Dom Columba Thorne, who has died aged 101, dispensed vital moral and medical aid as an Anglican chaplain at the ill-fated Arnhem operation in September 1944.
As the walls shook from the hurricane of explosions outside, the local minister’s wife watched the kindly little chaplain with the curly hair and glasses ferociously setting about the task of lavatory cleaning. “A captain and a chaplain doing such work?” she thought, as half a dozen privates looked on. “You should have had five years of German ‘discipline’.”
When the minister’s wife came up from the cellar after giving her five children supper, Thorne handed her his small Bible, saying: “I have no time to read to the boys. Will you do it for me?” In a scene poignantly recaptured in the film A Bridge Too Far, she walked through the rooms reciting in English Psalm 91: “Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day.”
As a High Churchman, familiar with the works of St Francis de Sales and Abbot Marmion, Thorne already had an interest in Catholicism, which crystallised in conversations at the hospital with Père Pailler, later archbishop of Rouen. But when Thorne asked to be received into the Roman Catholic Church, the French priest said this would leave Anglican soldiers without any spiritual sustenance, and told him to wait until he returned home; he could then visit Downside Abbey in Somerset, where the monks would sort him out.
In the succeeding decades, he said little about Arnhem, which he considered well depicted in A Bridge Too Far, though he could not recall any crosses over the graves of those he buried at dawn in the parsonage garden.
Only after he had turned 90 did his brethren learn what he had done when he donated Father Benson’s crucifix to the museum of the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department; and the Chaplain General attended his 100th birthday party.
He was nicknamed “Bert” by the boys in his class, who were puzzled as to why a short, quiet monk with a stammer was chosen to serve as chaplain to the military prison at Shepton Mallet.