English Benedictine Congregation History Commission – Annual Symposium 2013


James Hagerty


Dom Denys Rutledge was a monk of Fort Augustus, a Benedictine abbey located between Fort William and Inverness in Scotland. During the Second World War Fr Rutledge served as an army chaplain in Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa and kept a diary of his wartime ministry. Of the 42 monks of the English Benedictine Congregation who served as military chaplains, eight were monks of Fort Augustus.

Fr Rutledge was born in Birmingham in 1906. He entered the monastery at Fort Augustus in 1924 and studied first at Maria Laach in the Rhineland and then at Edinburgh University where he graduated with First Class Honours in Classics. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1936.

The Phoney War

In early September 1939 Fr Rutledge was sent to a mining town near Durham to replace a priest who was on vacation. While he was there war was declared and he immediately cabled Abbot Wulstan Knowles to seek permission to volunteer as a military chaplain. The Abbot, a former naval chaplain at Invergordon, consented and Fr Rutledge applied to the War Office. On 2 October he received his temporary commission and was instructed to report to the Headquarters of Scottish Command at Edinburgh. There, on October 9, he met other newly-appointed chaplains at the former Scotsman building on North Bridge but the Senior Catholic Chaplain, a veteran chaplain of the Royal Flying Corps, knew no more than the new chaplains about their deployment.

Eventually, Fr Rutledge was posted to 6th (Lanarkshire) Battalion, the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) at Hamilton. It was an inauspicious beginning:

An ancient regiment of covenanters bearing the Bible ceremonially at the head of the column, carrying their rifles to kirk and throwing a protective cordon round the building in case of a surprise attack by the wicked Episcopalians, would not be the most likely choice of residence of a Catholic chaplain but he has no choice…

He received a polite and friendly 'but rather less than enthusiastic' welcome and set about his duties with the Cameronians and the Royal Scots Fusiliers at Stevenston without training or any idea of military routine and discipline. What information he could gather about his role came from Fr Barty Flynn a local priest with whom he was billeted and who had served as an army chaplain on the Western Front in the Great War. Like many other new chaplains Fr Rutledge was astonished that 'there was no ecclesiastical equivalent of the Military Staff College' where 'one might have learned the basic formation of an army, the organization of the medical services, the customs and traditions of an officers' mess, and even just how, when and where to salute…' By 13 October he had acquired a uniform and a portable Mass kit and was a little clearer about his duties which involved 'maintenance and discipline' and 'moral and spiritual welfare'. Whilst Catholics in the 7th Cameronians and 4/5 Royal Scots Fusiliers were stationed near Catholic churches, men in other locations had to make considerable journeys to attend Mass and the padre had to use either public transport or requisition an army car to visit his far-flung parishioners. His plans were often were disrupted by military activity which took precedence but by Christmas 1939 Fr Rutledge had managed to establish a routine which enabled him to learn more about his role and his men to avail themselves of his ministry.

France 1940

In April 1940 the Cameronians moved to Southern Command at Axminster in Devon. There, on 6 June, they were inspected by King George VI who, recorded Fr Rutledge, looked 'very worried, as well he may considering what is going on at Dunkirk'. Five days later the Cameronians, as part of the 52nd Division, embarked at Plymouth for Brest where they were expected to employ diversionary tactics and hold a bridgehead at Cherbourg. After four days of wandering aimlessly and without encountering any Germans they were suddenly ordered to leave everything and proceed to Cherbourg. The first part of the journey was by car but there ensued a nine-mile march which provided Fr Rutledge with the dispiriting sight of an army in disarray. 'A retreating army', he wrote, 'is a sorry sight.' As they arrived at Cherbourg they saw troops being embarked 'without any attempt to marshal them in their proper formation', supply depots being set on fire and vehicles driven into the harbour to prevent their use by the advancing Germans.

