The Commanding Officer of 17 AOD, Colonel Gore, assembled the 800 of us one day and told us that ten officers and men had been chosen for the first reconnaissance group, landing on D-Day. They were to be one of each rank with himself included. The only private was a cook. My superior officer and friend was among them. We heard the news by radio of the early D-Day landings and we packed up and were ready to leave within an hour. In the event, a mine hit the 10-man advance party and nine were all killed while below decks. Only Colonel Gore, who was on deck, survived and was picked up and taken back to Britain where he asked us for volunteers for the next landing wave. He wanted 40 men. They were to be the first Ordnance Corps soldiers to land in Normandy.
The loss of these officers meant that both the General Administrative Office and the Technical Office were “leaderless” and Jack Cotter took charge of the one while I took charge of the other. We still won the war. There are two great fundamental lessons in life that I have learned: never to volunteer and always to be cautious. The first I learned early in my army life, the other much later in civilian life. Nevertheless, I am still always proud to recall that I was the very first to step one pace forward that day. As a fervent agitator for a Second Front in the west, and as a Jew I really had no choice. As we travelled in convoy down to Gosport, the roads were clear but the roadsides were filled with people calling out blessings and good wishes as “Good Luck”. In some places they were completely silent. It was all very moving for us including the not knowing what would happen when we landed. We had no idea of what had already happened in Normandy. I was proud to be a part of the BLA, the British Liberation Army, a very inspiring choice of name but later to be changed to the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR).
We arrived at Gosport and parked in side streets where housewives poured non-stop drinks for us. We were on rations of meat-and-vegetable soup in cans followed by tinned peaches and tea. The soup I could not touch, not being kosher, but I enjoyed the peaches and ignored the tea.
Just before we left Billingshurst, our Captain had to go to London to collect some secret documents. He went by motor cycle but foolishly stopped on the way back at a café for lunch, leaving the briefcase with the documents in the pannier bag on the bike – and the bike was stolen. He was put on a charge and kept under close arrest being under armed guard at all times awaiting court-martial. He did not cross over with us.
He was replaced with an infantry Officer named Capt. Baldwin who knew less than nothing about our work. He said that he would leave everything on the technical side to me. At Gosport he soon noticed that I was not eating the soup and he sent for me to his HQ which was the back of a lorry. There I stood while he spoke about putting me on a charge for wilfully rendering myself unfit for active service overseas. I spent one hour standing in front of him explaining about the laws of Kashrut and finally convinced him about my zeal for being part of the Second Front. That clinched the matter and I was not charged after all. I never saw him again.
We received some “Occupation” money and post cards to post on arrival in France to say that we were safe and well. We were also given our emergency rations which were mainly white chocolate and a little Tommy Stove and matches with a sort of phosphorous disc to heat food in our mess tins. We also had a tin of soup which was self-heating – an innovation I fully expected to take on after the war but I never heard of that idea again. We were given a copy of Eisenhower’s pep talk and then Montgomery’s inspiring message and they worked – for me, anyway.
Impatiently, I watched the landing craft and other ships in the port waiting for their turn to sail. That night was our turn and we boarded as directed by the Navy. We were part of history at last.
We were directly under 2nd Army HQ but primarily serviced the 50th Highland Division of 30 Corps. We had proudly sewn on our 2nd Army shoulder flashes some time earlier. Montgomery was our direct boss and we had complete faith in him and his ability.
Due to the 24-hour postponement of D-Day because of the stormy weather, we were waiting in Gosport sleeping wherever we could in or under our trucks. Finally, we received, with trepidation, the news that we were at last going across to join in the offensive on Germany’s Second Front.
We embarked at night and slept – if we could – anywhere we could find a space with all our gear on and our rifles in our hands: (“A soldier’s best friend”, we had been told frequently). After the tragic incident of our own men before us, I decided to sleep on deck under the stars. By dawn we could see that there were boats and ships as far as the horizon, almost crowded together. While we all made an easy target, we also provided cover for each other, and we knew that somewhere there were planes watching over us, and submarines in the sea checking for the enemy. Huge naval ships were also visible in the distance
It took us 14 hours to cross and one of the sailors told me that we were adrift to the west a little. Nevertheless we reached the Normandy beach intended which was codenamed Gold Beach. It was the western end of the British line next to the Americans at Omaha Beach. They had suffered enormous casualties being unable to get beyond the beach for safer ground, but the British had cleared the cliffs and when I landed we merely had to ride up the ramp road to the top. I had had the good fortune to arrive while the Germans were reeling from the first assault and before they had recovered to regroup.
