Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Battle of Britain Sunday

Sunday 19 September 2021
16th After Trinity

Sung Eucharist
Revd Nicholas Mercer

One of the most striking images in the recent evacuation from Afghanistan was a US Marine standing on the perimeter of Kabul Airport

She was cradling a baby in one hand whilst holding a M27 Infantry Rifle in the other

Not only did this image remind us, starkly, of gender equality in the Armed forces but also symbolised some of the complexity of warfare itself

The Marine held life in one hand and the means of taking it in the other

War, which is so often humanitarian in motive, also has the ability to kill on an industrial scale

It is, seemingly, such a paradox and so difficult to navigate for all those concerned

The evacuation of any defeated army is always immensely difficult

And it was inevitable that an enemy would try and inflict damage in Afghanistan

It was equally inevitable however that those under attack might over react or panic

And we saw the tragic results when a drone strike killed an innocent family in the confusion

Getting the balance right is immensely difficult

And those in the line of duty have an enormous responsibility upon their shoulders

Today is designated as “Battle of Britain” Sunday

It was the first major military campaign fought entirely by air forces

Starting in July 1940, with the German Forces targeting coastal shipping convoys

The Luftwaffe then changed their focus onto RAF airfields before specifically targeting civilians which we know, separately, as the Blitz

The primary aim of the campaign was to compel Britain to reach a negotiated peace by paving the way for a seaborne invasion

It never came about

It marked a dramatic turning point in the war and was the first major German defeat in World War II

However, at the end of the battle, 544 pilots and aircrew were dead – the average age was just 20

They cradled the life of this nation in their arms and we remember them and salute their courage this morning

It was a heroic and noble chapter in our nation’s history –

Which we should not readily forget

By stark contrast howver, a parishioner gave me a book last year about another chapter of our air warfare

It was called “Dresden” and was written by a man called Sinclair McKay

And, as you might have guessed, the book was about the bombing of Dresden in 1945

Sir Max Hastings said “I have never seen it better described” however, it is hard to escape the gruesome facts

The city of Dresden was the capital of the German State of Saxony

Known as “The Jewel Box”, it was furnished with cultural and artistic splendours

It was also densely populated with a civilian population of 500,000 civilians

Nevertheless, British and American bombers dropped nearly 4000 tons of high explosives and incendiary devices on the city

This caused a firestorm which led to the estimated death of 25,000 people

One eye witness said of the event

“We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from. I cannot forget these terrible details.

The war memorial to civilian casualties in the City says

“How many died? Who knows the count? In your wounds one sees the agony of the nameless, who in here were conflagrated, in the hellfire made by hands of man.”

The raids caused consternation at the time, not least among the military community

The philosopher A C Grayling described the raids as “immoral”

And the bombing of Dresden remains deeply controversial to this day

Unlike the Battle of Britain, this does not constitute a just and noble act

Mercifully, I hope, we can all feel it in our very being

As I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon, getting the balance right in war is enormously difficult

If you like, a child in one hand and an infantry rifle in the other

And there is a huge weight of responsibility on those who are in charge of prosecuting such wars

But the parishioner who so kindly sent me a copy of the book

Was, above all, trying above to make sense out of the dreadful events of February 1945 and of warfare itself

The parishioner wrote

“I need the benefit of your wisdom and experience to help me to answer how war of any kind can be made subject to constraints of humanity and decency, when by its very nature it is posited and conducted on a basis which is surely the very antithesis of precepts of that kind? Is there an innate tension here, or have I got it wrong?”

The question is very challenging

However, I attempted an answer, not least because of my legal background in this arena

There are constraints on war which are based on the principles of “humanity and public conscience”

Indeed, the whole edifice of how we conduct our wars is based on the Just War tradition

Laid down 800 years ago by a Dominican Friar called Thomas Aquinas, it set out on the basis on which Christians might go to war

And those Christian principles, were largely codified in the twentieth century, under what is termed International Humanitarian Law

Tragically, for the citizens of Dresden, the rules of aerial warfare were not codified until the 1970’s

The Hague Draft Rules on Aerial Warfare 1923 remained just that – it came too late to save Dresden

But I wanted to put the two side by side this morning

There is a sometimes a temptation in this country to glorify our military past but forget the rest

But putting the two side by side reminds us that, just as we can use force for good, we too can use it for bad

We must give our eternal thanks to those who saved these Islands

And we do so with grateful hearts today

But, equally, we need have the maturity to reflect on those events which might shame us too

Otherwise we risk glorifying war to the exclusion of all else – and that helps no one

Dresden remains very difficult, not least because we were waging a total war

But the enduring image of the Marine – with a baby in one hand and carbine in the other

Reminds us all, as Christian men and women, that we need to conduct ourselves with the utmost propriety when we wage war against our adversaries

Our faith permits us to wage war but this comes with a very heavy responsibility to our fellow men and women –

On whichever side