How a Methodist army chaplain went above and beyond on D-Day

Revd Leslie Skinner should not have been on the Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944. Suffering from deafness, he was declared unfit to work as a chaplain, but he refused to give up and managed to be declared fit a few months prior to Operation Overlord.

06 June 2024

“Up 0500 hours; cold, wet, sea rough. This is it. Running for beach by 0700,”

Revd Leslie Skinner

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Revd Leslie Skinner was the first British chaplain to land on the Normandy beaches, in his war journals published under the name The Man Who Worked on Sundays.

Many of those in the boats would have been awake all night in trepidation, before jumping and running into the cold water of Gold Beach. German bullets flying all around. The noise. The cold. The horror.

“Under fire by 0710. Beached 0725. Men 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 a pain in left side.”

Although wounded, he carried on, assisting medical staff caring for wounded soldiers and providing others with the last rites when necessary. This was the kind of man Revd Skinner was.

"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. […] Spent day touring all medical units back to beach area in search of regimental casualties,"

he wrote on 8 and 9 June 1944

His first spell of service in Normandy lasted twenty days until he was wounded in the head. As padre, Revd Skinner was supposed to stay with the medical officers but he brought a lightweight motorcycle and followed the advance of the allies as closely as possible, his portable communion kit always nearby.

Revd Skinner provided a Christian burial to every Allied soldier found dead – often dodging gunfire to retrieve the bodies – and recorded the exact place of their burial and their details for the families to know.

Watch the video of Revd Leslie Skinner's story.

From the beaches to Germany

Born in 1911, Leslie Skinner became a local preacher and a Methodist minister. His first appointment was in India in 1937 where he was diagnosed with deafness.

When the war broke out, he joined the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department and was sent to several countries in the Middle East. In 1942, an artillery bombardment in the Western Desert made his deafness worse and he was declared unfit for service.

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Not giving up, Revd Skinner was passed fit in March 1944 and he was appointed as senior chaplain to the 8th (Independent) Armoured Brigade and attached to the Sherwood Rangers.

After recovering from his head injury, Revd Skinner went back on the field and risked his life retrieving the remains of soldiers caught in destroyed tanks, refusing the tank crews offer to help as he did not want them to risk their lives and for them to see what happened to their comrades. Sherman tanks were known as "Tommy Cookers" – a macabre nickname due to their tendency to catch fire when hit.

He wrote to the families and often corresponded with them for years afterwards.

"On foot, located brewed up tanks. Only ash and burnt metal in Birkett's tank. Searched ash and found remains […] At other tanks, three bodies still inside. . . Unable to remove bodies after long struggle - nasty business – sick,"

he wrote on 4 August 1944

Revd Skinner followed the Sherwood Rangers until they reached Germany and the end of the war.

“Caught up with RHQ at Enscheide by mid-morning. Went down Main Street to see how things were going. Odd elements of German infantry being winkled out. Half way down Main Street, firing broke out on both ends so I dived into a shop for cover. It was a barber’s shop, so I had a haircut while waiting for things to simmer down,”

he wrote on 3 April 1945

For his relentless work, Revd Skinner received the French Croix de Guerre with palm and the Belgian Chevalier of the Order of Leopold II with palm.

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After the war

In the late 1940s, he went back to France with his wife Etta to help locate graves with the War Graves Commission.

Revd Skinner became a minister in places such as Higher Broughton in Whitefiel, Stockwell, in south London and Corby in Northants, before he was appointed as superintendent minister of the Walton and Weybridge circuit in Surrey. He remained in the Territorial Army

Retired in 1977, he became a supernumerary minister in Epsom until 1997 and died in 2001.