I made sure that I was in a Bren-Gun Carrier which we had waterproofed before leaving England. We landed close to the beach and drove through shallow water and up the sand without my getting my feet wet. At the top of the cliff ramp, in Port-en-Bessin, the villagers cheered us and offered us glasses of wine and flowers as we slowly moved ahead. There were snipers (German or French) firing at us from different directions so I kept my head down and declined the possibly poisoned wine.
Jack Cotter and I left the main reconnaissance group to find suitable accommodation for our drivers while we looked for suitable office accommodation - and found a lovely chateau. We had to wait while the Royal Engineers searched the building and its outhouses for booby-traps – there had been many found elsewhere in pianos and lavatory seats and apparently harmless pens and the like. It had been the HQ of the 21st SS Panzer Division and at least I secured a detailed German map.
Just as we were given the all-clear, a Brigadier General arrived on the scene and declared his intention of commandeering the chateau as head-quarters for his infantry battalion. I pointed out, most respectfully, that it had already been taken for our lot but he was a Brigadier and I was a private and so he won. Having lost a few hours that way, we were rather late to grab anything else suitable in the area and we had to sleep under our lorry that night. The next day we sectioned off some fields which had deep ditches and made a ”home” for ourselves lined with tarpaulins. When the others arrived they had to accept what we had for the moment – which lasted quite a few days.
We never saw a German plane during the day, but at night, they came over bombing and machine-gunning but this got less each night. By then the front was about twelve miles inland and Bayeux was liberated.
As we became more organised we learned that there was to be a Jewish Service in Bayeux for Rosh Hashanah and all Jewish personnel who could be spared could attend. I made myself ‘spare’ and walked through the countryside in deep white dust which had followed the deep grey mud during the rains. I passed many dead horses and cattle, killed in the fighting.
After a few miles I was in the huge hall where the service was starting. It was taken by Senior Jewish Chaplain Rabbi Dr. Louis Rabinowitz, who conducted a short and very moving service and delivered an excellent and topical address. In the middle he was interrupted by a commotion at the door. It turned out that a couple of civilians had arrived who had been in hiding for years until they learned with incredulity that a Jewish service was being held and that there were so many Allied Jewish servicemen mainly from Britain, USA, and Canada. They spoke in Yiddish and this was translated to the hundreds of servicemen from the several allied countries. They received a tremendous cheer and we all were very overcome. Many soldiers met old friends from back home and a tremendous atmosphere was engendered.
Jewish military services were rarely more than an hour and to the point with no repetition or Chazanut. They were inspiring – a clear message for civilian services which was completely lost after the war. When obtaining exemption from Church Services, I was usually put on kitchen chores – spud-bashing - for the same period.
We soon moved forward as the line hardened. Infantry and other units sent men to collect various vehicles and we were able to supply them. When the Mulberry Harbour was assembled and in place to enable ships to unload without tenders, more vehicles arrived and Jack Cotter stayed on the beach seeing to them there before sending them on to me by our 200 drivers. I had to start booking them in and booking them out to various units, organising parking places and re-ordering. Our drivers brought them to me from the coast.
Our drivers were a low intellect lot whose vocabulary was limited to very few words, and their conversations were also very limited to a couple of subjects. I really had very little to do with any of them other than was absolutely necessary.
It was during this period that I started to drive. I had no civilian licence or even an army one but I soon learned on the job. At one stage, for a couple of weeks, I was seconded to a REME unit where vehicles were being repaired, in order to set up a control system since the turn round was very slow. Mainly I recorded vehicles in and out daily, which encouraged them to speed up their work. I found a staff car which had only a broken light, and practiced around the countryside in and out of gates etc… I then graduated to double-declutch trucks and lorries and jeeps! It was hit and miss but I never hit anything!! If I ruined any gearboxes or hit anything, it was the right place to be. But I didn’t.
