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Remembering the Battle of Britain

This year we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain which began on 10 July 1940 and continued until 31 October 1940. It was the first major military campaign in history to be fought entirely in the air. Prime Minister Winston Churchill described it as the RAF’s finest hour. France had fallen to the forces of Nazi Germany who now dominated Western Europe. British troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940. Despite being in a seemingly hopeless military situation, Britain refused to surrender.

Britain was the last bastion against what Churchill called “the menace of tyranny.” The Luftwaffe, the German air force, was mounting destructive bombing air raids against Britain, the Blitz, in preparation for an invasion by the German army. In July 1940 the Luftwaffe had 2800 aircraft, mostly bombers. They were experienced and confident and anticipated taking only a few days to defeat the RAF. At the start of the Battle of Britain the RAF had 650 aircraft and 1300 pilots, some of whom came from Commonwealth countries, Nazi-occupied countries and the USA. Britain ramped up factory production of aircraft, especially Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, and by October 1940 had more planes that the Luftwaffe.

During the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe lost 1887 aircraft and 2600 pilots. The RAF lost 1023 aircraft and 544 pilots. The outstanding courage and skill of the RAF pilots led to success in the Battle of Britain and saved many lives. It was a decisive turning point in the course of World War II and the history of the world. In a speech on 20 August 1940 Winston Churchill said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

The death of Jesus Christ on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem was the decisive moment in human history. He had come from heaven to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The self-sacrifice of God’s eternal Son has brought new life and hope to countless people around the world. Horatius Bonar’s hymn explains it well: “Upon a life I have not lived, upon a death I did not die, another’s life, another’s death, I stake my whole eternity. Not on the tears which I have shed: not on the sorrows I have known, another’s tears, another’s griefs, on them I rest, on them alone. Jesus, O Son of God, I build on what thy cross has done for me; there both my death and life I read, my guilt, my pardon there I see.”

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Light in the darkness

The VE Celebrations last weekend were very moving. Seeing thousands of young men boarding ships on their way to serve in faraway places reminded us of the great cost paid by a whole generation. Many never returned, others came back with life-changing physical injuries or psychological traumas, which today we recognise as PTSD. My father served in India and my wife’s father was involved in the D-Day landings. Thankfully both returned safely. The dignity of the survivors who were interviewed was impressive. Most were ordinary soldiers who faithfully served their country and put their lives on the line. Some were moved to tears as they remembered their fallen comrades.

Vera Lynn, now 103 years old, spoke of her visit to the troops in Japanese-occupied Burma. She said she decided to go to Burma in 1944 because the men who served there had not been visited. Seeing footage of the men listening to her sing you could see that her visit lifted their morale. Her courage in making that 4-month visit encouraged them and made them realise they were not forgotten. The songs she sang also gave them hope as they longed for the hellish war, from which they could not escape, to be over and to be able to return to their homes and loved ones.

Those troops so much needed hope, as we all do. As Vera sang, for a brief moment, they could look beyond the present horrors to being reunited with their loved ones far away. “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day. Keep smiling through just like you always do, ’till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.” “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover tomorrow, just you wait and see. There’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after, tomorrow, when the world is free.”

The generation of men and women who served in World War II were familiar with the Bible and the Christian gospel. Tens of thousands of them had attended Sunday School as children and had learned about Jesus who died for our sins and rose from the dead to give us hope. They had learned memory verses such as John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” No doubt, in the heat of battle, as they faced certain death, many asked God to help them and he heard them and took them safely to heaven.

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Remembering VE Day

This weekend there will be an international celebration of the 75th Anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day. On 8 May 1945 there was a great joy when the Allied Forces announced the surrender of Germany; World War II in Europe was over. More than a million people celebrated in the streets, including the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. In a radio address to the nation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “My dear friends, this is your hour. We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing.”

A Service of Thanksgiving was held in Westminster Abbey gratefully acknowledging that God had heard the many prayers offered through the dark years of the war. The service opened with these words, “The Lord has done great things for us, which ought to be remembered. Let us, therefore, offer high praise and thanksgiving to the God of all mercies for the success which he has granted to us and to our Allies: for the faith which has upheld us through years of danger and suffering: for the skill of our leaders and the valour and steadfastness of sailors, soldiers and airmen: for the hope that we are about to enter upon a righteous and abiding peace: for the holy memory and high example of that great company of men and women, known and unknown, whose faith and courage God has inspired and used.”

