What Use is Prayer?

A reflection on true events during World War II. Sent to us by a reader.

What good does prayer really do? Quite a lot, it seems.

As the world stands on the brink of catastrophe, with most people still unaware of what is going on, what will turn the tide and preserve our basic freedoms for ourselves and for future generations? One answer, proposed on this site, is prayer. One might imagine that this would be a forlorn hope, but that may not be so. In 1940 this country stood in comparable danger of becoming a totalitarian state, and prayer was about our only hope then as well. And it worked. This is the story of the National Days of Prayer during the Second World War.

In the spring of 1940 Great Britain was on the verge of catastrophe. We were at war with Germany, a conflict for which we were totally unprepared, and the German army looked unstoppable. Accordingly, on 27 March the King called for a National Day of Prayer. We might think of people at that time as having been more religious than ourselves, but in fact many people, particularly young people, were not religious at all. Nonetheless, the prospects for our country were so bleak that they responded in huge numbers, filling the churches across the country.
During May the British Expeditionary Force on the continent was driven back to the Channel and by 26 May over 300,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers were trapped at Dunkirk. The commander of the British Forces, Lt General Sir Frederick Morgan, said that to rescue so many would need a miracle.

But the miracle happened. Every day from 26 May to 4 June the English Channel remained calm, enabling nearly a thousand private boats and yachts to sail across the Channel. These made all the difference as they were able to get close to the beaches and either transfer men to the waiting ships or take them home directly themselves. As a result the overwhelming majority were rescued.

There were six more Days of Prayer during the war.

The second was on 11 August 1940. Again, there was a huge response. Within the week that followed the Germans began what became the Battle of Britain. Again, we were up against tremendous odds. And yet the relatively small British force of Spitfires and Hurricanes shot down 180 enemy bombers over south-east England, a number that far exceeded anything expected by the RAF. Accordingly the German invasion was delayed.

The third Day of Prayer was only a month later, on 8 September 1940. Calling for another Day of Prayer so soon showed how desperate we were. This time the Germans sent five fighter planes to accompany each one of their bombers. Again, we were hugely outnumbered, but again the Germans did not prevail. 185 enemy planes were shot down and Air Chief Marshall Dowding said: “I will say with absolute conviction that I can trace the intervention of God. Humanly speaking, victory was impossible.”

In addition, Hitler had prepared invasion barges at Bremen, but these were destroyed by a huge storm in the North Sea. The invasion of Britain was postponed again and never took place.

The fourth Day of Prayer was on 23 March 1941. Yugoslavia, which had surrendered to Hitler, changed its mind and organised resistance. Ethiopia was liberated from Mussolini. The Royal Navy won a decisive battle against the Italian fleet in the Mediterranean; there was no damage to the Royal Navy ships and no men were lost. Hitler then made the fateful decision to invade Russia, which was a turning point in the war.

The fifth Day of Prayer was on 3 September 1942. The next day, at Palermo in the Mediterranean, the entire remaining Italian fleet was sunk.

The sixth Day of Prayer was on 3 September 1943. That night Italy surrendered to the allies and Mussolini was killed.

The story of the seventh and last Day of Prayer was similar to that of the first in that so much depended on the weather. It was called by the King in the spring of 1944, prior to the anticipated invasion of France.

In 2004 it became public just how close to disaster the invasion came.

The launching of D-Day was delayed several times owing to bad weather. Two teams of British weather forecasters predicted that the weather would again be bad on the revised date of 5 June 1944. But the American team of weather forecasters predicted good weather and tried to persuade the British to change their forecast. Fortunately they refused, and Eisenhower again delayed the invasion. Fortunately, because on 5 June there were Force 6 winds in the Channel.

The forecast for 6 June was much improved, but even so the weather forecasters were only 70% confident that it was good enough to go ahead. But that was enough for Eisenhower, who ordered the invasion to take place on that day. The good weather held and the invasion was successful.

Had the forecasters been less confident, however, the invasion might well have been postponed again, and the next suitable date was 19 June. In 2004 one of the British forecasters, Dr Hogben, said, “As it happened, on 17 June all three teams produced a forecast for the 19th for almost perfect conditions. So they would definitely have gone ahead.”

He then explained what would have happened had they done so:

Utter catastrophe. Complete failure. On 19 June the biggest storm of the 20th century came up. If they had landed that day, I doubt many landing craft would have even made it to the beaches. It does not bear thinking about.

Speaking in June 1952, Eisenhower said:

If there were nothing else in my life to prove the existence of an Almighty and merciful God, the events of the next 24 hours [5-6 June] did it.

The above piece is a summary of a longer version by the late Dr Pearce on the Cross Rhythms website, with extra material from the Daily Telegraph. With thanks and respect to the late Dr Pearce.

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