Padres’ Battle School (1944)

Padres’ Battle School (1944)

This article, published just over a month before D-Day, gives a brief glimpse at some of the expedited training British Soldiers received before going off to war.
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Padres’ Battle School1

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The modern padre learns the art of camouflage. Green webbing, a tuft or two of grass, and a smear with special camouflage paint, soon do the trick.

“Like a swordless Crusader, the front-line padre prepares to go out with the armies of liberation. Straw and greasepaint hide his clerical collar, for he trains in his camouflage kit. But he is ready and eager to take back the things of the spirit to a Europe which has known little but filth and firing squad for nearly five torturous years.

“Today, in a lovely village in the Midlands, you can find this modern padre with a crusader shield as a ‘flash’ on his shoulder. For picked volunteers, young men and tough for the most part, go up there week by week to attend what is locally known as the Padres’ Battle School.

“It is held in a village nestling round a lovely old Saxon church tower, and headquarters are the local rectory, taken over by the Army for the duration. The idea of the battle course is threefold, and simple.

“First, it aims at teaching chaplains self-preservation. The padre is not a fighting man; he carries no weapons. But he is out in front with the shock troops, sharing the same dangers from sniper and field mine, bomb and mortar.

“His casualties are high, and they do say that the Royal Army Chaplain’s Department, as it is called, has lost more men, size for size, than any other branch of the British Army.

“Secondly, by bringing together chaplains from all branches of Army life in this eve-of-battle atmosphere, it aims at promoting a keen spirit of brotherhood among them. And, finally, by concentrating as much as possible on devotions and prayer between the actual classes, it aims at giving the priests that inspiration which comes from worshipping together.

“To the chaplain who passes through the school the invasion is seen as a crusade, in which he must set an example in conduct and earnestness to the men he finds round him.

In private life he is a village priest. The war paint may help to guard him when he goes forward with the troops.

“The scheme started some months ago when chaplains were volunteering to go out with the assault troops in the liberation of Europe. Generally speaking, most of the volunteers who are accepted are under forty, for training is very strenuous and padres must be fit to keep up with men to whom they are attached.

“The course is short, fast and furious. At the end of it the padre has been put through the hoop. He always likes it.

“The rectory battle school is large enough for about thirty men at a time and they assemble from all over the country at the beginning of the week and start the course with a preliminary talk by a senior chaplain. A mixed bag of men, they may include half a dozen padres with the Africa Star, to whom the following day’s battle inoculation under fire will seem like amateur theatricals, and one course recently produced two men with the Military Cross–one from the last war, and one from this.

“Training proper starts on the following morning, when, after demonstration films have been shown in the old tithe barn at the back of the rectory, the padres settle down to the breathless business of ‘movement and the tactical crossing of obstacles.’

“This, which looks harmless on paper, consists of different types of crawl, of scaling walls, dropping lightly from heights, and so on. Everything is done at speed, and at the end of it the padre is expected to vault gates automatically whenever he sees them.

“The rectory is built on a slope, and high walls abound, so that enthusiastic instructors can always find an excuse for subjecting a man to a fifteen foot drop. So far there has been one broken ankle. That belonged to an instructor who was showing how simple it was.

“This is followed by the main battle inoculation, when the class squirms on its tummy through a low ravine, while instructors and N.C.O.s fire machine guns just overhead, and an expert sergeant-major to whom gelignite is a mere plaything throws around charges which explode most alarmingly.

“Every soldier in the Army knows what battle inoculation means; he also knows there are safety regulations which ensure that he won’t really get shot. It is not so easy to remember this at the time.

“After his battle inoculation the padre spends the rest of the day quietly, until nightfall, when he is driven out to a lonely moor, where the process is repeated. In a lurid world of flares. Verey lights, tracer bullets, and smoke bursts, with the ricochets making a mad firework display, he learns to move cautiously forward, to take advantage of a sudden lull. and so on.

“It is tiring work, but the lorries back to the rectory are crammed with parsons, singing away at the tops of their voices–the instructors who have been through all these courses for padres will tell you that there are two things which distinguish padres as a class; one, they always sing; two, they always smoke pipes.

