The parachuting padre

  • 7 June, 2020
  • Bravery
  • Medals

First published in the Mail on Sunday on 07 June 2020.

When these battle-hardened troops from the recently formed SAS dropped behind German lines after D-Day, they demanded jeeps, guns, explosives – and a gallant Scot carrying a makeshift ‘church’ in a wicker hamper…

Thousands of Allied troops were already pressing forward on the ground by the time British Special Forces flew south over the darkened fields of France on June 21, 1944.

But for the SAS , this journey, two weeks after D-Day, would be one of the most dangerous missions of the Second World War – a parachute drop into the heart of occupied France, where the Germans were digging in. And where to be caught was a death sentence.

Before leaping into the blackness outside, the battle-hardened men of A Squadron were checking their essential kit: weapons, ammunition, rations, sleeping bags and… their favourite clergyman.

The troops knew they were likely to be operating behind enemy lines for months, so it was all the more important to have some religious and spiritual support as they risked their lives day after day for King and country.

The man who had volunteered to go with them was Army Chaplain Fraser McLuskey, who eventually became affectionately known as the ‘Parachuting Padre’.

McLuskey had undergone intensive parachute and other training so that his presence would aid, not hinder, the soldiers. Like them, he was in no doubt of the consequences if he was discovered by the Nazis behind their lines: he would probably be executed, not simply taken as a prisoner of war.

Now, 75 years after McLuskey was decorated for his bravery, even though he refused to carry a gun, I feel privileged to champion his gallantry.

James Fraser McLuskey – always known as Fraser – was born in Edinburgh on September 19, 1914, just over a month after the beginning of the First World War. His only sibling, Margaret, was seven years his senior.

The McLuskey family soon moved to Aberdeen, where young Fraser’s father ran a laundry business. As a boy, he sometimes accompanied the driver of the horse-drawn carriage on his laundry rounds.

McLuskey attended Aberdeen Grammar School until 1931, showing talent at both rugby and ballroom dancing. Then he returned to Edinburgh with his family, starting a degree in arts and divinity at the city’s university soon afterwards.

Even as a teenager, he was convinced his future lay as a Church of Scotland minister.

In 1938, with the benefit of a travel scholarship, McLuskey spent three months in Germany, where he became interested in the Confessional Church, which opposed Hitler’s efforts to take over the Protestant churches.

McLuskey had a strong personal objection to the racist doctrines of the Nazi party and, while in Germany, he met and became engaged to Irene Calaminus, the daughter of a German pastor. On his return to the UK, he began a job as Scottish Secretary of the Student Christian Movement. On August 24, 1939, with war looming, he married Irene in Edinburgh. The groom was 24, his bride 26.

Like her new husband, Irene hated all that Hitler stood for, and the war meant she was separated from her family indefinitely.

McLuskey, gentle and devout, was appointed as chaplain to the University of Glasgow, and in the spring of 1943 he was given leave of absence to attend the Army Chaplains’ Training Centre in Tidworth, Wiltshire.

One day he opened a letter saying there was a need for chaplains to volunteer for parachute training. Feeling young and fit enough for the challenge, he volunteered and was accepted, learning to drop from first an air balloon and then a plane. Once he had gained his wings, McLuskey was asked to report to an organisation he had never heard of – the Special Air Service, or SAS , then just two years old.

The unit was being prepared for a role in the imminent invasion of France. McLuskey was appointed as chaplain to the 1st SAS Regiment, whose commanding officer was the legendary Lieutenant Colonel Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne, already decorated with the Distinguished Service Order (DSO ) and Bar for his courage in North Africa and Sicily (two further DSO s followed for gallantry later in the war).

The plan was for four operational squadrons – each of about 100 men to be dropped behind enemy lines after the D-Day landings that took place on June 6, 1944.

Sadly for McLuskey and his wife, shortly before his departure their baby daughter Joan died from cerebral meningitis.

On June 21, the main body of A Squadron was to be flown to Nievre, a hilly, wooden area in central France. McLuskey volunteered to go with them. He was also given permission to take his ‘Church’ – a hamper containing an oak cross and an altar cloth dyed maroon and bearing the regimental emblem of a winged dagger. It also contained hymn books, New Testaments and copies of the Day Book Of Prayer.

After a three-and-a-half-hour flight, the 16 men dropped from the plane, a converted Stirling bomber, one by one. Not everything went to plan, as McLuskey later recalled: ‘I landed, well beyond the dropping zone, in a dense forest, and found myself suspended from my parachute harness from a tree.’

Reaching for his jack-knife, he cut himself free, landing head-first on the ground, but eventually linked up with the rest of his party.

As arranged, they were soon met by maquisards, members of the French Resistance who set them up in a camp in the woods. Days later they had their first Sunday service together, using a makeshift communion table equipped with the cross and cloth from his hamper.

Leading the service for a 30-strong group, McLuskey gave thanks for their preservation – thus far – and he commended the operation, their loved ones and themselves to ‘God’s care and keeping’.

McLuskey later recalled: ‘Our aim was the liberation of our fellow men from a hideous tyranny and the preservation of those freedoms upon which any life worth the name must depend. We were under no illusions of the risk we ran to ourselves.’

During subsequent firefights with the enemy, McLuskey waited with the medical officer at the Aid Post as the fighting unfolded. At times he helped out, including when Sergeant-Major Reg Seekings was hit in the head. McLuskey said: ‘I cannot forget the first and last surgical operation at which I assisted, however inexpertly. The bullet lodged deeply at the base of his skull and could not be removed, but Reg, as one would expect, took it in his powerful stride and in no time at all resumed normal operations.’

