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Léon Gautier, last surviving French commando from D-Day, dies at 100

Léon Gautier, the last surviving member of an elite French unit that joined Allied forces in the D-Day invasion to wrest Normandy from Nazi Germany’s control, has died aged 100.

The death was announced Monday by Romain Bail, the mayor of Ouistreham, a coastal town in the Channel where the Allied forces landed on June 6, 1944 and where Mr. Gautier lived his last decades. He had been hospitalized with lung problems, Mr. Bail said.

Mr. Gautier, a nationally known personality, met President Emmanuel Macron last month as part of the commemorations of the 79th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

In France, he was a voice of memory of the Second World War, and of alert. “The younger generations need to be informed – they need to know,” he told The Associated Press in 2019. “War is ugly. War is misery – misery everywhere.

Mr. Gautier devoted much of his life after the war to giving interviews, participating in commemorations and helping to establish a museum in Ouistreham that commemorates the French commandos who helped liberate Normandy.

“He was a father to us, a grandfather to us, an important figure in daily life,” the mayor said. “He was the hero of 1944, the hero of June 6, but also the little old man that everyone knew.”

Léon Gautier was born on October 27, 1922 in Fougères, a village in Brittany, and grew up surrounded by bitter memories of the First World War. He joined the French Navy in 1940 at age 17. When France fell in June of the same year to the German blitzkrieg, he was shipped to Great Britain, where General Charles de Gaulle of France rallied his compatriots.

On D-Day, Mr. Gautier and his comrades from the Kieffer Commando unit were among the first waves of Allied troops to storm the heavily defended beaches of occupied northern France, beginning the liberation of Western Europe. In a huge invasion force made up largely of American, British and Canadian soldiers, Captain Philippe Kieffer’s commandos ensured that France too had feats to be proud of, after the dishonor of its Nazi occupation, in which some chose to collaborate with Adolf Hitler’s forces. .

“For us, it was special,” Mr. Gautier recalled in the 2019 article. “We were happy to come home. We were at the head of the landing stage. The British let us pass a few meters ahead. He added: “For us, it was the liberation of France, the return to the family”.

The commandos landed on what was codenamed Sword Beach, carrying four days’ worth of rations and ammunition. As they sprinted on the beach, they cut the barbed wire under a hail of bullets. They spent 78 days on the front lines, in ever-decreasing numbers. Of the 177 who had floundered ashore, only two dozen escaped death or injury.

Their initial objective was a heavily fortified bunker a few miles away, and it took the commandos four hours of fighting to get there and take it. “When we got close to the walls of the bunkers, we threw grenades through the cracks,” recalls Mr. Gautier. He later injured his left ankle jumping off a train and had to sit out much of the rest of the war. Her ankle remained painfully swollen for the rest of her long life.

Mr. Gautier met his wife, Dorothy, when he was stationed in Britain, and they were married for more than 70 years. After the war, he worked building bodywork and then training mechanics, living in Britain, Nigeria and Cameroon before returning to France.

Mr. Gautier said he did not like to talk about the war. “The older you get, the more you think you may have killed a father, widowed a wife,” he said, adding, “It’s not easy to live with.”

He formed a close friendship with a former German soldier settled in Normandy, Johannes Borner, and the two often spoke together of the horrors they saw. In a statement, Mr Macron said Mr Gautier had “united the virtues of a warrior with those of a peacemaker”.

Mr. Gautier is survived by many descendants, including a great-great-grandson born on June 6, 2017, exactly 73 years after D-Day.

nytimes Eur

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