It was also during this waiting and preparing time for the break out of Normandy that I was on guard one day in an empty field in France. Empty, that is, except for one artillery gun which I was supposed to be guarding. It was very hot and I relaxed by putting down my rifle and myself to sun bathe. Suddenly a motor cyclist drove up to me by which time I had gathered my wits and my rifle, but too late. I was asked what I was supposed to be doing and I explained in four awed words: guarding this gun, Sir. He replied that I could not be very effective without my rifle at the ready to which I had no option but to agree.
I had already realised that the officer on the bike wore a beret with two cap badges and sported a scarf flying from his neck. That could only be Field Marshall Montgomery but without any retinue.
He saluted me informally, adding “Carry on, soldier” and sped off somewhere. I never heard any more about it but nor could I tell anyone at the time. That was my only meeting with Monty.
Before the breakout of the Normandy beachhead on 18th August, we witnessed the American bombing of Caen and it was like a heavy rainfall. Nothing could or did survive such a blanket attack. Unfortunately it also killed Allied troops (later to be described as “friendly fire”). It closed the Falaise gap which captured large numbers of German troops and opened the way to the rest of France – and on to Germany.
Being only a few miles behind the front at any time, we often heard the rumble of artillery and the clump of bombs. We could never be sure who was at the receiving end but we just hoped that it was the Germans. At one time in France, we had just dug a ten foot square hole about three foot deep over which canvas was to be erected as our home for a while. We received a signal that a troop of German Tiger tanks were approaching us about ten miles away. We packed our equipment and personal things very quickly indeed and climbed into our vehicles for a fast retreat (“withdrawal”) westwards. The tanks had a new armour plating which was impervious to anything the allies had as shells: they just bounced off. Our rifles were less than useless! The Tigers were destroyed before they reach our “home” but only by rockets which were the first time the RAF had used any. Relief all round.
As we were a vehicle company, I always travelled by vehicle and accumulated personal possession which I was able to take with me. I even made a wooden bed frame and “sprung” it with crossed webbing covered by a straw palliasse. That went with me until I lost my unit. I also accumulated books from home and from Zionist organisations and started to study Hebrew and even Esperanto by correspondence courses. My frequent moves soon made this impracticable.
The army supplied Education Corps Officers who were supposed to explain political events and war aims. Those I heard were hopeless and constantly annoyed me by their references to “the other side” or “Gerry” when referring to the most evil and dangerous people of all time. Hardly inspiring. So I took over - unofficially of course - and produced a large map on a board of the western and eastern fronts and with coloured pins and string, and marked the changing fortunes of the war fronts. I gave to followers, commentaries of what was happening and the importance of those events as I saw them, militarily and politically. My following grew so I must have been better than the official educators’ current affairs voluntary sessions. I believe that I instilled an understanding that we were involved in more than a game between two sides. I later learned that I had been recorded as a “political agitator” for my pains, but I may have even speeded the end of the war!.
Meanwhile, following XXX Corps, we moved up through Caen to Lisieux and then to a Chateau in Amiens before going to Calais, the first port of worth in our hands. There I conducted convoys up to Blankenburg by using a jeep in the hot months of August and September. My job was to ensure that the vehicles kept the required distance between them (in case of enemy air attack) and didn’t fall behind. All had to travel at the speed of the slowest vehicle. That I really enjoyed; racing up and down the column of 20 to 30 vehicles.
I also met a local girl who worked at the Blankenburg Casino – which had become the NAFFI canteen - with whom I spent some time and had only her photo and name and that she lived near an airfield, when I had to move on. Later, when I returned to the area, I tried to find her by showing local people the photo and finally someone knew her. But the flame had gone out by then. Good-bye Madeleine Vershleist.
At Liseux, I had met a girl at a local dance put on in honour of the liberators, but although I saw her often while we were there, her mother never was further than five yards behind us. The mother, who always wore black and a head scarf, asked me on one occasion if my intentions were honourable and I had to say that I would return to Britain once the war was over. That ended that romance.