The planned VE Day celebrations will be severely curtailed because of the coronavirus restrictions. Today the peoples of the world are involved in a different kind of deadly conflict. We are under threat from an unseen enemy and many have already died. The courage and skill of medical teams and carers have been an inspiration to us all. Victory over the virus is still in the future as great efforts are made to develop an effective vaccine.

At Easter we remembered the greatest victory ever accomplished when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, confronted our greatest enemies of sin and death. Human sinfulness causes untold misery and suffering and every day many face the last enemy, death. By his death on the cross Jesus paid the penalty our sins deserve. His death was a great victory. Before he died, he said, “It is finished!” His resurrection on the third day showed he had broken the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality. As we pray for those seriously ill with coronavirus, and those who have lost loved ones, we can rejoice in the hope Jesus gives; “for those who die believing die safely through his love.”

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We will remember them

In 1919 King George V inaugurated Remembrance Day when Commonwealth member states remember those of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. It is held each year at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, which was the time when hostilities ceased in World War I. Many other non-Commonwealth countries also observe the day. There are now very few former soldiers alive who experienced the terrible conflicts of World War II, but what they say reminds us of the horrific nature of battles like those on the beaches of Normandy following the D-Day landings.

On 6 June 1944 infantry and armoured divisions from America, Britain and Canada began landing on the French coast. As soon as they landed, they came under heavy enemy gunfire. Many of the 24,000 Allied soldiers who landed on the beaches died or were seriously injured on the first day. Alan King, who survived D-Day, said, “We weren’t heroes, we were just boys. We were terrified. Since our life expectancy after landing was just one hour, we kept each other going. After I got back, for the first 40 years, I didn’t think about it. Didn’t want to.”

Harry Billinge, a 94-year-old veteran of D-Day, decided to raise £22,442, a pound for every British soldier who died in the Normandy campaign, to help with the construction of the British Normandy Memorial at Ver-sur-Mer. He has exceeded his target. When he was interviewed on the BBC’s Breakfast programme and was shown the Memorial under construction, he choked back tears as he saw the names of those who had died. He said, “Don’t thank me and don’t say I’m a hero. All the heroes are dead, and I’ll never forget them as long as I live. My generation saved the world and I’ll never forget any of them.”

Harry said that when he was 4 years old, he went to Sunday School where his teacher, Miss Thompson, taught the children a chorus that he said was as source of strength to him amidst the horrors on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. “In loving-kindness Jesus came my soul in mercy to reclaim, and from the depths of sin and shame through grace he lifted me. Now on a higher plain I dwell, and with my soul I know ‘tis well; yet how or why, I cannot tell, he should have lifted me. From sinking sand he lifted me, with tender hand he lifted me, from shades of night to plains of light, O praise his name, he lifted me!”

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When God graciously intervened

The ceremonies marking the 75th Anniversary of D-Day and the Normandy landings were very significant occasions. It was moving to see the humility of the veterans as they spoke, with tears, of their experiences and of their friends and colleagues who died who were, they said, the true heroes. It was right that tribute was paid by world leaders to the courage of those who took part in the landings.

Theresa May said, “Many were terribly wounded, and many made the ultimate sacrifice that day, and in the fierce battle that followed, as together our Allied nations sought to release Europe from the grip of fascism. These young men belonged to a very special generation, the greatest generation, a generation whose incomparable spirit shaped our post-war world. They didn’t boast. They didn’t fuss. They served.”

However, there was something missing that highlighted the difference between our present leaders and those who led our nation during World War II. No reference was made by the political leaders to the gracious intervention of God in delivering Britain and Europe from a cruel tyranny. The generation who fought in World War II were very conscious of their dependence on God.

Soldiers who fought in World War II were given a copy of John’s Gospel, inscribed with these words: “We commend the Gospel of Christ our Saviour for it alone can effectively mould character, control conduct and solve the problems of men and nations, and thus make life what it should be.” The statement was signed by the Commanders in Chief of the Royal Navy, the Army and the Air Force.

Seven times during World War II the King and Parliament called the whole nation to prayer. On each occasion God answered by a remarkable act of deliverance. The first National Day of Prayer was on 26 May 1940 when the entire British Army, of 350,000 soldiers, was about to be wiped out in Dunkirk. God answered prayer, the Channel became a millpond and more than 330,000 soldiers got home safely.

