OUISTREHAM, France — There were countless times on D-Day and in the fighting in Normandy that followed when Leon Gautier could have been killed or grievously wounded.
He and his comrades in an elite French unit were among the first waves of Allied troops to storm the heavily defended beaches of Nazi-occupied northern France, beginning the liberation of western Europe. The commandos spent 78 days straight on the front lines, their numbers dwindling from one firefight to the next.
Of the 177 who waded ashore on the morning of June 6, 1944, just two dozen escaped death or injury, Gautier among them.
Then, his good fortune ran out.
Back in England for some well-deserved R&R, an impatient Gautier jumped off a moving train. He injured his left ankle so badly that he was forced to sit out much of the rest of the war, which ended in Europe with Germany’s surrender in May 1945.
The now 96-year-old Gautier rolls up a trouser leg to show how the ankle remains painfully swollen three quarters of a century later, his story neatly encapsulating the lunatic and arbitrary nature of war .
As Gautier chuckles at his own tales, cracks jokes and charms the ticket lady guarding the door of the museum that overlooks the beach near where he and his comrades landed 75 years ago, it is impossible not to wonder: Who will tell World War II stories with such verve and authority when he and the rest of his generation are gone?
In the huge D-Day invasion force made up largely of American, British and Canadian soldiers, French Capt. Philippe Kieffer’s commandos ensured that France had feats to be proud of too, after the dishonour of its Nazi occupation, when some chose to collaborate with Adolf Hitler’s forces.
“For us it was special. We were happy to come home. We were at the head of the landing. The British let us go a few meters in front, ‘Your move, the French,’ ‘After you,’” Gautier recalls. “Most of us had left France in 1940, four years earlier, so for us it was the liberation of France, the return into the family.”
After the bloodshed of World War I, Gautier’s generation had grown up on a diet of hatred for neighbouring Germany. He was 17 when he joined the navy in 1940. When France fell in June that year to the Nazi blitzkrieg, he shipped off to England, where a French general, Charles de Gaulle, was rallying his countrymen.
Volunteering, as Gautier did, for Kieffer’s commando unit meant undergoing brutal and dangerous training. The men became so hardened that on D-Day they came ashore carrying four days’ worth of rations and ammunition, 30 kilograms (nearly 70 pounds) in all. They sprinted up the beach with their heavy sacks.
Their initial objective was a heavily fortified bunker. Although the strongpoint was just a few kilometres (miles) away, it took them four hours of fighting to get there and take it. On the beach, they cut through barbed wire under a hail of bullets.
“We were being shot at, but we shot at them too,” Gautier remembers. “When we arrived near the walls of the bunkers, we threw grenades in through the slits.”
The commandos were trained for quick in-and-out raids to take prisoners, gather intelligence and destroy things. Gautier remembers that not all of the newly liberated inhabitants of Ouistreham where they fought were pleased to see them, figuring the troops would soon turn tail and be replaced again by vengeful Germans.
“I told them, ‘We’re not leaving! We’re here for good!’” Gautier recalls. “I don’t know that they believed me.”
Just three of Kieffer’s commandos survive. Gautier is the youngest. The oldest is 105. A 1943 photo of 70 of them, taken in Scotland where they trained, shows square chins and resolute looks under the green berets they made famous.
One of the benefits of longevity: Gautier has a great-great-great-grandson born, incredibly, on the 6th of June, two years ago.
Gautier and his wife, Dorothy, were married for more than 70 years. She died in 2016 at 91. They met in 1943 when he was stationed in England. Seriously injured by a German artillery shell during the war, she lived with a metal plate over the hole in her skull and had persistent headaches.
Gautier worked after the war building car bodies. He and his wife lived in England, where they had two daughters. Later, the family moved to Africa, where he was a workshop director, training mechanics in Nigeria and Cameroon.
The family was forced to return to France after Gautier was seriously injured in a traffic accident. Once recovered, he worked as a vehicle inspector and settled with Dorothy in Ouistreham, where Gautier and his comrades fought in 1944.
Gautier says he doesn’t like talking about the war: “The older you get, you think that maybe you killed a father, made a widow of a woman. ... It’s not easy to live with.”
Yet he has devoted much of his life since then making sure that lessons from the war aren’t forgotten by giving countless interviews, taking part in countless commemorations and helping put together the museum in Ouistreham that commemorates the commandos.
“The younger generations have to be told, they need to know,” Gautier says. “War is ugly. War is misery, misery everywhere.”