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Nearer My God to Thee: Airborne Chaplains in the Second World War by Linda Parker

Reviewed by Klemen Kocjancic

Helion & Company 2019

180 pages, ISBN: 978 - 1912866129


Linda Parker’s new book, Nearer My God to Thee: Airborne Chaplains in the Second World War, analyses the British military chaplains that were assigned to airborne units during the Second World War. It also covers chaplains who were part of the British Special Air Service.The historiography on British military chaplains is relatively rich, both when dealing with the general overview of military chaplaincy in the British armed forces,[1] and especially during the First World War.[2] There are also some works regarding British military chaplains during the Second World War,[3] but this book by Parker is the first one that deals with this specific group – chaplains in the newly formed airborne forces.[4]

Parker’s book is split across several chapters. After the initial sections, she opens the book with a chapter covering “Recruitment and training of airborne chaplains” (pp. 9–21), that covers the first military chaplains who were assigned to airborne units. The first airborne chaplain were Revd. Robert Talbot Watkins, a Methodist chaplain, that joined the newly formed 1st Parachute Brigade. He was joined by the Roman Catholic priest Revd Bernard Egan and these two set the foundation for the other airborne chaplains. Later the author follows the activities of airborne chaplains through the histories of individual airborne units/formations, from 1st Airborne Division in North Africa and Sicily (in two separate chapters), the 6th Airborne Division in Normandy and the 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade, which was fighting in Italy, France and Greece. It then once more analyses the role of chaplains in the 1st Airborne Division during the Operation Market-Garden, especially in Arnhem. The last three chapters are dedicated to the chaplains, assigned to the Special Air Service, and duties of airborne chaplains in Europe in 1945 until the V-E day and after.

The last deployment of British airborne units, and thus the chaplains, was Operation Doomsday, when the 1st Airborne Division was sent to Norway, where it participated in the disarming of German troops (pp. 136–141). Parker then provides analysis regarding the role and achievements of airborne chaplains in the Second World War (pp. 142–162) and concludes the book with the chapter on “Second World War chaplains in the context of 20th and 21st century military chaplaincy” (p. 163). At the end of the book, the reader will also find a full bibliography and index of names, units, and places.

Using a wide variety of archival material,[5] online sources, newspaper and published primary and secondary sources, the author has managed to reveal a history and role of the specially selected group of military chaplains, that accompanied British airborne troops in several most daring, dangerous and renowned military operations during the Second World War. The airborne chaplains not only accompanied the troops but were a part of their lives and also had to endure the gruelling training beforehand, including the parachutist training. The aforementioned first two chaplains “set the precedent for the involvement of the padres in all aspects of training and won the respect that was to be given to most airborne padres. The relationships built upon in training and the pastoral care giver to men in training and base camps was to be vital to the way men and padres worked together in battle. The padres were to prove themselves worthy of the place they took in parachute sticks or gliders by their courage, compassion and leadership” (p. 20).

The book is relatively short (173 pages altogether), but it covers in much detail the lives and work of jumping padres. Some readers might also expect that the author would provide (at least short) biographies of British airborne chaplains or perhaps even just a detailed list of them (and their postings/assignments), but unfortunately these weren’t included. As the author based her book primarily on chaplaincy-based sources (works on chaplaincy or biographies/memoirs of chaplains), there is a lack of sources from the viewpoint of the airborne soldiers, which would enhance the overall presentation of the topic. But as this is the first scholarly work on such elite group of British military chaplains, is a must read for all researchers of the military chaplaincy and at the same time also a good starting point for a further, more detailed research on this topic.

About the Reviewer: Klemen Kocjancic (university graduate degree in theology, MA in defence studies, Ph.D. in history) is a research assistant at the Defence Research Center (Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana). His research interests are military history of the 20th Century (with emphasis on the Second World War); radicalism, extremism, and terrorism; and military sociology (military chaplains, military families, etc.).

[1] Michael Snape, God and the British Soldier: Religion and the British Army in the First and Second World Wars (London: Routledge, 2005); Snape, The Royal Army Chaplains' Department, 1796-1953: Clergy under Fire (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2008).

[2] Edward Madigan, Faith under Fire: Anglican Army Chaplains and the Great War (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Linda Parker, The Whole Armour of God. Anglican Army Chaplains in the Great War (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2009); David T. Youngson, Greater Love: A Directory of Chaplains of the British Army, Australian, Canadian, East African, New Zealand and South African Forces and Ministers of Religion who Gave Their Lives in the Period 1914-1922 (Bishop Auckland: Printability Publishing Limited, 2008). [3] Alan Robinson, Chaplains at War: The Role of Clergymen during World War II (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2008). [4] For a larger listing of sources on British military chaplains, see: The Museum of Army Chaplaincy, “Further Reading,” (accessed 1 May 2020). [5] Sources from the Museum of Army Chaplaincy, Museum of Army Flying Archives, The National Archives, Lambert Palace Archives and Ohio University are used.

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