Canadian Military Chaplains in North West Europe, 1944-1945

Canadian Military Chaplains in the Second World War

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3397095)

Chaplains working with a Regimental Aid Post (RAP) evacuate wounded 3rd Canadian Infantry Division soldiers, Caen, France, 15 July, 1944.

In the Second World War, 1253 Canadian ministers, priests and rabbis volunteered as full-time chaplains. Of the 1253, 807 were Protestant Ministers, 446 were Roman Catholic priests, and 10 were Jewish rabbis.

From the beginning of the Second World War in September 1939, Canadian military chaplains took part in supporting all branches of the Canadian Forces. Chaplains were recruited and appointed for the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, and arrangements were made for the establishment of chaplains for the RCAF and RCN. These chaplains initially served under the jurisdiction of the Principal Chaplain, Army, but on 1 January 1941 and 3 August 1942, 65, RCN chaplains and RCAF chaplains were incorporated as distinctive chaplaincy branches in the Canadian Forces. (Waldo Smith, The Navy Chaplain and His Parish (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1967), p. 194)

George Anderson Wells was tasked to create a professional military chaplain corps, and to ensure the members had the religious, natural and physical requirements to successfully carry out their mission. Wells wanted chaplains who possessed a realistic understanding of the passion, diplomacy and discipline that clergy would beforced to exercise while in the military. Most clergy who enlisted volunteered as chaplains. For example, of all the United Church ministers who served in the war 26 served as Auxiliary Service Officers, 42fought as combatants (two were killed in action), and 227 donned the uniform of the Chaplain Services (three United Church chaplains were killed or died on active service).

In the Instruction For The Canadian Chaplain Service, appointments to the Service were made on the recommendation of the Principal Chaplains. No clergyman could be appointed without the approval and recommendation of the branch of the Church to which he belongs. Qualifications: a) An applicant must be a duly accredited clergyman of the religious communion to which he belongs and must have served in the active ministry of that branch of the Church for at least three years, b) No chaplain will be permitted to serve overseas who is under 30 years or over 50 years of age, except those selected for Senior appointments, c) Every applicant is required before appointment to be passed by a Medical Board as medically fit for general military service. (George Anderson Wells, Instructions for The Canadian Chaplain Service (Ottawa:J.O. Patenaude, King's Printer, 1939), pp. 7-8)

In the Second World War the men of the Canadian Chaplain Service were the only military officials responsible to “seek the spiritual and moral welfare of the men...by maintaining a high morale among them." Meeting the needs of the men’s “spiritual and moral welfare” was an all-encompassing role. Responding to the events of battle, chaplains tried to provide for the men the means of grace before battle, a friend while they bled, and the presence of God in the face of death. (Wells, Instructions for The Canadian Chaplain Service (Ottawa: J.O. Patenaude, King's Printer, 1939), pp. 7-8.)

368,263 Canadians served overseas during the Second World War. (C.P. Stacey, Six Years of War: The Army in Canada, Britain and the Pacific (Ottawa: Queen's Printer,1955), p. 191.) On the 3rd of February 1941, Protestant and Roman Catholic Chaplains met together at Aldershot in England and resolved that, during battle their most important priority was to “be in touch with the greatest possible number of wounded.” Therefore, they decided that unit chaplains should remain with the Medial Oficer (MO) of the unit at the Regimental Aid Post (RAP), and Brigade Chaplains should attach themselves to the Field Ambulance. Second, meetings began in March 1941, to familiarize chaplains with battle conditions. At one of these sessions, Major K. Hunter 1st Canadian Infantry Division, lectured on the role of the medical services when the divisional and corps soldiers go into action, for the purpose of helping chaplains decide where they could best be used in battle. Third, subsequent lectures included instruction in First Aid. Fourth, from the 9th to the 11th of April 1941 chaplains initiated their own war games. During these exercises, every effort was made to work out a procedure for chaplains during actual conditions of warfare. The following policy was agreed upon: a) - look after the requirements of their own regiment. b) - keep in touch with all attached troops. c) - make regular visits to the Medical Dressing Station (MDS), and Advanced Dressing Station (ADS). d) - keep the Senior Chaplain posted as regards their needs, location and general conditions. Fifth, chaplains were tested on their ability to write letters to next of kin. At the suggestion of General A.G.L. McNaughton, GOC-in-C [General Officer Commanding in Chief] all chaplains were asked to submit copies of the kind of letters they would write toa grieving family back in Canada—not revealing too many military details, and yet, being sympathetic and thoroughly describing pertinent details of the cause of death and final resting place. (H/Lt.-Col. W.T.R. Flemington, "Report: APC (P), April 1941," Library and Archives Canada collection, RG 24)

Canadian Chaplains were present in two of the hardest fought campaigns of the war, the Italian campaign and the Battle of Normandy. The Italian campaign was very costly for Canadian forces, with 5,399 killed, 19,486 wounded and just over 1,000 soldiers taken prisoner. Throughout the campaign Canadian forces encountered immense enemy resistance as they fought through the Hitler Line in May of 1944, and the Gothic line from the fall of 1944 to the spring of 1945. The bloodiest battle for Canadians taking part in the Italian campaign took place at Ortona. The Battle of Ortona, which lasted through December of 1943, saw over 1300 Canadian men killed during a single week of fighting. The Battle of Normandy also proved to be costly for Canadians. Canadian troops suffered 961 casualties on D-Day, the majority on Juno Beach. Between 6 June and 21 August 1944, the Canadians suffered over 18,000 casualties in Normandy, including over 5,000 dead. (Antony Beevor, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), p. 131)

Attached to combat units at the front, the Canadian chaplain suffered the same as any other soldier: physically, psychologically and spiritually. These various hardships combined to create an environment where even the most stalwart believer would have their faith tested. Just because they presented a firm resolve to the men around them does not mean that they were not deeply affected by the tragedy that they witnessed daily.

On 4 May 1945 a message was broadcast over the BBC at 2030 hours: " It has been announced from the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force that all German forces in North-west Germany, Holland and Denmark have surrendered unconditionally to 21st Army Group effective at 0800 hours tomorrow.'" Upon hearing the message all units initiated an immediate cease-fire.

1253 Canadian ministers and priests (800 Protestant, 446 Roman Catholic and 7Jewish) donned a military uniform and served as military chaplains in the Canadian Army, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War. Chaplains played a primary role in sustaining and boosting the faith of believers in uniform overseas during the war. (John M. MacInnis, God’s silent witnesses: Protestant chaplains in the Canadian Military, 1939-1945, Thesis, 2017)

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3191765)

H/Major John W. Forth, Chaplain of The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (M.G.), helping the unit's Regimental Aid Party to treat a wounded soldier near Caen, France, 15 July 1944.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3191706)

H/Major J.W. Forth, chaplain of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, assisting the Regimental Aid Party of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa in loading a wounded soldier onto a jeep near Caen, France, 15 July 1944.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3191759)

Chaplain H/Captain Robert Seaborn giving absolution to a dying soldier, Normandy, 15 July 1944.