From the Archives: Retelling the tales of Second World War

POST BY MAllen

Pamphlet released in 1939 (ref. 48/11/3)

Later this week, 8-9 of May to be exact, marks the annual international day of remembrance and reconciliation for those who lost their lives during the Second World War. These days – first designated by the United Nations General Assembly in 2004 - urge individuals, UN Member States and organisation to pay tribute to the victims of World War II annually on either one of or both days. The 8th May was designated, naturally, as this was the day when, almost 75 years ago the World War II Allies accepted the unconditional surrender of Germany and Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich ended.

After researching material for this article, I have decided to honour members of the Society by re-telling a few of their war-stories found within the archive. Many British Jesuits played their part in the war efforts and encountered the war’s damaging effects.  The accounts below shine a light on what members of the British Province of the Society endured between 1939-1945 and honours their resilience and bravery.

Roughly 100 Jesuits from the British Province served as military chaplains between 1939 and 1945, their stories are recorded in Chaplains Weekly, a publication started by the Jesuits during World War I containing Province news, notices of the death of Jesuits, and occasionally extracts from letters written by Jesuit Chaplains. It was dispatched to each Jesuit chaplain on a weekly basis and contains a wealth of information and insight into their lives during postings.

Fr Patrick Cullinan SJ was one of these Jesuit military chaplains out in the field. His account of his experiences on a hospital ship in the Bay of Naples towards the end of the war was recorded in the Chaplains Weekly and gives us a glimpse into the dangers ever-present during a role as military chaplain:

Three planes attacked us on a bright moonlight night in the bay of Naples. One near-miss lifted the ship and woke me. As [I] sat on the side of my bunk, a second bomb pierced three decks an[d] exploded between two wards on the deck below me. The explosion was only two cabins’ distance from me. I was thrown out of bed and all the cabin fittings came away from the bulkheads on top me. I opened the door and was nearly smothered by the smoke and fumes of the explosion, and found the ship on fire. The lights were gone and I could not find my clothes or life-belt: nothing was where I had put it. By this time, I was wondering whether I should be blown up, burnt or drowned. Escapes were miraculous: one patient was killed..., one orderly who was beside the bomb and one sailor who was on the deck above it. The night nurse was badly burnt and most of the patients were thrown out of bed. The bed-ridden patients got up and legged it to safety; and when they reached safety, they collapsed when they remembered that they could not walk.

The danger was as present at home, as it was out on the field, demonstrated by the obituary of a young Jesuit Scholastic named Robert Howarth. Brother Howarth was tragically killed during an air raid at Manresa House on the night of October 10th, 1940, only a few hours before his 20th birthday.

Obituary of Brother Robert Howarth

Another account of that fateful night was recorded in the Blandyke Papers November 1940 issue by Peter McArdle SJ who was also on guard duty the same night as Br Howarth:

It was a perfect night for the enemy. The moon was almost full and the sky was cloudless. I was on guard until 9:00 p.m., and consequently was at the top of the house (New Wing) when the bomb landed. We had luckily chosen that wing. Br Cluderay was waiting to relieve us in the schoolroom. Brs Howarth and B[urke], on their nightly rounds to inspect the Blackout, joined him for a few moments, and it was then that the bomb fell, there were five in all. One of them burst on the schoolroom roof…. What we watchers felt like at the top of the New Wing, as we watched the approaching plane, listened to the rapid descent of the bombs and finally, as we were rocked like a ship at sea when the bomb struck, I will leave for another article to relate.

Other Jesuit houses and buildings too were affected by bombing. Mount Street in particular suffered from the constant threat of destruction by bombing. On this particular occasion, addressed in the September 21st, 1940 edition of Chaplains Weekly there were two separate bombings in one week. The first, luckily, did little damage:

“..an unexploded shell fell through the roof of the Mount St. House, striking the wall of Br. Banfield’s room and making a hole about two feet square. It then penetrated the floor of the gallery, wrecking a steel book case outside Fr. Woodlock’s room and scattering the books. Finally it came to rest in the joists of the next floor i.e. the Sodality Chapel Gallery. It was removed later by A.R.P. Workers and comparatively little damage was done.”

The second incident, involving a “Molotoff Basket” and the roof of the Church was unfortunately was much more damaging:

Chaplains Weekly 21st September 1940

These extracts show just a small sliver of the rough circumstances both the men and women of Europe and the members of the British Province of the Society of Jesus endured throughout the Second World War. By highlighting them on the anniversary of the surrender of Germany the Jesuits in Britain Archives aims to pay tribute to the victims of World War II. If you are interested in the topic, the documents mentioned in this blog post, or the work of the archives in general, please contact us.

Alex van Goethem, Cataloguing Archivist