The worst of the blitz of Malta was over by the time we arrived in December 1942, but the evidence of it was to be seen everywhere. Twenty-third Squadron was to operate from Luqa, and we, the ground crew, found ourselves housed in a former Roman Catholic building with all its windows blown out.
Our beds consisted of chicken wire stretched across scaffolding with one blanket; for meals, we were introduced to pumpkin and mashed-up biscuits, which had been salvaged from a sunken ship in the harbour.
As we were all accommodated in one large room, close contact was inevitable, and in the case of one man, John Begley, this proved uncomfortable. I soon became aware of his antagonism towards me.
My very presence seemed to evoke his criticism and opposition; yet, strangely enough, he often sought my company, and would even come to my defence if I was verbally attacked by anyone else.
The situation did not improve when we were transferred as a body to another long, narrow building, which I presumed had once been a stable. We were now each given a folding, metal bed, much to our surprise and comfort. I set mine up near to the end of the building and John, following close behind, chose the space immediately beside me.
Thinking it might just be a temporary arrangement, using his nickname I said to him, ‘Are you going to leave your bed there, Taff?’
‘Yes, Higgins, I am going to make your life hell!’
Just how he intended to do that I did not then know, but he did not keep me long in suspense. It was one evening and, having returned from work, we were all lounging about on our beds, some reading, a few others writing letters, when John, addressing me, said with an air of contempt, ‘You’d have still been running around as a heathen painted blue with woad if the pope had not sent a missionary to England’.
‘That’s not true’, I protested. ‘There was Christianity in England long before Augustine came to Canterbury. He was sent by Pope Gregory the Great in AD 597, landing at Pegwell Bay in Kent’. I didn’t realise it, but I had ‘drawn a bow at a venture’.
Then, remembering having seen him with a small book, which I presumed was a devotional volume produced by the Roman Catholic Church, I said, ‘By the way, Taff, have you got that book with you, which I’ve occasionally seen you reading?’
‘Yes, why?’ he replied.
I continued: ‘Is there a list of saints in it?’
Fishing in his kit-bag, he found it and scanning the contents muttered, ‘Yes’.
‘Check as correct what I have said’.
He read the words, ‘”St Augustine, sent by Pope Gregory the First (the Great) to evangelise the Saxons. Landed in Kent in 597AD”
‘You see, I was right’, he added.
‘Is St Alban who preached in England in that list?’ I then asked.
With assured confidence, but never suspecting a trap, he read, ‘St Alban, martyred in the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, in the year 302AD’.
There was a moment of silence, suddenly broken by a loud guffaw from the gathered group. Someone shouted, ‘He’s shot you down in flames, Taff’.
I didn’t enjoy seeing him confused, as he spluttered the words, ‘A priest could explain that’.
‘Sorry, Taff’, I said. ‘No priest can alter the truth’.
He later turned his attention to ridiculing the Bible. On several occasions he would pick up my Bible, peruse it for a moment and, calling the fellows to attention, would shout out, ‘Listen to this: this is what Higgins reads’. He would then read some passage or verse, which he considered humorous or absurd, much to the entertainment of the group.
‘Taff’, I said, ‘put that book down! It is a sharp sword and will cut you one of these days’. His reply was often abusive language and raucous laughter.
The story might have ended there, and for a while it did. As the war progressed, we continued to travel, first from Malta to Sardinia, where, being assigned to different billets, my contacts with John were less frequent.
After a short stay on that island, the squadron was recalled to Little Snoring, Norfolk, in 1944 to support the D-day invasion. By this time, it had become known that I was an artist and a sign-writer. Several times whilst overseas, I had been employed in writing notices, though my trade was an airframe fitter.
We had been in Norfolk only a short time when I was called to the Commanding Officer’s office. He told me that the carpenter was making Honours Boards, on which he wanted me to record the squadron’s victories.
A small, inner room in a large Nissen hut was allocated for me as a work place, equipped with a long bench and adequate heating. Periodically, information was given to me about the outcome of various missions.
Outside the main entrance was a concrete area on which the Navy Army Air Force Institute’s (NAAFI) wagon used to stand. Personnel from the airfield came at break times for a cup of tea and a ‘wad’. Among them was Taff, who would pick up his cup of tea and enter the room where I was working.
On the long bench I always kept a small Bible. Invariably he would approach it, and begin turning over the pages. I noticed that, when he left, it was often opened at the Old Testament, generally in the prophecy of Isaiah. This practice continued for some time.
Then one day he came in and, after reading for several minutes, he turned to me and in his usual arrogant tone said, ‘Well, Higgins, you don’t have to be a Christian like you to know that Isaiah is talking about Jesus in this 53rd chapter’.
His words certainly got my attention, but I did not look up as I had no wish to discourage him by appearing too interested. ‘Well, the Jews don’t believe it refers to Jesus Christ’, I said, ‘and I don’t think the fellows in the billet would know that it did’.
Back came his reply, ‘I bet you a quid they do. Put your money down’.
I told him I didn’t bet, but he persisted, saying he would read it out in the billet that night.
