Preached at St. Barnabas Anglican Church, Medicine Hat, AB
Sunday, 6 May, 2012

When I was asked by the local Sea Cadet unit to assist with their Battle of the Atlantic Sunday, I recycled this sermon from one posted on this blog in 2009. Those who say that sermons can never be reused as is are quite wise. The original sermon was full of Air Force references, since it was preached while I was posted to the RCAF, and had to be rewritten substantially, and all the better for it. If you want to see the film clip from The Cruel Sea referenced below, you can find the whole film on You Tube and look in the last twenty minutes for the scene described. And I’m not sure why Blogger is centering all my text today. Stupid blogger. To busy to dissect the html and fix it. Grrr. MP

I have to confess, when Lt(N) Kelly Rasmussen approached me about doing a Battle of the Atlantic service here, in Medicine Hat, in the middle of the prairies, I thought: “Really?” It seemed a bit odd, doing such a service here, because, well, the last time I preached at a Battle of Atlantic Sunday was when I was posted at CFB Greenwood, the home of the RCAF’s 14 Wing, and a place that Fr. Gene remembers from his days as an air force brat. I have to say, and don’t take this the wrong way, that the service made sense at Greenwood, just minutes from the sea. Several of the squadrons still serving at 14 Wing were active in the Battle of the Atlantic, and in the Cold War decades that followed, Canadian aircraft continued to take off from Nova Scotia to hunt for submarines, albeit Soviet rather than German.

After Kelly and I spoke, though, I did some digging, and I realized how wrong I was. I realized that I shouldn’t have been surprised to find sea cadets here on the prairies, because the prairies seem to make sailors. “Prairie sailors”, as they were called, may have grown up far from the ocean, but they made excellent ships crews. Perhaps it was the wide open skies and the rolling landscape, which can look so much like the ocean. Maybe it was the desire to see the world while serving their country, or to just get away from Moose Jaw or Gimili or, well, Medicine Hat. Whatever the reasons, of the 110,000 men and women who served in the RCN, a third came from the prairie provinces, including 7500 alone from Alberta. So, for you Sea Cadets here today, you are in a long tradition and you can take pride in wearing that uniform as Prairie Sailors.

Model of a prairie sailor monumnent to be built at the Naval Museum, Winnipeg, MB

Part of the pride you as Sea Cadets should take in your uniform comes from remembering the Battle of the Atlantic, which is one of the reasons why we’re here today. What was this Battle, and why is it important? First, it wasn’t really a battle, since we normally think of a battle as something that happens in a day or so. This was five years, five long years of trying to keep the ocean between North America and Britain open and safe for ships. You see, today, if you want to go overseas, you take a plane. When our army sends soldiers and equipment, even tanks, to Afghanistan, we can put them on planes. Back then, if you wanted to send anything – a soldier, a tank, a box of bullets, supplies for the army and for the people of Britain – it had to go by ship. And the German submarine fleet, called UBoats, tried to stop our ships.

Before we could win the war against the Nazis in Europe, we had to win it in the Atlantic. It was a victory on which all the other victories depended. If the German submarine fleet had not been defeated, starvation and surrender would have been forced on England. The great landings such as D-Day could not have happened, and there would have been no liberation for the peoples of occupied Europe. The Nazi system of death camps and extermination would have prospered and spread. That these things did not happen is only due to the constant vigilance, great physical and spiritual stamina, and almost superhuman bravery which kept the Atlantic open. The Battle of the Atlantic was fought by sailors of the Canadian and Allied navies, mostly in small ships. But it wasn’t just the Navy. The Navy were supported by air crews, far out over the Atlantic in planes primitive by today’s standards, spotting UBoats and attacking them, and of course the Battle of the Atlantic was also fought by the men of the merchant marine, the sailors who couldn’t fight back, but who had to get the supply ships across the ocean. They were the ones who did most of the dying.

