Royal Army Chaplains' Department

Royal Army Chaplains' Department

The Royal Army Chaplains Department (RAChD) was formed in 1796 to aid the recruitment of clergy to the Army. When the Airborne Forces was first formed in 1940, members of the RAChD were amongst the first members to join. Chaplains undertook the same training at Hardwick Hall and Ringway as the soldiers, the only difference being that instead of a weapon and ammunition, chaplains would carry a bible, a copy of the army prayer book, a small portable communion kit and some spare shell dressings.

The first chaplains recruited were Padres Egan and Talbot Watkins who joined the newly formed 1st Parachute Brigade in September 1941. When chaplains were first recruited it had not been envisaged by either the RAChD or War Office that they would actually jump, however it soon became clear to the chaplains on the ground that their work would be restricted if they could not. With Brigadier Gales approval, Padres Egan and Talbot Watkins attended parachute course five at RAF Ringway and became the first chaplains to qualify.

At the formation of the 1st Airborne Division, Padre JJA Hodgins was approached to become the Senior Chaplain by Major General FAM Browning. Padre Hodgins began to expand the chaplaincy team and campaigned for official approval from the War Office for chaplains to attend glider and parachute courses. The need for ecumenical practices also became apparent. The Padre Hodgins designed the "Ministry to the Airborne Forces", and created the "Padres Hour", a new concept allowing the men to discuss important questions related to their faith, rather than receiving lectures. This would subsequently be copied by the rest of the British Army. Padre Hodgins remained the senior chaplain until early 1944. At that time both the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions received new senior chaplains; the Padre Harlow and Hales respectively.

The first Chaplain to jump operationally was Padre RE Price who dropped with the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment at Souk el Arba on 16 November 1942. This was followed shortly after on the 29 November 1942 by Padre Murdo MacDonald who jumped with the 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment at Depienne.

Some chaplains took on the task of being an airborne chaplain enthusiastically; in one case Padre WCT Briscoe of 5 Parachute Brigade was forbidden to jump by Brigadier Poett until the Normandy Operation, as he always jumped as often as he possibly could. He still continued though; when a chance to test out the newly introduced drop leg bags arose he took it. He was spotted by Lt. Col. Pine-Coffin whilst lining up to emplane and remarked to him "not a word to the Brigadier, Sir!".

Jumping out of an airplane, however enjoyable to the likes of Padre Briscoe, even tested the faith of some chaplains. One Padre confessed that for 32 years his whole trust had been in God, but that for five seconds – until his parachute opened – his confidence and faith was transferred to a young WAAF parachute packer.

During Normandy and Arnhem, a number of Airborne Chaplains were killed in action. In Normandy Operation, the Padre GEM Parry was killed at the Regimental Aid Post in the churchyard in Benouville on the 7 June 1944 when it was overrun by German forces. During battles Chaplains would often be based at Regimental Aid Posts, providing spiritual care to those injured, as well as caring for the deceased.

There were also acts of remarkable bravery at Arnhem. Padre D McGowan and Padre RT Watkins were both awarded the Military Cross, whilst Padres Buchanan, Pare and Rowell were Mentioned In Despatches. Some Chaplains became Prisoners of War alongside the soldiers that they cared for. Padre AWH Harlow, 1st Airborne Division's senior Chaplain, was posted missing at Arnhem on 25 September  1944 and later found to have been taken a prisoner of war. The Padre Harlow had decided to stay behind to look after the wounded where he felt his duty lay. He was repatriated in 1945.

Since the end of the Second World War, Army Chaplains have continued to serve an important role within the Airborne Forces.

Compiled with assistance from Christopher Geeves (http://www.89fss.com/affiliated/rachd.htm) and David Blake of the RAChD Museum.

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  • Newspaper article relating to Padre A Harlow at Arnhem, 1944

    Newspaper article relating to Padre A Harlow at Arnhem, 1944

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  • Newspaper article 16 Para Bde HQ bombing, Aldershot, February 1972.

    Newspaper article 16 Para Bde HQ bombing, Aldershot, February 1972.

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  • Newspaper extract on the death of Padre Gerry Weston, February 1972.

    Newspaper extract on the death of Padre Gerry Weston, February 1972.

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