Another National Day of Prayer was called for 8 September 1940 when Britain’s air force was vastly outnumbered by the Nazi bombers and fighter planes. Against all the odds the British air force won the air battle. Air Chief Marshall Dowding said: “I will say with absolute conviction that I can trace the intervention of God … humanly speaking victory was impossible!” Today we face different kinds of threat and our leaders are obviously struggling. It’s a time for us all to humbly acknowledge our desperate need for God to graciously intervene.

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Remembering D-Day

The Normandy Landings began on 6 June 1944, known as D-Day. They were the largest seaborne invasion in history. On D-Day a flotilla of ships took 130,000 Allied soldiers over the English Channel to Normandy, they were joined by 24,000 airborne troops. Within a week more than 325,000 Allied soldiers had landed in Normandy and by the end of the month the number had risen to 850,000. They sustained very heavy casualties; 10,000 on D-Day itself and over 200,000 in the whole Battle of Normandy. The German army also sustained heavy losses.

Many brave young men perished on the beaches of Normandy. Some were killed within minutes of landing. My father-in-law, who was 27 years old, was one of the Allied soldiers who landed on D-Day. He survived but he saw many of his friends and fellow-soldiers die. When he returned home after the war, he didn’t talk about it for 60 years until his grandson and great-grandson visited Normandy and told him where they had gone. Many of the soldiers who returned from the Battle of Normandy were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but this wasn’t recognised, and they received no help.

D-Day was a decisive moment in the progress of the Allied campaign. The success of D-Day ensured that within a year the war in Europe would be over. On VE Day, 8 May 1945, Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. There was a very heavy cost in winning the victory. It is important that we remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice when they gave their lives to secure the freedoms we still enjoy.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” He is the supreme example of someone who laid down his life that others might live. When he died on the cross, he won the decisive victory over sin, death and hell. By his sufferings he took to himself the punishment we deserve so that we might be forgiven and be free from fear and condemnation. When he rose from the dead, he gave us a living hope. His ultimate victory lies in the future when he will return in glory and power and the kingdoms of this world will become his kingdom and he will reign forever. He taught his disciples to always keep his ultimate victory in mind and to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever.”

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Remembering the Great Escape

Last weekend a service of remembrance was held in Poland to mark the 75th anniversary of The Great Escape. Stalag Luft III opened in Spring 1942 and was used to hold captured air forces personnel. At its height it held 10,000 prisoners of war, covered 59 acres and had 5 miles of perimeter fencing. About 600 prisoners helped dig the three tunnels which were given the names Tom, Dick and Harry.

On the night of 24-25 March 1944 two hundred men were waiting in line to escape but the alarm was raised before most could enter tunnel Harry. Seventy-six men escaped through the tunnel which was 336 feet long and 28 feet deep. Within three days seventy-three of them were recaptured by the Germans and fifty were executed on Hitler’s orders. The camp was liberated in January 1945 by Russian forces.

Flying Officer Marcel Zillessen was last in the queue. His father was German, and Marcus had studied at the University of Berlin, so he spoke German fluently. He played a key role in planning the escape as he gained the confidence of some guards and so obtained valuable items such as paper, pens and ink to help forge travel documents for the escapees. Later he survived the Long March in 1945 and died in 1999 aged 81.

His son, Tim, visited the former site of Stalag Luft III for the first time ahead of the 75th anniversary of The Great Escape. Speaking of his father Tim said, “Much changed after the war in the sense that it freed his mind. He was no longer materialistic and didn’t worry about the things that we would today. It must have been overwhelming for him at the end to be able to walk away a free man and alive.”

Freedom is very precious. The prisoners at Stalag Luft III made great efforts to win their freedom and some died in the attempt. Those who survived really valued freedom and life itself. Although we live in what has sometimes been called “The Free World” many people are anything but free. Ours is a materialistic society and we do worry about many things. Some are prisoners to debt. Others are addicted to drink and drugs, to gambling and pornography. Jesus came to set us free from the sins that bind us and to give us true life. He said, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

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The power of forgiveness

We have just celebrated Holocaust Memorial Day. The Holocaust was one of the most evil events in human history in which 6 million Jewish people were murdered by the Nazi regime. Yet out of those dark days amazing light sometimes shone. During the German occupation of The Netherlands, Corrie ten Boom and her family hid Jews from arrest and deportation in their home in Haarlem. In February 1944 the Gestapo came to the house and arrested Corrie and her family, but did not discover the 6 Jewish people in the hiding place. In September 1944, Corrie and her sister Betsie were deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany. They managed to stay together until Betsie died in December. Later that month Corrie was released, but really struggled to come to terms with Betsie’s death.

