Hope Flies on the Ascalon

The Avro York LV 633  “Ascalon” was an air transport developed in 1942, somewhat bulky in appearance with wings mounted high in the fuselage.   It was Churchill’s favorite flight model, with enough space for a conference room.  The name “Ascalon” was the traditional name for the lance used by St. George to slay the dragon, and in turn it was taken from the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon for its associations with the First Crusade.  At the beginning of June in 1943, King George VI used it for his visit to the troops in North Africa, principally to Montgomery and the Eighth  Army.  He was welcomed as well by Eisenhower and Patton.  Following the victory at El Alamein, Montgomery did not discourage exuberant press comparisons of him with the Duke of Wellington.  After the king’s trip, which took him to Algiers and Tripoli and then on to Malta where he was greeted by long lines of cheering troops, His Majesty declared the visit a success and commented how relieved he was to see that Montgomery was not after his job.  The cautious jubilation of the royal visit was a stark contrast to the scene exactly  one year before, when the Afrika Korps recaptured Tobruk and the British retreated into Egypt where, Rommel had even captured Marsa Matruh, only 140 miles from Alexandria, and the British prepared for their “final stand” at El Alamein.

The “Ascalon” was a modest craft, compared with the first jet-propulsion bomber, the Arado Ar 234,  first tested by the Germans on June 15.  The Allies, for all their advances, had nothing like it.   But the air war against the Japanese was promising, and on June 16, over Guadalcanal, the United States forces repulsed an attack, destroying 107 Japanese airplanes, and missing only 13.

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Thoughts were turning to the rebirth of a Free French Army.  Long memories of the French defeat in 1870, and experience of a restless military that had tried to revive Napoleonic imperialism, had inclined Clemenceau in 1881 to envision a national militia instead of a professional army.  But so long as there was a German army,  that was delusional and in the Third Republic the French army flourished.  But the “affaire Dreyfus”, which had rallied many integrist Catholics against an innocent Jew, had sown the seeds for divisions in the army right up to the Second World War.  Any political conservative, and certainly any conservative Catholic — even including Marshal Foch — was suspect in the military establishment until the emergency of the First World War, which had erased the old stereotypes.  With the decline of Vichy fortunes in 1943, many hoped that a similar healing and reunion of French parties might happen, under the leadership of General Giraud backed by General Eisenhower.

Himmler gave orders on June 12 to destroy all Polish ghettos and transport those in them to death camps.  On June 13, Germans killed seventy-four Allied troops in a raid over Britain. The Blitz still lived.  On that day, too, Stalin launched a vast Soviet propaganda project, using the film director Mikhail Slutsky and 240 cameras to film scenes of fighting on the Russian front.   It was Whitsunday in England, the latest possible date for Pentecost to fall on the liturgical calendar.  (It will not happen again until 2038.)  Pope Pius XII chose that day to address 26,000 working men who had gone on pilgrimage to Rome from the farthest reaches of Italy despite the difficult circumstances of the war closing in from the south. The British had invaded Pantelleria, an island south of Sicily, on the 11th.  The Pope, mentioning neither Nazis nor Communists by name,  told the workers:

The Church, Guardian and Teacher of Truth, in asserting and defending courageously the rights of the working classes on various occasions, and in combating error, has had to raise Her voice against letting oneself be deluded by the mirage of pernicious and fatuous theories and visions of future well-being, and against the deceptive enticements and attractions of false prophets of social prosperity who call evil good and good evil…. Social revolution claims to give power into the hands of the working class —  empty words, mirages incapable of realization. In fact we see that the working class remains bound, choked and tied to the force of State Capitalism, which restrains and subjects all, not only the family but even the conscience, and transforms the workers into a gigantic labour machine. Like the other social systems and orders which it claims to fight, it classifies, regulates and transforms all into a brutal war machine which demands not only blood and health, but also the wealth and prosperity of a people.

