The Venerable (Air Vice-Marshal) Jonathan Chaffey QHC RAF, Chaplain-in-Chief, Royal Air Force
EXODUS 3: 1–7, 10-14 AND SAINT LUKE 14: 25–33
Lord God, as we recall your mercy in the past, so may we hear your voice today and gain strength for tomorrow. Amen
On 11th Sept 1940, Sir Winston Churchill made a Prime Ministerial Broadcast to the nation: "The German effort to secure daylight air mastery", he warned, "is the crux of the whole war...the next week is a very important period in our history". The previous Sunday, at the request of His Majesty the King, had been designated a National Day of Prayer. There was a tremendous response. At a crowded service in this Abbey, the final prayer began: "Remember, O God for good, these watchmen, who by day & night climb into the air. Let thy hand lead them, we beseech thee, & thy right hand hold them." 75 years on we give thanks to God for his hand upon our nation at that dark time, for deliverance from invasion & for freedom preserved.
Yet it was a close run thing – by early Sept Fighter Command was running out of pilots. ACM Dowding, in C-in-C's Despatch on the Battle, revealed that problem had taken on 'formidable proportions', the output from the Op Trg Units being quite inadequate to meet the casualty rate on the front-line sqns. At the same time, battle-weary pilots were struggling with unrelenting tiredness as they were scrambled for sortie after sortie. No wonder Churchill's face looked very grave as he stood in the 11 Gp bunker at Uxbridge on the 15th & was told that no reserves were left. 'Well I might', he recounted, 'the odds were great; our margins small; the stakes infinite.'
I imagine that the face of Moses, many centuries before, looked similarly grave as God told him to return to Egypt & ask the tyrannical, capricious pharaoh for his people's freedom. The odds against him were high, in human terms, with a large & well-equipped military force blocking his path. Failure would lead to greater servitude. He was also fearful & consumed with self-doubt: "Who am I to take this on?" I imagine, likewise, that Jesus' words to his 'would be' disciples were equally sobering. They should count the cost, he said. They should hold nothing back, but be prepared to carry their cross; for, as Jesus would demonstrate, integrity & courage come at a price.
Today we thank God for The Few, who withheld nothing – those 2900 or so ordinary men of the Royal Air Force, including dedicated colleagues from Commonwealth & other European nations, who were given strength at a pivotal moment in the history of Western civilization, to fulfill an extraordinary task. Although Dowding had ordered 24 hrs leave each week for pilots, he recognised their spirit, wryly observing that 'the instinct of duty sometimes overrode the sense of discipline'. We thank God that it did – despite the heavy cost. Wg Cdr Bob Doe, for example, was convinced he was going to be killed, having only achieved average ratings in training, never imagining that he would survive to be a top ace. "We had a job to do", he recalled, "so we got on with it. We had to stop them – we were the only ones who could." Perhaps you can identify with that sentiment, in some small way, from your own experience.
Of course, The Few, whilst rightly honoured for securing the skies, were themselves dependent on the determination of The Many, whether in Bomber & Coastal Commands or in the myriad of military & civilian ground support trades, as a whole nation pulled together. No wonder that Her Majesty The Queen, who lived through the period herself, could recall it as a 'tense yet strangely inspiring time'. Such corporate enthusiasm did bring its own dangers, Sqn Ldr Tony Pickering recounting how he baled out of his Hurricane on 11 Sep, slightly scorched, only to be marched to the Guardroom as a potential enemy. Finally identified, he was given whisky, was back in the air the following morning and is here today!
I can confidently report that our Servicemen and women of today are endued with the same spirit of their forebears. And they need to be…for the challenges of our time are international & social; they are moral & ideological, even existential. Their complexity requires more than a pragmatic response for the margins are often small and the stakes very high. There is a need to dig deep, to consider who we are & what we stand for. Only then can we know what causes should bear the weight of sacrificial service, even lives.
The Battle of Britain brought a nation to its knees – 75 years later we give thanks for prayers answered. As with Moses, God had heard the cries; he had seen the misery & was ready to bring deliverance. In the company of The Few, whose example holds us to account, we have laid on the Altar a Battle of Britain Standard for the Royal Air Force. This reminds us that the presence and strength of God is still available, for junior cadet to senior commander, for individuals in every walk and stage of life, but also for communities and even nations. For as God has proved to be present in the struggles of the past, able even to raise his son from death, so he offers to be in the future. So when the odds seem great, the cause desperate, when you may feel helpless with nothing left to give, I encourage you to turn, as Moses did, & to hear the voice of God: "I will be with you."