Guarding the Homeland

r\nOn his return from France Fr Rutledge was sent first to Cambridge, where he was billeted in Jesus College, and then to Thetford. His battalion was exhausted and in poor shape after its evacuation from France and it was some time before it had sufficiently recovered. East Anglia was the objective of German bombers and all units were preparing to repel a German invasion. While Fr Rutledge was at a chaplains' conference in Norwich debating the revised rules of fasting before Holy Communion, exploding German bombs blew open the doors of the room. Some distance away fifteen civilians were killed. In the following six months Fr Rutledge travelled 6,000 miles visiting units, evacuees and local residents. In November the battalion moved to Stirling and from there Fr Rutledge ministered in the Dunblane and Callander districts. He recorded that as the fear of invasion and imminent death receded so too did the number of weekly communicants but nevertheless he continued to minister to his congregation both living and dead, on exercises and in camp, until he was ordered to London on 1 July 1941 for an overseas posting.

Malta: the George Cross Island

On 12 July Fr Rutledge left Gourock and sailed for Malta aboard the Irish packet Leinster in the first convoy to the island since Italy's declaration of war. The ship ran aground off Gibraltar but was re-floated and the convoy arrived safely in Grand Harbour, Valletta, on 2 August. On disembarkation Fr Rutledge witnessed the 'overwhelming' destruction and devastation caused by Italian air raids on the dockyards. The warmth of his reception by the Maltese clergy and civilians, however, was in marked contrast to the coolness of the Covenanters and despite the potential danger he recorded that 'it was with a great sense of release and homecoming that a Catholic from a Protestant environment finds himself temporarily in a country such as this…'.

He reported to Fr Bernard Navin, the senior commissioned chaplain on the island, and was given responsibility for the British troops in the south east of the island. Having requisitioned a bicycle, for petrol was in such short supply and cars were unavailable, he set off to make contact with his scattered units. He soon came to the conclusion that troops in anti-aircraft emplacements around the island were in less danger from air raids than civilians in the towns. His 'parish' was made up of battalions of the Cheshire, Dorset, Hampshire and Devonshire Regiments whose Brigade headquarters were at Tarxien. Despite the sufficiency of Maltese priests and churches, the army preferred its own chaplains and chapels.

Throughout late 1941 and early 1942 the bombing of Malta intensified and conditions on the island deteriorated rapidly. On 30 December 1941 Fr Rutledge was involved in three bombing raids while visiting troops. His retrospective entry for January 1942 recorded:

With the new year there begins the most intensive bombing of this latest Siege of Malta with the arrival in Italy of reinforcements of German aircraft…The bombing continues in a crescendo that reaches its peak round about Easter. Rationing of foodstuffs and kerosene has been introduced and becomes increasingly stringent, so that we come to know – most of us for the first time – what real hunger is: a salutary experience; one dreams of food.

Supplies of ammunition were so short that anti-aircraft batteries were instructed not to fire until they were certain of a direct hit. This tactic merely encouraged enemy aircraft to dive bomb and strafe at lower altitudes with greater success and increasing casualties. Death and destruction was everywhere: 'Civilian casualties continue to mount. Bodies may be seen stacked up outside a police station awaiting burial…' Re-usable coffins were introduced for civilians and soldiers were buried in their blankets. In the meantime, shattered remnants of convoys and disabled Royal Navy ships that had braved the sea passage between Gibraltar and Malta struggled into Valletta. Some were sunk within sight of the island, others as they were being unloaded. Despite enemy losses there was no respite for the islanders.

In the midst of destruction and carnage Fr Rutledge attended to his duties. He ordered his Maltese altar boys to run for cover if an air raid occurred while he was celebrating Mass. He would continue the Mass alone. On Easter Sunday he celebrated Mass for the Cheshires and on his way back took cover from an air raid in a cliff shelter occupied by Maltese civilians. 'I find', he wrote, 'that not surprisingly considering the incessant bombing, they have not been able to attend Mass that day, so since now I have a Mass to spare, so to speak, my last, I offer to celebrate it for them – to their great joy. A catacombs Mass if ever there was one…' The chaplain was very conscious of the effect of a bombing raid while celebrating Mass. An entry reads: 'In the evening, with a view to my Mass at Zabbar, a rather hot spot, tomorrow, Sunday, I revise the rubric in the Missal: Si timeatur incursus hostium…vel ruina loci (should there be fear of attack of the enemy…or collapse of the place). (If one has reached the consecration of the Mass one may proceed immediately to the communion).'

