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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

Miracle on the River Kwai

Captain Ernest Gordon came from Scotland and served with the 2nd Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in World War II. Following the fall of Singapore, he was one of the prisoners of war whom the Japanese put to work on a jungle railway and bridge over the Kwai river. The conditions imposed on the prisoners were very harsh and Ernest became seriously ill. He was put in “Death Ward” and was expected to die.

There he was cared for by two very special men, Dusty Miller and ‘Dinty’ Moore. They gave 24-hour care to Ernest, boiling rags to clean and massage his diseased legs every day. To everyone’s surprise Ernest recovered and he also came to faith in Jesus Christ. He had been an agnostic, but Dusty’s simple, firm Christian faith in the face of the cruel treatment he and the other prisoners experienced made a deep impression on him. Ernest survived the war but discovered that, two weeks before the war ended, Dusty had been cruelly executed by a Japanese guard who was angry at his calmness in the face of hardship.

In his book “Miracle on the River Kwai” Ernest tells a remarkable story. Starvation, exhaustion and disease took a terrible toll on the prisoners and many gave way to selfishness, hatred and fear in a desperate attempt to survive. They felt like forsaken men – forsaken by their families, their friends, their government and even by God. Hatred of their Japanese captors became their motivation for living; they would have willingly torn them limb from limb if they had fallen into their hands. In time even hate died and gave way to numb, black despair.

One day the officer in charge said a shovel was missing and demanded that it be returned, or he would kill all the prisoners. No one moved and, then, one man stepped forward. The officer beat him to death. At the next tool check they found that all the shovels were there; there had been a miscount! The prisoners were stunned. An innocent man had been willing to die to save everyone else. Ernest said this man’s actions led men to think about the sufferings of Jesus, who laid down his life to save others, and they began to treat each other with more care and kindness. The change was so significant that when the skeletal captives were finally liberated they could, instead of attacking their captors, say to them, “No more hatred. No more killing. Now what we need is forgiveness.”

Love lifted me

It is interesting to read the obituaries of people who have recently died. Many, who are not well-known, have lived very interesting lives. The obituaries usually do not give details of the cause of death and often make no reference to the person’s faith in God. However, the Daily Telegraph recently published an obituary of Joan Winmill Brown, who died at the end of June at the age of 89. I had never heard of the lady, but her story was unusual.

Joan was a successful actress. In the years following World War II, when she was a rising star of the British stage and screen, she was introduced to Bobby Kennedy. He was attracted to the beautiful young actress and she became his secret girlfriend. When Bobby’s father, Joe Kennedy, found out about their relationship he ordered his son to end it. Their break-up, in early 1950, hit Joan hard; she sank into a depression during which she drank too much. She even considered suicide. She said, “At that time my world fell apart, but in hindsight I don’t believe I truly loved him. I think I was infatuated with his aura of wealth as much as the man himself.”

In 1954, a friend persuaded Joan to go to a Billy Graham Crusade in Harringay Arena. She recalled, “As I walked in the crowds were singing Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. I didn’t get it at all.” That night she was introduced to Ruth Bell, Billy Graham’s wife, and a lifelong friendship began that helped turn Joan’s life around. Later Joan received Jesus as her personal saviour and said, “God in Jesus showed me the way to happiness.” In 1952, she met Billy Brown whom she married. They both worked with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and, after they retired, lived in Hawaii. Billy died just a few months before Joan.

A hymn often sung at Billy Graham Crusades well expresses Joan’s testimony; “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry, from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. All my heart to him I give, ever to him I’ll cling, in his blessed presence live, ever his praises sing. Love so mighty and so true, merits my soul’s best songs. Faithful, loving service, too, to him belongs. Love lifted me! Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, Love lifted me!

Pray for those in authority

This week the people of Britain will elect a new government. They will face some very big challenges, not least in how to deal with the increase in terrorist atrocities. The tragic recent events at Westminster, the Manchester Arena and London Bridge have raised grave concerns. The security services, who are doing an excellent job, are facing an unparalleled challenge. The number of people who have been radicalised, and the variety of ways in which the acts of atrocity are carried out, make it impossible to guarantee total security in our daily lives. How should we respond to this situation?

We should pray for those who govern us. The apostle Paul urged the early Christians to pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” Many have assured those affected by the recent atrocities that they are “in our thoughts and prayers.” Thinking about those who have suffered bereavement and life-changing injuries affirms our common humanity; we care about each other. Praying for them acknowledges that they, and we, need more than human help.

We need to have big views of God. He is the Lord of heaven and earth. He created all things and sustains all things. He is the Lord of history. In the past, in times of national crisis, the British people were urged to pray. When Britain was close to defeat in World War II, and the entire British Army was trapped at Dunkirk, King George VI called for a National Day of Prayer to be held on 26 May 1940. He called on the people to plead for God’s help. Millions of people responded and God heard their prayers and wonderfully intervened so that 335,000 soldiers were brought safely across the English Channel on hundreds of tiny boats.