It was in Amiens that an older woman teacher befriended me and invited me to eat dinner with her the next week. I accepted but dreaded the food. I had told her that I was vegetarian but when I arrived, she had obtained a black market chicken for me, no doubt at considerable cost, and it was embarrassing to explain and insist that I would prefer a boiled egg. She told me how the RAF had precision-bombed an SS Prison wall in the town so that the political prisoners could escape. The British refused to take that action at the Concentration camps or the railways supplying them with Jews.
In each place my conversations were in French. A Liverpool friend and I used to go into the Normandy farms to buy eggs and milk which I cooked on the tiny emergency stove we carried. These became my main diet together with the porridge, boiled potatoes, bread and cocoa from the mobile kitchen. I also received food parcels from my mother. We always spent hours talking to the villagers to practice our French. Off duty we also spoke only French to each other and although we had nobody to check our grammar and vocabulary, we became fairly proficient. I found an abandoned Camembert factory with a huge amount of cheese stored. Unfortunately it had all gone off and stank so I had to bury the lot I had secured.
In France, once, while guarding a huge pile of 50-gallon jerry-cans of petrol, I was approached by a Frenchman who wanted to buy some petrol from me for his car – petrol was strictly rationed for civilians – and I told him to return later. Meanwhile I put water into an empty can and sold him that. I never found out how far he drove with water his tank. We needed the petrol for the war effort although I heard of other soldiers who had actually sold petrol on the black market to Frenchmen. My brother-in-law–to be , Jack, was a merchant seaman and risked (and almost lost) his life to bring petrol across the Atlantic for the War effort. I was not about to waste it on civilian use.
At Calais, Jack and I found a brick house and made ourselves comfortable in a shared room for a while there. He saw to the unloading of vehicles from the docks and I chaperoned convoys up to Blankenburg in my jeep. It was not strictly speaking, my jeep but my Major Lee’s jeep which I borrowed without bothering him about it. It so happened that he needed it suddenly while I was miles away with it and so he found out. He reprimanded me and pointed out that I did not even have a driving license. But he let me use it often after that – provided I asked first.
Later in the year, at Blankenburg, I used to walk along the sea front in shirt-sleeves despite the cold. I must have been very fit in those days.
We moved on after a while. From France we went through Belgium to Boom, near Antwerp, which was a key port and we were in a college and used its grounds for our massive vehicle park.
I volunteered as a last-minute replacement for a sick driver, to take part in my first convoy to drive a 3-ton truck. It was raining heavily and as we passed through Charleroi, I turned too quickly and skidded onto the pavement and managed to control the vehicle along the pavement between the shops and the lampposts before getting back on the road. I had a DUKW on board,( an amphibious vehicle used for taking goods and personnel direct from ship to inshore land centres and now, for crossing rivers), which was not tied firmly and it had swung while I was turning causing me to lose control on the wet road. By the time I had recovered both myself the and vehicle, the convoy had vanished and, as I had joined it only at the last moment, had no idea where they were headed. I had no choice but to return to base in ignominy!
I had earlier taken the opportunity to race others in tracked personnel carriers and to try tuning on the smallest circle. That led to my shedding a track. I hated the armoured cars and tanks which gave me claustrophobia as there was almost no room to move my legs with a sort of tube space only.
At the other extreme, I, as a non-driver, loved driving the huge 48-wheeled tank Diamond –T tank transporters around the vehicle park and experimenting with semi-articulated trucks in reverse gear. The use of the word “lorry” was banned to conform with the American “truck”. Similarly, railway trucks had to be called “wagons”.
It was in Antwerp that I first saw two black-hatted Jews and stopped them. They had a similar story of hiding in a room for four years until liberation. Non-Jews hid them and shared their meagre rations with the two. As they spoke a little English, I was able to explain what was happening in the world and in Belgium in particular which relaxed them. Conversation was limited due to my not speaking Yiddish but we gelled just the same. Hugging spoke louder than words The whole idea of Jewish soldiers in the Allied armies amazed them, just as I was amazed when I saw the first Jewish Brigade soldiers later, with their Magen David shoulder flashes, marching in Holland.