For the ships’ crews, the only thing worse than battling the storms of the North Atlantic and Arctic Seas was the calmer weather which kept them listening for the torpedo which could strike at any moment. The bravery, perseverance and sacrifice of these crews made possible the safe passage of supplies that would keep England in the fight, and the safe transport of the armies that would train and prepare for the liberation of Europe. On a personal note, my own father was one of the soldiers who crossed the Atlantic with First Canadian Division in 1940, and my own mother, a young war bride with three children, crossed the other way to Halifax in early 1945. There were more precious things than tanks and shells on those ships that the escorts faithfully shepherded.

I’ve spoken about the history of the Battle of the Atlantic, and now I’d like to make it a bit more real for you by showing you this scene from the 1953 film The Cruel Sea, an adaptation of the famous novel by Nicholas Montsarrat, based on his wartime experience in escort ships. Here the climactic scene comes at the end of a long chase. A British ship has been hunting a German sub, a U-Boat, for days, only the Captain believes it is still there. The U-boat is depth-charged, forced to the service, and after an uneven fight, the German crew abandons their submarine and swims towards the waiting enemy, which has let down scrambling nets and ropes to aid their rescue. As the coughing and dirty survivors are pulled on board, the first officer says to the captain, “They don’t look much different from us, do they?” Throught the film, there are many scenes of the ships crew rescuing survivors of merchant ships, and being rescued themselves when their first ship is torpedoed. The point of the clip is to show that despite being the sworn enemies of the UBoats, the destroyer crew can recognize a common humanity in the oil-soaked figures they are pulling to safety.

Royal Canadian Navy survivors being rescued.

German UBoat crewman being rescued.
There’s not much difference in these pictures, is there, and that’s the point that the film makes. In the water, dazed, freezing, and choking on oil, all that men have in common is their frail humanity and the hope that someone, even someone who used to be an enemy, will rescue them because he too is a sailor. This vision of a common-humanity is what I, as a preacher, find most inspiring, and what I think we are called to remember this morning. I had another vision of this common humanity some years ago, when I was a student priest at an Anglican church in Kitchener. Several parishioners were veterans, including Charley, an RCAF Spitfire pilot with a distinguished war record. There was also Otto, a quiet, dignified gentleman with a strong German accent, who kept much to himself. It was only when Otto was dying that I learned his story – that as a young man he had served as a conscript sailor on a German U-Boat. He did not advertise the fact, and in an upper-middle class, very English Anglican church, who could blame him? But I found the idea of these two former adversaries, united Sunday by Sunday to sing and praise God, to hear scripture read and preached on, and to be strengthened by the holy sacraments, a very appealing story. This was, I believe, a vision of God’s peace, God’s shalom, that we are called to. As scripture says in many places, including in the prophet Isaiah, God’s will is that all the nations are called to leave peaceably together (Isa 56:7).

Yes, it was a good and necessary thing that the submarines be defeated, for the reasons I’ve outlined above. Yes, it is a good and necessary thing that we, as sea cadets, as Canadians, remember our heritage. But this Sunday, we are also called to remember that the loving God we worship is the creator of all, and sees us all as his beloved creations. God sees unites us, and sorrows at what divides us. Those of you who have worn, and now wear your country’s uniform, know that it is not likely you will soon be able to take it off for God. The world is still too dangerous, too uncertain. Peace is illusive and difficult to attain. But consider this – that God’s purpose is always to bring peace out of war, for God is the sworn enemy of death, and darkness, and chaos, and is always working to bring life, and light, and peace into being. God’s own raising of his Son, Jesus Christ, from the death, is the strongest proof of His intentions for the world. God, as I said at the beginning, is working in history, both in the account of St. Paul in Acts, in the history we remember today, and in our own time. Who would have predicted during World War Two that sixty years later Canadian troops and war material would safely cross a peaceful Atlantic to fight beside our German Nato allies in Afghanistan as we try to bring a better future to that country? The struggle is not easy, and much flawed, but I believe that light and life and hope are always God’s purposes in the world. Will we stand with God, will we stand in God’s light, and take up our share of this work as he calls us to do?