The blitz continued. On 7 April there were over 300 bomber sorties against Malta. Warships and merchantmen were ablaze in Valletta harbour and the docks, towns and military bases were scenes of devastation, mayhem and death. One Catholic chaplain, reported Fr Rutledge, swam ashore after his ship had been sunk in the harbour. Of little material comfort but for purposes of morale and in recognition of the bravery of the islanders, Malta was awarded the George Cross and on 15 April it was paraded before Fr Rutledge's unit at Zejtun. In May it was reported that there had been 5,000 enemy bombing sorties on the island.

Rations were further reduced. By August 1942 Fr Rutledge had not drunk milk for three months. He was also beginning to feel the strain of enforced fasting. Rumours and expectations of convoys dominated conversations. By October axis air forces were mounting over 1,400 sorties per week. The 'Great Hunger', people feared, would be followed by Axis conquest and incarceration. However, the 8th Army's victories in North Africa relieved the situation and from mid-November unscathed convoys began to arrive. The barrage was lifted, morale rose and eventually food became more plentiful though not abundant.

North Africa, Sicily and Italy 1943

On 30 March 1943 Fr Rutledge embarked with the Hampshires for Alexandria where they arrived on 3 April. Fr Rutledge had also to attend to other battalions and soon ran out of altar breads and wine causing him to visit Ismailia and Suez for replacements. Since landing in Egypt the troops had been heavily involved in seaborne landing exercises and between 8 and 17 June they carried out a full scale rehearsal of a seaborne invasion. At the beginning of July they embarked at Port Said for Sicily and Fr Rutledge took the opportunity to visit the anchored transports to minister to his scattered flock. There being no time for Mass he gave them general absolution and Holy Communion. On 5 July they sailed up the Suez Canal bound for Sicily. On board, Fr Rutledge worked among the Hampshires, the Dorsets and Devons and also among Basuto troops who were to be the labour force on landing. On 9 July he celebrated early morning Mass for about 150 and the next day they began the assault amid choppy seas at 05.30 am near Pachino. He recorded in his diary:

I land with the second wave, not being allowed to go with the first, and…this meets with a much warmer reception from an enemy now well awake and directing an accurate fire of mortar and machine gun on the landing craft. One a few yards to my right receives a direct hit as I step ashore and goes up in flames.

The chaplain was busy all day at the various casualty posts and could only rejoin the Hampshires at nightfall as they began a gruelling march into the interior. During the next few days the brigade suffered so many casualties that Fr Rutledge had to

…celebrate Mass four times on the side of the road in order to replenish my stock of consecrated hosts as viaticum for the men. Each time I am reasonably certain that I shall not need more, yet I do. Only in such an emergency may one celebrate so many times at any hour of the day. At one point I am fortunate to meet a group of reinforcements, young fellows just arrived and being sent immediately into action. I am able to gather together the Catholics among them and give absolution and holy communion. For some it is to be their first and last battle.

The way forward was hard and dangerous; the fighting was heavy. At times Fr Rutledge had to bury British and German dead. From 15 July to 22 July, he recorded, he had been so busy with constant fighting that he had no coherent recollection of what had happened. On 23 July the British moved forward from Caltagirone but came under heavy fire. Fr Rutledge was obliged to celebrate Mass in a cemetery where the tombs had been blown open by enemy bombs and where British dead lay waiting burial. There was' he recorded, 'an appalling stench'. The next night, he wrote, was 'typically warm':

The Devons are to put in an attack on a German strong point during the night. Accordingly I move ion with their medical team. The attack is not successful and the Regimental Aid Post team never even succeeds in reaching the point where it is intended to set up business. We are pinned down by heavy mortar fire from 23.30 to 03.00, then for another hour spontaneously, each time we try to move. There is no cover and all we can do is to become as flat as possible on the ground. It is clear that we are under enemy observation. At dawn, when we retire, I am able to count nine shell craters all within yards of me.

