Captain Leslie Skinner was an army chaplain who landed on the coast of Normandy on the morning of 6 June 1944 with the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry tank regiment.
As part of the Imperial War Museum‘s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, they tell Captain Skinner’s story, in his own words, via extracts from the diary he meticulously kept throughout his time with the Sherwood Rangers.
The Padre’s Trail exhibition is at IWM Duxford.
Captain Skinner was one of the first chaplains to make it ashore on D-Day, as he recollected in his diary entry for 6 June 1944:
“Up 0500 hours; cold, wet, sea rough. This is it. Running for beach by 0700. Under fire by 0710. Beached 0725. Man either side of me wounded. One lost leg. I was blown backwards onto Bren Carrier but OK. Made it to beach, though I had hell of pain in left side. Bed on ground about 0130. Dead beat. Fell asleep beside half-track.”
Leslie helped medical staff to care for the sick and wounded as the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry fought their way out from the Normandy beachhead.
He recounted, on 8 June 1944:
“Late evening Lt Verner brought in, sniper wound to left chest – serious. Doctor dressed wound and I helped evacuate Verner to Advanced Dressing Station riding on rear door and bumper all way, holding bottle giving blood drip – nearly five miles of rough going.”
Leslie discovered on 9 June that Captain Keith Douglas had been killed by enemy mortar fire while the Regiment was advancing from Bayeux. Keith Douglas was noted for his war poetry during the Second World War and also for his wry memoir of the Western Desert campaign, Alamein to Zem Zem.
As Leslie Skinner recalled on 9 and 10 June 1944,
“Spent day touring all medical units back to beach area in search of regimental casualties. News of death of Captain Keith Douglas on Fwd slopes pt 102…Forward on foot and found bodies of Keith Douglas and Lt Pepler. Buried separately near to where each lay. Occasional rifle fire while digging graves.”
Padre Skinner travelled all over the front line and the battlefield, talking to the troops and listening to their worries. As this extract from his diary shows, he experienced at first-hand the stark realities of warfare:
25 June 1944: “In burst of machine gun fire I dived into slit trench on top of young soldier…it was his first show and he was all alone. I assured him that the machine gun fire was way up in the air…he picked up a ration box lid and held it above ground. Burst [of fire] cut it in two. It shook me. When firing stopped I moved out. He, poor devil, had to stay. About 11:30…Shrapnel got me across forehead and knocked me out. Lots of blood but soon conscious.”
Leslie Skinner saw it as his duty to find the bodies of men who were killed as the Regiment’s tanks advanced. On many occasions, he risked his life to ensure that his comrades’ bodies were recovered or buried. The work could be harrowing and he refused to allow other tank crews to help, as he didn’t want them to see how their comrades had died in burned or smashed Sherman tanks, like the one that can be seen in the Normandy Experience in the Land Warfare exhibition.
The gravity of the situation is vividly shown in Leslie’s diary entry for 4 August 1944:
“On foot located brewed up tanks. Only ash and burnt metal in Birkett’s tank. Searched ash and found remains pelvic bones. At other tanks three bodies still inside…Unable to remove bodies after long struggle – nasty business – sick.”
In the following diary extract from 17 August 1944, Captain Skinner explains why he would not allow tank crews to help him in his quest to recover bodies from inside the armoured vehicles:
“Place absolute shambles. Infantry dead and some Germans lying around. Horrible mess. Fearful job picking up bits and pieces and re-assembling for identification and putting in blankets for burial. No infantry to help. Squadron Leader offered to lend me some men to help. Refused. Less men who live and fight in tanks have to do with this side of things the better. My job. This was more than normally sick making. Really ill – vomiting.”
Padre Skinner made it his mission to methodically record the location and personal details of Sherwood Rangers men killed in action. He located all but six of the fallen men, and only missed out on recording the details of these men as he was away from the regiment, recovering from his own wounds. His commanding officer had to forbid him from venturing onto the battlefield in search of one of the missing men.
The German forces were respectful of the burials of Allied servicemen, as Captain Skinner reported on 2 September 1944:
“Left driver and truck, entered village via ditch…Made way to village parsonage. Bodies of Sgt Cribben and Trooper Sharp beautifully laid out in white shrouds having been washed. I stitched the bodies up. Cure [priest] in robes led funeral cortege down street. The Germans had watched the funeral procession and seen the service from their tank without interference.”
Captain Skinner spent much of this time writing to the relatives of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry men who had been killed. This often resulted in correspondence which continued for many years after the war. While on active service, he was comforted by regular letters and parcels from his wife, Etta, as his diary entry from 11 October 1944 shows:
“Wrote Etta. During morning parcel [arrived] from Etta with coffee. Rain stopped and sun shining. All afternoon doing follow-up Casualty Letters. Feeling tired after sad job. Another letter came late from Etta. Wrote replies and thanks for parcel.”
Nearly a year after Captain Leslie Skinner landed on the beach in Normandy, the war in Europe came to an end. In that time, the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry lost 153 men, with six reported as missing.
Leslie’s work to locate the bodies of those that had been killed won him the praise and respect of the soldiers with whom he served. He was mentioned in dispatches and he received the French Croix de Guerre 1940 with palm and the Belgian Chevalier of the Order of Leopold II with palm.
After the war, Leslie served as a parish priest and remained in the Territorial Army (TA), ending his career as Deputy Assistant Chaplain General TA for the London district, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, the highest rank a TA chaplain could hold in peacetime.
The Padre’s Trail can be discovered as part of the Normandy Experience in the Land Warfare exhibition at IWM Duxford from Friday 16 May 2014.
(from a press release)