The Headmaster's Remembrance Day Sermon
Headmaster’s Remembrance Day Address
14th November 2021
This week in lieu of Routh Assembly, the Headmaster gave a sermon at the Remembrance Service.
Hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea.
There are many ways to be killed in war, but dying at sea holds a particular horror. Even if you survive the initial bomb blast that sinks your ship, you still end up in the water. Doomed to drown unless help is at hand. Little wonder there should be a hymn imploring God to place a special watch over sailors. For those in peril on the sea.
At Routh this week, I suggested to you that repeating the refrain “We will remember them” is harder for your generation than any other. Not because you don’t care, but because very few young people today still have a personal connection with someone who served or died in war. Certainly, you can learn facts and figures.
Days and dates, damages and death tolls. But to really remember the sacrifices, to fully appreciate why war should be avoided at all costs, it helps to have a more personal insight into the toll that conflict takes.
Which is why I told you the story of Mrs Spreckley. The Bromsgrove mother who lost three of her four sons in WWI. To whom was given the honour of laying the Foundation stone for this very Chapel. Erected by a sombre Headmaster Routh, in memory of the 93 ex-pupils whose deaths he had mourned during the Great War.
For that same reason then, I would like to share another personal story with you this morning. This time, it is of two young men who fought in World War Two. I say men, in truth, they were little more than boys. Not Bromsgrovians this time, although there is a connection. My hope is that their story will further help you appreciate why we gather here to commemorate Remembrance Day each year.
The young men in question were named Eric and Kurt. Although they never met, both had been born just days apart, in January 1926. Which meant that they were both 13 years old when the Second World War broke out. Sadly, little is known of their early teenage years, but we can imagine that their young lives were overshadowed by the war raging overseas. Growing up in villages rocked every week by news of local lads lost to the fighting. Reading tidings of each new battle in the daily newspapers. Going to school with gasmasks, beset by blackouts and rationing.
Not surprisingly then, boys being boys, as soon as they were old enough, both Eric and Kurt signed up to fight. Coincidentally, they both joined the Navy. Eric was posted to the crew of a destroyer, Kurt to a submarine. The year was 1944. Both boys had just turned 18, and no sooner had they reported for duty, than their two vessels were dispatched to patrol in the treacherous North Sea.
Eric’s ship, the destroyer, L79, was tasked with protecting the convoys that were bringing supplies across the Atlantic, from America to Britain. Kurt’s submarine, #1191, was also sent to the same waters to seek out enemy shipping.
Again, we do not know much about what life was like onboard for each of them. We might imagine the fear setting in though, the reality of war dawning on two boys not long out of school. Not that their age made them unusual. Of the 50 sailors manning Kurt’s submarine, the oldest was just 30. Their captain was only 24 years old.
It wasn’t much different on Eric’s destroyer. It had a crew of 45, of whom only six were officers. The other 39 ratings were all just as young as he was. Who knows what they thought or felt once they set sail? Whatever the stories they had read as schoolboys, they were now at sea and most certainly in peril.
The oceans they patrolled in the North are notoriously fierce and stormy. They would have come to dread the weather as much as the enemy. Kurt below the waves and Eric above, yet both living lives of discomfort and fear. Each with only a tiny hammock for a bed, swaying wildly all the time in the heavy seas. Eating stale food, breathing stale air. And forever tense. Being junior ratings, Kurt and Eric would have been the last to know if their boat was about to come under attack.
As I mentioned, despite both being sailors and exactly the same age, Eric and Kurt never met one another. In different times, perhaps they might have bumped into each other in a port somewhere. Maybe shared a beer while on shore leave. But with the war as at its peak, Naval vessels were kept at sea and on patrol as long as possible. And so, despite their similar ages, occupations, and areas of operation, their paths never crossed.
In fact, the closest that Eric and Kurt ever came to meeting was one Monday afternoon in 1944. D-Day had occurred just a month beforehand, and thousands of troops were now pouring across the English Channel to support the invasion into France. As a result, hundreds of naval vessels had steamed towards that narrow stretch of water. Amongst that fleet were destroyer L79 and submarine 1191.
