The Commander of the British Army provoked a storm recently by saying what no government minister dared: that Britain's presence in Iraq was exacerbating Islamist violence. A commited Christian, General Sir Richard Dannatt describes the day he stopped fighting and surrendered his life to God.
Berlin is a fascinating city and a tremendous posting in which to begin married life. Friday, 11th November 1977, should have been a day no different from any Friday. The morning was unremarkable for both of us; Pippa, my wife, worked at the Kindergarten and I was in and out of my office. After lunch, Pippa took her sister and a friend off to an art gallery and I returned to my office. The Colonel held his normal Friday conference and my next intention was to meet the RSM and to check the preparations for the Battalion’s Armistice Day Service which was to be held at 3.30 pm that afternoon. I never met the RSM, nor did I check the preparations for the Service.Very Seriously IllFor the next threequarters of an hour no one saw me. I was lying on the floor of the cloakroom in Battalion Headquarters. My right side was paralysed and I couldn’t talk sense. When a brother officer finally found me, I was rushed with blue lights flashing, to the neurology department of the main German hospital. Some while later Pippa was found, and very gently told that she should not hope for too much. Although in different circumstances, life had stopped for both of us. This part of the story is hers and not mine. Pippa told me afterwards that in the car with the Padre on the way to the hospital, her only thought was how sorry she was for whoever was to be assigned the task of telling her that I had died! I did not die, nor had God the slightest intention of letting me die. I knew throughout that I would live, and I had no doubt whatsoever that I would make a full recovery but, at that stage I did not know why I felt so sure. Medically I had all the symptoms of a classic stroke, supposedly unheard of at 26 and equally strangely, there appeared to be no physical cause for it. Every test that a modern teaching hospital can think of had been tried, and there was no explanation. However, although there was no explanation as to the cause of my collapse, the treatment remained the same, at least four weeks firmly in bed. My mind cleared first, and my speech returned to normal within hours. My right arm loosened up in a few days and my right leg slowly came back to life.The opportunity to step back for four weeks from the normal bustle and business of life is an opportunity that very rarely presents itself. For me, as alarming as the initial circumstances were, four weeks enforced rest as a spectator on life, rather than as a participant, had enabled me to clear my head and allow God to speak to me. Although I had been a follower of Christ for several years, I knew that I had only ever given part of my life to Him but kept a part for myself. As I lay in bed recovering I began to reflect that God wanted all of my life, not just part and that He had challenged me about this on occasions in the recent past.
God’s ProtectionOn 7th February, 1973, in very unpleasant circumstances in Belfast at the end of a day of much shooting and people being killed. Two gunmen outflanked the position I had taken up as my Platoon Headquarters. I was briefing one of my Section Commanders on re-deployment plans. My driver was down beside my vehicle as sentry. A hail of bullets leaped down the street. The Corporal and my driver fell on either side of me. My driver later died. I walked away unharmed. On 17th July, 1975, I was with my Company Commander in a mine clearance operation in South Armagh. We began to go forward to a good location from which we could observe the suspicious object. After a few yards my Company Commander passed me an air photograph, which he suggested I should study rather than go any further forward with him. I stopped and looked at the photograph. Half a minute later and 30 yards away 70lb of commercial explosive detonated. My friend was killed instantly. I walked away unharmed.
On 15th March, 1977, I was driving along a West German autobahn from Berlin to the Hook of Holland. I was going home to get married. It was the small hours of the morning and I was tired. I fell asleep and drove off the autobahn at 70 mph straight into a field. At the point where I went off the road the field and road were absolutely level and flat, 200 yards further on there was a 20ft bank and a wood. I walked away unharmed. Thus, on three occasions God had shown me His love and His protection and had challenged me to make a complete commitment to Him but on each occasion, I had failed to make the response that He wanted from me. Finally I had to be stopped so that the lesson could be learned. On the fourth occasion I could walk nowhere.
One of the many letters that Pippa and I received from friends when they heard that I had been taken ill was from a very wise experienced Christian from whom Pippa and I had gladly taken advice before. We were delighted by the letter and the practical encouragement it contained. The friend, however, made reference to Hebrews 12. I looked it up the next day and realised it to be the key piece in the jigsaw.
‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when He rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those whom He loves, and He punishes everyone He accepts as a son... Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness.’
In my circumstances those six verses are almost the classic example of a blinding flash of the obvious. I had refused to learn the lesson on three occasions in the past, therefore, God had no choice but to take a stick and beat me over the head. The justice of my punishment is almost poetic. How many times in the previous year as Adjutant had I heard the Commanding Officer admonish a soldier for his transgression. Indeed, how often had I done it myself? God had given me a timely taste of my own medicine!
Lessons to be learntGod’s lesson in discipline to me is supremely constructive. Obviously the physical discomfort of collapsing and being paralysed was not trivial, neither was the mental anguish of the first few hours an easy burden for Pippa.
However, as the years have gone by and the significance of the lessons to be learnt realised, we are both able to rejoice together and praise God for His mysterious and loving ways.
11th November is the date in the calendar each year when we remember Armistice Day – for it was the 11th hour of the 11th day of November 1918 that the surrender of Germany to end the First World War was announced. A surrender is two things: It is the end of the fighting and the beginning of peace. I discovered that 11th November 1977 was the moment that I stopped fighting with God only giving Him part of my life – and that it was the moment that I fully committed myself to Him.
My passage in Hebrews 12 ends: ‘No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.’
I found on that date, that a far better way of life was to commit myself wholeheartedly to Him, to enjoy that peace and purpose in life that only full commitment to Jesus Christ can bring. At the beginning of March 1978, I returned to work as Adjutant of my Battalion in Berlin, and in November was finally passed as fully fit again.
There can be no end to this story, for the end is the beginning, the beginning of a new life in Christ.
Extracted with permission from Candles in the Dark – Stories of Faith in the Army Royal Air Force compiled by Jim Eldergill Neil Innes, published by Christian Focus £6.99 ISBN: 1845500938.
This book is a testimony to the ‘Missionaries in Khaki and Blue’ who seek to faithfully witness to Jesus Christ. Updated for the 21st century, this is a collection of stories of real people facing real problems and demonstrating how faith in the living God wins through against the odds. It contains stories of heroism, shame, anguish and jubilation - stories of men and women from Aircraftsman to General.