“The next part, starting off with more demonstration films, is concerned mainly with camouflage. The padre learns to disguise himself, to daub anti-shine paint on his face, to stuff grass around his battle bowler, to make himself inconspicuous, so that he won’t draw enemy fire to himself or the men around him; he learns, regretfully, that his clerical collar, of which he is proud, can be seen for hundreds of yards in modern battle.

“He then goes on, after more films, to a study of mines and booby traps. The Germans have fiendish ideas about traps, and place them in the most unlikely places; they may evacuate a village and leave traps in every house. A picture is lop-sided–the man who goes to strengthen it is blown up. Another house contains an icebox. The man who opens the lid is killed at once. And so on.

Johnny is fond of soldiers and proudly wears his father’s badge. But he can’t understand these wild men who look like scarecrows. He stops his football to watch the padres slip from doorway to doorway all down the village street.

“Fundamentally, the mechanism is simple; the padre is told how it works, how to be on the lookout for it. He watches N.C.O.s give demonstrations; a stable door opens–the man who pulls it falls dead. A wounded German lies on the road; a man who goes to aid him is blown up as he turns him over.

“There are similar demonstrations of the tricky business of mine lifting, at which the padre tries his own hand in due course.

“Next, he learns how to carry wounded under fire, how to dig a slit trench for himself, to give himself a chance against dive bombers. Then he goes on to night marching and learns how to use a compass.

“Finally, he passes out after an exercise laconically called ‘Exercise Flat Out,’ which is nothing if not a good description of it. It starts with a forced march of about four miles over broken country and is followed immediately by an obstacle course under fire.

“This has nine main points, the first being a jump from a ramp about fifteen feet high into a stream below. After wading up stream the padre submerges under netting and goes under a road bridge which gives a clearance of only a few inches; after a brisk run he comes to a barbed wire section, which he has to get both over and under; a smoke pit and a scramble through sheep pens follow; he then goes in and out climbing walls of a disused barn, and then goes through a morass.

They must learn their way around in front-line conditions. Barbed wire makes tough going of this section of the battle school ‘obstacle race’ but it teaches a man to crawl along under wire without cutting himself to pieces in the process.

“After recrossing a stream on two ropes he comes to the stockade, which he climbs. A brisk sprint through a hedge brings him to the end of the course. If he does the whole lot including the forced march inside fifty-five minutes he is very good. The record is fifty minutes.

“That is the end of the course; the rest of the day is his own, and most of the class stagger straight off to a Turkish bath in a town twenty miles away.

“Battle school breaks up the next day. It has been short, fast and furious. But it has had another side which cannot be written up on the notice board’s orders for the day. That is the side which is seen early in the morning in the little Saxon church where the old Crusader is buried, which is seen late at night again, at evensong, after training is over. For the modern padre believes that he is taking back to Europe the things of the spirit. He is preparing for his crusade.”
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Digging is a life-saver in modern war and the non-combatant padre is as likely to be killed by a bomb, a shell splinter or a bullet as is any one. Battle school soon teaches him to grab an entrenching tool and hack out some cover for himself.

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The padre, traditionally, is always ready to help the stretcher bearers with a ba case; to go out in front with the wounded and give what aid he can, both spiritual and physical. Instructors teach him the way to move a man to safety under fire.

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Old Sir Gerald de Lisle went out from this same village to the Crusades nearly 700 years ago. Today, the swordless crusaders in the new armies of enlightenment pause in their training; gather round the effigy in the local church.

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This is no job for slackers. The modern padre is trained to be tough. He must be as fit as the men he will minister to in battle conditions. Stream fording is hard going, especially when you are wearing battle kit, but the chaplains can take it.

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No country curates, these, taking a gentle walk. Instead, the padre in camouflage kit learns how to enfilade through villages where there may be snipers’ bullets, learns how to make use of cover, hug walls, crouch before turning corners.

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At battle school a stiff wall is usually the shortest distance between two points. Padres soon learn to climb them.

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Crusader’s cross is the shoulder flash of the padres and the men of the Defence Company at the battle school.

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1London: Odhams Press Ltd., “Illustrated,” April 22, 1944, pgs. 5-8 (TCK archives).
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