While I was returning from a 48 hour leave in Brussels, we heard of the German counter-attack called the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans threw everything they still had in an attempt to drive a wedge between the Americans to the south and the British to the north. They hoped to capture Antwerp and deny us its port facilities. Some of the Germans, at least, wore British or American uniforms to confuse the Allies and, at Christmas, while the Americans were partying (drunk) and off-guard, smashed through with tanks. They went about twenty miles before the Allies realised what had happened and reorganised under Montgomery. They were stopped and, in fact ran out of petrol for their tanks. Surrounded and cut off, Germans were surrendering everywhere, and, on my return to the coast, saw one British jeep with only a driver which had picked up about eight Germans who, although still armed, were his prisoners.
When we left Boom the very first Buzz Bomb (V1 rocket) was fired by the Germans and passed over us. We had no idea what it was until we heard that others had landed in Kent. Our College had also been hit by the enemy. We had left just in time.
We next stopped in Holland for a while in Nijmegen near the German frontier. We lived in a former old-age home built in 1939 which had been stripped all woodwork and doors and frames for firewood. The French Canadians had been there for a short while and had amused themselves by firing in the air and generally terrifying the local population. For a week or so I cycled to the former frontier and enjoyed the idea of a defeated Germany just ahead. A notice warned us that we were approaching enemy territory. A wonderful feeling! This idyll was as the Allies regrouped and re-supplied for the push into Germany itself.
When we had arrived and took over the Old Age Home as it had once been, we had had to clean the walls which the Canadians had used as toilets. The locals kept well clear of us believing that we, too, were drunken savages. At this stage, Kesselring surrendered Italy to the Allies and we thought that the war was over. The Dutch took no chances and kept out of our sight. But the war continued as the Allies crossed the Rhine into Germany, the heartland of Evil.
During my travels through France, Belgium and Holland I met many civilians who told us of life under the German occupation. The Germans tried to woo the Flemish people and the Dutch at first, as Nordic brothers, while the French were regarded as enemies. That policy was not without success as Flemish volunteer units were formed to fight alongside the Germans at least on the Soviet front where the German losses were enormous. Spanish, Hungarian and Rumanian divisions were also formed to help the Germans maintain their bestial rule of Europe. When we spoke of liberating the French, Belgians and Dutch peoples, that is exactly what we did. Our Civil Administration Officials helped restore civil and economic life to the towns and villages and left then to deal with their own traitors. Soon we were regarded as friends instead of as just different conquerors.
At this stage, I had to go into a military hospital for an ear infection for a few days but during that time my unit moved to Hamburg and I was left behind. I also lost all my personal possessions although months later most were sent on to my home. Instead of re-joining them, I was sent on 21th April 1945, to Celle, near Hannover to a former SS barracks, to wait to be collected. The holding unit helped and fed the Polish girls who had been slave labourers of the Germans in the local salt mines.
I had been sent to Celle (near Belsen) to wait for an anti-gas unit to pick me up and take me with them to Berlin to dispose of Germany’s poison gas arsenal in the Baltic Sea. But they failed to collect me. They did not know where I was and I did not know which unit was supposed to collect me. They went to Berlin without me. I was very much looking forward to going to Berlin as a victor.
And also to meeting the Red Army.
I spent most of my waiting time with ex-Bergen-Belsen inmates at Hannover Railway Station where many hundreds of Jewish survivors were gathering from Belsen Concentration Camp hoping to hear news of, or even meet, a relative or friend who had survived German rule. I gathered food, mostly chocolate, which I exchanged for my cigarette ration (as I usually did) and collected even more donations in chocolate. These I took to the station to give out. I later learned that chocolate was probably the worst food to give starving people!
I talked to many of them in a mixture of English, French and a little Yiddish or German. They were all determined to go to Eretz (Land of) Israel where they would rebuild the Jewish State and control their own destiny. Only one man I met said that he wanted to go to South America and become a Catholic so that his future children and grandchildren would not be persecuted as he was.
