D-Day and the Venerabile

Seventy-five years ago the Allies mounted the greatest amphibious invasion yet attempted and landed on the Normandy beaches. The road ahead would be a long one but it proved to be the decisive breakthrough that would lead to ‘Victory in Europe

The community of the Venerable English College had, by now, settled into its wartime ‘exile’ at Stonyhurst (Lancashire) and was celebrating the Liberation of Rome a few days previously. On 6 June 1944 a Solemn Mass of Thanksgiving was offered by the Rector and ‘café e rosolio’ served in the Common Room. The College diarist noted that ‘there was much speculation as to how long it would be before we were once more back in the Via Monserrato.’ The news of D-Day meant, as far as the students were concerned, that ‘the odds against going back next year are considerably shorter than they were this time yesterday’. (The Venerabile, vol. 12, no.1, p. 81)

The anniversary gives us a chance to remember the five Old Romans who lost their lives during the Second World War. Three of these had left seminary before ordination. Both Neville Carlile (VEC 1934–36) and Dick Rawcliffe (VEC 1938–41) were Sergeant-Observers with the RAF and were reported missing after operational flights in 1940 and 1942 respectively. Johnnie Walker (VEC 1937–40) was lost when his submarine was destroyed off Sicily in 1943. The other two were chaplains killed during the Normandy invasions: Fr Peter Firth and Fr Gerard Nesbitt.

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Reverend Peter Francis Firth (1911–1944)

Firth was born in Preston and, unusually for the times, studied first at Lincoln College, Oxford, before entering the Venerable English College. He was remembered for his boyish enthusiasm and his strength in mind and body; his piety was traditional and he showed a ‘deep veneration for the memory of our forefathers, not only the Martyrs, but the gallant, patient laity of penal times, the stubborn and cautious Vicars Apostolic, and all who had preserved the Faith through generations of oppression. Their grit had been tried’ (The Venerabile, vol. 12, no.1, pp. 95–96). He was also ‘the first Editor of The Venerabile to die’ (The Venerabile, vol. 12, no.1, p. 85).

As a priest he served St Patrick's, Barrow-in-Furness and St Margaret Mary's, Carlisle. He joined the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department in February 1943 and by the time of D-Day was attached to the 8th Field Ambulance; given his large stature, the soldiers affectionately dubbed him ‘Friar Tuck’.

Little detail survives concerning his death. Landing on ‘Sword Beach’ on 7 June 1944 he was seen waving cheerily to a soldier he knew. Moments later he was shot dead by a sniper. A contemporary from seminary, Fr Michael Elcock, buried him in the orchard beside the church at Hermanville-sur-Mer; his body was later transferred to Hermanville Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and, in 1946, he was awarded the Croix-de-Guerre posthumously.

Another Old Roman was killed several weeks later on 8 July 1944: Fr Gerard Nesbitt. Born in 1911 and originally from County Durham, he had been educated at St Cuthbert’s Grammar School, Newcastle and trained for the Priesthood at Ushaw and the Venerable English College (1929–36). He was ordained in 1935 and served St Robert of Newminster, Morpeth, before joining the staff of his alma mater, St Cuthbert’s. We read, moreover, that ‘he would travel any distance to attend a meeting of Romans—and how he enjoyed those meetings!’ (Venerabile, vol. 12, no. 2, p. 189)

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Reverend Gerard Nesbitt (1911–1944)

He was commissioned as an army chaplain in 1940. Attached to the Durham Light Infantry (50th Division, Eighth Army), he saw duty with them in Cyprus, Palestine, Iraq, North Africa and Sicily before landing in France on D-Day.  His comrades spoke of the courage he constantly demonstrated in attending the wounded and dying under hostile gunfire and the friendliness towards Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He was twice recommended for the Military Cross and once mentioned in dispatches.

Nevertheless, on returning home before D-Day, Fr Nesbitt looked older and more serious, and told at least one friend that he had a presentiment of death. On 5 July 1944, aged 33, he was killed by a shell while conducting a funeral. One of those he was burying was an Anglican chaplain, killed when his motorcycle collided with a Bren Gun Carrier. The two chaplains now lie side-by-side at the Jerusalem War Graves Cemetery at Chouain, a village nine kilometres south-east of Bayeux.

The Venerabile reflected that with Nesbitt’s death ‘a new link is appended to that chain of glorious tradition which began with our College Martyrs and continues today in the heroic sacrifice of her sons.’ (Venerabile, vol. 12, no. 2, p. 190).   

Let us not forget the heroic sacrifice of Fr Firth and Fr Nesbitt and the valuable work of all army chaplains. As Field Marshall Montgomery put it, ‘I would as soon think of going into battle without my artillery as without my chaplains.’