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Thursday, February 17, 2011
For the last 65 years, four letters have sat bundled away in an envelope in John Mercer’s house under the inglorious label ‘family stuff’.
Little did he know that the letters, written by himself as a young signaller making his way towards Berlin from Normandy in 1944, contained enough information to literally write a book.
Mercer, 87, from Sidcup, has now published Letters from Normandy: A personal account of the young soldier’s journey through the Blitz whilst living in Bexleyheath, training with the Home Guard, landing in Normandy on D-Day 13 and arriving in Berlin to be one of the first people to see the spot where Hitler’s body was burnt by faithful Storm Troopers at the Vice Chancellery.
“I thought ‘aha! This is a start!’ when I found them,” said Mercer. “I felt it was promising material for a book because I remembered much from my war years but it was patchy.
“I went to the National Archives records in Kew and find the war diaries of the regiment.
“I was able to match what had happened overseas with what was in the letters and with what was in my memories.
“Seeing the diaries brought back a lot and I was able to make a lot of connections. But I can never know everything. All the comrades that I saw were injured after I knew them– I’ll never know whether they survived their wounds or not.”
Thanks to Dad’s Army, the German phrase for hands up, hände hoche, will often spark memories Corporal Jones shouting wildly at German U-boat prisoners. But in September 1944 the phrase became a flashbulb of a rather more serious memory for Mercer.
During the Allied attack on La Havre, the signaller’s unit accidentally broke ahead of the rest of the regiment at night and unknowingly plunged into enemy territory alone.
“I was exhausted and had fallen asleep in the Bren Carrier and this German helmet bobbed up over the side and said ‘hands up’.
“I wasn’t afraid. I felt like it was happening to someone else. Once out of the carrier I actually had a chat with the Lieutenant in charge. It was very pleasant really – we spoke about where each other came from.”
The experience was unsettling but an eye-opener for Mercer. Before this meeting he’d always envisaged the Germans as a fierce, unswerving enemy.
His reflection didn’t last long. He and his capturers had to jump to the ground together when allied shells started bombarding their position.
“It was extremely unpleasant,” said Mercer, who says he never lost his nerve during the war. “I’m still very level-headed today.”
The German soldiers marched their prisoners to a command bunker a mile away containing a number of injured Germans.
“As I got to the bunker, the German Captain came out dressed immaculately in uniform with medals, as if he had just been on parade. We were all dirty and muddy. It was amazing, but I wondered what was going to happen next.”
With the Allies pushing towards their position rapidly, his detention was not to last long. After giving his name, rank and number to the Captain, Mercer was locked up, though his own officer was invited to the mess.
“Captain Thompson persuaded them to surrender over a bottle of Champagne,” he said. The end of the 24-hour anecdote is humourous, but Mercer added afterwards: “After the surrender the German Captain was killed by a shell coming from German captivity. He’d been good to us and surrendered to save his injured men.
“It was really quite sad really, but that is war. You never know what is going to happen next.”
This is a fair reflection of Mercer’s writing style throughout Letters from Normandy. An amateur historian, Mercer’s writing at first appears dry, but with such frequent allusions to terrific, tragic events unfurling around his tale, one recognizes the casual, understated humour often referred to as ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ in his story.
● Letters from Normandy is published by Amberley for £20.