History-maker: soldier’s first-hand account of D-Day

History-maker: soldier’s first-hand account of D-Day

Seventy-three years after Mervyn Kersh took part in the D-Day landings, he came to QE to tell boys about his experiences on that pivotal day of World War II.

By turns moving and humorous, his talk had the whole of Year 9 entranced, with several boys staying behind afterwards to look more closely at the medals, photos and other artefacts he had brought along.

Head of History Helen MacGregor said: “Mr Kersh gave us a fascinating insight into a remarkable time and into his own remarkable life. He proudly showed us his Order of Légion d'Honneur medal – the highest French honour, which was awarded to him only two years ago for his services in the liberation of France from Nazi occupation.”

Born in December 1924 and therefore still a teenager at the start of the war in 1939, Mr Kersh was evacuated and stayed near Exeter, squeezed into a small cottage with his aunt and uncle, two cousins and two German refugee children, as well as the women who normally lived there.

When he was called up, he went to train in Scotland in six inches of snow. He did not find the training especially hard since he was very fit, having previously been the boxing champion at his school. His training complete, he was posted to the army ordnance unit that dealt with supplies.

Shortly before D-Day, and with the country in lockdown to prevent leaks to the enemy, he was sent to an undisclosed location on the south coast, where his preparations for the big day got off to an inauspicious start when he was arrested for not eating his meat rations, accused of trying to render himself unfit for active duty. It took him an hour to convince the officer of the truth – that he was a vegetarian!

On D-Day itself, 6th June 1944, he landed on the British beaches to be welcomed by French girls and old people blowing kisses and offering flowers and wine. There was, however, no time to enjoy the celebrations: he was shot at by a sniper so had to keep moving and pushed on further into France in a lorry with orders to procure a headquarters for his unit.

He found a chateau, but had to deal with the fact that items including a piano and books had been booby-trapped with explosives by the fleeing Germans. He was, in any case, thrown out of the chateau by a colonel who ‘pulled rank’ on him, so he carried on in the truck. At night, he slept under the vehicle or in ditches to avoid the Luftwaffe bombings.

Reaching Germany, Mr Kersh, who is Jewish himself, saw first-hand the terrible state of those coming out of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp and tried to help the starving by collecting chocolate rations from other soldiers.

Mr Kersh moved around the continent for several months and was on a 36-hour train journey to Bruges when war in Europe was declared over – he was therefore one of the last people to know, as he did not find out until his journey was over!

The army then told him he was to be sent to Japan where the war continued, but in fact he was sent to Egypt.