A Sermon from Sherborne

The Importance of Remembering

A sermon for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Battle of Britain Sunday, 15 September 2019, by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


Over twenty years ago I received from my uncle a photograph which meant so much to me that I framed it, and it now occupies pride of place in our dining room.

My uncle’s photograph was taken without his knowledge at the Remembrance Sunday Parade 1998 in Bury St Edmunds, the Suffolk town from which all my family comes. It was taken by a photographer from the local newspaper, and it appeared in that paper with the caption “An Old Soldier Remembers”. “Humph”, my uncle commented: “you’d think they’d know an RAF tie when they saw one. An old soldier, indeed!”

He might have added (but he was not that sort of man) that they might have recognised too the Distinguished Flying Medal which he won early in the Second World War before he received his Commission, and the Distinguished Flying Cross which he won as an Officer. No doubt a young reporter can be forgiven for not recognising the DFM or the DFC. Perhaps he should also be forgiven for not being able to tell an RAF tie from a regimental one. But it all betokens a forgetting of what should be a remembrance. And I want to suggest to you tonight that remembrance is absolutely vital to us all if we are to hold on to what is true and right and of good report in our land.

Let me explain. Today is Battle of Britain Sunday. We always commemorate it at Evensong. But many of us were not born then, and our knowledge of it may be vague indeed, perhaps little more than the half-remembered sequences of an old black and white film. And we will not be able to continue to remember unless the story is told and retold. So let me retell it tonight.

Today we commemorate the great victory won by the Royal Air Force which saved Britain from invasion in 1940. The enemy’s object was to eliminate the Royal Air Force both in the air and on the ground, and to obtain air superiority in preparation for a seaborne and airborne invasion.

Confident of success, the gathered formations of the Luftwaffe along the French and Belgian coasts began their first heavy onslaught early in July, directed against British shipping and the channel ports. The intention of this first phase of the battle was to draw our Air Force into battle and wear down its strength. The second phase, from the 8th to the 18th of August, consisted of intensive day operations against coastal radar stations and fighter airfields. The third phase began after a five-day lull with increased night attacks, and raids on the fighter airfields in the London area.

The daylight assault on London itself marked the beginning of the fourth phase which opened on 7th September with attacks on the docks which, though serious in themselves, brought vital relief to the fighter airfields which had been under such pressure. This phase lasted most of the month and reached a climax on the 15th September, when over one thousand sorties were flown against the capital in the afternoon and at night. The Luftwaffe suffered a heavy defeat, losing 56 aircraft.

Throughout October, the fifth and last phase saw the decline of enemy daylight attacks on London and an increase in the night bombing of Britain’s major ports and industrial centres.

At the beginning, the Luftwaffe had no fewer than 2,790 aircraft to launch against England. To meet this aerial armada, we had fewer than 60 fighter squadrons, representing some 650 aircraft, and the ground staff had to work sometimes 16 hours a day to keep the machines in the air. Between 24th August and 6th September alone, Fighter Command lost 103 pilots killed and 128 seriously wounded, while 366 fighters had been put out of action. The position was indeed grave. Then on Sunday, 15th September, came what Sir Winston Churchill called “one of the decisive battles of the war”, and with it the Luftwaffe’s greatest defeat. In Churchill’s immortal words “the gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, turned the tide of the world war, by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.

The fact that I can retell that story, simply and briefly, is utterly dependent on the freedom which was won for us by “the few” and all the rest of the allied forces who fought against tyranny and oppression during the Second World War. If Adolf Hitler had won that conflict, we probably wouldn’t be here now, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to tell the story. When in 1933 Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, he immediately carried out a purge of all those teaching in Germany’s schools and universities. The very first departments he purged were not those of chemistry or physics or technology, as you might imagine, but those of history. You see, Hitler realised much more clearly than many people do today, that he who controls our understanding of the past will also control our perception of the present and our ambitions for the future. Thus it was that Hitler was able to insist that in every school and every university in Germany it should be taught that there was one race – a master race – which had been destined to achieve world domination, and that every other race (especially the Jewish) were somehow inferior or even sub-human. By asserting the superiority of the Aryan peoples, Hitler was able to justify his persecution of the Jewish and other minorities in Germany and enlist the great majority of the German people in his evil crusade.

We should not be surprised by that. It has been the technique of tyrants and dictators down the ages. It was used by the white minority in South Africa to justify apartheid with a twisted piece of historical fiction. To this day you will find the same manipulation of history by Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland, by Jew and Arab in Israel, by settler and Aborigine in Australia and so on and so on.

In the Old Testament, the story of Israel’s bondage in Egypt and subsequent journey to the Promised Land was so important that it was told over and over again, from father to son, generation after generation. And in the New Testament the story of human captivity to sin and our redemption by Jesus Christ on the Cross was so important that that story – the greatest story ever told – was proclaimed over and over again. That’s why I tremble that now we are not hearing the stories any more, but are even beginning to dismiss them as irrelevant and somehow not “politically correct”. When the essential stories of our island race and – far more importantly – the essential stories of our salvation history, can no longer be told because a group of self-appointed thought-police have decreed them to be politically incorrect, then we have to be very much on our guard lest the tyranny against which this nation fought in 1940 creeps in by the back door. We must remember, in order to be renewed and re-inspired by the stories which are our foundation history. Of course it is not enough just to hear the stories of battles past. There are greater stories still to be heard in this church, Sunday by Sunday. You need to hear, time and again, the story of how God made us and loves us, keeps us and redeems us. But the fact that you are here this evening should give us all heart. In 1940 our freedom to hear any of the stories of our nation or our salvation was in peril. That freedom has been preserved for us by the few. We, the many, must remember. And be thankful.

Canon Eric Woods 15/09/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne