Some 75 years on, a Jewish veteran has returned to the place where he helped make history.
Mervyn Kersh, 94, from Cockfosters, travelled to Bayeux last week to commemorate those who fell on D-Day on the 75th anniversary of the landings.
The decorated soldier, who received the Legion d’Honneur in 2015, was among hundreds of veterans to rub shoulders with dignitaries and heads of state, including the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall and Prime Minister Theresa May.
“I was a guest at the cathedral which is unusual for a Jewish boy,” he told Jewish News. “We came outside and the press and some photographers and civilians went to take photographs.”
The veteran was on a nine-day pilgrimage to France with the veterans’ charity D-Day Revisited and his daughter Lynne, 66, who accompanied him.
“I spent the whole nine days crying. We all did,” she said. “Me and the other carers and even the hardened military medical staff who’d been to Basra and god knows where, were reduced to tears.”
“This was his first visit back as a widower and I could see his pain and that was another layer of pain to this week,” she added.
Serving as a private in the ordnance corps, Kersh was among the first officers to land on Gold Beach on the Normandy coast, after an advance party of 10 men sent for reconnaissance was torpedoed, with only one survivor.
“The landings was the biggest experience, the biggest and most emotional one. Landing on the coast with the intention of destroying the Germans,” he said.
“They were firing at the biggest ships out at sea and the British were firing above our heads at the Germans.
“French women, children and old men greeted us with flowers, wine and kisses. I did not take the wine in case it was poisoned but I did take the flowers and the kisses. I was 19 at the time. I’m a bit older now.”
Kersh was stationed near Bergen-Belsen when the camp was liberated by British troops in April 1945 and gave chocolate to survivors.
“It was only after doing this I learned it was the worst thing I could have done,” he told Jewish News in 2015. “These people were walking skeletons. Chocolate was far too rich for their weak digestive system.”
He placed a Star of David on the headstone of a Jewish soldier’s grave last week to shine a spotlight on the contributions Jewish soldiers made on D-Day.
“It has hardly been mentioned in the papers. They just will not give space to anything Jewish,” he said.
The Ajex member, who did not recall being subjected to antisemitic abuse in the army, had trouble securing kosher meals and kept a vegetarian diet on the frontline.
“When I went into the army, I let people know that I was a boxing champion so nobody interfered with me,” he said.
“But I was arrested the day before [the landings] for not eating meat or vegetables. They thought I was trying to get out of active service.
“I did not eat the treyf food. In France, I bought my eggs and milk and lived on that,” he said. “I wish I were that fit now.”