Remembrance Sunday – Rev’d Christopher Miles

Sermon at St Mary Hadlow – Remembrance Sunday – 8th November 2015

 Isaiah 40 vv 21 – E – Isaiah brings a message of hope to Judah

  1. Introduction. During the reign of Hezekiah, a godly king, Jerusalem had been a city under siege from Sennacherib, King of Assyria and his troops. Isaiah sees that despite a reprieve, after King Hezekiah’s time, the nation will go into exile. Then we come on to the second half of the great book of Isaiah with a message of hope, beginning, “Comfort, comfort my people says your God” leading into the words which John the Baptist saw as his role in preparing the way for Christ, “A voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord”. The reading that I chose for today is the latter part of that Chapter, in which we are given the basis of the assurance, that all will ultimately turn out well because their God is the all powerful Creator of the universe. He who is the creator will give strength to his people.   Isaiah relates the word of the Lord, “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary and young men stumble and fall but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.”

During wartime many young men and to a lesser extent young women fell, but as I have read some of the accounts of events in the two World Wars and other actions, I have been amazed and inspired by those who were tired and exhausted, but did find strength to on and win through. I have tried over the years that I have preached here on Remembrance Sunday to keep a balance between the Services – The Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the Army and the Royal Air Force, so as not to give undue attention to my own Service but today on the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain, I shall give some prominence not only to the RAF but also its predecessor, the Royal Flying Corps in the first World War, as well as speaking about an individual, as a representative of those who sacrificed themselves in supporting our armed services.

  1. Royal Flying Corps. Isaiah’s message from the Lord concludes with the words, “Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not grow faint.” World War 1 began in 1914, only 11 years from the Wright brothers’ first flight of a powered aircraft. Aircraft were still at a very primitive stage of development and not developed specially for military operations, with some senior officers in the army seeing no use for aircraft in war.   In 1908 the Chief of General Staff, the Army’s most senior officer, had said, “Aviation is a useless and expensive fad advocated by a few individuals whose ideas are unworthy of attention.”  Nonetheless there were those with more foresight.   By the outbreak of war the British Army, also France and Germany, had small establishments of reconnaissance aircraft at the Western Front in Europe. Fairly soon these reconnaissance aircraft proved their worth in keeping the Army HQs informed of enemy positions and movement. From a flying point of view it was initially not a very hazardous occupation for the pilot and observer. Sometimes a soldier might take a pot shot at an aircraft and, being untrained in hitting a fast moving target, would almost certainly miss. Some officers and NCOs volunteered for flying duties as a way of escaping the awfulness of trench warfare. Flying aircraft was seen as a glamorous pastime.   But from the following year, 1915, 100 years ago, military aviation developed into serious combat. Opposing sides would engage in aerial combat generally with one or other aircraft being shot down in flames. The wood and canvas construction, with fuel tanks leaking from bullet holes, quickly became an inferno. During the whole of WW1 British pilots had no parachutes, despite them being invented 2 or 3 years before the end of the war. A pilot often faced the dreadful dilemma of either staying with his aircraft and almost certainly being burnt alive or jumping out with an almost certain death on hitting the earth.   As the aircraft proved their worth and expanded their scope into bombing as well as reconnaissance, more aircraft and pilots, the pilots with minimal training, were being sent to the Western Front. Their life expectancy was generally measured in weeks rather than months. Some got to the point of total physical and mental exhaustion and inability to continue.  This form of ‘shell shock’ was recognised at the time, with pilots being sent home to recover. Others, physically tired, somehow managed to continue for longer. The loss of their fellow squadron members took a serious toll on their mental reserves. Such was the sacrifice of those who fought in the Great the Royal Flying Corps, which had been formed in 1912
  1. The Royal Air Force. There were those amongst the more senior RFC officers, notably Major Hugh Trenchard who saw the need for a unified aviation force.   This came into being on 1st April 1918, a few months before the end of the fighting of WW1. During the 1920s parachutes came into use, aircraft development proceeded and from the mid 1930s, with the realisation, particularly by Winston Churchill, that we were heading for another War, aircraft production got under way after the cut backs during the 1920s. After a lull in the early months of World War 2, German Forces thrust their way through Belgium and France in 1940 in their blitzkrieg (literally ‘lightning strike’), we had to withdraw our troops through Dunkirk and our island was threatened with invasion. What became known as The Battle of Britain began 75 years ago in July 1940 and continued to the end of October 1940, when Hitler abandoned, for the time being, his planned invasion of Britain.   Our situation was not unlike that of the besieged Jerusalem in about 726 B C.  The German Forces were poised in France ready to invade England.   The German navy almost besieging us with very heavy losses of shipping in the Atlantic.   Firstly though, before Hitler could invade, he had to gain air superiority.   Once again there were those who rose up on wings, the Wings of Hurricanes and Spitfires, and who with supreme dedication and against superior numbers of equally capable aircraft operated by the enemy, and by God’s grace, as winter approached, finally and decisively averted the possibility of invasion.   Although as a nation we were alone at that point there were individual pilots from a number of the Commonwealth countries and European countries notably Poland, who fought with us. A visit to St George’s RAF Chapel at Biggin Hill is instructive in this respect, listing members of the RAF, Commonwealth Air Forces and from other countries, who were killed during the Battle of Britain.  In recognition of that decisive point in the war and in our national history, church services are still held in many places on Battle of Britain Sunday, the Sunday on or after 15th September when it became clear in 1940 that we were beginning to obtain the upper hand.  Such services used to be entitled, ‘A Service of Thanksgiving to God for our deliverance during the Battle of Britain’. It is I believe important to keep that thrust and not to let it become just a special RAF remembrance Sunday.   When the divine and human come together in harmony great things are achieved.
  1. Edith Cavell. I said in my introduction that I would refer to one person as a representative of those who provided support for our armed forces, often at great cost to themselves. At the outbreak of WW1 there was an English nurse working in a hospital in Belgium. In fact she was responsible for setting up a nurses’ training school. She opted to remain in Brussels when war broke out in order to complete her work there and also hoping to provide nursing for soldiers of both sides. Her name – Edith Cavell.   She was a Vicar’s daughter and was herself a committed Christian. Her expectation was that her hospital, operating under a Red Cross Flag and in accordance with the Geneva Convention, would care for both Allied and German soldiers, for as she told her nurses, “Any wounded soldier must be treated, friend or foe. Each man is a husband, father or son.” The Germans however set up their own hospitals.   Just over 100 years ago, on Monday 12th October 1915, having been arrested by the Germans, she was taken outside and shot by firing squad.  One has to say in some slight defence of the German action that she was shot, not for her nursing of British and Allied soldiers but for assisting them to return from German occupied Brussels to their own side. She deliberately chose not to wear her nurses uniform at the time of her execution.   Nonetheless Edith Cavell immediately became a national hero. Let her therefore on this Remembrance Sunday 100 years after her death, stand as a representative of all those in both wars and other actions who have given of themselves in support of their country and the servicemen and women directly engaged in combat.
  1. Conclusion. Let us then give thanks to God for all those men and women who in two World Wars and many other actions between and following those wars lost their lives or were wounded to achieve freedom for our own country and other countries, whether those men and women were in the Armed forces or supporting them and the war effort as a whole. Let us also be grateful for all the Service charities that in a variety of practical ways support former members of the Armed Services and in particular the Royal British Legion, to which our collection this morning will go. A particular word of thanks to Shaun Waddingham who organised the Hadlow street collection and those who went out doing the collection, for the Poppy Appeal.

1700 words                                                                                                                                                             Christopher Miles

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