, one wants to connect a significant piece of military heritage (which is what the uniformed guests come for) with some sound theology. I'm not sure I succeeded, but the sermon received good remarks at the door. It was also an opportunity for me to experiment with power point and embedded video clips for sermon illustrations.

Two survivors of U-175, a German submarine sunk by the United States Coast Guard, 1943. More photos here. Royal Canadian Navy survivors of a torpedoed corvette.

As we heard the Wing Admin Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Smith-McBride, read from scripture just now, “For every thing there is a season, and a time” (Ecc 3:1) and today is a time to remember. This Sunday we gather to remember the Battle of the Atlantic, an historical event which continues to define us as Canadians and as members of the Canadian Forces serving on this Wing, and I’ll say more about that shortly. We also gather, as this chapel community of St. Marks does each Sunday, as a people of faith to give thanks and praise to God who works in history. The story of St. Paul on the Roman ship in Acts, which the Wing Chief read to us, reminds us that God is present in the struggles and fearful moments of each generation, whether on ship, on land, or also in the air, to bring about something better. As my opening slide suggests, despite the lines of race, ideology and hostility which have divided humans throughout our history, God continues to work for and to heal all of his creation, and I’ll speak briefly about that too. First, as I said, we are gathered to remember an event, the Battle of the Atlantic, which continues to define us as Canadians and as members of the Canadian military. The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest campaign of the Second World War. It was a victory on which all the other victories depended. If the German submarine fleet had not been defeated, starvation and surrender would have been forced on England. The great landings such as D-Day could not have happened, and there would have been no liberation for the peoples of occupied Europe. The Nazi system of death camps and extermination would have prospered and spread. That these things did not happen is only due to the constant vigilance, great physical and spiritual stamina, and almost superhuman bravery of the crews, both on sea and in the air, which kept the Atlantic open. The Battle of the Atlantic was a combined arms campaign of great complexity, involving the work of the allied navies:
Canadian warship HMCS Baddeck

air forces: Artist's rendition of RCAF Flight Lt. Hornell's Victoria Cross-winning action against a German submarine.

and merchant marines: Rescued merchant seamen on a Canadian warship.

For the ships’ crews, the only thing worse than battling the storms of the North Atlantic and Arctic Seas was the calmer weather which kept them listening for the torpedo which could strike at any moment. The bravery, perseverance and sacrifice of these crews made possible the safe passage of supplies that would keep England in the fight, and the safe transport of the armies that would train and prepare for the liberation of Europe. On a personal note, my own father was one of the soldiers who crossed the Atlantic with First Canadian Division in 1940, and my own mother, a young war bride with three children, crossed the other way to Halifax in early 1945. There were more precious things than tanks and shells on those ships that the escorts faithfully shepherded. For the Royal Canadian Air Force, the campaign meant close cooperation with the navy as the allies gradually extended the air umbrella over the convoys. This is not an abstract historical fact for members of 14 Wing (slide). Our three squadrons on base can all boast of battle honours won in the Battle of the Atlantic, earned by long hours of patrolling and by deadly combat against German naval assets over an unforgiving sea. This cooperation of the navy and air force truly illustrates our Wing’s motto of “Operate As One”. For the ships’ crews, the sight of a friendly aircraft was always encouraging. The British author and corvette captain Nicholas Monsarratt describes it this way:

There is a certain comradely pleasure in meeting an aircraft on long-range reconnaissance. A wide-awake look-out picks it up, the signalman of the watch challenges and is answered; and then it flies past, sometimes quite close, giving little dips of its wings and flirts of its tail; the pilot waves, and you wave back, and you think, “My God, I wouldn’t care to be so far out in an aeroplane”, and he is probably thinking, “My God, I wouldn’t care to be down there, in that sea”. The sense of being on the job together is a very strong one. (Nicholas Mnsarrat, Three Corvettes, 1945. London: Granada, 1972, p. 35). As we heard during the Air Force mess dinner, the work and experience of the RCAF in the Atlantic continued to pay dividends in the Cold War as Canadian aircrews continued to guard against another submarine fleet. Today, whenever a 14 Wing aircraft leaves this base, the heritage of the Battle of the Atlantic flies with it.

I’ve mentioned Nicholas Monsarrat, and I want to let him tell a bit more of the story. In the movie version of his most famous book, The Cruel Sea, filmed in 1953, the climactic scene comes at the end of a long chase. A British ship has been hunting a German sub, a U-Boat, for days, and after everyone else except the Captain thinks there is no U-Boat. The U-boat is depth-charged, forced to the service, and after an uneven fight, the German crew abandons their submarine and swims towards the waiting enemy, which has let down scrambling nets and ropes to aid their rescue. As the coughing and dirty survivors are pulled on board, the first officer says to the captain, "They don't look much different from us, do they?" Throught the film, there are many scenes of the ships crew rescuing survivors of merchant ships, and being rescued themselves when their first ship is torpedoed. The point of the clip is to show that despite being the sworn enemies of the UBoats, the destroyer crew can recognize a common humanity in the oil-soaked figures they are pulling to safety.

This vision of a common-humanity is what I, as a preacher, find most inspiring, and what I think we are called to remember this morning. I had another vision of this common humanity some years ago, when I was a student priest at an Anglican church in Kitchener. Several parishioners were veterans, including Charley, an RCAF Spitfire pilot with a distinguished war record. There was also Otto, a quiet, dignified gentleman with a strong German accent, who kept much to himself. It was only when Otto was dying that I learned his story - as a young man he had served as a conscript sailor on a German U-Boat. He did not advertise the fact, and in an upper-middle class, very English Anglican church, who could blame him? But I found the idea of these two former adversaries, united Sunday by Sunday to sing and praise God, to hear scripture read and preached on, and to be strengthened by the holy sacraments, a very appealing story. This was, I believe, a vision of God's peace, God's shalom, that we are called to. As scripture says in many places, including in the prophet Isaiah, God's will is that all the nations are called to leave peaceably together (Isa 56:7).

Yes, it was a good and necessary thing that the submarines be defeated, for the reasons I've outlined above. Yes, it is a good and necessary thing that we, at an Air Force base with traditions dating to this battle, remember our heritage. But this Sunday, we are also called to remember that the loving God we worship is the creator of all, and sees us all as his beloved creations. God sees unites us, and sorrows at what divides us. Those of you who have worn, and now wear your country's uniform, know that it is not likely you will soon be able to take it off for God. The world is still too dangerous, too uncertain. Peace is illusive and difficult to attain. But consider this - that God's purpose is always to bring peace out of war, for God is the sworn enemy of death, and darkness, and chaos, and is always working to bring life, and light, and peace into being. God's own raising of his Son, Jesus Christ, from the death, is the strongest proof of His intentions for the world. God, as I said at the beginning, is working in history, both in the account of St. Paul in Acts, in the history we remember today, and in our own time. Who would have predicted during World War Two that sixty years later Canadian troops and war material would safely cross a peaceful Atlantic to fight beside our German Nato allies in Afghanistan as we try to bring a better future to that country? The struggle is not easy, and much flawed, but I believe that light and life and hope are always God's purposes in the world. Will we stand with God and take up our share of this work?

1 comment:

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

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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