‘How D-Day spoiled my tea’ – and other first-hand war memories

“I was just a soldier. Being Jewish didn’t cross my mind and therefore it didn’t cross anybody else’s mind.” Lola adds, “Everyone knew we were Jewish. They weren’t antisemitic in those days.

By ALAN ROSENBAUM
June 12, 2019 16:50
‘How D-Day spoiled my tea’ – and other first-hand war memories

NORMAN COHEN, 95, holds an SS dress sword that he found in the Black Forest.. (photo credit: ALAN ROSENBAUM)

 
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Sitting in his comfortable Gilo home on a sunny June afternoon, Norman Cohen, 95, recalls the momentous events that took place 75 years earlier, some 4,700 kilometers northwest of Jerusalem.

On June 6, 1944, Cohen was part of the largest amphibious invasion in history, when more than 150,000 soldiers from the United States, United Kingdom and Canada landed at Normandy, France. One of the last surviving veterans of D-Day living in Israel, Cohen is a member of an exclusive and rapidly shrinking club. This past rainy winter may have been beneficial for Israeli agriculture, but it was a difficult one for Cohen. Perched in his living room chair, attached to an oxygen machine humming in the background, Cohen is frail, and his mind occasionally wanders when recounting the events of his military career. He is assisted by his wife Lola, who helps him focus on his remarkable story.

Norman Cohen grew up in Coventry, England, where his father owned a carpet and linoleum shop and served as the president of the Coventry Hebrew Congregation. His parents personally sponsored 50 children from the Kindertransport rescue efforts that brought Jewish children from Nazi Germany to the Coventry area. On November 14, 1940, 500 German bombers attacked the city, destroying more than 4,300 homes and killing more than 500 people. The family store was destroyed and they were forced to move to the town of Leamington Spa, some 10 miles away.

Cohen was drafted into the British army in July 1942 and was trained to be a radio operator. He became proficient in Morse code. Cohen says that he did not face any antisemitism during his army service.

“I was just a soldier. Being Jewish didn’t cross my mind and therefore it didn’t cross anybody else’s mind.” Lola adds, “Everyone knew we were Jewish. They weren’t antisemitic in those days. They were interested in you because you were Jewish. It was a different world then.”

Cohen recounts that he was unable to observe Jewish law during his military service. “I didn’t keep a thing,” he says. “I was like everyone else.” Lola reminds him, though, that he skipped bacon at breakfast.

Cohen was part of the Tactical Headquarters of Gen. Miles Dempsey, a senior British officer who served in both World War I and World War II, and commander of the British Second Army during the Battle of Normandy. 

“I was trained to a high standard,” notes Cohen. “General Dempsey had to be able to send messages quickly, and we were the operators.” Messages were sent in code in groups of five letters, arranged in different order, which then had to be transmitted via Morse code. The signals unit consisted of four wireless trucks. Each was fitted with enormous, long-range radios, capable of transmitting over distances of up to 2,000 miles (3,200 km.). Each truck had a driver, a corporal-in-charge and two other wireless operators. One radio mechanic worked with all four trucks.

CERTIFICATE OF appreciation from Gen. Miles Dempsey. (Credit: ALAN ROSENBAUM)

ON JUNE 4, Cohen and his British contingent boarded a large American ship at Cosham, together with their four radio trucks, near Portsmouth, England.

“We were told of our mission for the first time once we were at sea,” he says. He recalls seeing an enormous armada of all types of ships. Due to bad weather, the attack, which had been planned for June 5, was delayed until the following day. Cohen passed the time playing poker with some American soldiers on board, until he lost all of his winnings to some of the US soldiers who were professional gamblers. Finally, the weather calmed, and they set out for France.


“I was a bit nervous,” admits Cohen, “but where could I go? What could I do?”

The ship landed at Sword Beach, the code name given to one of the five landing areas along the Normandy coast. Cohen says that they faced little German opposition there.

“We landed at 11 a.m., set up our wireless truck, drove along the country lanes for a mile or two and arrived at the French fishing village of Ver-sur-Mer.”

There, Cohen established communications with the High Command of Gen. Montgomery’s Headquarters of the 21st Army Group in the United Kingdom, making the first contact with British Headquarters after landing. Cohen relates a humorous incident that occurred later in the war that illustrates his cool and nonchalant nature.

“I was a very good solider,” he says. “I was sitting outside the wireless truck, drinking a cup of tea. The German planes overhead start firing at us, but I wasn’t nervous. I looked up, and saw the British guns firing at German planes. They hit one, and the plane started descending. I glanced at my mug, and I felt something. A lump of shrapnel had landed in my mug. I said, ‘You spoiled me tea!’ I got myself some more and the firing stopped, and the plane had gone down.”

Cohen’s military career continued past the end of the war, until 1947, and as a radio operator, he transmitted the historic surrender from the German High Command that ended the war in Europe in 1945. He donated the note to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Norman and Lola married in 1952, raised two daughters and remained in England until moving to Jerusalem in 1985. 

Lola and Norman visited Normandy 45 years after D-Day.

“If you ask Norman if he was afraid, he would say ‘Not really.’ But when we got to the place where he landed, he turned absolutely white in the lips and started shaking. He may not have thought he was afraid at the time, but the memories obviously came back.”

Norman Cohen spends most of his time at home, saying, “What do you want from a 95-year-old?” Lola still tutors English at home, and she reports that her students are eager to speak with Norman about his war experiences. As our visit comes to a close, Norman displays his army medals and consents to a photo. What do D-Day and your experiences mean to you 75 years later?

“Not a lot,” he says, per his nonchalant and blasé nature. One can only suspect that beneath his calm facade, it means a great deal.

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