I had to go to a Bible study in Fakenham that night and so was not present when he did this. On my return quite late, I found him lying full length on my bed, his chin resting on his hand. He was reading my large Bible, which he had taken from the shelf above my bed.
I gave him a nudge with my elbow and said, ‘Come on Taff, off that bed. And, by the way, did anybody know?’
Instead of a torrent of abuse, he gently murmured: ‘No one knew, but just listen to these words’. In a voice charged with emotion, he continued: ‘These words have made me feel funny. Something has turned over inside me. I shall never again say what I have said about this book’.
I couldn’t believe my ears but, gathering my scattered thoughts, I whispered, ‘I told you, Taff, to leave that book alone, because it would cut you one day’.
Apparently, he had read through Isaiah 53 and continued into chapter 54. With eyes brimming with tears, he read these words: ‘For the Lord has called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and a wife of youth when thou wast refused, saith thy God. For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee’.
With added emphasis, he continued: ‘In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer’.
What came next astounded me, for, quoting the words of verse 16, ‘Behold I have created the smith that bloweth the coals’, he looked up and said, ‘He’s blowing the coals in me, isn’t he?’
I was shocked into silence by his interpretation. What an evidence of the Holy Spirit’s power to enlighten thought! With that, he slipped off my bed and without a word went to his own. I turned out the light, for the others were all asleep.
It was several days later. I was again writing the victories on the Honours Boards when in came Taff with his cup of tea. Straight to the Bible he went and began reading. I occasionally gave a side-long glance but said nothing.
In a very different tone of voice and, addressing me by my Christian name, he said, ‘Doug, I believe that there was a person called Jesus Christ, as sure as I believe you’re standing there, and I believe that he died for the sins of his elect people, but what I’d like to know is … was I one of them?’
I can’t describe the impact his words had on my mind. And what was I to say to him? I couldn’t tell him to do something — that’s what Rome had been telling him all his life.
‘Lord’, I said, ‘what shall I tell him? I will tell him you are faithful to your promises’.
Turning to John, I said, ‘Jesus said, “Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden”, and he didn’t mean weary and burdened with hard work; he meant burdened with a sense of guilt and sin’.
The word triggered an instant reply. ‘Sin’, he said. ‘You know something about my life, but you don’t know the half of it … Jesus Christ save me?’
‘Yes, John’, I said. ‘Your sin can be as black as hell itself, but the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin’.
He returned to his work without another word and I fell on my knees. ‘Lord’, I said, ‘show him Jesus. I can do no more’.
It was about 2.30pm when the outer door and then the inner door burst open and John stood before me, his face like the rising sun. Without introducing the subject I said, ‘Tell me, Taff, how has the Lord told you?’
Bubbling with joy he said, ‘I was working on a kite in the hangar when Paddy, a fellow from Southern Ireland, looked up and said, “Hey, Begley, a priest has been around wanting to know why you have not been to church”.’
John looked down at him from the aircraft wing and said, ‘I’m not going to that church again. I’m going to read the Bible’.
‘Read the Bible?’ was Paddy’s reply. ‘You should trust in the Church and in the Virgin Mary’.
What follows clearly shows how the Holy Spirit can bring his Word to mind, for John replied, ‘”There is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus”, and “Whosoever believeth in him…”.’
He never finished the sentence, but said to himself, ‘Why am I talking like this?’
The word he had intended for Paddy, the Lord turned back into his own heart. Leaving Paddy opened-mouthed, John slid off the aircraft wing and ran down to the place where I was working.
The next Saturday, a former friend of John’s named Jock, a Scot from Sanquhar in Dumfriesshire, told him to get ready, for they had to catch the ‘liberty bus’ to Norwich. It had been their practice to go drinking, usually to return the worse for drink and ready to take offence at any wrong word spoken to them.
John was sitting on his bed when Jock spoke to him and, when he made no effort to get ready, Jock swore at him, emphatically reminding him that time was passing.
Quietly John repeated what he had said before, ‘I’m not going, Jock. I’ve finished with that life’.
Thinking that John was just trying to embarrass me by pretending to be pious, Jock ignored it. However, when he returned from the ablutions having washed and shaved, John was still sitting there. Jock flared into a temper, swearing and abusing John, who for the third time said, ‘I’ve told you, Jock, I’ve finished with that life and I’m never going again’.
I’ve never seen a person so nonplussed as was that Scotsman. He couldn’t utter a word. He stood for a moment like a man paralysed, then putting on his jacket he left the room. Whilst this was taking place I was silently praying, ‘Hold him fast, Lord, hold him fast’.
John was a new creature in Christ. He never went on that bus again, but accompanied me to the Christian fellowship in Fakenham.
Later he bought an old motorbike and on our Sunday day off, we travelled to Stoke Ferry to hear Rev. Thomas Houghton, vicar of a small Anglican church.
In later life, Eileen and I would visit John almost every year in Anglesey. As a trophy of sovereign grace, he fought a good but lonely fight, until God called him home in October 1993.
This extract is taken from Douglas Higgins: autobiography of a Yorkshire Christian (Banner of Truth Trust; 104 pages, illustrated paperback, £5.50; ISBN: 978-1-84871-488-5; available September 2014)