It was 4am on June 9, 1944, and Private Mervyn Kersh was awoken as his military ship neared the French coastline after a 14-hour crossing from Britain’s shores.
Thousands of Allied troops had carried out wave after wave of bloody assault on the Normandy beaches during the previous two days in the most important military operation carried out in Britain’s history.
Three days after D-Day, 19-year-old Private Kersh was to be among the next wave of troops unleashed upon the German-occupied territories, and he and his comrades quietly prayed as their vessel cut through choppy seas towards the sands as dark clouds hovered above.
Now, as the 70th anniversary of D-Day approaches on Friday, and before he revisits Normandy for what looks to be the final time, Mr Kersh recalled his experience of the terrifying beach landing.
The 89-year-old said: “We had been told to get some rest on the crossing over as we didn’t know when we would go to sleep next.
“When we were woken at 4am, we could see the French coastline. Then the trepidation set in. We all prayed or sat quietly until we arrived.
“It was chaotic. There was a lot of shouting from the beach masters, telling us to keep moving, and gun fire and shells were whistling over our heads from our ships as they covered our landing.
“There were vehicles littered around that had been destroyed and there were lots of bodies. As our soldiers got out of the ships, they were loading the bodies on to send them back to England.
“I was frightened – I think we all were. But we just had to suppress that and get on with it – you couldn’t do anything about it.”
Private Kersh made it up the beach with his unit but they were still unsure of what would greet them on the other side, where thousands of Nazi troops had been stationed just days earlier.
Fortunately, he and his comrades were welcomed by cheering crowds of French women, who threw flowers and waved flags as they made their way onto the mainland.
Mr Kersh said: “We charged up that beach as fast as we could and, when we got to the other side of the cliffs, I just thought ‘thank God I’ve made it this far’.”
The then Private Kersh would later march with his Royal Army Ordnance Corps through Belgium and Holland, before crossing the Rhine into Germany, largely helping to organise the deployment of military vehicles during the conflict.
The war hero, from Ashurst Road in Cockfosters, will travel to France this week with the Normandy Veterans’ Association (NVA) to revisit the key battlegrounds of the Allied invasion.
However, the NVA is set to fold later this year due to dwindling numbers, meaning this could be the last trip back to the beaches for Mr Kersh, who now gives D-Day talks to schoolchildren.
He said: “I don’t think we’ll ever see a conflict like that again – it is guerrilla warfare now, not army-to-army.
“It was the greatest operation in size and concept ever undertaken. There were 100,000 men sent to Normandy on the first day alone, and more than 6,000 vessels that took them over.
“Many were shot dead before they even made it on to the beach. But what won it for us was the fact there was wave after wave of us. We pushed the Germans back and then the second wave would arrive.
“It is hugely important it is remembered and I’m glad the anniversary is being marked. If the Germans had won, they would have come to the coast of this country, I’m sure of it. D-Day shaped the future of the world – it saved it.”