During the enemy bombardment the padre's batman was killed but Fr Rutledge was able to anoint him before he died. True to the tradition of chaplains, Fr Rutledge wrote that his 'strategy' was to be 'where the action is taking place' combined with tours of aid posts and dressing stations. He soon became aware of the army system which divided men according to the severity of their wounds.

Throughout early August the advance continued towards the slopes of Mount Etna. It was heavily contested but Fr Rutledge still managed to celebrate Mass for his men. By 17 August the Sicilian campaign was officially over and was described, he wrote, as 'one of the swiftest and most successful invasions in history'. On the following Sunday Fr Rutledge celebrated High Mass in Piedimonte.

On 8 September Fr Rutledge was again in action when he landed with the second wave of Hampshires at Vibo Valentia on the mainland of southern Italy. The first assault was successful but Fr Rutledge's unit was subjected to fierce German resistance and the chaplain had to bury six men on the beach. Towards the end of the day he had to bury another eleven in front of a dressing station. The padre moved forward over heavily mined ground with the Hampshires attending the many wounded as he went. They remained stationary for ten days before returning to Sicily where they waited patiently to be taken back to England. On September 30, six days after landing in Sicily, Fr Rutledge recorded: '…we cannot remain here much longer under these conditions; the men are dirty and unkempt and even adequate sanitary arrangements are lacking – and there is always the endemic malaria.' A few days later he found a flat which coincidentally had been the residence of another Benedictine chaplain, Fr Nicholas Holman of Downside Abbey.

Eventually, they left Sicily on the Dunbar Castle and arrived on the Clyde on 4 November. From there they moved southwards to Carlisle and eventually to Long Melford in Suffolk. After a month's leave Fr Rutledge returned to find his brigade, part of 50 Division HQ, scattered over a wide area and busily preparing for the invasion of Europe. His task, as he saw it, was to ensure that the men, many of whom had no battle experience, were aware that chaplains were on hand.

Fro now on until the invasion of Normandy I am in almost perpetual motion. I decide that my assignment entails establishing contact with as many units…as possible, even if only for a fleeting visit, so that they may have visible evidence of a chaplain responsible for their spiritual welfare and know where to communicate with him should problems arise. I also have to ensure that…they are sufficiently provided for, either by area chaplains or by the services of the civilian clergy, some of whom are formally 'officiating chaplains.

At the end of April Fr Rutledge moved to Southend and joined the Second Army in the final preparations for the landings. For chaplains, this involved conferences where they were given their last-minute orders and instructions.

D Day and the Normandy Landings 1944

On 4 June Fr Rutledge moved with Second Army HQ to an area east of London in readiness for Operation Overlord. There 'they were sealed in without news' of the invasion. While waiting he celebrated Mass and heard confessions. On 5 June they expected to embark but this was postponed. Three days later, as planned, the chaplain embarked at Victoria docks on an American landing ship. He was with a detachment of the Royal Army Service Corps responsible for huge lorries packed with explosives. 'One would not positively choose', he wrote, 'to go to battle seated on the top of 300 tons of high explosive…' They reached Normandy on 10 June and Fr Rutledge landed safe and dry in the cabin of an ammunition truck. Not all chaplains were as fortunate. Fr Francis Firth of the Lancaster Diocese had been killed in the landing and other chaplains had been wounded.

Fr Rutledge resumed his battlefront ministry. 'The usual duties of a priest during the next few weeks', he recalled, 'are to be both enlivened and saddened by happenings peculiar to these unusual circumstances'. In the dense Normandy bocage he again he witnessed the horrors of armed conflict and observed the hard decisions that had to be taken by military commanders. The chaplains were not immune to danger. By 11 July Fr Gerard Nesbitt of Hexham and Newcastle Diocese had been killed, one Catholic chaplain was missing and four were wounded.

In addition to his ministrations to the troops Fr Rutledge had also to calm fraught relations between British officers and local people, especially the curés. British insensitivity towards the many beautiful churches and their consecrated ground was in stark contrast, according to the locals, to the attitude of the Germans. He had little success, however, in justifying the Allied bombing of Caen and the enormous civilian casualties.

