Reminiscences of Rees Howells The War Years, 19391945
From 1936 the college began to focus prayer on the international situation that was rapidly developing as Hitler tightened his grip on Germany, made an alliance with Mussolini in 1937 and in 1938 occupied Austria.
One of the most remarkable guidances of those pre-war years was the connection between the college and Ethiopia. Italy had long coveted Ethiopia and in October 1935 Mussolini ordered the invasion of the country. For various reasons no European country offered aid, and the League of Nations was too weak to intervene in an effectual way. Ethiopia fell to the Italians and the Emperor, Haile Selassie, became a fugitive in England. To Rees Howells this was a threat to the evangelisation of Ethiopia and much prayer was concentrated on the situation. Meanwhile Asrate Kassa, son of the great Ras Kassa, and a young man destined to play a great part in the government of his country, came as a boarder to the Bible College School, through Alfred Buxton of the Bible Churchmans Missionary Society. The Emperor visited the college and the school, and his private chaplain and his son-in-law, Abye Abebe, husband of the Princess Tshai who was doing nursing training in a London hospital, came as students to the Bible College.
Despite the apparent failure of the prayer for Ethiopia, Rees Howells assured the Emperor that the day would come when he would be restored to his country and to his throne. The Emperor came at times to the college meetings, a small but impressive figure with dark, penetrating eyes. In the summer of 1939 he and his party were camping with some of the students and schoolboys on the estate of Penllergaer, and when the European war broke out it was from there that he returned to London and then to his country and eventually to his throne. When he re-entered his capital city, Addis Ababa, he sent a cable to Rees Howells who replied, expressing his joy and promise of prayer for future peace. From that time they always exchanged greetings on the anniversary of the day when Haile Selassie re-entered Addis Ababa. One of the college doctors, Dr Margaret FitzHerbert was later decorated by the Emperor for her services to the women of Ethiopia. She became a consultant gynaecologist in the Princess Tshai Hospital in Addis Ababa and later worked in a leprosy hospital under the Sudan United Missionary society.
Some years later, in 1948, three cousins of the Kassa family, nephews of Asrate Kassa, now in high office in Ethiopia, came as boarders to the Bible College School. One of them, Hailou Desta Kassa, became an outstanding Christian leader in the school, and later a member of the Emperors cabinet. A great Christian gentleman and statesman, he was looking forward to great things for his country, but he, along with two of his cousins, also Asrate Kassa and Abye Abebe, were all murdered by the revolutionary government in 1975 when every member of the Emperors government was executed in one night.
Also in the pre-war years occurred a development which was to occupy a large share of the college prayers, and to lead to another great intercession. In 1938, Hitler began to persecute the Jews on an unprecedented scale and there were many Jewish orphans whose parents had been taken away to a then unknown fate. The love of the Holy Spirit in him for the orphans of the Welsh village, was now manifested through Rees Howells for these children. Efforts were made to rescue some from the Continent. Some were adopted into the college family, others came into the home and school for the children of missionaries. Early in January 1939 Rees Howells called a special day of prayer for the Jewish people and this was to prove the beginning of the intercession which was to continue right through the war and beyond, until the day when Israel became a nation in 1948.
New light was given on the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others, as frequently in the meetings he read the great prophecies of the future restoration and greatness of Israel, and prayer was never relaxed for their fulfilment.
The first great war crisis occurred in September 1939, through the Nazi threat to Czechoslovakia. To Rees Howells war was the major threat to the vision of reaching every creature with the Gospel in this generation. Historians have continued to debate the wisdom, even the morality, of the Munich Agreement, when the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, returned to London from his interview with Hitler, with his scrap of paper and his declaration of peace in our time. We prayed right through this crisis, and before the Prime Minister returned we had the assurance that war had been averted for the time being.