At the National Day of Thanksgiving on 9 June 1940, people gave thanks to God for answering their prayers. Psalm 124 was read; “If the Lord had not been on our side when people attacked us, they would have swallowed us alive when their anger flared against us; the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away. Praise be to the Lord, who has not let us be torn by their teeth. We have escaped like a bird from the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki

On 6 August 1945 the United States Air Force dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in Japan. It was the first atomic bomb ever to be used. It killed 70,000 people immediately and destroyed 63% of all buildings in the city. In the months that followed another 70,000 people died from their injuries and the effects of radiation. On 9 August an even more powerful bomb was dropped on Nagasaki killing at least 70,000 people. The overwhelming majority of those who died were ordinary Japanese people. This is the only time nuclear weapons have ever been used in warfare. On 15 August Japan surrendered to the Allies. President Truman and Winston Churchill justified the use of atomic weapons because it shortened the war and saved far more lives than were lost.

Group Captain Leonard Cheshire was one of the most distinguished airman of World War II. In 1944 he was awarded the Victoria Cross. He was a British observer on board an American plane when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. He was deeply affected by what he witnessed in the destruction of Nagasaki and resigned from the RAF. In 1948 he established The Leonard Cheshire Homes which provided care for disabled ex-servicemen to encourage and enable them towards independent living and the freedom to live life as they wished.

Today there are far more nuclear weapons in the world. 9 countries are known to possess nuclear weapons and several others are in the process of developing them. For the first time in history it is possible for all human life on earth to be destroyed. This is a terrifying prospect, especially because some nations and terrorist groups have hostile intentions towards their enemies and the Western world in general. Some people feel it is only a matter of time before nuclear weapons are used again with even more devastating consequences.

Jesus spoke about the course of world history. He said there would be continuing wars and conflicts, “Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and there will be famines and plagues in many lands, and there will be terrifying things and great miraculous signs from heaven.” He also taught that God is in control of world history and that, whatever happens, hope is held out to all people in him, “The Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come.”

The Battle of Britain remembered

This summer we are remembering the 75th anniversary of The Battle of Britain. It was a crucial air battle early in World War II. In June 1940 France surrendered to Germany and Hitler began to plan the invasion of Britain. In order to do this the Luftwaffe needed to establish air superiority in the south of England so that an invading German army would face little effective opposition as it crossed the English Channel. The Luftwaffe had more fighter planes and bombers. The RAF depended mainly on Hawker Hurricane and Spitfire fighter planes.

During the summer of 1940 the Luftwaffe first attacked shipping in the Channel and coastal towns in the south of England and then attacked airfields, such as Biggin Hill, and radar bases. The young pilots of the RAF were in constant action flying as many as 5 times a day to repel the waves of Luftwaffe attacks. The aim was to destroy the RAF and render Britain defenceless against invading forces. It is estimated that between 10 July and the end of October 1940 the RAF lost 1023 aircraft whilst the Luftwaffe lost 1887. The RAF won the Battle of Britain and Hitler postponed the invasion of Britain and turned instead to invading the Soviet Union.

On 21 August 1940 Winston Churchill made a famous speech in the House of Commons. “The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unweakened by their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of world war by their prowess and their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.“

These words remind us of the deep gratitude and love which Christians feel towards Jesus. By his death on the Cross he won a great victory over sin and death and hell and secured freedom and salvation for all who look to him for help. Hymnist Robert Robinson wrote, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.” Since Jesus died and rose again millions of people from all nations on earth have experienced the amazing love and grace of God and have found true and lasting peace in Jesus. Never in the history of the world have so many owed so much to one man.

The man who saved 669 children

Sir Nicholas Winton has died at the age of 106. About 6000 people in the world today owe their lives to Nicholas. He was a stockbroker who became aware of the plight of Jewish families when he was on holiday in Prague at Christmas 1938. In the months leading up to the outbreak of World War II he organised the rescue of 669 Jewish children from German-occupied Czechoslovakia through an operation known as Kindertransport. He found homes for the children and arranged safe passage for them to Britain. The last group, which left Prague on 3 September 1939, was sent back because the Nazis had invaded Poland. Many of the parents perished in Auschwitz.

Nicholas kept the wonderful things he did, in saving so many Jewish children, secret for more than 40 years until in 1988 his wife, Greta, found a detailed scrapbook in the attic. In 2002, at the age of 93, he received a Knighthood for this work.

Nicholas illustrates the amazing contrasts there are in the actions of human beings. Seeing the growing power of the Nazis in Europe, which led to the death of millions of Jewish people, he took action to save lives. He said, “If something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it.” The death of millions of Jewish people in Nazi concentration camps was one of the greatest acts of evil in the history of the world. It is a warning to us all of the frightening capacity of the human heart for evil. The courageous act of one man in saving so many lives also shows us the amazing capacity of human beings for goodness and kindness.

The reticence of Nicholas to tell people what he did is remarkable. Jesus spoke of the great day when we will all stand before God in judgement. The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” When the righteous say they can’t remember doing these things for him, the King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me.”