Royal Canadian Army Chaplain Corps (RCAChC) 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 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 Officer (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.

(Harm Kuijper Photo)

Chaplain jeep crossing the Zutphen bridge in the Netherlands, possibly Major R. Myles Hickey.

Major R. Myles Hickey, MC

One of the things about New Brunswick military history is that it is intricately tied to most of our family history. As a boy on farm in Carleton County I can remember listening to a veteran of the Second World War talking to my grandfather, a First World War veteran, about his experiences in Normandy. The man had served with the North Shore Regiment, and he was talking about the Hitler Youth boys he had fought and the hard fact that they wouldn’t surrender even when the adults had, and had to be mown down with machine gun fire. My grandfather said he was still suffering from a form of shell-shock. These days we call it post-traumatic stress. It has always been around us, even in peacetime.

When my father, RCAF Warrant Officer Aage C. Skaarup was posted to CFB Chatham, New Brunswick where he serviced the equipment that was used to start up the McDonnell CF-101B Voodoos, my mother Beatrice introduced me to another veteran soldier who had been in Normandy. He was a former chaplain who had also served with the North Shore Regiment, and at that time in 1973 was living in a hospital in the town of Chatham. The first thing I noticed as I entered his small room was a Military Cross hanging on his mirror, a fairly rare medal of bravery. I am not catholic, so calling him a father didn’t seem right. I therefore asked if I could address him as Padre or Major (Raymond Myles) Hickey and he was very pleased with that.

I had read a great deal about the war, and had many questions for him. He kindly spoke at great length about his experiences and the pride he had in having served with the men of the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment. He loaned me a book he had written called “The Scarlet Dawn”, which gave me much more information to add to my list of questions. His stories covered his wartime experiences from the time he did his basic training in Woodstock to his trip to England by ship and what happened when he landed in Normandy on D-Day with the first wave going into the German storm of fire. He pulled wounded men from the water as bullets splashed around him, he gave the last rites to those who weren’t going to survive, and he tended to all around him in spite of the danger. The Military Cross hanging on his mirror was well deserved, but for him, the appreciation of the men he served with was far more important.

Marc Milner wrote that the moment the men stepped off the Landing Craft the casualties mounted quickly.  "The task of helping the wounded and removing the dead belonged to others.  In the case of the North Shore, this fell to Lieutenant John L. Heaslip and his stretcher bearers of the 22nd Canadian Field Ambulance, the stretcher bearers of the platoons, and to Padre Myles Hickey and Captain J.A. Patterson, the battalion's doctor. Heaslip, Hickey and Patterson were all decorated for their actions on the beach, as was one of Heaslip's men." In Padre Hickey's words, "It was a hard job to get the wounded onto stretchers and to carry them to the shelter of the wall.  I will never forget the courage of the stretcher bearers and first aid men that morning."

Padre Hickey gave the last rites in combat for the first time (on D-Day) to the soldier who was at his side as they stepped off the LCA.  He dragged the fatally wounded young man to shore and anointed him.  Padre Hickey spent most of the next two hours pulling the dead and wounded to safety and helping Captain Patterson and the stretcher bearers.  He wrote after the war, "I like to think that a German sniper had me in his telescopic sights, but when he saw my collar and and red cross arm band that I was a chaplain, he stayed his finger."  His survival was a close run thing, at one point Padre Hickey was reported dead when a shell landed amid the three wounded men he had just reached.  The three wounded soldiers died, the Padre survived unhurt.  Later, while following two stretcher bearers over the wall to retrieve several wounded, all of those ahead of him including the wounded were killed in the blast from a landmine one of them stepped on.  The Padre and Major Daughney were blown clear, but managed to collect themselves and carry on.

Later, during the battles around Carpiquet, Padre Hickey reported, "I saw reinforcements come up to us in the evening, and I would bury them the following morning."  370 Canadians were killed or wounded in that one battle, 270 of them from the North Shore Regiment.

Major Hickey stayed with his men through the horrific battles in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and on into Germany where the war ended for the Regiment. He came back to the village of Jacquet River, New Brunswick where he had been born in 1905, and where he had been ordained as a Catholic priest in 1933. He had served as a curate in Bathurst, for four years until he was appointed to the teaching staff at St. Thomas University in Chatham. When the Second World War began and Canada followed Britain in declaring war on Germany in September 1939, Father Hickey enlisted in the Canadian Army to serve as the Chaplain for the North Shore Regiment, a task he managed for six hard years. His military citation for his award includes this tribute, "His understanding and leadership of men, his keen sense of humor, and his spirit of self-sacrifice, which won him the Military Cross for bravery under enemy fire on D-Day, made him beloved and respected by all who knew him."[1]

After the war, Reverend Hickey served as the Pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas church in Campbelton, Nova Scotia. His book The Scarlet Dawn was published in 1949. He became a Monsignor and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws by his alma mater, but what he valued far more in his recollections to me was his time served with the men of the North Shore Regiment. Padre Hickey died in Chatham, now the Miramichi in 1987.

New Brunswick’s history is often our family history, and it has been my experience that we often learn far more by word of mouth about what it was really like to have been in the service by those who were there before us. If you have been given the gift of hearing these kinds of stories first hand, write them down and share them, for if you don’t, the memories can be lost for good. The invasion of Northwest Europe which is commemorated in the D-Day landings on this day, 6 June 1944, changed the world. Those who took part in it deserve to be remembered.

For those of you who would like to read a much more detailed account of Major Hickey’s service, please have a look at Melynda Jarratt’s webpage at

Royal Canadian Army Chaplain Corps

(York Sunbury Historical Society, Fredericton Region Museum Collection, Author Photo)


RCACC badge, 1977-2001.

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