A Sermon from Sherborne
For the Centenary of the Royal Air Force
An address given at a special Centenary Service at Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 28 October 2018 by Air Marshal Sir Christopher Coville KCB
I confess to a degree of trepidation as I mounted the pulpit. RAF Fighter pilots, even old ones, are not known for their godliness; and I was fearful that divine disapproval could result in a bolt of lightning from above! On the other hand, I suppose I do have some thin credentials for being here. After all, having flown Lightnings and Phantoms to over 70,000 feet, few here will have been as close to the Lord as I – at least vertical terms – not even Canon Eric! May I use this opportunity of thanking you, Eric, and all your Abbey staff, for your wonderful support in making today possible?
I should also mention that as you will have seen in the Order of Service, this is an address, not a sermon. The difference is that humour is acceptable in an address; the similarity is that barracking is not! [Caught you out there, Sir Chris. There is plenty of humour in Abbey sermons. Come and listen to some! – Canon Eric] *
But back to my flight towards the heavens. Isn’t that in itself an astonishing testimony to the progress of flight during the last century? My father, who was born in 1909, witnessed the early, faltering steps as man took to the air for the first time, and in his 87 years he watched in awe the progression from slow biplanes to Spitfires, to man landing on the Moon, and to Concorde; not to mention his own son flying aircraft capable of exceeding twice the speed of sound. It was with this vision of a very new capability in mind, that on the 1st April 1918 the founding fathers of the Royal Air Force gathered in a small hotel in the Strand, in London – there they signed the documents that brought together the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps into the World’s first independent air force: a service with its own culture, equipment and training.
Even then, not everyone realised the potential of the aeroplane; many doubted its utility as a fighting machine; one General famously saying that it would never replace the horse! But not so our more enlightened friends of the Army and Navy who are here today; I am delighted to welcome you as our parent services!
But back to the RAF. As we reflect on a Century since its formation, there can be few now who doubt its enormous impact on military capabilities. From the operations in the Middle East during the 1920s – to the carriage of nuclear weapons and the defence of our airspace during the Cold War – and more recently operations against the so-called Islamic State – the RAF has been central to the diverse and ever-changing roles of our armed forces. But you will, I hope, forgive me if I dwell a little on what I believe will go down in history as the RAF’s finest hour: The Battle of Britain.
It is hard for us today to imagine the mood of a country whose entire army had been defeated in mainland Europe, and which only through the miracle of Dunkirk survived to fight another day. Many argue that invasion was in the end unlikely, not least owing to the superiority of our Navy. But the facts are clear: we had a demoralised nation, an exhausted Army with its equipment lying on the beaches of Northern France, and landing barges being assembled in vast numbers across the Channel. Hitler was adamant, however, that the Luftwaffe should achieve air superiority over the potential landing sites; and that meant the total destruction of the RAF, especially Fighter Command. An anxious nation looked to the skies; the stage was set for a fight for the survival of our nation.
Well, as all here know, the Battle was won, albeit by the narrowest of margins and at tremendous cost in men and machines. Only in October, when Hitler realised that the Luftwaffe had been defeated, did he postpone the invasion and turn his attention to his most hated adversary, the Soviet Union.
Speaking to a Nation much relieved at the victory, Churchill famously said: ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’
So – just stepping back, what gives us the moral right to meet today, in God’s House, to celebrate what is after all another instrument of war – war, which Prince Bolkonski in Tolstoy’s War and Peace so accurately described as the foulest thing in human history? How can we make sense as Christians of the carnage of Dresden, of the total destruction of Germany’s infrastructure, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of innocent lives lost in more recent conflicts; not to mention the abhorrent threat of global annihilation in what was so aptly referred to in the Cold War as Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD?
I suggest that there are two main reasons which make being in this Abbey today entirely appropriate: Firstly, I believe that there are such things as good and evil, and whilst flawed, I judge that our liberal democracies do provide us with the means to recognise the differences between the two. Cultural anomalies, history and other internal conditions could never explain let alone justify the evils of Auschwitz, of Stalin’s murderous pogroms or the massacre of innocent civilians in Srebrenica, Iraq or Syria. Secondly, and following on from this, whilst I accept absolutely that we should only deploy military force as a last resort, I do believe in the concept of a just war. Perhaps in the United Kingdom we take for granted our freedom; if you need reminding, just ask a citizen of Hungary, Poland or what was Czechoslovakia about life under communism until 1990.
My Uncle Stephen, who lost both his parents in the Holocaust, eventually escaped from the equally cruel oppression of the Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia in 1949. The most wonderful day of his life was when he stepped onto these shores and realised for the first time in his adult life that he was free, and safe. Such freedoms and security do not come lightly; sometimes we have to fight to preserve them.
In this context, let’s take another look at the Battle of Britain. Had we not prevailed, indeed had we even accepted Hitler’s demands for an armistice on his terms, the safe haven of the UK for subsequent D-Day operations would have been lost. In consequence, the United States could never have entered the war in Europe; Hitler and Stalin, the two most evil men in recent human history, would have ruthlessly dominated the Continent. Eventually, nuclear war between Germany and the Soviet Union would have been a real possibility; at the very best, a troubled stalemate would have left the nations of Europe in a state of tyranny and fear. That we chose to fight on, to win the battle over the skies of our beautiful countryside, not only safeguarded our own liberty, but also ensured the eventual liberation and freedom of the entire continent of Europe.
So, OK – that addresses the need to confront evil. But why here, in this Abbey, as Christians? I strongly believe that irrespective of the diverse nature of contemporary Britain, it is Christian values that form the bedrock on which our liberal democracy is built. Indeed, I would go on to argue that it is those values of tolerance, freedom of expression and justice for all that enable our pluralistic society to flourish. That we are able to meet here today is in no small measure down to the British peoples’ historic determination to protect at all costs our hard-won freedoms, including our right to worship as we please.
I would make another point. As increasingly we struggle to establish and maintain standards and values in society, the armed forces continue to inculcate in their people self-discipline, pride in appearance, loyalty and diligence; and often service men and women take these qualities back into the communities from whence they came. The youth organisations especially benefit from our veterans’ ongoing sense of duty. If you need evidence, look at the young RAF air cadets who have joined us today; they and their splendid adult volunteers, are a credit to our nation. I would add that our national resilience, a nation that would rather bring the temple down around our heads than bow to tyranny, was reflected in the pride we all surely felt as the Legion, RAF Association and Air Cadet standards were marched in today. Thank you, to you all, for reminding us of what is still great about our country.
It is in this light, in this essence of what it is to be British and to be so proud of it, that I see the RAF as a force for good: a service that has for a century been the guardian, alongside our sister services, of our democracy, of our freedom, of our Christian way of life. On this Centenary, we can all be proud of our Royal Air Force that, as its motto states so eloquently, has through adversity reached for the stars: Per Ardua ad Astra.
Note from Sir Chris: ‘Canon Eric is quite right to tease me on this! I should not judge Sherborne by my experiences elsewhere. I promise to attend more regularly!’