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SASRA ‘peace2020’ initiative:Witnessing near the front line

March 2020 | by Bill Newton

Wounded British soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk at Dover 31 May 1940
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Our second excerpts from the book, SASRA in the Second World War, follow some of the Scripture Readers who accompanied the Army and RAF overseas.

Twelve went to France in 1940 with the British Expeditionary Force:

There is no doubt as to the responsiveness of the men as there is equally no doubt concerning the need. The absence of any gathering place where the Gospel may be preached is apparent everywhere. Church parades are in many parts impracticable, and where held are often irregular in time and voluntary in attendance. Yet where small gatherings have been possible the response has been full of encouragement and it has been our joy to lead several individually to Christ wherever such meetings have been held.

They had to be evacuated from Dunkirk in June 1940 as France fell to the German invasion:

Our small party of Scripture Readers got together, and decided to get away early next morning. On our arrival at the railway station we were informed there were no trains running, and enquiry at the Town Major’s office brought the reply, ‘We have no transport.’ We were then told, ‘All right, get your kit – just what you can carry in your hand – and be ready outside. I will stop the first convoy coming through and try to get you on it.’

The congestion on the road was intense; it took us 6 hours to travel 25 miles; we were then turned into a big car park for the night. An all-night disturbance from German ’planes going over to bomb a port 5 miles farther on, made us wonder if we would get away after all. 4.30 am found us having a wash in a field, chilled to our very bones, and with a deep longing for home, and at 7.30 we moved off under the protection of the Staff Officer. Again the conditions were so acute that we were four and a half hours travelling 4 miles! We arrived some 2½ miles from the embarkation point, and there turned into a large field into which we were packed like sardines in a tin. We then scrambled out of our transport vehicles, which had to be burnt before the enemy arrived!

The old soldier instincts, born of long experience, proved invaluable. Listening to orders given, we caught the sound of a promise to the Colonel of a lorry to take the officers’ kit to the boat. Immediately we offered to help load the baggage, and in due course we were all aboard the longed-for boat!

Scripture Readers also worked with the 8th Army in North Africa facing the German Africa Corps and Erwin Rommel:

Since I wrote you last, I have been out in the van to the Western Desert. I enjoy the work immensely. The response to the Gospel messages have been amazing. Every night, after listening to the news, there is an earnest Gospel talk, and many men have come to know and love the Lord Jesus Christ through our visit. A young fellow whose friend had been killed by a bomb the day before said, ‘I want to know how to be saved,’ and in a trench he found the Lord Jesus Christ as his Saviour.

We conducted sing-songs inside and outside desert canteens, talked and ate in the dark, had to break off to rush into trenches, because of air-raid warnings, taught choruses to men gathered from their guns and observation posts, and cooked meals. All this, with personal work, has occupied the days and nights in the desert, but the joy of helping these men to get to know the Saviour, sharing something of their hardships, and enjoying fellowship with other Christians, has been wonderful. On our last morning two men came and asked for a Testament each, and said they wanted to be saved. It was easy to point them to Christ.

However, the work took its toll. A Scripture Reader in Italy in 1944 wrote:

One has often been asked what it feels like to be in the forward areas and especially in the front line. I find it hard to describe. There is a hush over the gap between the advancing army and the retreating enemy. Every road is quite clear of traffic, except as you come across a burnt out tank still smoking, or an overturned gun with its crew lying around dead and the horses (for the Germans used many) too.

The turning of every corner is a little adventure in itself. Here and there a farmhouse burns quietly and there is no one to quench it. You hardly take your eyes off the road for a second. The enemy is a master hand at laying his deadly teller mines and other abominations. When the enemy gets the slightest suspicion of any movement the hush is broken by the swish and crack of shells and the sharp staccato din of machine gun fire manifesting his nervousness. Naturally our own artillery return their fire and so the noise becomes deafening.

It was after a six-day spell like this in the vicinity of Citta di Pieve that my colleague … cracked up. We returned to Rome through which we had driven so triumphantly with the advanced elements of the 24th Guards Brigade on the day it was liberated a month or so before. There we commended each other to God and with real sorrow of heart at losing his grand fellowship.

More information can be found on the SASRA website, sasra.org.uk.

Bill Newton is editor of ‘SASRA in the Second World War’ and a volunteer with Mission Assist.