Never was the Holy Spirit more manifest in the college than in the month of August 1939. Over and over again we were taken beyond the veil in the meetings, and over and over again we were lost in a spirit of praise, and worship. Rees Howells was confident that there would be no war and believed this right up to the fatal day of September 3 when war was declared because of the Nazi attack on Poland. He was always like a lion in a test, but as he went back to the Lord day after day seeking an explanation, the conviction grew within him that God had a purpose in the war, that without it the three great dictators, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin would override the world. During the next months of what came to be known as the phoney war because there was little action of vital importance on either side, he produced a small book, God Challenges the Dictators. From the beginning he pronounced the doom of the dictators, committing himself to this in an absolute and final way. However dark the situation might be he never swerved from this commitment and held on to it throughout the years of war. Assured that the war could not last long he predicted its end by the following Whitsuntide, May 1940, the very time when Hitlers Panzer regiments broke through the Allied lines and began to roll over Europe. The European war had begun in earnest.
On Whit Monday crowds flocked to the college meetings held in the open air, many curious, most disbelieving. Was it failure? To the press, to the crowds, there could be no other conclusion, but as Rees Howells went back to the Lord, he began to understand. The great principle of Intercession is life out of death; the corn of wheat must die before the new life can spring forth from the ground. Rees Howells saw the glory that would have come to himself and the college if the prediction had come to pass. He said, The glory and the credit for victory in this war must come to the Holy Spirit and not to man. God has declared war on the devil and it is God who will give the victory.
Hitler boasted that he would set up a Nazi regime throughout the world which would last for a thousand years, a direct challenge to the Millennial Reign of Christ. Rees Howells took this public death with perfect acceptance as from God and threw himself into the battle against the dictators, the conflict in the heavenlies, and we followed him with complete confidence in the final victory. There were to be days of darkness, oppression and burden in the spirit, but also days when we were caught up into those heavenly places of which the apostle Paul speaks, days of heaven upon earth. From the human standpoint it is clear that an early and abrupt end to the war would have left the dictators, their governments and their armies still strong and powerful, still a threat to the world. To us it seemed that we were baptised into the conflict in a new way. Rees Howells never defended the prediction of 1940. He was not new to this kind of death and knew that in the end there would be a resurrection. He reiterated `the doom of the Nazis and of the dictators and carried on the struggle of faith with ever deeper conviction. The crowds were no longer interested in the college and for the next few years we were literally shut in with God.
Day by day Rees Howells wrestled with the Word of God, especially the positions of faith of the men of the Old Testament, believing that God is the same today and that the Holy Spirit could be equal to these positions today. We saw the setbacks that Moses experienced in Egypt as the enemy through Pharaoh and the magicians defied him. But Moses knew that God had one final weapon that would bring about the deliverance of the people from Egyptdeliverance through the death of the firstborn. In the days of Hezekiah God allowed the enemy to take all the fenced cities of Judah and to come right up to the walls of Jerusalem itself before he spoke the word of deliverance through the prophet Isaiah, that God himself would defend the city for his own sake. The strange plot of Judges 20 demonstrated the mystery of Gods ways in some situations. Twice the men of Judah asked counsel of God and went up against Benjamin, only to be driven back each time with great slaughter. But after a national day of prayer and fasting the word of assurance was given and victory came on the third attempt. So throughout those years, in a real war situation, the Word of God came alive to us in a new way and daily the Holy Spirit sustained us as we fought on, knowing that the real battle was in the heavenlies, and over and over again seeing the outcome of a spiritual victory demonstrated later in the actual fighting.
