Constant Endeavour - Westminster Abbey
|On Tuesday 16 March a service of thanksgiving and the dedication of a memorial to those who served with Royal Air Force Coastal Command took place in the presence HM The Queen, HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and HRH, Prince Michael of Kent.|
A sermon preached on 16 March 2004 at Westminster Abbey on the occasion of
the Dedication of the Coastal Command Memorial in the presence of HM the
Queen. The Sermon was conducted by The Venerable Brian Lucas formerly Chaplain in Chief, Royal Air Force.†††
Some words from the first reading:
"Who created these?
These words were written by a Prophet known to us as Isaiah, who was living with the Jews in exile in Babylonia in the 6th century BC. He is trying to raise the morale of the people by pointing to the nature of Yahweh Ė God the Incomparable. And as Babylonia was the centre of star-worship he meets it head-on and asks who created the stars? Without a pause for breath he affirms that it is the Lord. Not only that, but there is a martial tone to the verse. God leads the stars out each night.
When God calls, "By the right, number", they all number Ė not ONE is missing!
The Prophet is making the point that the incomparable God never faints or grows weary, and even though they are in slavery, those who keep the faith, and trust in the Lord shall be renewed in strength, and rise like eagles on new wings!
We have come here to honour all those who served in Coastal Command and its Allied Formations and their successors. In particular we remember those who gave their lives in doing their duty. As we hold them in our heart before that same God, our confident belief is that "not one of them is missing."
In the summer of 1936 three new RAF commands were formed: Bomber, Fighter and Coastal. Just before the outbreak of war, Coastal Command Headquarters, moved from Lee-on-Solent to Northwood, to be nearer the Admiralty The C-in-C, ACM Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferte, was soon convinced of the need for the air staff and the naval staff to work closely together, and established a combined headquarters at Northwood with attached Naval officers and close contact with the Admiralty. The RAF Maritime Air Staff have been there ever since, until, earlier this month, they joined the rest of No. 3 Group at RAF High Wycombe.
It is important to bear in mind that during the war, in addition to its RAF and Auxiliary AF squadrons, Coastal had under its command : a Polish Sqn, a Czech Sqn, a Netherlands Sqn, two Norwegian Sqns, squadrons of the R Canadian AF, the R Australian AF, the R NZ AF, the S African AF (operating Ventura aircraft from Durban and Madagascar), and the US Navy and the US Army Air Force (operating Liberators and Catalinas from Northern Ireland, Iceland and Gibraltar). It was a combined Allied effort. Wherever they served, they were all of one company.
Over 30 years ago, on a sunny Friday afternoon in the Officersí Mess at RAF St Mawgan in Cornwall, excitement was in the air. The station was hosting an Open Day for the general public on the morrow. Display and static aircraft had been arriving for some hours and their aircrews were now enjoying a convivial party in the bar.
The Red Arrows were there in their smart red flying suits; the Patrouille de France in their distinctive blue flying suits, and the Diable Rouge team from Belgium in orange. Everywhere you could see pilots using their hands to explain their display routines.
From my perch at the corner of the bar I saw a resident Shackleton crew from No. 42 Squadron enter from the terrace in their drab, olive-green flying suits. They had returned from a long and tiring sortie over the Atlantic and were ready for a beer.
From the door they looked in disbelief at the cabaret in full swing in their Mess. After a momentís pause, their Captain, Flight Lieutenant Colin Hughes*, led them into the middle of the crowd, where they extended their forearms, and began to make a low growling sound, as they slow-marched in a circular movement, their hands absolutely level, mimicking the relentless monotony of a Shackleton sortie, when compared with the short, dazzling sprint of a display teamís routine. It didnít take long for the chaps in the pretty flying suits to get the message that the maritime air force was a world away from tight formations and breath-taking cross-overs.
*(Webmaster comment - At that very point a whispered "Huggis" could be heard from many parts of the Nave....)
I have related this episode because it indicates that to serve in Coastal Command and its successor formations required a certain type of personality. At the very least one had to possess an inner conviction that you were doing a worthwhile job, even if it went largely unremarked. From the beginning it was known as the Cinderella Command.
There was no glamour in flying in a Whitley or a Beaufort at low level over the ocean, day after day, searching for U-boats; not much evidence of sports cars and Brylcream attributed to the crews of the Catalinas and Wellingtons, who spent long, lonely days and nights flying over trackless waters, searching, hunting for the enemy at sea, eyeballs raw from trying to spot a tell-tale plume of water from the periscope or the aerial of a submarine. How much easier that became when Sqn Ldr Leigh designed his 24 inch airborne searchlight. Although one wag wrote: "At one mile switch on the light. If you are astern you will see the targetís wake; if you are ahead just follow the dotted line from the U-boatís flak."
One also had to possess the courage to operate and fight in extreme conditions, such as flying in Venturas from Wick on Meteorological Recce sorties, when aircraft wings could ice up on take-off.
And then there was the loneliness and endurance. A 20 hour sortie was common and took you far out over the Atlantic, Arctic or Indian oceans. Coastal crews did not have the solace of flying in a large formation, with comrades watching your back. It was all down to you, your crew and your aircraft. The interdependence was absolute.
If you were shot down it was rarely death in a sudden, frantic encounter, but a slow death on the empty, savage sea, often alone in a dinghy.
A total of 10, 875 aircrew were killed in Coastal during the Second World War. It is that kind of sacrificial airmanship that we remember today with gratitude.
During the Second World War, in the North Atlantic Vigil of the Cold War, in Korea, Malaya and Indonesia, in Aden and the Arabian Gulf and in recent conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq - maritime air power has played a vital part, together with its air/sea rescue Helicopter Squadrons and, until they were disbanded, its Marine Craft Units. They were all of one company, and in the sight of God "not one of them is missing."
Yet, despite the loneliness, the lack of glamour and the monotony of it all, maritime aircrew have always worked to the very highest professional standards.
We are seeing daily in the media that there is no quick and easy end to conflict and terror. Constant Endeavour, the honour granted to Coastal Command by the War Cabinet shortly after the war, goes on and on.
Constant, certainly, and an endeavour most grave. Yet we thank God for those who in their day were willing to do their duty and who paid the supreme sacrifice. As we think of them during the poignant anthem that follows, let us resolve to grasp the torch for freedom, which they bore, and present ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, so that through us, their sacrifice will have purpose. And that by keeping the faith and trusting in God we, too, shall be renewed in strength, and, like the Israelites of old, rise like eagles on new wings, confident that in doing our duty we are serving God.