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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 May, 2004, 06:37 GMT 07:37 UK
Veteran feels at home on D-Day beach
By Hugh Schofield
Paris

D-Day veterans will be travelling thousands of miles from the US, Canada and Britain to attend next month's 60th anniversary ceremonies in Normandy, but for one ex-soldier the journey to the beaches is just a short walk from his front door.

One of the handful of surviving French participants in the landings, Leon Gautier lives in Ouistreham - only a few hundred yards from the German pill-box which he stormed on 6 June 1944.

Leon Gautier on Ouistreham beach
Leon Gautier now lives on the beach he stormed
Mr Gautier, who is now 81, was a member of the so-called "Kieffer Commando" - a detachment of 177 Frenchmen who formed part of Lord Lovat's 1st Special Service Brigade on D-Day.

He remembers being embarked on 5 June at Warsash on the Solent, and a night of choppy weather in a landing craft containing about 90 men.

"When we got near to the coast the gun batteries opened up. And then our commanding officer Colonel (Robert) Dawson made his famous remark: 'Messieurs les Francais - Tirez les premiers!" Mr Gautier recalls.

Dawson's words were a re-working from a well-known French quotation dating from 1745 when a French noblemen approached the English enemy at the battle of Fontenoy and shouted "My English Sirs - you may shoot first!"

"So he let our barge go first on to the beaches," Mr Gautier says. "It was a very gallant gesture and we loved him for it."

I remember running and firing my machine-gun, then we threw grenades into the pill-box
Leon Gautier
Lord Lovat's task was to seize the eastern end of the Normandy bridgehead, and the Kieffer Commando was sent against the port of Ouistreham, where the strategically important Caen canal enters the sea.

Mr Gautier charged up the beach to attack the German blockhouse, which still stands there today.

"As we came into land our other landing-craft was hit and all the officers in it were wounded," he says.

"I remember running and firing my machine-gun, then we threw grenades into the pill-box. I may have killed some Germans, but I don't know which ones. And I don't want to know."

English love

Having secured the blockhouse Mr Gautier's unit circled to the left behind Ouistreham's "casino" - a fortified German position - which was quickly taken, and that evening found him at Pegasus bridge over the canal reinforcing the British airborne troops there.

Normandy landings
Thousands perished in the Normandy landings
"In the end it was much less hard than I had feared. I had expected a lot tougher. We lost 10 dead but it could have been worse," he says.

"It was thanks to our discipline. In the British army you had to be disciplined - which was something the French were not very good at."

Mr Gautier had volunteered for the Free French forces loyal to General Charles de Gaulle back in 1941, and he had already seen action in Africa and the Middle East when in 1943 he was selected to join the elite British commandos.

It was around this time in Dover that he met his English wife Dorothy, who lives with him to this day at their villa in Ouistreham.

"I was a young telephone engineer who was called out to put in a line at the commandos' barracks in Dover. No-one answered so I started climbing in the window. That was when I was nearly put under arrest by Leon!" she remembers now.

Tired

Mr Gautier was demobilised in August 1944, returning to England to marry Dorothy in October.

Dorothy and Leon Gautier
Mr Gautier met his wife Dorothy in England during the war
After a career as a car mechanic in England, France and Africa, Mr Gautier settled in Ouistreham 12 years ago - largely because of the constant demands on his time as head of the Kieffer Commando veterans' association.

"We thought it would be better to be near the job," he says.

"But I have had enough now. I am glad this is the 60th and the last big commemoration. I am 81 and I am tired.

"It is time to stop."




SEE ALSO:
Pupils follow D-Day veterans back
05 May 04  |  Hampshire/Dorset
Veterans may need D-Day passes
03 Feb 04  |  England
Should Germans attend D-day events?
06 Jan 04  |  Have Your Say


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