For some time the evening meeting had been extended from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. but when the war began in earnest there were two meetings every night, from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. and from 10 p.m. until midnight and usually long after. Most of the meetings were in the Conference Hall but the last meeting was always in what was known as the Blue Room. How sacred this room was to become to us as night after night the Holy Spirit gave light on the Word and lifted us up above the burdens of the day. As Rees Howells said, why should we be freer in our part of the conflict than those who were engaged in the fighting on land, sea and in the air? Because of conscription for military service, it became no longer possible for the college to function in the normal way, and lectures were suspended until after the war. Over and over again the Holy Spirit broke through in the meetings with new revelations of divine grace and renewed assurance of final victory. At such times we sang and sang, hymns of praise and worship, sometimes even national songs, especially in the late meeting in the Blue Room. There were soldiers in a camp in a field nearby and we used to wonder sometimes what they thought of us when they heard the singing.
As each crisis in the war developed, the Holy Spirit guided our prayers and each time we knew that victory had been gained in the spirit before news came over the radio or in the newspapers of victory on the field of battle. Apart from the Holy Spirit, how did we know each time beforehand when and where victory would come, or where particularly to direct prayer upon specific situations? The year 1940 saw a desperate situation. As European country after country fell to the enemy so the spiritual darkness seemed to go deeper and deeper. So great was the burden that there were times when Rees Howells could only wrestle alone with God in his room, while members of the staff carried on with the meetings. Some of the events of those years are written on our hearts. Who among us could forget the prayers for the British army cut off at Dunkirk and whose escape seemed impossible? The prayer of Tommy Howells in one meeting was like the agonised prayer of Mordecai in the time of Queen Esther. That cry surely reached the throne. A solemn group of us gathered round the radio one night and heard of the fall of France, the treachery of Mussolini and the courageous challenge made by our own King George VI. How we praised God for a king and queen who were dedicated Christians and who could lead the nation in prayer. Several times national days of prayer were called for in those critical years when civilisation itself seemed to be threatened, and Britain stood alone.
There were also times of tremendous victory. During the Battle of Britain, in the autumn of 1940, when Britain stood alone against the enemy and our airmen were fighting desperately to withstand the enemy attacks, especially on London, Rees Howells said, Christian England will never be invaded. The enemy offensive, intended as a preliminary to invasion, came to a climax on September 15, a day we remember again for the assurance of victory. The attack failed and the invasion did not take place.
One of the outstanding guidances of the war occurred in 1941. There was a night when Rees Howells announced that the Lord had told him that Hitlers forces were to be turned south towards the Mediterranean area and also that he was preparing to attack Russia. No such eventuality was indicated in any way at the time, but several weeks later, the telephone rang in the school on a Sunday morning, and I heard the voice of Rees Howells from the college. Have you heard the news this morning? Hitler has attacked Russia. The war on the Russian Front was watched closely and prayer concentrated as the Lord directed. I still have a newspaper cutting of December 22, 1941. Moscow was ready to fight to the last. Mystery of Nazi failure. It is still too early to say how Moscow was saved from capture in the middle of October and again in the encircling movement that followed. It was a miracle.A miracle indeed, but after intensive prayer the Lord had given us beforehand the assurance that Moscow would not fall. It seemed that the Holy Spirit was always ahead of the enemy. Outstanding again was the victory at Stalingrad, a city that the enemy had actually entered, and fierce fighting was going on in the streets. As we prayed it seemed that the Holy Spirit took us right into the city and drove the enemy out himself. It was the first time they had lost a city into which their troops had actually entered.
Why should there be so much prayer for the city of Stalingrad? The war had spread to North Africa and the Holy Spirit made it clear to Rees Howells that Palestine itself, the Holy Land, was in danger, threatened by a pincer movement from two directions. If Rommel took Cairo and then the German forces swept south through Russia, the fate of the Holy Land would be sealed and there would be no prospect of a national home for the Jewish people when the war was over. So the enemy was held back in Russia. When the war came to a head in North Africa, and the vital battle of El Alamein was taking place, we were on our knees all day and it was in the afternoon meeting that the Lord assured us of victory, a victory confirmed later as we heard of the success of the Allied forces under Montgomery.
