Jesuit Chaplain's battle role

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem – an event of the Second World War in which a British Jesuit played a significant role among the Allied troops.

In September 1944, Operation Market Garden was the Allies’ attempt to break through German lines and seize several bridges in the occupied Netherlands, including one at Arnhem. Having already liberated Brussels after the Normandy landings the previous June, their main objective was to outflank German defences. It was intended that airborne troops would pave the way, capturing and holding bridges for the ground forces to pass over. Arnhem was the northernmost bridge the Allies were required to capture and defend.

Only the 2nd Parachute Battalion succeeded in reaching the road bridge and held its northern end for four days, until they ran out of food and water and were down to their last rounds of ammunition. Among them was a Jesuit priest with the rank of Captain, Fr Bernard Egan SJ.

The same cup

Fr Egan had volunteered to be a Chaplain to the forces soon after the outbreak of the war in September 1939. Two years later, he responded to an appeal for additional volunteers to form two more ‘Special Air Service’ Battalions, becoming the first Chaplain of any denomination to obtain wings. He attended Parachute Course 5 at RAF Ringway in Cheshire in December 1941, saying that he considered it important to set an example to the men with whom he would be going into combat. He believed he had no right to judge them or to discuss their dangerous duties if he had ‘not emptied the same cup to the last drop’. He joined the 2nd Parachute Battalion during the Tunisian Campaign in 1943 and it was for his conduct with them, in North Africa and Sicily, that he was awarded the Military Cross.

The fighting in and around Arnhem, in September 1944, was horrendous, with soldiers fighting hand to hand and house to house. Fr Egan spent much of his time at the Regimental Aid Post, continually visiting the wounded who had been packed into the cellars of the houses around the British perimeter. Medical supplies of all kinds were in short supply, but Fr Egan comforted those men who had no option but to sit out the battle in discomfort.

On evening of Tuesday 19 September, Fr Egan was knocked unconscious when several shells struck the Battalion Headquarters. When he regained consciousness, he discovered that he was unable to move his legs and so crawled to a nearby window which, with the help of two other officers, he managed to pull himself through. He was taken to a cellar where the rest of the wounded were being tended. Not only was his right leg broken but his hands and back were also dotted with numerous shrapnel splinters.

The following day, there was a brief truce and Fr Egan was evacuated as a prisoner, first to the St Elizabeth Hospital, and then to the large prisoner of war hospital at Obermassfeldt. After the British withdrew south of the Lower Rhine on 25 September, the Germans punished the civilian Dutch population by forcing more than 150,000 from their homes, which were then ransacked and destroyed. Many civilians died of starvation and cold in the harsh winter that followed.

Suffering

Nonetheless, Operation Market Garden was not a complete disaster. South of Arnhem, Nijmegen and large parts of North Brabant were liberated and this area provided the springboard for the final push for freedom launched in February 1945. But the human suffering was great, among civilians as well as fighting forces.

Freed from captivity in 1945, Fr Egan’s injuries prevented him from returning to military service and so he became a teacher. For more than 20 years (1949 – 1971), he was Headmaster of Donhead Lodge,  the Preparatory School to Wimbledon College in South West London. Each September, the school term was delayed until after the Arnhem reunion which Fr Egan always attended. Towards the end of his life, health problems caused by his war wounds left him unable to walk. He died in July 1988, at the age of 83.

Main photo: Father Bernard  Egan SJ (left with Roman collar) stands outside Buckingham Palace after being awarded the Military Cross by King George VI.

Also on this page: Men of the 2nd Parachute Battalion with members of the 89th Field Security Section and a German prisoner near Arnhem, September 1944. Copyright: Sam Presser/Maria Austria Instituut