French WWII veteran of the Commando Kieffer Leon Gautier poses for a photo on the day of a ceremony in tribute to the 177 French members of the "Commando Kieffer" Fusiliers Marins commando unit who took part in the Normandy landings, as part of the 79th anniversary of the World War II "D-Day" Normandy landings, in Colleville-Montgomery, France June 6, 2023.
PARIS--Leon Gautier, the last surviving member of the French commando unit that waded ashore on D-Day alongside allied troops to begin the liberation of France, died on Monday.
He was 100 years old. Gautier was one of 177 French green berets who stormed the Normandy beaches defended by Hitler's forces in 1944. French President Emmanuel Macron described Gautier and his comrades as "heroes of the Liberation". "We will not forget him," Macron wrote on Twitter. Just last month, Gautier presented a student marine commando with his green beret at a passing out parade at Colleville-Montgomery, near the spot where he had landed on Sword Beach in a hail of enemy fire at the age of 21.
In a poignant moment during that ceremony, the young marine knelt on one knee to allow Gautier, who was in a wheelchair, to straighten his beret. Gautier spoke to Reuters in 2019 at his house several hundred metres from the remnants of a German bunker he and comrades from the special forces of French Captain Philippe Kieffer had secured before pushing inland. He recalled how he had been too young to join the army when Hitler’s forces occupied France in World War Two, and so enrolled in the navy. He was on board one of the last French warships to sail for Britain to join the Free French Forces of General Charles de Gaulle as the Germans swept across the northern half of France in 1940.
Decades later he still grappled with the violence of war. "War is a misery. Not all that long ago, and perhaps you find this silly, but I would think ‘perhaps I killed a young lad, perhaps I orphaned children, perhaps I widowed a woman or made a mother cry’," he said. "I didn’t want that. I’m not a bad man. You kill a man who’s done nothing to you. That’s war and you do it for your country."