Page 256 - The Rifles Bugle Autumn 2019
P. 256

 Colour Sergeant Saiasi
During 1960 a recruiting campaign
saw several hundred young Fijians
volunteering to join the British Army,
amongst their number was Saiasi
Baleimatuku. Having completed recruit
training 1 DERR were fortunate to
receive into their ranks several fine
Fijians three of who were to make their
mark in the Regiment. Saiasi Balei-
matuku, Les Turaga and Joe Ravu.
Saiasi Baleimatuku, know affectionately
as Bali or Prince (because of his high
chieftain status) became a member
of the Anti-Tank Section supporting C
remained in that role throughout the tours of Malta and Minden. In the late 1968 when the support weapons platoons were centralised into Support Company, Bali switched to becoming a Rifle Section Commander. Eventually rising to the rank of Colour Sergeant, Bali completed his service within the Quartermaster Stores at The Prince of Wales’s Training Depot in Lichfield. Apart from being a professional soldier Bali will be remembered and revered for his prowess in the boxing ring and on the rugby pitch, as well as that perpetual smile on his face and the infectious laugh that soon had everyone else in stiches. Befitting a well-loved regimental personality members of the Regiment turned in large numbers to bid farewell to a famous “Farmers Boy” who filled the Regiment with the warmth of his homeland, and it was touching to see three of his fellow Fijian Farmers Boys, who completed recruit training in 1960 alongside Bali, come to provide the traditional Fijian farewell.
Leslie Kerswill, who has died aged 99, was taken prisoner in 1940 near Dunkirk and, having escaped, travelled hundreds of miles on foot in the depths of winter from Poland to the Allied lines.
In January 1940, Kerswill embarked with 4th Bn Royal Berkshire Regiment (4 RBR) bound for Cherbourg, as part of the BEF. They were deployed near Louvain, Belgium, but following the order to withdraw they marched through Brussels, the people sullen and the soldiers bitterly resentful that they had not been allowed to fight.
On the River Dendre, east of Gent,
they had a strong position and had no difficulty holding the line despite casualties from mortaring and from enemy snipers who had infiltrated dressed as civilians. Shortly afterwards, as the Army was threatened with encirclement and destruction, they were put on half rations and ordered to jettison all unessential stores and equipment.
Just inside the Belgian border, a bridge north of Oostvleteren was blown up when only a third of the Bn, about 80 men, was across. Kerswill, then a lance-corporal, linked up with the 1st Bn (1 RBR) which had taken a more southerly route through Tournai and the village of La Bassée before swinging north towards Dunkirk.
At St Venant, the bridge over the Lys was intact and the village was selected as one a number of strongpoints where the German advance had to be stemmed. Elements of the 6th Infantry Brigade, part of the BEF’s 2nd Infantry Division, made up of 1 RBR, 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers and 2nd Durham Light Infantry were ordered to dig in and defend the village.
Their opponents were the 3rd Panzer Division supported by the motorized SS-Verfügungs-Division. On the morning of May 27, the 3rd Panzers supported by the SS Germania Regiment, attacked. Kerswill described the firing as like being in a hailstorm. He was wounded in the thigh and at one time found himself in a small group of 34 which was ordered to fix bayonets and counter-attack.
Casualties mounted rapidly and he was in command of five men pinned down by machine gun fire and crawling along a ditch when his position was overrun and he was taken prisoner.
Leslie George Kerswill, the son of a stationmaster, was born in Yeovil, Somerset, on March 11 1919 and educated locally. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he enlisted in the Army and was posted to 4 RBR.
After being taken prisoner, he was held in a number of camps before being taken to Bytom in Upper Silesia, Poland. He was posted “missing, believed killed” and it was 10 months before his mother learned that he was a prisoner of war. When his boots fell to pieces, she sent him a new pair which arrived in a Red Cross parcel.
He was put to work logging or working in the mines. He made a radio set and was able to listen to the BBC news in secret. His fellow prisoners asked him to make radios for them but this involved stealing components from the mines. He was caught and was fortunate not to be shot.
In the winter of 1944/45, as the Russians advanced into Poland, the PoWs were ordered to march westwards with whatever belongings they could carry. They constructed makeshift sledges out of their bunk beds and hauled these through the snow.
The roads were teeming with refugees, deserters and escaping PoWs. Kerswill gave his guards the slip and got away with a comrade, “Lofty” Harris. They scrounged food from farms and slept in barns and cowsheds. They were recaptured twice but escaped again.
The two travelled through Czechoslovakia to southern Germany, dodging enemy patrols and living off their wits. At Regensburg, they were taken in by the US Third Army. Kerswill claimed that they had marched or travelled while “on the run” a total of about 1,300 miles. He spoke some German, Polish and Russian as well as fluent French and helped to interrogate German prisoners.
He was taken to Reims and flown to England, arriving the day after VE Day. His toes were frostbitten and his boots, he said, were all that he had left. In May 1946, he was demobilised and worked at Pittards, glove manufacturers, Yeovil, Somerset, and then as an engineer for Flight Refuelling at Wimborne, Dorset. In 1954, he retired to Bournemouth where he enjoyed sailing and fishing. He was also a qualified radio ham.
In 2010, at the 70th anniversary commemorations, the mayor of St Venant made him the guest of honour and presented him with a medal and in 2015 he was appointed to the Légion d’honneur by the French government..
Leslie Kerswill died on March 4. He married, in 1945, Eileen Case. She predeceased him and he is survived by their son.
   Company in Tidworth and

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