The breakout from the bridgehead took place in August and Fr Rutledge's workload increased among the congested units. On 3 September, the fifth anniversary of the war, he said Mass in a village school on the Somme by 'courtesy of a communist headmaster'. The same morning he buried a sergeant killed in an attack where a group of Germans were holding out. In the afternoon there was Vespers and Benediction in the village church of St Thibault followed by a procession and prayers at the village war memorial. He then sang Benediction at Romescamps.

The advance was not easy for there were still pockets of German resistance and incidents of French collaborators being summarily tried and executed. At all times Fr Rutledge was anxious to observe 'liturgical niceties' even it appeared 'unreal compared with the slaughter, destruction and the sheer beastliness of war'. But the importance of the Eucharistic celebration was not to be lessened, he wrote, despite personal fatigue, the movement of an advancing army, desertions, resistance and vengeance.

By September Second Army HQ had reached Albert and was warmly welcomed by liberated Belgians. Their advance, however, was halted in north-east Belgium by the failure of the Arnhem operation in mid-September. Fr Rutledge recorded that on a warm, mellow, autumn day he had seen 'the great stream of planes passing overhead carrying the parachute troops to their dropping point' in Holland but the inability of 30 Corps to link up with them delayed Allied progress. Meanwhile, Fr Rutledge's unit continued to come under German air attacks and he was kept busy anointing and burying both soldiers and civilians.

Germany 1945

In March 1945 Second Army HQ moved Walbeck, German village located west of the River Rhine, where the chaplain was billeted in a former house of ill-repute. As Fr Rutledge recoded: 'the first and last time in my life I live in a brothel'.

At this point Fr Rutledge came into contact with German civilians and was asked to mediate with a Catholic priest to act on behalf of the Allies and name Nazi sympathizers. It was not easy for the priest feared that returning German soldiers would treat him as a collaborator. As it crossed the Rhine into Germany the advancing army did not, according to Fr Rutledge, behave with any great chivalry and he recalled many instances of Allied troops looting and ransacking properties, including churches, and raping women. German resistance continued and Fr Rutledge was still heavily involved in chaplaincy duties at Casualty Clearing Stations. By April his unit had reached the River Weser where they halted as part of the strategy which allowed the Russians to take Berlin. Whilst there he recorded conversations with released Allied prisoners and once again heard 'tales of Russians given over to rape, pillage and destruction'.

On 3 May, at General Dempsey's Tactical HQ, Fr Rutledge witnessed the unconditional but informal surrender of German forces in the area.

What we see is a long German staff car roll slowly up the drive, from which emerge two German generals in their scarlet-lined greatcoats and one admiral less brightly attired. They enter the house. They have come to offer unconditional surrender of all the German forces in the sector. Dempsey makes a point of keeping them waiting. They had wished to come last night but were told to wait until this morning. The formal acceptance will take place at Montgomery's Tactical HQ…

The formal surrender took place a day later in front of Field-Marshal Montgomery at Lüneberg. From then on hordes of released Allied POWs passed back into the arms of their own army and lines of unescorted German prisoners paraded before an increasingly overwhelmed Allied commissariat. So great were the numbers that Fr Rutledge recorded that 'it was impossible to feed them or even supply them with water'. The plight of hungry and thirsty prisoners, however, was nothing compared with the sufferings of those in concentration camps and Fr Rutledge heard first hand from two Catholic chaplains who had been in the liberation of Belsen. In fourteen days they buried 12,000, of whom 3,000 were dead as the chaplains arrived. The liberators, wrote Fr Rutledge 'are at a loss for words to describe what they found'. Despite these horrors the army celebrated Victory in Europe on 13 May and Fr Rutledge conducted the singing at a Solemn Mass of Thanksgiving.

