History Wars World War II

The last of the Free French Commandos who landed at Normandy on D-Day dies at 100

Gautier and his fellow commandos helped free France with the Allied invasion force, giving the French people more to be proud of. 
free french commandos

On June 6, 1944, 177 members of Commando Kieffer landed on the Normandy shore designated “Sword Beach.” These men were recruited from around the former French Empire, trained at British military schools, and led onto the beaches with British troops. They had one overarching objective: free France from the Nazi jackboot. 

Though their official designation was 1st Battalion Marine Commando Fusiliers, these men joined the war with Lieutenant Philippe Kieffer in 1942. From just 20 men, their ranks swelled to 80 within their first year. The Free French trained them with the British commando units so that all 177 could invade Europe.

Leon Gautier was there with them on D-Day. Some 79 years later, he was the last of them. He died July 3, 2023, at age 100.   

Lt. Phillipe Kieffer joined the French naval reserve in 1939, at 40 years old, leaving his job as a bank director in New York City when World War II broke out in Europe. An officer aboard the battleship Courbet when France fell to the Germans, he fled to London in June 1940 and joined the Free French forces the day they were formed. 

He began his Free French military career as a cipher officer, but upon seeing the tactics and training of British commandos, he asked if he could create a Free French unit built on the same training and doctrine. After rigorous training (where some candidates died), the unit began nighttime raids on occupied French and Dutch coastal cities, including the Raid on Dieppe.  

free french commandos kieffer
Philippe Kieffer (Wartime MOD / Public domain)

Gautier and the Commando Kieffer were among the first to land on Sword Beach that day. All but 24 of them were killed or wounded as they continued their fight to liberate their homeland from German occupation for the next 78 days. Guatier would injure his ankle while jumping off a train and get sent away from the front. His injury bothered him for the rest of his life. 

He spent those days in Ouistreham, a small French town on the coast of the English Channel that was liberated by the Allied landings on June 6, 1944. When he died, it was the town’s mayor, Romain Bail, that announced the death to the rest of France. Leon Gutier was well-known across the country for his work with Commando Kieffer. 

Commando Kieffer landed on Colleville Beach at 0730, near La Brèche. They destroyed the blockhouse of Riva Bella and reached Benouville by the afternoon. That evening, they took the heights over Amfreville. They lost 10 men killed in action and 30 more wounded on the first day of fighting. 

Until August 16, 1944, they held their hard-won gains until they were tasked to join Operation Paddle, a campaign toward the Reiver Seine with the goal of trapping the German Army Group B between the U.S. Third Army and the Seine. Despite early successes, the Germans defended their river crossings and escape, inflicting most of the fighting on the Canadians and their Free French allies. 

The Allies recaptured Paris on August 15, 1944. 

free french commandos after dieppe
The soldier at the left holding a helmet is one of the free French fighters, a unit that fought alongside British and Canadian Commandos, an attachment of U.S. Rangers, during the Dieppe Raid of August 19, 1942. The fighters are pictured after their return from Dieppe. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Gautier and his fellow commandos did their part to help free France alongside the rest of the Allied invasion force, giving the French people who resisted the occupation more to be proud of. 

France has been proud of its commandos ever since. For the June 2023 D-Day anniversary event, Gautier met with French President Emmanuel Macron as part of the commemorations.