And so it was that, at exactly the same moment on the afternoon of July 3rd, both Kurt and Eric encountered the enemy. Those of you who have watched as many war movies as I did as a child can probably picture the scene. Klaxons blaring below decks. Men racing to their battle stations, hearts racing as they tighten their helmets and pull flak jackets on.
Then the chaos of evasive action; the two captains yelling orders to engage. The submarine desperately trying to turn and fire its torpedoes. The destroyer zig-zagging and dropping depth charges. At each other.
At each other, because destroyer L79 was the HMS Brissenden, of the Royal British Navy. And submarine 1191 was a U Boat of the Kriegsmarine, the German Navy. That’s right. Eric was an Englishman, Kurt was German. For all that they had in common, the two boys were enemies.
The battle was short and brutal. Before the U-boat could dive to escape, the depth charges fired from the destroyer detonated alongside the submarine, splitting its hull. The ocean poured in and U-1191 sank to the bottom of the English Channel. Of the entire crew of 50, not a single man escaped alive. Everyone perished, including 18-year-old Kurt. Kurt Jan Baranowski.
I know his full name because I spent quite some time researching the sinking of U-1191. Unfortunately, I could discover little else about his life. Just his date of birth and hometown. There was, of course, nothing to be found beyond his 18th birthday. No wife, no children, no career. Because Kurt’s life ended right there. 4pm, 3rd July, 1944.
Eric of course, was luckier. Above the waves, safe onboard the destroyer, he lived to fight another day. In fact, despite his ship seeing more action later on that year, he survived the entire war. I know his full name too. It was Eric Lawrence Clague. He was my father.
I might add that I got to know none of this story from him. When we were young, my brothers and I used to beg him to tell us about the war. Ignorant as children are about the pain the world can inflict. All we saw, in the war movies and comics that we loved, was adventure and heroics. Dad did not humour us with exciting stories, but I suppose he also didn’t burden us with the trauma he had endured either. I can only ever remember him saying one thing to me once, when I was older and had found his service medals in a drawer. When I asked what it was like, at sea and at war. He said “Tedious, and occasionally terrifying.”
This will be my last Remembrance Service at Bromsgrove, so I am prepared to let you into a little secret. Every year at this ceremony, I cry. I try to keep it discrete; a weeping Headmaster is not a pretty sight, but it is particularly hard when you are sat up here, in full view like this. But the tears come unbidden, nevertheless.
Partly because my father has now died, and so these gatherings inevitably bring back memories of him and of his war service.
Partly, too, because it makes me so sad to think of what the experience of being “in peril on the sea” must have done to him as such a young man.
And partly, my tears are for Kurt Baranowski and the other 49 men on U-1191. For them, as for all 75 million people who died in the Second World War, their lives were abruptly snuffed out. Their lineage ended forever.
But mostly what moves me to tears as we remember those losses, is the scary thought of the sheer random chance of my own existence. The frighteningly fickle turn of Fate that means I am alive and able to live my life, while Kurt Baranowski’s potential children and grandchildren are not. That is an enormous concept to contemplate.
Richard Dawkins is an outspoken atheist, and as such, I don’t imagine that he is often quoted in church services. However, he makes a point in one of his books that goes to the heart of what I am trying to say. He writes:
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place, but who will in fact never see the light of day, outnumber the grains of sand in Arabia. … In the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds...”
I do not care one bit whether my father was English and Kurt was German. Seventy-five years on, who won or lost the war is no longer the issue. Creating heroes and villains, simplifying whole nations down to “goodies” and “baddies”, benefits only movie producers and populist politicians. There is not a single nation amongst the 53 represented in this Chapel today that did not suffer great loss. This day is not about who won or lost that war or any other. It is about those on both sides, on any side, who suffered the greatest loss of all. The loss of existence.
Each year we gather and recite those words together:
“We will remember them.”
We do so with sadness, and that is right and proper. But perhaps the prevailing emotion we should be feeling is not so much sadness at their loss, but rather gratitude for our own existence. Because in the end, whatever side they may have fought on, that is their enduring gift to each of us today. We are here and they are not. That is why we will remember them.