IWM Duxford tells the moving story of the Padre who landed on D-Day

By Richard Moss Published: 28 April 2014

The story of Captain Leslie Skinner, the Padre who landed with the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry armoured regiment on D-Day is told at IWM Duxford for the 70th anniversary of D-Day

a photograph of an Army Chaplain Officer in uniform
Captain Leslie Skinner© Courtesy IWM
“Up 0500 hours: cold, wet, sea rough.  This is it. Running for beach by 0700. Under fire by 0710. Beached 0725. Man 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 pain in left side. Bed on ground about 0130. Dead beat. Fell asleep beside half-track.”

This is the D-Day diary entry of Captain Leslie Skinner, an Army Chaplain who landed on the coast of Normandy on the morning of 6 June 1944 with the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry tank regiment.

Captain Skinner survived the war and kept a diary for the duration of the European campaign. Now the moving account of his experiences is being told at Imperial War Museum Duxford as part of their commemoration of the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

One of the first chaplains to make it ashore on D-Day, Captain Skinner helped medical staff to care for the sick and wounded as the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry fought their way out from the Normandy beachhead.  He used vehicles similar to the half-track on display in the Normandy Experience exhibition at IWM to transport patients.

On June 8 he recounted:

“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.”

Skinner’s regiment, The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, is perhaps best remembered today as being the regiment of the poet Keith Douglas, whose memoir Alamein to Zem Zem recounted his experiences of the North African campaign. Having survived the vicious tank battles of the Western Desert Douglas was killed by a stray piece of shrapnel just outside Bayeux on June 9. Captain Skinner buried his body.

His diary entry for June 9 and 10 1944 reads: “Spent day touring all medical units back to beach area in search of regimental casualties. News of death of Captain Keith Douglas on Fwd slopes pt 102…Forward on foot and found bodies of Keith Douglas and Lt Pepler.  Buried separately near to where each lay. Occasional rifle fire while digging graves.”

Douglas’ body was later removed from “Forward Slope Point 102” and today rests in the War Cemetery at Tilly-sur-Seulles.

a photo of tank advancing up a lane
Sherman tanks of the 1st Nottinghamshire Yeomanry (Sherwood Rangers) advance past a knocked-out Tiger tank© IWM (B 6156
The recovery, identification and burial of bodies often fell to Skinner who saw it as his duty to find men who were killed as the Regiment’s tanks advanced.

On many occasions, he risked his life to ensure his comrades’ bodies were recovered or buried. The work could be harrowing and he refused to allow other tank crews to help, as he didn’t want them to see how their comrades had died in burned or smashed Sherman tanks.

The gravity of the situation is vividly shown in Leslie’s diary entry for 4 August 1944:

“On foot located brewed up tanks. Only ash and burnt metal in Birkett’s tank. Searched ash and found remains pelvic bones. At other tanks three bodies still inside…Unable to remove bodies after long struggle – nasty business – sick.”

Another entry reveals how he tried to protect other tank crews from seeing the results of a Sherman which had been destroyed.

“Place absolute shambles. Infantry dead and some Germans lying around. Horrible mess. Fearful job picking up bits and pieces and re-assembling for identification and putting in blankets for burial. No infantry to help.

“Squadron Leader offered to lend me some men to help. Refused. Less men who live and fight in tanks have to do with this side of things the better. My job. This was more than normally sick making. Really ill – vomiting.”

Skinner’s dedication and bravery - he was mentioned in dispatches and received the French Croix de Guerre with palm and the Belgian Chevalier of the Order of Leopold II with palm – was well known in the regiment as he scoured the battlefields looking for the bodies of the fallen.

On September 2 1944 he recounted how he entered a village which was still held by the Germans:

“Left driver and truck, entered village via ditch…Made way to village parsonage. Bodies of Sgt Cribben and Trooper Sharp beautifully laid out in white shrouds having been washed. I stitched the bodies up. Cure [priest] in robes led funeral cortege down street. The Germans had watched the funeral procession and seen the service from their tank without interference.”

As well as the grim task of identifying and burying bodies Captain Skinner spent much of this time writing to the relatives of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry men who had been killed. This often resulted in correspondence which continued for many years after the war. While on active service, he was comforted by regular letters and parcels from his wife, Etta, as his diary entry from 11 October 1944 shows:

“Wrote Etta. During morning parcel [arrived] from Etta with coffee. Rain stopped and sun shining. All afternoon doing follow-up Casualty Letters. Feeling tired after sad job. Another letter came late from Etta. Wrote replies and thanks for parcel.”

After the war, Leslie Skinner served as a parish priest and remained in the Territorial Army (TA), ending his career as Deputy Assistant Chaplain General TA for the London district, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, the highest rank a TA chaplain could hold in peacetime.

The Padre’s Trail can be discovered as part of the Normandy Experience in the Land Warfare exhibition at IWM Duxford thrughout 2014.

  • For more information on IWM Duxford’s programme of activities commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day go to www.iwm.org.uk/d-day   

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