Normal life came to an end for my father at the age of 21 on the morning of June 12 1940 in the French coastal town of St Valery-en-Caux. Along with several thousand men of the 51st Highland Division of the British Expeditionary Force, he was marched off into captivity by the German army.
Although he had been brought up in a Christian home and had committed his life to Christ while still at school, my father described himself at age 21 as ‘a nominal Christian’.
Liberated after five years of captivity on May 5th 1945 by an American army unit, he returned three days later on May 8th to his home in the village of Aberlour in Scotland; the experience of war and captivity had changed him in soul, spirit and character forever. His Christian experience, life and witness, now far from nominal!
The day before the surrender of his unit in 1940, my father prayed in desperation as he waited for the next German attack. He recalls the moment in his retrospective of the war years in his book, ‘We’ve Been a Long Time Coming Boys’:
“As I lay there, I kept wondering when our navy would come in. We would soon be on board ship with such a great story to relate. All the weeks now behind us would seem like a bad, nightmarish dream. Escape somehow we must — but how, I could not quite imagine or tell. It was then that I thought of my family and friends, of loved ones who doubtless would be worried, but I knew would be praying for me. Yes, prayer was the answer, of this I was sure. And so, 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.”
However, within 36 hours my father experienced a real answer to prayer.
“When the German tanks eventually appeared and rumbled down to surround us, we must have looked a pretty rag-bag dishevelled body of men. I was quite near our Brigadier as he turned to his driver, Ronnie Gordon, and throwing his steel helmet to the ground, said “Gordon, give me my red hat”. These were to be his “famous last words” as our commanding officer. Unfortunately for him, the red hat trick did not work. The German tank commander passed him by and by mistake, chose the brigade major, thinking him to be the officer in charge. He was ushered away for special privileges, while we, the brigadier included, were ordered to form up, or so we inferred, and move off towards the rising of the sun, that is, the East. Who would have dreamt that this eastward march would extend to 450 kilometres and take us through France, Belgium, Holland and on to Wesel on the borders of Germany. None of us imagined this would happen to us, but unfortunately it did.
We had no problem that first day — just a long hard foot-slog. For eleven hours we dragged ourselves along without one single break, no drink, no rest. Through ruined villages well-known to us earlier that year, we trudged relentlessly on. Sometimes a kindly face would appear at a door and someone would invitingly leave out a pail of tempting water on their step. 'Dixies' in hand, we would join the rush for a drink. If a guard got there first, he would kick over the bucket, tumbling its contents to the ground.
About midnight, we reached their goal. It was a hurriedly-constructed make-shift camp in the form of a barbed-wire enclosure. In here we were packed like sheep in a pen with just enough room to lie down. That day, in the blazing hot sun, we had covered at least thirty miles.
Morning call came in a most unusual and dramatic fashion. Just after sunrise, around five I should guess, our prison gate was opened and a young bull was driven into our field. Goaded on by the guards, it began to charge through among the sleeping bodies. It was the most effective “alarm clock” I have ever seen in my life. We were all on our feet in a jiffy. Then, an S.S. type of guy, as ugly as the bull itself, came in with a group of his henchmen. He could speak a little English and made himself quite clear. We were a bunch of dirty, filthy Englanders. (That excluded me. I was a Scotsman). We would all shave at once and be ready for inspection when he returned for parade.
Meantime, he was on the hunt for machine-gunners. Obviously, they were to be the prime target for his wrath. Unfortunately for him, our machine-gun boys were not to be found. Evidently, they had given a good account of themselves in the recent action, but by now all their badges had disappeared. In his frustration and rage, he pounced on two young lads — French Moroccans they were — and led them away. Out of sight, behind some haystacks, several shots rang out in the clear morning air. We all knew what that meant. He had taken his revenge on two defenceless North African boys whom he had never seen before. So much for the rules of war!
I see from my diary that we were left in our enclosure that day. Two bits of information have been hurriedly scribbled down. One is that we were given neither food nor drink from our captors the whole of that Thursday. After all, it was the 13th of the month. What else could we expect!
The other entry reminds me that Alex produced a small tin of corned beef. What a God-send that little tin was, for he was good enough to share it with me. It had inadvertently been left in our radio truck the previous day. Spotting it as he passed by, Alex had the good sense to put it safely away in his gas-mask bag. Neither food nor drink was provided for us yet again. I shared my emergency chocolate ration with Alex that day. It was sewn into my battledress trouser pocket and preserved in a little brass-coloured tin. I wasn't what you would call a sweet tooth at any time, but never did plain chocolate taste so good as now.
Next morning, orders were issued to line up for food. This was it at last, we thought. After four days in German hands, they must have got themselves organised — that is, foodwise at least. Would it be a three course meal? My diary records it, “just half a ladle of watery soup”. Then, with shouts and shoves and kicks, it was impressed on us that we were on the march again. That day, we stumbled on for another thirty kilometres — still in the heat of the sun.
Thirst was my problem now. Hunger I could endure, but oh for a drink of water. I clearly remember making a vow that, if I ever got back home, I would invest all my savings in Hay's lemonade factory. In my imagination, I would sit down with a crate of their No. 1 and drink until I burst. What a fool I was to think like this. I had forgotten all the lessons I had been taught at Sunday School — that is, until now.
All at once I was reminded about the prophet Elijah. When there had been no rain in Israel for more than three years he sat down and prayed — and suddenly it rained. Taking off my cap as we were marching along, I lifted my eyes to the sky and prayed “Lord Jesus, you know all about thirst. You had to ask for a drink at Sychar's Well and at the last, on Calvary's Cross. How much I long for a drink. Please help!”
Honestly, I did not really expect a miracle to happen. The days of such things seemed to have gone long ago. Mile after mile we kept trudging along and then, all at once, my prayer was answered and in a most spectacular way. A sudden summer shower, literally from ‘out of the blue’ began to pour down from the heavens on our heads. That would not have helped my burning thirst very much had we not been passing an old farm-house just at that time. The heavy down-pour was too much for the old rhone pipes and water came gushing out on to the road. Two of us ran with a ground-sheet and catching as much as we could, we drank our fill of the stuff and shared the precious water around. Here was an answer to prayer, the first of so many I was to experience from the One who knew our needs. As we set off again, I just took off my cap once more, and said “Thank you Jesus, Lord.” I felt like the man who wrote the popular old hymn which runs like this:
What a Friend we have in Jesus
All our sins and griefs to bear
What a Privilege to carry
Everything to Him in prayer.
You know, I had never thought of prayer as being a privilege before.”
Now I know why that great hymn, ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus, written by Joseph M. Scriven in1855 was one of my father’s favourites. During his time as a POW he had experienced answers to prayer which confirmed what he had read in his Bible: ‘If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you’. (John 15v7)
Prayer is indeed a great privilege which should be exercised frequently by all believers.
My late father’s book can still be obtained via Amazon.
‘We’ve Been A Long Time Coming Boys’ by Charles Morrison, Published by Albyn Press ISBN 0284 98840 5
"After I returned home in 1945, I learned that a local Church Minister - The Rev. Harry Stoddart - and my father met every morning at 7 a.m. to pray for me. In 1948, I met Rev. Stoddart's niece, and in 1949 we were married in Glasgow — by Uncle Harry Stoddart".