How many times have you heard the old saying the Lord moves in mysterious ways? It has been used to explain all manner of situations – good, bad and downright odd. I am not a man with strong religious convictions but that doesn’t make me a non-believer. I know a chap whose zealous atheism is all consuming and I annoyed him once by saying it was like a religion to him. I stick by my assessment and enjoy the irony. My Dad was a devout socialist but he wouldn’t have blasphemy in the house, not ordinary swearing, but his understanding of the meaning of blasphemy.
If you travel the battlefields as I have you will have seen a good number of graves of padres in war cemeteries. I have often marvelled at their devotion to God and to their comrades and to say it comes from another time is wholly wrong because the work goes on. Many of us may only go to church for weddings, christenings and funerals these days but I believe it is very important to respect the devotions of others and I suppose what I am really doing is hedging my bets.
Aside from the padres who served in the armed forces in wartime, a good many men came home and found a new calling. These are people I can respect, because they are using or perhaps setting aside their martial experiences and following a path that brings them some kind of peace and allows them to put their energy into a wholly positive life. Wars make some people proactive in the most diverse ways.
This book has been sitting on the ‘to do’ pile for a while and I did put it off a couple of times, but now I have read it I feel contented.
Laurence Biggs was a London born lad who witnessed the German air raids of 1940 while he waited for his inevitable call up. He went into the Royal Navy and had a genuinely remarkable career mixing his highly tuned skills as a trainer of men with clandestine operations on the occupied coast of Europe. In the course of this he took lives in the most extreme manner and saw death. Before all this he had served on the Arctic convoys, a feat of endurance that has only recently seen the award of a campaign medal for the dwindling number of veterans. As the war progressed past D-Day he was lucky to survive the sinking of a torpedo boat in chilly seas and took some time to recover. He had a full and honourable war serving his country and was Mentioned in Dispatches.
Laurence tells us how proud he was to serve his country in a conflict that saw a once grand nation in decline and on it’s uppers willing to have it out with the stronger and better prepared Nazis because it was the right thing to do. How this fits into our assessments of an ailing imperial Britain might be a moot point, but his notion of honour is not to be sniffed at.
It was while he endured a precipitous moment at sea that Laurence committed himself to God and his ministry. It wasn’t a Pythonesque moment of a giant finger pointed at him through parted clouds, but it was a strong realisation of what he had to do. He didn’t rush into it and spent time as an engineer before he answered his calling, became a priest and emigrated to Australia as a ten pound pom.
Don’t be fooled by this book. There are not pages of sermons or a quest for an answer. Laurence Biggs wrote down his wartime experience because it was the singular major adventure of his life. He had a story to tell and perhaps he wanted to make sense of it all in the twilight of his days. He died in May 2005.
The book has been assembled by Laurence’s son Mark who takes up a portion of the text explaining how he tried to research his father’s war time exploits. We tend to assume that all the history we want is on the internet these days. Mark Biggs illustrates how this is far from the truth in detailing the difficulty he had confirming the details of his father’s account.
There is an assumption that in late life Laurence may have got a bit confused and that elements of his story do not match available documents. I am not convinced.
The latter part of the book is a bit of a puzzle at times and while I appreciated the inclusion of an account by a sailor who had seen similar service to Laurence, I am not sure it was necessary to include it – save for having the opportunity to do so.
There was a time when my father-in-law was pressured to write down or record his wartime exploits. He successfully resisted the overtures with a version of the old adage What happens on tour stays on tour. We have to respect this and now make do with reflections on the tales we were told since his passing.
This is a quick read devoid of any serious detail relying on the honest impressions of a man who was once a killer but had found fulfilment in the service of God and his congregation. It isn’t the sharpest piece of literature you will read but it is totally authentic and constitutes a breath of fresh air. There is no side to it, no agenda. It’s just the story of a gentle old man and it is difficult to make a criticism without sounding churlish. Self or limited run publishing has enabled so many stories to be shared and we must applaud it. I have seen a number of genuinely superb books like this in 2014.
That other much used adage so close to Armistice Day seems apt. Old soldiers never die, they only fade away. Sadly, all too many take their stories with them, so the occasions when they are set in print is something to be cherished. Laurence Biggs has moved on to a better place, but he is still providing comfort. May God bless him and keep him.
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.
ABOVE AND BEYOND
By Mark A Biggs
Available as a paperback and as an E-Book