On the same feast, the Vatican wireless seemed to reiterate some of the themes of Cardinal Faulhaber’s ordination jubilee pastoral letter on August 1, 1942, and spoke of Pentecost as

specifically the feast of the priesthood. Let us pray, therefore, for many and good priests. This is doubly necessary in our times. In these days the dangers for the kingdom of God are great, and great are the sufferings of priests. In many regions a veritable persecution of priests is raging. Priests are persecuted, deported, maltreated. Many die as a result of the sufferings inflicted on them…. In these attacks, celibacy, which is precisely what makes the priest of the Western Church a true and self-sacrificing servant in the vineyard of the Lord, is made a special butt; it is said to be meaningless , and opposed to the growth of the nationhood…. Parents, protect your children; protect them from the dangers threatening their faith. Teach them true ideas about priests and priesthood. Help them to reject with contempt all false slogans which are bandied about today, to be steadfast in the midst of an age which knows no better than to despise and persecute everything supernatural and all true values.

In the second week of June, the full text of the Joint Pastoral Letter of the Dutch hierarchy, read in all the church of the Netherlands on May 16, was finally translated for the English press:

A world outlook which is diametrically opposed to Christianity has been forced upon our people these last three years. In every sphere Nazism attempts to extend its influence and take control. Although Nazism remains the powerful master of the situation here, the spiritual power of resistance of the overwhelming majority of the Netherlands people is  unbroken. This fills us with great consolations and faith in the future. Despite all suppression of those differently minded and the bait of various material advantages, the Netherlands people will never become Nazi if we remain but loyal to our ancestral faith… the only power that can fight Communism is not Nazism, but Christianity. For ‘nobody may lay another foundation than that laid, which is Christ.’

The Reichskommissar in the Netherlands, Arthur Seyss-Inquart,  was a lapsed Catholic totally devoted to National Socialism and a confidant of Hitler. His brother Richard had been a ordained a Catholic priest but had abandoned the priesthood to marry. He became a prison official in Ostmark.  Seyss-Inquart responded to the bishops: “The best proof of the magnanimous freedom which we grant is the fact that such a Pastoral Letter can be read without hindrance. Comrades, in our midst you cannot create martyrs! Certainly it is true that there are priests in prison. I have every single dossier brought before me. These man, however, are very real offenders. They have committed offences; they have either slandered the Reich or National-Socialism or the Fuhrer in a fashion which one simply cannot tolerate, or they have committed acts of espionage or helped the enemy….”

At the beginning of June, the Dutch bishops replied to  Reichskommissar Seyss-Inquart with the unprecedented joint signatures of leaders of all eight Protestant bodies in the land: the Dutch Reformed, three Calvinist bodies, two Lutheran Evangelical, the Remonstrants and the Mennonites, in protest against the government policy of sterilizing couples in mixed marriages:

As things are, you are entrusted with the maintenance of order and law in the country. You are entrusted with this not only by the Fuhrer of the German Reich, but also through the inscrutable dispensation of God, Whom the Church proclaims on earth. To you apply, exactly as to all other men, and to you especially because you happen to be placed in this  high office, the Commandments of this Lord and Judge of the entire earth….We have no illusions. We are well aware that we can hardly expect your Excellency to heed the voice of the Church, that is the voice of the Gospel, that is the voice of God. But what we cannot hope for as a human achievement, we dare to hope for in our Faith in Christ. The living God has power to convert and to change your Excellency’s heart. For that, too, we pray to God for the good of your Excellency and our suffering people.

Seyss-Inquart was sentenced to death at the Nuremburg trails, and was hanged on October 16, 1946,  having asked to return to the Church and made his confession to the prison chaplain.

Given censorship in occupied Paris, reliable information came to the Allies through complicated and slow routes.  It was the American Office of War Information that received word in  first days of June, but only reported in August,  that the Superior-General of the Sisters of St. Paul in Paris, along with two other religious sisters of the same order, had been arrested by the Gestapo “in an attempt to learn the location of a French Sister of Charity who is said to have engineered the liberation of many French military prisoners.”  The immediate fate of the prisoners was unknown, though they brought to mind some other Sisters of Charity: Odile Baumgarten and Marie-Anne Vaillot  shot by a firing squad in the French Revolution in 1794 for having refused to take an oath of obedience to the new government’s fabricated Constitutional Church, and ten other Sisters of Charity who had left France as missionaries to China, martyred after macabre tortures in T’ien-tsin in 1870.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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