As the weeks passed the weather deteriorated, meaning the RAF could not make the planned drops of supplies. With the local Maquis routed by the Germans, and with few farms in the area, the SAS and their padre were short of food.

‘For the first time in my life I began to learn what it felt like to be hungry,’ McLuskey said. But, after three weeks, new supplies were successfully dropped.

McLuskey toured the area in a Renault looking after the needs of what he called his ‘parishioners’ – SAS soldiers trying to sabotage German operations as the Allied army pressed further into France.

‘I wasn’t there as a fighting man but had my own job to do. I was the better able to do it because as far as possible I was sharing the life my “flock” had to lead. I was the better able to do it because, unarmed, I represented the peace which the men knew well is God’s will for a warring world,’ said McLuskey.

He had no trouble reconciling his role and his faith because he felt all military operations were working towards a peace from which ‘all, not least the citizens of Nazi Germany, might benefit. It seemed no other way was open to secure it’.

For much of the time, McLuskey had a personal bodyguard, Harry Wilson, who affectionately became known as ‘Padre’s Private Army’. The padre later said: ‘In a setting which could not have been more abnormal, I found opportunities to exercise my calling as great as I had ever known.’

While A Squadron took few casualties, B Squadron was less fortunate: at one point, 41 members were surrounded by a huge Gestapo and SS force. One was killed, three wounded and seven escaped. The remaining 30 were captured and executed. D Squadron also lost many men.

McLuskey was concerned for his wife back home who, of course, was still separated from her German family and was grieving the loss of their only child. However, he managed to stay calm in the face of danger: ‘I can only say that fears, when they visited my own heart, were never disabling. But there was the thrill of our Robin Hood existence, the previous friendship of my companions, the excitements of the enterprise, and the daily surprises, whether pleasant or unpleasant.’

At one point, British and American supply aircraft crashed nearby. McLuskey and the SAS were able to bury the Americans before the Germans found them, but the British plane crashed further away and the enemy reached the scene first.

McLuskey was also full of admiration for the Maquis and ordinary civilians. Sometimes the locals were shot en masse rather than give up the positions of the SAS men who were fighting to free
them from German occupation.

He said: ‘In addition, at great risk to themselves, they went out of their way to help us.

‘Little wonder that like so many others I shall always feel that France is a second home.’

McLuskey spent nearly three months behind enemy lines in France before enjoying some richly deserved leave. Although he was ‘grateful for every hour at home with Irene’, he was also impatient to get back to ‘the Regiment’, as the SAS is known within the Army.

However, he was not dropped behind enemy lines a second time. Instead he was posted, still in his role as chaplain, to the 2nd Army as it made its way through Belgium, Holland and, eventually, Germany.

This time he found his work less rewarding. ‘The sense of a close-knit fellowship was inevitably lost and my work as chaplain grew correspondingly difficult,’ McLuskey said later.

Yet, as he entered Germany, the full horror of the war was brought home to him, with whole towns obliterated by the Allied bombing campaign. ‘The plight of such inhabitants as remained was pathetic beyond words,’ he said.

After the German surrender on May 7 – prompting VE celebrations the next day – McLuskey travelled to the Rhineland, where he hoped to find out news of his wife’s family.

He discovered that one of the last Allied bombing attacks had struck Irene’s parents’ home, killing both of them along with their daughter-in-law and her three young children. Irene’s three
brothers, who had served in the German armed forces, had all survived the war – one wounded, one as a PoW and the other unscathed Irene, who was pregnant again, was heartbroken by the deaths.

For a time McLuskey served in Norway, and he was there when his son, Kenneth, was born in Edinburgh. While back in Britain, McLuskey visited families of SAS men killed in action.

He said: ‘I covered many hundreds of miles to meet wives and parents and give them some idea of the circumstances in which their husbands and sons had died. Where meetings were impossible, I wrote as fully as I could, but letters are a poor substitute for face to face.’

For his bravery, McLuskey was awarded the MC on March 29, 1945. The recommendation for his citation ended: ‘His bravery, steadiness and cheerfulness in all situations, and complete disregard for personal safety, served as an inspiration to the whole squadron.’

After returning to the UK, he became parish minister, first in Broughty Ferry, a suburb of Dundee, then in Bearsden, a suburb of Glasgow. For both roles he lived with his wife and their two sons, the second of whom was called Andrew. Irene, sadly, died from breast cancer when Kenneth was 14 and Andrew was 12.

In 1960, McLuskey, together with his sons and their golden labrador, Sam, headed south for a new challenge as minister of St Columba’s in Chelsea, then the meeting place for one of the two
Church of Scotland congregations in London. In 1966 he married again, this time to Ruth Briant, a widow who had previously been divorced – a source of controversy at the time.

After retiring in 1986, he returned to France to visit locations where he had been deployed with the SAS more than 40 years earlier. He died in Edinburgh on July 24, 2005, aged 90.

McLuskey had ended his little known autobiography, The Cloud And The Fire, published in 1993, with the words: ‘When I see my Saviour face to face I shall… certainly say: Thank you for so graciously and patiently allowing me to do for so long what is, for me, the most fascinating job in the world.’

The Very Rev Dr Fraser McLuskey MC was one of a kind, and we should remember that, even in war, bravery and kindness can go hand in hand.

Read this article in the MailOnline.

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