A Dunkirk veteran taken prisoner as he held off German attacks to allow the British evacuation and who then escaped a POW camp and walked 1,300 miles to freedom has died aged 99.
Lance Corporal Les Kerswill was captured in 1940 at Dunkirk as he bravely formed a last line of defence against a devastating German advance.
More than 300 of his comrades were killed in the stand, but their heroic actions allowed more than 300,000 troops to be evacuated by a flotilla of ships.
Lcpl Kerswill was one of the last remaining Dunkirk veterans and passed away seven days before his 100th birthday at a nursing home in Poole.
Lance Corporal Les Kerswill pictured in 2008 with the leather boots he walked 1,300 miles to freedom in
Lcpl Kerswill (pictured at the end of the war), was a lance corporal in the Royal Berkshire Regiment when he was sent to fight in France in December 1939
Lcpl Kerswill (centre, second row from back) with his company in Lille in 1940
Lcpl Kerswill was sent to fight in France in December 1939 with the Royal Berkshire Regiment.
He was captured in 1940 but broke out of a Prisoner of War camp in 1944 and walked through snow-covered Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany before meeting up with the advancing Allies.
He was a recipient of the Legion d’honneur medal in 2015
As he undertook the gruelling 1,300-mile walk he wore the trusty boots sent to him by his mother.
Lcpl Kerswill kept the boots and used them as an aid for talks that he gave to schoolchildren in his home town of Bournemouth, Dorset.
He said they still had French mud on the soles.
After the war Lcpl Kerswill worked as an engineer and married wife Eileen in 1946. They went on to have a son together, but Eileen passed away in 1958.
In 2010 the Mayor of St Venant – the French village where Lcpl Kerswill was captured – made him the guest of honour for their 70th anniversary commemorations of Dunkirk.
And in 2015 Lcpl Kerswill, who could speak fluent French, received the Legion d’honneur – France’s highest honour – for helping to liberate the country from the Nazis.
In 2015 Lcpl Kerswill (pictured in 2015), received the Legion d’honneur – France’s highest honour – for helping to liberate the country from the Nazis
Lcpl Kerswill (pictured in 2008), was captured in 1940 but broke out of a Prisoner of War camp in 1944 and walked through snow-covered Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany before meeting up with the advancing Allies
Les Kerswill pictured in France (centre right) in 2010 receiving his medal from St Venant mayor Dominique Faivre (centre left)
Friends have rallied to pay tribute to the war hero who they described as a, ‘kind, talented and inspirational man, a true gentleman and a courageous and brave soldier.’
The war hero’s mother Ethel Kerswill in 1950. She sent him the boots that enabled him to walk to freedom
Jason Carley, spokesman for the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships, said: ‘The contribution of the soldiers like Les who stayed behind and fought the Germans to enable 338,000 of their fellow soldiers to be brought back to Britain was invaluable yet it can be forgotten.
‘It is so important that we remember them and not just those who made it back on the little ships.
‘Les’ story of escape and walking 1,300 miles to freedom across hostile territory is amazing yet he told it with such modesty.
‘His strength of character to complete the incredible journey was remarkable.
‘Sadly in the last few months we have lost a number of Dunkirk veterans and ultimately there are just a handful left.
‘This makes it all the more important that we preserve their legacy. We would like to send our sincere condolences to Les’ family.’
The PoWs were marched through Holland to Germany and Lcpl Kerswill had to swap his worn-out army issue boots for wooden clogs. When he reached the PoW camp in Beutem in western Poland he wrote to his mother, and asked her to send him some new leather boots
‘You’ve nothing to be ashamed of, you put up one hell of a fight’: Dunkirk hero tells how Nazi soldier told him and his comrades to surrender after they put up brave battle to allow British retreat
After five months on the France/Belgium border Lance Corporal Les Kerswill’s regiment came under bombardment as the Nazis blitzkrieged their way across western Europe.
The overwhelmed Allied Expeditionary Force performed a ‘fighting’ retreat until they reached Dunkirk.
Lcpl Kerswill recalled the harrowing details of the bloody three day battle, in which his battalion were decimated.
Allied soldiers are pictured here being assisted by the Royal Navy in June 1940, on their return to England after being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, Northern France. Some 338,226 soldiers, mostly from the British Expeditionary Force, were rescued from the advancing German Army between May 19 and June 4
‘We will fight them on the beaches’: Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s wartime speech in the wake of the Dunkirk evacuation
Winston Churchill’s rousing speeches inspired a nation and played a key role in Britain’s morale during the dark early days of the Second World War.
This is an extract from his Commons speech on June 4, 1940, after the evacuation of 338,000 Allied troops from Dunkirk.
‘I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.
‘At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government — every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength.
‘Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.
‘We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.’
He said: ‘My regiment were in the thick of it. The Germans were coming in their hundreds, if not thousands.
‘We were firing; you couldn’t miss there were so many of them. I was pinned down on my own and Jerry was in a dip in the ground.
‘I heard a noise behind me and asked if anybody was there, then the Sergeant Major said hang on while I’ll give you cover.
‘I looked behind me and there he was on a war memorial about 15ft high. He had got a Bren gun and he said to me, ‘I’ll open up and you run to the left..’
‘I didn’t hang about. I found myself with 34 others, including an officer.
‘I later found out we had lost 600 men that afternoon, they were either killed or were missing. The officer decided that we were going to attack.
‘Somebody said, ‘you must be bloody mad’ or something to that effect. The order was to fix bayonets and then we went forward.
‘We drove for probably about a mile when we got to a point we were out in the open and couldn’t go any further.
‘The firing was like being in a hailstorm. I got hit in the back of the left thigh with a bit of spent shrapnel, but it felt like the size of a drain cover.