After the war, Corrie spoke in many places about the need to forgive in order to overcome the psychological scars of the Nazi occupation. In 1947 she was speaking in Germany when she saw a man in the audience whom she recognised as a guard from Ravensbruck. Immediately she remembered him in his blue uniform and cap with its skull and crossbones. She saw the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes on the floor and remembered the shame of walking naked past this man. She saw Betsie’s frail form ahead of her.

The man came up to her, thrust out his hand and said, “A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea! You mentioned Ravensbruck, I was a guard there, but since that time, I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein, will you forgive me?”

Corrie described the massive inner turmoil she faced at that moment. “Woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me, and as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes, ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried, ‘with all my heart!’ For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.”

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Unbroken – the story of Louis Zamperini

The story of the remarkable life of Louis Zamperini has been told in the film “Unbroken” which came out in 2014, the same year in which he died at the age of 97. After a troubled adolescence Louis took up athletics and competed in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. When World War II broke out he became a bombardier on a B-24 bomber. In 1943 his plane was shot down over the South Pacific and he was reported missing, presumed dead. He and another airman spent 47 days clinging to a raft only to be captured by the Japanese and to become prisoners of war.

While he was a prisoner of war, Louis endured constant brutality at the hands of a man the prisoners called “The Bird.” His real name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe who was a sadistically cruel and abusive man who terrorised the prisoners. He singled Louis out for particularly harsh treatment. After the war ended Watanabe was on the list of the most wanted war criminals in Japan but was never brought to justice.

When the war ended Louis returned to the United States and went on speaking tours. He was treated as a hero but, despite outward appearances, his life was falling apart. He was struggling to cope with his horrific experiences as a prisoner of war and had frequent nightmares about Watanabe. Louis was filled with anger, anxiety and hatred. He sought solace in alcohol and planned to return to Japan to murder Watanabe. He realised he needed help.

In 1949 Louis reluctantly attended a Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles. He didn’t like what he heard and told his wife he would not go to another meeting, but he did. One night he responded to the invitation to experience forgiveness and salvation and received Jesus Christ as his saviour. That same night his nightmares stopped, and he poured all his alcohol down the drain.

Louis was a new man and started a camp for young people from troubled backgrounds. Amazingly, after his conversion his desire for vengeance left him completely. He forgave his former captors and met many of his fellow prisoners. He also met with 850 Japanese war criminals and warmly greeted them. When one former Japanese soldier said he couldn’t understand how he could forgive them Louis replied, “Well, Mr Sasaki, when Christ was crucified he said, ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.’ It is only through the Cross that I can come back here and say this, but I do forgive you.”

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When enemies become friends

Captain Bill Smyly, who died recently at the age of 95, was one of the last veterans of the Chindit expeditions in the Burma Campaign in World War II. In 1943, when serving with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd King Edward’s Own Gurkha Rifles, he was appointed Animal Transport Officer and was put in charge of the mules. He marched with 3000 Chindits from India into Burma on a mission to cut the main railway line between Mandalay and Myitkyina and to harass the Japanese forces. Heavy weapons, equipment and rations were carried by the mules.

Marching through the jungle in intense heat and torrential rain, they endured repeated bouts of malaria and dysentery. If they were badly injured, they were left at a village. This usually meant capture or death. After achieving their objectives, the troops returned to India in small groups. Bill contracted beriberi, which affected his eyesight and made his feet swell up making it difficult to walk. He became separated from his unit and had to struggle on alone. For many weeks he trekked hundreds of miles through the jungle, receiving food and shelter from local tribesmen. His family were told that he had died but, eventually, he reached Fort Hertz, a remote British military outpost in north-east Burma.

Bill was born in China, the son of Irish missionary doctors. After the war he gained a degree at Cambridge University and became a journalist. Later, he taught at a Chinese University before retiring to Bedford. Bill was a Christian and was an active member of his local church. He also belonged to the Burma Campaign Society which was established in 1983 by Masao Hirakubo. The aim of the society is to encourage reconciliation and mutual understanding between British and Japanese soldiers who had previously been enemies, and especially those who had been involved in the Burma Campaign.

Reconciliation is a great priority in our divided world and is at the heart of what Jesus Christ came into the world to accomplish. The apostle Paul wrote, “God brought us back to himself through Christ and has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them and he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’” Because Bill Smyly had himself been reconciled to God through Jesus he was committed to seeking reconciliation with people who, previously, had been his enemies.