On Tuesday June 6, Emmanuel Macron traveled to Colleville-Montgomery in Normandy, site of the D-Day landings, to attend the annual commemoration of the École de fusiliers marins. The head of state plans to present the students with their green berets, accompanied by 100-year-old Léon Gautier, the last living Frenchman to participate in the D-Day landing, on June 6, 1944. Portrait.
It is impossible to talk about the Kieffer command without mentioning the name of Léon Gautier. On the occasion of the 79th anniversary of the Normandy landings, Emmanuel Macron, visiting Colleville-Montgomery on Tuesday June 6, paid tribute to this last living French veteran who served in the only French battalion present on D-Day alongside 132,000 Allied soldiers.
“I imagine that for Léon Gautier, this new commemoration has the flavor of a reunion. Even at 100 years old, I know that he is very happy to be able to perpetuate the memory of the Second World War until the end”, says Benjamin Massieu, history professor and author of the book ‘Les Français du jour D’ (published by Pierre de Taillac, 2019).
Léon Gautier “was above all a young man who, out of patriotism, enlisted in the early days of the Free French Forces when he was only 17 years old,” the historian continues. But, above all, he is a tireless popularizer of history. Since the 1980s, he has dedicated his entire retirement to the memory of his unit, to the point that today he has become the most vivid incarnation of him.
Mais la vedette du jour, c’est bien le vétérán Léon Gautier, l’un des trois des niers du commando Kieffer. Il va remettre aux côtés de @EmmanuelMacron leurs bérets verts aux marins qui viennent de réussir le stage commando. pic.twitter.com/50RaXQO6a5
— Stephanie Trouillard (@Stbslam) June 6, 2019
From the body to the Navy
Nothing predestined this young Breton for such a career. Born in Rennes on October 27, 1922, he was a bodybuilder’s apprentice when the war broke out in 1939. The young man felt the urgent need to enlist and without hesitation entered the Navy in February 1940, the only sector of the Armed Forces that recruited to such young soldiers at that time. A gunner aboard the battleship Courbet, he participated in the defense of Cherbourg by bombarding the Carentan road during the German invasion. When the hour of defeat sounded, the officers chose to go to England.
Taking refuge in a camp for French sailors in Sheffield, near Liverpool, he and some comrades heard on the radio that General de Gaulle had just created the Free French Forces to continue the fight under the French flag. “Of course, I enlisted,” the veteran told ‘France 3 Normandie’ in an interview on October 27, 2022.
At the command of Philippe Kieffer
Léon participated in the parade on July 14, 1940 in London, in the presence of General de Gaulle and George VI. Later, he was sent to the Atlantic aboard the Gallois before joining the 2nd Marine Rifle Battalion on its African tour, as far as Syria and Lebanon.
In the summer of 1943, along with many other members of this unit, he joined Philippe Kieffer’s commandos and trained at Achnacarry, Scotland. At the end of May 1944, he and his companions found themselves embroiled in the secrecy of the preparations for the Normandy landings. “Kieffer gathered us before departure and told us: ‘Gentlemen, you know the plans, you know what awaits you, there may not be a dozen of you who will return intact. If you don’t want to leave, come and see me. No I will take it into account. They all left”, declared Léon Gautier to ‘France 3 Normandie’.
On June 6, 1944, with 176 French brothers-in-arms from the 1st Battalion of Free French Marines, he landed with the first wave of the assault on Sword Beach in Colleville-Montgomery. The mission of the French battalion led by Philippe Kieffer was twofold: to retake the Ouistreham casino, turned into a fortress by the Germans, and to join the troops of the 6th Airborne Division in Bénouville. The objective was achieved: in less than four hours, the French unit liberated 1.8 km of beach. “We remained in the front line for 70 days without relief,” recalls the former soldier. “We couldn’t believe it. We went to the Eure. At the end of the campaign, 24 of us hadn’t been hurt.”
A difficult return to civilian life
Léon ended up accidentally injuring his ankle during a new stay in England in September 1944 and was forced to leave the commandos. Demobilized after the war, he married Dorothy Banks, a British officer he had met abroad, with whom he had two children.
The return to France was difficult. Gautier had difficulty finding work. “The return to civilian life was difficult for all these free soldiers,” recalls Benjamin Massieu. “They were not very well accepted because they gave others an image of what they had not had the courage to do.” Pugnaz, he ended up getting a job in a body shop, but the lack of work got the best of his boredom. He returned to England to live seven years in his wife’s homeland. “All my colleagues, like me, found as much courage to return to civilian life as we did during the war. We had the same conquering spirit as during the war. We found it again,” Léon Gautier told ‘France 3’.
A life to transmit
The veteran then moved to Cameroon and Nigeria, where he worked for the Compagnie française de l’Afrique occidentale. But it was finally in the Oise region that he finished his career as a car expert, until his retirement. “Since the early 1980s, he devoted his free time to this episode of history, at a time when little was still said about him in the media,” says Benjamin Massieu. We had to wait for President François Mitterrand to attend the first commemorations. The recognition of the Free French military came late, since General De Gaulle preferred to talk about the landing in Provence rather than that of Normandy, offended by not having been warned of D-Day by the British.
He became president of the Amicale des anciens du commando Kieffer and director of the museum of commando no. 4, and ended up moving to Ouistreham, near his landing beach, to respond to the increasing number of requests for his services. Since the 90s, Léon Gautier has participated in all the ceremonies. “He has shaken hands with all the French and foreign presidents present at the commemorations. He even greeted Queen Elizabeth II. He quickly became a key figure in this part of our history. Today he is a bit of a star,” he says with a smile. benevolent smile Benjamin Massieu, who over the years has become a friend of the veteran.
Even weakened by age, “he never missed a ceremony,” adds the 33-year-old historian. With his strong character and his unerring sense of humor, he continues to transmit to the younger generations the message of peace and freedom that he and his brothers in arms carried on June 6, 1944.
Together with Léon Gautier, the French president presented the Green Berets to the students who have just successfully completed their commando course. The Head of State will then officially launch the public interest group tasked with preparing the major commemorations planned for the 80th anniversary next year. With, as everyone expects, a new participation by Léon Gautier.
This article was adapted from its original in French
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