71 years on, French honour D-Day hero
FOR MERVYN Kersh the morning post contained a “huge surprise” last week — a letter telling him he had been awarded the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest military honour.
The medal was given to the pensioner by the French government to mark his involvement in the Normandy landings in June 1944.
Mr Kersh, who served as a private in the ordnance corps, was one of the first 10 soldiers from his unit to land on Gold Beach, on the Normandy coast, one of the locations chosen for Allied invasion.
“I had such a grin on my face when I realised what the letter was,” he said. “My son pinned the medal to my shirt and took a picture — you can see how happy I was.
“It is a great award and such a huge achievement. I feel very pleased and proud to have it, and obviously my family is very happy.”
Mr Kersh said he was unaware that he had been Mervyn Kersh wearing the Légion d’honneur medal awarded the honour. “I had no idea it was coming and when I opened it I was shocked,” he said, adding that perhaps the French had “finally” recognised him because “there are not many of us left nowadays”.
In fact, the French government had announced that D-Day veterans were to be given the Légion d’honneur last year, at the time of the 70th anniversary of the landings, but had not revealed the names of those being honoured. Accompanying the medal was a letter from the French ambassador praising the young Private Kersh’s contribution to the liberation of France.
T h e a mbas s a d o r wrote: “We must never forget heroes like you who came from Brita i n a n d the Comm o n - w e a l t h to begin t h e liberation of Europe by liberating France.
“We owe our freedom and security to your dedication, because you were ready to risk your life.”
Now 90 — and president of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women branch in Southgate, north London — Mr Kersh still has vivid memories of how his unit’s first attempt to land, on June 6, 1944, D-Day, had to be aborted in the face of a lethal German bombardment.
He said: “We slept most of the way across the Channel and when we arrived there was a sea of boats. It was quite amazing.
“The plan was that 10 of our officers would be sent as the first reconnaissance unit landing on D-Day.”
Sadly, a torpedo hit the advance party, and they were all killed except one.
Mr Kersh said: “We had to regroup and we returned on June 8, when our role was to get the tanks and vehicles off the vessels, on to dry land and to the front-line troops as quickly as possible.
“We were greeted by French people who wanted to give us wine and kisses. I didn’t take the wine just in case it was poisoned, but I took the kisses.”