One aspect of the war concerned us in a more personal way. Swansea, in South Wales, is a big industrial centre, with factories then supplying important war materials, and it has a large oil refinery on its outskirts. It is also a port with large docks, and when the seas of Eastern Europe were closed to British shipping, because the enemy controlled the seaways of Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France, from 1940 onwards, the Western Approaches were of vital importance for essential supplies of food and materials. After the fall of France in June 1940, Britain stood alone until the entry of the United States of America into the war at the end of 1941. For months all our industrial cities and ports were heavily bombed and Swansea did not escape. When the air raids began, Rees Howells was in a dilemma. All the property was the Lords and each building was a monument to his faithfulness in answer to prayer. Could we ask him then to protect us as he had his people in times past? Should we use air raid shelters? Rees Howells would never take unnecessary risks and always sought a word from the Lord in uncertainty. We can never forget the evening meeting when the Lord spoke clearly through Exodus 12:13, and when I see the blood I will pass over you. From that night we had the absolute assurance that no harm would come to any of the buildings and that we ourselves were safe under that precious blood, so much more precious than the blood of the Passover sacrifice.
It was an eerie feeling sometimes to hear the whirr of enemy planes directly above us and the sound of exploding bombs. Sometimes we would look out of upstairs windows and see in the distance the fires lighting up the dock area, a constant centre of attack, or watch the fires in buildings nearer at hand in the city. But from that night none of us went into shelters except for the children in the day school, in accordance with government regulations, which insisted upon adequate shelters for certain buildings, especially schools. Civilians were not allowed out on the streets during an air raid apart from the wardens whose duty it was to watch the streets and look for casualties. The school had many day pupils as well as the missionary boarders, and although the heaviest raids were usually at night, they did occur in daylight hours, especially in the earlier days of the war. It became commonplace for lessons to be disrupted and sometimes they had to be continued in the shelters provided.
Most of our missionary boarders had to remain with us throughout the war. They could not return to their par-ents during the school vacation, nor could their parents visit them. Travel was unsafe even in this country and submarine warfare made sea voyages dangerous. But the Lord provided wonderfully for those children, not least during the times of strict food rationing. On special occasions particularly at Christmas, delicacies which most people did not see until after the war, appeared from nowhere.
At night during the raids some of our older boarders held prayer meetings in their dormitories for their friends in the city. One of the day girls used to read Psalm 91 to her family as they spent the night in their shelter. Many of our day pupils, as well as the boarders, had been greatly blessed in the later weeks of 1940, as the Holy Spirit brought revival blessing to the school. It was a wonderful preparation for the testing times that followed, when the heavy raids occurred.
One night will always remain in my memory. When the sirens sounded the warning of the approach of enemy planes, it was my custom to fall on my knees and pray for the children. Their missionary parents were far away, unable to return home. In one bedroom were several small girls, aged between five and eight years, and that night, as I prayed, the Holy Spirit showed me that room full of the presence of God and I saw those little ones literally sleeping in God. From that night the school building, Glynderwen, was always to me the safest place in Swansea. Some of these young children slept through even the heaviest raids, although there was a very noisy anti-aircraft gunemplacement a few yards down the road. One morning, a little girl said to the School Matron, It was very windy last night, wasnt it, matron? Actually Swansea experienced one of the exceptionally heavy raids, three attacks, directed against all the major ports, and it was an awesome sight to watch the flares lighting up the sky, to see the fires from the heavy bombs and the rain of incendiaries upon the city, making one think of Sodom and Gomorrah. The centre of the city was completely wrecked and had to be rebuilt in later years. There was also heavy loss of life. Yet not a bomb was dropped on college or school property although they fell on the area immediately surrounding us. The container of a burnt-out flare was the only relic of many a raid.