‘I thought my leg had come off. I found myself commander in charge of five blokes.
‘This chap said to me, ‘what are we going to do now, corp?’
‘A couple of hundred yards away there was a sunken road and I knew we could make our way back to Dunkirk.
‘Then the next minute a machine gun opened up and I said ‘keep down’ but one private got up and he ran and ran and he took three bursts.
‘I wrote him off as being dead because I didn’t think anyone could have survived that.
‘We decided to hang on in a ditch but we got overrun and we were taken.
‘One of the Jerry officers stood up on a tree trunk and he said: ‘You have got nothing to be ashamed of. You put up one hell of a fight.’
‘He said he thought his men were up against an entire company when there were just 34 of us.’
French troops arriving in England from Dunkirk in June, 1940
The PoWs were marched through Holland to Germany and at one point Lcpl Kerswill had to swap his worn-out army issue boots for wooden clogs.
What is the Legion d’honneur?
The French government has been awarding the Legion d’honneur to D-Day veterans for the last five years to honour those who fought to secure France’s liberation.
Since June 2014, more than 6,000 medals have been awarded, with applications being processed by the Ministry of Defence and the French government.
The Legion d’honneur was established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte to recognise military and civilian merit.
When he reached the PoW camp in Beutem in western Poland he wrote to his mother, who had spent 10 months fearing her son was dead after receiving a telegram stating he was ‘missing believed killed’.
He asked her to send him some new leather boots which got through.
Lcpl Kerswill spent the next four years in captivity until the Germans marched them out in Christmas 1944 while the Russians advanced from the east.
He took the opportunity to escape by sneaking off while the guards weren’t looking.
He said: ‘I just disappeared and started walking in a south-westerly direction. Most of the time I was foraging for food and sleeping in barns.
‘You couldn’t imagine the snow and ice, the conditions were terrible. I got frost bite in my toes.’
He finally reached Bavaria in the spring of 1945 when he met up with the advancing Americans.
He said: ‘If I hadn’t had my mum’s boots I wouldn’t have made it. When I got back to England after the war the boots were the only thing I had left, my clothing was infested with lice.’
Evacuation of Dunkirk: How 338,000 Allied troops were saved in ‘miracle of deliverance’
The evacuation from Dunkirk was one of the biggest operations of the Second World War and was one of the major factors in enabling the Allies to continue fighting.
It was the largest military evacuation in history, taking place between May 27 and June 4, 1940. The evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, saw an estimated 338,000 Allied troops rescued from northern France. But 11,000 Britons were killed during the operation – and another 40,000 were captured and imprisoned.
Described as a ‘miracle of deliverance’ by wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, it is seen as one of several events in 1940 that determined the eventual outcome of the war.
The Second World War began after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, but for a number of months there was little further action on land. But in early 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway and then launched an offensive against Belgium and France in western Europe.
Hitler’s troops advanced rapidly, taking Paris – which they never achieved in the First World War – and moved towards the Channel.
They reached the coast towards the end of May 1940, pinning back the Allied forces, including several hundred thousand troops of the British Expeditionary Force. Military leaders quickly realised there was no way they would be able to stay on mainland Europe.
The evacuation from Dunkirk was one of the biggest operations of the Second World War and was one of the major factors in enabling the Allies to continue fighting. A ship laden with troops sets off for home as Dunkirk burns in the background
Operational command fell to Bertram Ramsay, a retired vice-admiral who was recalled to service in 1939. From a room deep in the cliffs at Dover, Ramsay and his staff pieced together Operation Dynamo, a daring rescue mission by the Royal Navy to get troops off the beaches around Dunkirk and back to Britain.
On May 14, 1940 the call went out. The BBC made the announcement: ‘The Admiralty have made an order requesting all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30ft and 100ft in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days from today if they have not already been offered or requisitioned.’
Boats of all sorts were requisitioned – from those for hire on the Thames to pleasure yachts – and manned by naval personnel, though in some cases boats were taken over to Dunkirk by the owners themselves.
They sailed from Dover, the closest point, to allow them the shortest crossing. On May 29, Operation Dynamo was put into action.
When they got to Dunkirk they faced chaos. Soldiers were hiding in sand dunes from aerial attack, much of the town of Dunkirk had been reduced to ruins by the bombardment and the German forces were closing in.
It was the largest military evacuation in history, taking place between May 27 and June 4, 1940. The evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, saw an estimated 338,000 Allied troops rescued from northern France. But 11,000 Britons were killed during the operation – and another 40,000 were captured and imprisoned
Above them, RAF Spitfire and Hurricane fighters were headed inland to attack the German fighter planes to head them off and protect the men on the beaches.
As the little ships arrived they were directed to different sectors. Many did not have radios, so the only methods of communication were by shouting to those on the beaches or by semaphore.
Space was so tight, with decks crammed full, that soldiers could only carry their rifles. A huge amount of equipment, including aircraft, tanks and heavy guns, had to be left behind.
The little ships were meant to bring soldiers to the larger ships, but some ended up ferrying people all the way back to England. The evacuation lasted for several days.
Prime Minister Churchill and his advisers had expected that it would be possible to rescue only 20,000 to 30,00 men, but by June 4 more than 300,000 had been saved.
The exact number was impossible to gauge – though 338,000 is an accepted estimate – but it is thought that over the week up to 400,000 British, French and Belgian troops were rescued – men who would return to fight in Europe and eventually help win the war.
But there were also heavy losses, with around 90,000 dead, wounded or taken prisoner. A number of ships were also lost, through enemy action, running aground and breaking down. Despite this, Dunkirk was regarded as a success and a great boost for morale.
In a famous speech to the House of Commons, Churchill praised the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ and resolved that Britain would fight on: ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!’