In England, a prominent Jewess told the Press and a Committee of Inquiry that the surviving Jews wanted to return to their country of origin. I found that the truth was that not one Jew wanted to return to Poland, France, Germany or any other country in Europe. They were Jews and wanted to live in a Jewish state. She was obviously afraid that her own “loyalty” to Britain would be under scrutiny if she admitted that Jews were a nation and not only a religion; not even her own very weak version of that religion.
I had a small metal lapel Zionist flag (later to be the official Flag of the State of Israel) which I always wore with pride and which did not go unnoticed by the Germans or their victims.
Also, I met many “loose” (lost their units) dishevelled German soldiers as I had in each country, and prisoners who were on their way to POW camps. The Master Race looked quite different from the newsreels of them goose-stepping all over Europe. I quite enjoyed telling them that I was Jewish and would say 'Ich bin eine Jude' meaning 'I'm a Jew' which seemed to shake their belief that Jews never fought and were cowards. They all replied that they loved Jews, loved the British, loved Americans and they hated the Russians, and I could imagine them saying exactly the opposite when captured on the Soviet front.
I was also approached by Germans who offered their “sisters” in exchange for cigarettes or chocolate but apart from my revulsion of Germans generally, and the moral implications in particular, I did not trust my life in the home of a German. I declined each time. Nevertheless, there was a time when I was walking along a quiet road with two other British soldiers whom I hardly knew, when we saw two German girls and they decided to rape them. I was stunned for a moment and then found myself fighting my comrades on behalf of an unknown German girl. I fought them off long enough for the girls to run away and then faced the wrath of my comrades who succumbed to a lecture on international relations.
Meanwhile my old CO, Colonel, now Brigadier, Gore, had requested the War Office to post me back to his command to prepare to be the first Advanced Ordnance Depot to land in Japan. To have had that honour in Normandy had been wonderful, but in Japan…? But I was not asked my opinion! He “volunteered” for me on my behalf!
During my overseas service all mail was subject to local censorship at random and again subject to random checks at base. By the time I returned home I realised that every one of mine had been opened and read by the censor at base. I had numbered them and asked my father to keep them for me as kind of diary. I still have not read them as my then naivety embarrassed me when I opened the first one and stopped me in my tracks. So much for “random”.
I was given a train warrant and left Celle and Belsen behind me. I travelled on a sealed train with windows boarded up and blacked over, for 30 hours non-stop to Bruges Reinforcement Holding Unit and during that time the carriage was my whole world. It was a far cry from the days when I was unofficial reporter for my Company to keep them abreast of the world news and the movement of the fronts lines. A sort of Political Commissar.
It was only when we detrained on 9th May in Bruges that I learned that the War was over – at least in Europe. I had missed VE-Day. The 1,000 year Reich had collapsed after 12 years of wreaking mayhem in Europe, causing the deaths of some 30 million people and displacing many more millions.
From Bruges I returned to Britain by ferry and went to Bicester Reinforcement Holding Unit. While there I was selected to represent the British-Jewish forces, once to the funeral of Chief Rabbi Hertz and again to a Moral Leadership Course. The funeral service was at St. Johns Wood and that was the first time I had seen Hassidic sects, at least in their Eastern European, 18th century regalia.
The Moral Leadership Course was under the auspices of the Forces but each was run by its own religion. I attended the Jewish one held in London – and was stationed at home! It covered Jewish history, organisations, institutions and Jewish ethics.
Among my class was Sir Keith Joseph, later to be a senior advisor to Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. He appeared to be strongly anti-Zionist and disruptive and was asked to leave the class by Chaplain Rabbi Brodie (later to be Chief Rabbi). I still have a photo of all the class.
It was during my preparation in England for the invasion of Japan that the Japanese learned of my imminent arrival and surrendered in August 1945. That left me – and the War Office - at a loss, so they diverted me to Egypt in March 1946. As the war was over, I did not mind a little exploration at the country’s expense, where, with breaks for official and unofficial leaves in Israel, I spent the remainder of my army career.
Mervyn S. Kersh
17 Transit Vehicle Park, 17 Advanced Ordnance Depot, RAOC, 2nd Army, 21st Army Group, BLA.
100 Ashurst Road
020 8449 1333
Welcome to use but only with accreditation and notifying me with a copy of anything used.