The Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to
give you the victory. Deuteronomy 20:4
As a post-war teenager, at the age of 16 years, my life
was impacted by a fighter pilot. I attended a summer
adventure camp near the Barmouth estuary in mid-
Wales, led by Wing Commander Branse Burbridge
DSO* DFC* (1921-2016) the highest scoring RAF night
fighter Ace of World War II.
Days spent in rock climbing, hiking and canoeing
were followed by evenings discussing the Christian
faith with Branse and his team. Branse was born into
a Christian family with strong pacifist inclinations.
The story of how a young bible-class teacher became
an unlikely fighter ace began when Burbridge, who
registered as a ‘conscientious objector’ at the
outbreak of war, decided the best way to serve God
was to fight for his country against the evil of
Nazism. He signed up for the RAF shortly after
turning 20 in February 1941 and was posted nine
months later to 85 Squadron as a night-fighter pilot.
During the period of the build-up to the invasion of
Normandy, and after, together with his navigator,
Bill Skelton – also a committed Christian – he
claimed 21 victories in a ten-month period. He
downed four German aircraft in a single patrol. In
June 1944 he also shot down three V-1 unmanned
missiles, saving countless civilian lives in the London
area. A Wikipedia article gives more detail.
At the camp he told us that, when ‘scrambled’ to
intercept the formidable incoming Luftwaffe, he
had no idea whether he would survive the night –
but that it did not matter either way to him, as a
follower of Jesus Christ. Whatever happened, he was
in God’s hands. He also mentioned that he aimed for
the wings or engine of enemy aircraft, rather than
the cockpit, as his goal was to destroy aircraft rather
After the war, Branse became a staff member of
Scripture Union. He developed holiday activities for
young people and launched residential courses for
sixth formers in a wide variety of academic
disciplines, exploring the relevance of Christian faith
to science and humanities. In later life, he suffered
from dementia and in 2013 his numerous war
medals, including an American DFC, were sold to
provide him with specialist care.
We might view his life as a transition from physical
to spiritual warfare. But really these aspects are not
so polarised. Both call upon qualities of courage,
fortitude, loyalty and sacrifice. It is often overlooked
that, in his main career, David – onetime shepherd
boy; later King of Israel – was a professional soldier or
warrior. Quite literally, “God trained his hands for
war”: Psalm 144: 1: “Blessed be the LORD, my rock,
who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for
battle”. This is a factor that we must incorporate into
any formulation of the Christian ethics of war:
admittedly a challenging task.
*DSO, Distinguished Service Order; DFC, Distinguished Flying Cross.