So prayer continued throughout the war years. Early in 1944 it was known generally that the Second Front was being prepared by the Allies and that an invasion of France was imminent. Rees Howells was troubled. He took nothing for granted in a crisis and in his mind were the difficulties at Dunkirk in 1940 and the more recent commando raid at Dieppe which had failed, with great loss of life. He went back to the Lord and the word came, This will not be like Dunkirk, Tobruk or Singapore. I am going before the forces. Could we believe that the Lord would give victory where formerly there had been defeat? Once again the Holy Spirit gave the assurance of victory and on the night of the Allied invasion, the thousands of ships and troops got across the Channel almost unobserved. Rees Howells always looked back on this night as another instance of divine aid. Truly, God had gone on before and there could be no failure. One newspaper reported that it was the only night that enemy submarines did not patrol the Channel. There were desperate days while the Second Front was being established in Normandy, and hard fighting in the ensuing weeks and months, but the Lord had said there would be no setbacks this time and we followed the conflict in prayer day by day until the final victory.
Rees Howells had maintained throughout that there would be a divine intervention in this war because God himself was engaged in it. Whatever form this might take, Gods ways are not always our ways not are his thoughts always our thoughts as Isaiah says. Rees Howells said, It has been a divine intervention all along but people have not seen it. Kings, great Ieaders, statesmen and generals, united with people throughout the world to give thanks to God for the deliverance. We can always say, as we look back on those years, that we saw the hand of God at work in crisis after crisis, that he guided and directed our prayers and gave us the assurance of victory. Hitler and Mussolini did not survive the war and although Stalin continued in power for a few years his death in 1953 was followed by Kruschevs denunciation of the Stalin cult.
There is no doubt that these were the years when the ministry of Rees Howells reached its greatest heights, but his health had been seriously impaired by the strain and burden of the war. Over and over again the Spirit revived him and gave him the strength so that in every crisis he was on the bridge directing the battle and never letting go until the final victory.
After the war, when the college reopened to students and normal life continued, the Holy Spirit laid on Rees Howells a special burden for the Jewish people and especially for their establishment in Palestine. After the holocaust of the Nazi years and the movement of the Jews back to the Land, the Lord still further opened up to Rees Howells the prophecies concerning his chosen people. The troubles under the British mandate were followed with great concern, but as it drew to a close the Jewish question became an issue in the United Nations. We prayed fervently that Gods people might at last be granted a home of their own in the land which God had promised to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. In a wonderful meeting in the Blue Room one night in 1947, when the crucial vote for the partitioning of Palestine was to be cast in the United Nations, the Holy Spirit came upon Rees Howells and us all. We saw the angels of God surrounding the UNO building in San Francisco and had the assurance that God would overrule any attempt to thwart his plan for his own people. Great was the rejoicing when the vote went in favour of giving at least part of the land to the Jewish people and there was special rejoicing later when we heard that Israel was to be a nation again after 2000 years, and in its own land.
In the remaining months of his life two prayers particularly claimed the attention of Rees Howells: the prayer for China, about to be taken over by the Communist forces under Mao Tse Tung, and above all, the intercession for the financing of the vision of the Gospel to every creature. Throughout the war years the Lord wonderfully sustained the college financially and sent in many thousands of pounds, although little if any time was given to praying for finance in the college meetings. In a literal way we proved that if we seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, all these things shall be added. On Sunday, January 15, 1950, just four weeks before his home call, the final assurance of victory in the intercession for finance came. He believed that his prayer for £100,000 would be granted and that no lack of finance would hinder the outreach of the Gospel in the world.
His death was a traumatic experience for the college but we all rallied round his son, Rev. Samuel Rees Howells, on whom the Spirit came to continue the work of the college and to fulfil the intercession.
More Articles from The Intercessor, Vol 19 No 4
- What about Temptation?
- Editors Note
- The Gates of Hell Prevailing. Why? And How To Close Them.
- Tape Talk
- Temptation and Its Beneficial Effects
- Reminiscences of Rees Howells The War Years, 19391945
- A Look at a Book
- Living Letters
- Wickedness in High Places
- Every Man is Tempted
- Kims Story
- Letters from Norman