One result of the war's end was the imprisonment of Nazi leaders. Heinrich Himmler, the feared and hated head of the Gestapo, was incarcerated in the room next to Fr Rutledge's office at Defence Company HQ on Lüneberg Strasse. On the night of 23 May Himmler committed suicide and Fr Rutledge was informed next day that among the Nazi's personal effects was a picture of the Blessed Virgin. It was assumed that Himmler was a Catholic and the officers on duty later apologised to the padre for not waking him to attend the prisoner. Himmler was buried the next day in a secret location by members of the Defence Company. Fr Rutledge was not invited to be present.

With the war over and with Hitler and his henchmen dead or ready to be brought to justice, there arose, recalled Fr Rutledge, 'a growing sense of dissolution of fading out, of anti-climax, even of disillusion'. There was 'only one way to go but it leads to nowhere in this world'. On 25 June Second Army was disbanded and officers and men were allocated duties of occupation and administration across the British sector of vanquished Germany. Whilst Second Army's raison d'être may have ended, wrote Fr Rutledge, 'our Russian allies are in the process of becoming an enemy even more ruthless, more unpredictable and more brutish that even the Nazis were, and very much worse than the regular German Wehrmacht with its continuing tradition of the old Imperial German Army'. It is a theme he refers to repeatedly in the latter part of the diary when he instances numerous examples of Russian indiscipline and ruthless treatment of Germans.

A lighter moment for him occurred on 29 June when he visited the Benedictine Abbey of Saints Adrian and Denis at Lambspring where British casualties were being cared for.


The logistics of demobilizing an army are almost as complicated as recruiting and equipping one and for those waiting to be released from service the wait was intolerable. Even for Fr Rutledge the procedure was 'unsatisfactory' and he had no idea when he could return to his monastery. Worse still, he felt that he could not arrange church services when he might suddenly be withdrawn and be unable to fulfil his commitments. In late September he finally received clearance for a short leave and on his return found that he had been demobilized. On 8 October he left Hannover and arrived at Shorncliffe three days later. On 18 October he was finally released from chaplaincy service with the honorary rank of captain.


Fr Rutledge's entry for June 1945 contains some reflections on his chaplaincy. They are strangely detached and without emotion. They read as if the padre had somehow not been integral to the life of the units he served:

I shall not be invited to reunions, not by 2nd Army HQ, since I have never been really part of it, merely living with it as a stranger and pilgrim through the kindness of the 'Skipper' of its Defence Company; not by Army Troops HQ, since I am excluded from its mess by the religious intolerance of its general – so I have been given to understand but I have never had occasion to talk to the men, my business being transacted through its departments.

Yet he considered that there was a 'positively good element …in a profession of arms…dedicated to the protection of the weak against the strong and the oppressor'. He proclaimed that if an élite corps were formed to go anywhere in the world to defend the poor and oppressed then 'he would gladly volunteer his services'. He had seen many men, women and children die throughout the war but as a Christian he realised that this was the 'gateway to life'. It was not a precept shared by all and he realised that frequent references to preparation for death could seriously undermine morale. For his part Fr Rutledge wrote that as his Office reminded him 'I shall continue to praise God for teaching my hands to war and my fingers to fight – even as a non-combatant'.

Fr Rutledge's diary is a narrative of priestly service fulfilled sincerely and conscientiously in extraordinary circumstances. It is a record of some importance for it is an accurate and detailed account of the work of a military chaplain. Yet, sadly, it is an impersonal document. There are few references to other Catholic chaplains and none to examples of friendships or personal links between the chaplain and his men. Very few people are mentioned by name.

In 1949 Fr Rutledge left Fort Augustus to discover 'a pure and uncompromising form of monastic life' and went to live as a hermit on the Isle of Mull. He later became founder of the Mull and Iona Mission to the Diocese of Argyll and then moved to the island of Canna in the Inner Hebrides. In the late 1950s he lived on an Indian Christian Ashram and published an account of this in his book In Search of a Yogi: The Quest of a Christian Monk in the Sacred Places of India. From 1961 until 1982 he lived an eremetical life among the last surviving Araucanian Indians in Chile. In 1982 he returned to Fort Augustus where he died in 1997 at the age of 91.