What a difference a day makes....or so the song goes. Seventy three years ago today on June 12th 1940, my late father Charles Morrison found himself in a desperate situation. Although he did not realise it at the time, the events of that day were to be life changing for him and many of his comrades.
Having joined the Gordon Highlanders regiment in March 1939, my father was part of the British Expeditionary Force sent to France to confront the might of the German army. Organised and equipped to fight the previous war, the BEF and their French allies were no match for the Wehrmacht and its ultra modern strategic doctrine of blitzkrieg.
While historians and documentary makers repeatedly laud the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’, there is rarely any mention of the 51st Highland Division which fought on for weeks, before being abandoned by their government. Cornered with their French allies in the coastal town of St Valery, the men of the Gordon Highlanders awaited their fate.
When he retired from his career in education my father wrote a book (“We’ve Been A Long time Coming Boys” Published by Albyn Press 1989) detailing his war experiences. Here is how the surrender at St Valery affected him:
“I often used to wonder why men who survived the First World War would persist in recounting their experiences so long after they had returned safely home. Now I realise that such events seem to leave a scar on one’s mind, which time can never erase. In my case, the day of our surrender still lives on with me.”
A nominal Christian, aged just twenty one, my father did have the good sense to pray for deliverance......”as we waited for the action to begin, I started to pray....something like this ‘Dear Lord Jesus Christ, in your mercy, please get us out of this mess. If you do, I promise most sincerely to serve you as never before’. It was not a genuine prayer. It was only a desperate plea for help and I guess God in Heaven, who knows the thoughts of our hearts, could quite easily read my intentions that day. I often wondered later if He smiled and said, ‘I will, sometime, but not now.
No deliverance from above came to my aid, despite my pathetic little request. Instead a salvo of shells from the German guns, now all around us, was the only reply. Then, along the ridge to our left, white flags began to show. To our amazement and disgust, our allies, the French, had thrown in the towel before our very eyes. For some time we sat tight expecting an attack to begin. As we quietly waited that morning, of this I am sure, we were ready and eager to fight for our freedom, to stick to our guns, and to sell our lives dearly, even to our very last man. Alas it was not to be. Despite the desperate shouts to our commander, ‘No surrender yet Sir; we want to fight on’, his orders remained unaltered, ‘Surrender, leave your positions and throw down your guns’.
So it was, on that fateful Wednesday morning on June 12th 1940, battered, bruised but unbeaten, we formed up in marching order leaving all our possessions behind, scattered on the ground. Reluctantly, we set off on a journey across Europe to five long years under the Nazi regime.”
Force marched across Europe, my father spent almost five years as a POW in a camp at Quadendorf, five kilometres outside the city of Danzig in Poland. Forced to give up being a soldier of the state, he became a soldier of the cross.
At the request from his comrades, he preached every Sunday night for almost five years........no books for study.....no fancy Biblical commentaries or prepared sermons, just a battered old Bible and the presence of God.
Six months after the surrender at St Valery, he received his first communication from home, written by his own father. It contained a verse of scripture from the book of Isaiah, chapter 48 verse10 which read “I have chosen you in the furnace of affliction”.
Even though times are tough, knowing that you have been chosen by the Lord God Almighty who promises never to leave or forsake us, can enable anyone to endure the most difficult of circumstances.