Leslie (Les) Kerswill

Recollections of service in the Army and life as a prisoner of war.

When war broke out Les lived in Battersea. When he was called up Les was sent initially to Dundee, and then to Reading. He explains that many of the men that he was stationed with whilst at the barracks were from the East End of London – as they assembled in the square with their attaché cases of belongings, Les recalls that an old man leaned over the fence, saw those drafted in and joked ‘Thank God we’ve got a Navy!’

Recollections

Les is able to recall many humorous memories related to his time spent in the forces – on one occasion he and some of the other men were required to leave the barracks at 4.30am. Trying not to wake those staying behind, they got ready as quickly and as quietly as possible. They had only marched approximately 200 yards from the barracks when a marching band emerged from a side road and woke all of the sleeping men!

Whilst Les has lots of amusing recollections he explains that many prefer not to discuss their wartime experiences – he feels most comfortable talking about the subject with friends who have similar memories. Les believes that one has the ability to close one’s mind to the bad experiences – whilst recalling Dunkirk, what emerges most for him is those memories which are humorous.

Prisoner of War Camps

Towards the end of war he had been captured, escaped and re-captured.

As a prisoner of war, Les escaped and was recaptured a number of times. The conditions Les experienced as a prisoner of war were harsh. Leslie recalls that he also suffered from frostbite as temperatures plummeted to minus 30 degrees. However, he also recalls the sense of comradeship which he experienced. He and his friend Lofty kept each other going during the tough times, although they have since lost touch.

Les remembers that towards the end of war he had been captured, escaped and re-captured. He arrived at a village hall where the English POWs were taken to. He could speak some German and as he walked past the hall, Les asked the Germans to excuse them – he and Lofty were able to evade capture. They told the villagers who had observed the event that they were unable to go into the hall as there was no room available, and asked for shelter as they were at risk of dying from exposure. A lady in the next village agreed that Les and Lofty could use her barn and they accepted, sharing it with her cow. They were invited into the house for some potatoes with sour milk – Les recalls that he tried to make himself look as presentable as possible but he had only a pullover, some trousers without underpants, rags on his feet and his boots. When they entered the house they found a German Under Officer wearing uniform, and his wife seated at the table - Les recalls that the conversation was very strange!

Capture and Escape

Whilst in service, Les worked at the Schnapps factory, and at logging, but explains that he largely escaped from the coal mines. Whilst in Czechoslovakia he hid temporarily at a schoolhouse, with the schoolmaster’s consent, and was able to speak enough Polish to survive. Les recalls how he was taken prisoner once again – as he sat at the desks he heard heavy footsteps and was confronted by an armed German Officer, looking for billets for his men who were guarding troops. The next day Les was forced to walk with captured Serbian troops until he escaped again. When he finally reached American territory he was put into a section which he shared with three other English POWs, and three American POWs. Les recalls being on patrol and having to crawl along in a ditch alongside high ranking officers.  He is unsure as to the length of time he spent at the camp but whilst he was imprisoned the war ended. After the aerodrome had been repaired due to bomb damage Les travelled to France where he spent VE Day. The following day he returned to England.

Returning to England

Les recalls that the men returning were ‘in a state ... lousy’. Even his boots showed signs of frostbite – he had been unable to get his feet into them after sleeping in the barns at night as they had frozen solid. The farmer’s wife had put his boots under the fire to thaw and one was burnt – the mark is still visible.

Les spent six months at Eltham Palace, where he was demobbed.

Photo:Les Kerswill in London.
Photo:Les Kerswill in Army uniform.
Photo:Front of Postcard, posted by Les on 8th January 1944
Photo:Back of Postcard, posted by Les on 8th January 1944
Photo:Les Kerswill's boots from his time as a POW. He walked 1300 miles in these boots after escaping from a German guard.
Photo:Les Kerswill meeting Prince Edward in 2010.
Photo:Les Kerswill meeting Princess Anne in 2008.
This gallery was added by Rosie Hart on 22/11/2011.