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Leon Gautier was an ‘ordinary citizen determined to achieve something extraordinary,’ says Macron

Long life of last French survivor of D-Day landings a lesson in heroism

Leon Gautier’s long life was a lesson in heroism and a reminder that no one knows what he or she is capable of until they are tested.

The last French survivor of the D-Day landings in Normandy was “an ordinary citizen determined to achieve something extraordinary,” president Emmanuel Macron said at Gautier’s memorial service on the beach at Ouistreham, Normandy, on July 7th.

Gautier was born in Brittany in 1922. “We grew up in families that had known 1914-1918,” he said. “Everyone had lost someone. We learned to hate the Germans. We were all patriotic.”

When the second World War started, only the navy accepted minors as volunteers. Gautier joined up, then heard Gen Charles de Gaulle on the radio. In 1940, he marched in de Gaulle’s Bastille Day parade in London.


An apprentice car body repairer before the war, Gautier became an apprentice gunner. He fought in Africa and the Middle East and was recruited in 1943 by Capt Philippe Kieffer to join a special forces commando unit. It was the first to land at Ouistreham on the morning of June 6th, 1944.

The soldiers of Operation Overlord waded into a hail of enemy fire, on to beaches covered with barbed wire and landmines in what became known as the longest day. Ten men from Kieffer’s 177-strong unit fell that day. By the end of the war, only 24 of the 177 Frenchmen had not been killed or wounded.

“Leon Gautier moved forward, gripping his weapon, his mind set on the objective,” president Macron recounted. “Several brothers in arms fell beside him. One sank on to the sand and shouted, ‘Keep going boys,’ and sang a few bars of the Marseillaise. Those who heard him had tears in their eyes.”

United States commanders allowed Kieffer’s commando unit to land first but they were a tiny fraction among 156,000. There was long a certain embarrassment that theirs was a symbolic presence, that France was liberated by the US in two World Wars.

That may explain why the French green berets were, for decades, almost forgotten – though Gautier would eventually be awarded 10 medals, including two Croix de Guerre and a British OBE.

Gautier offered his own explanation for the long silence surrounding his unit. “De Gaulle did not want to publicise the memory of the commandos because he couldn’t get over the fact that the Allied Command left him out of the final stages of preparation for Operation Overlord. I knew before he did that we were going to land in France,” he said. “In this instance, the British were not very diplomatic.”

The Kieffer group trained for a year in Scotland and came under the orders of British No 4 Commando. Gautier and his comrades secured a German bunker and the telephone exchange before moving on to Pegasus Bridge. They fought for 78 days without interruption, ending the battle with a heroic bayonet charge.

Six months after the Normandy landings, Gautier returned to England for reunion with his English fiancee, Dorothy Banks, from the Signal Corps. They married in Dover and had two daughters, Jacqueline and Jeanette.

After the war, he worked for the French West Africa Company in Cameroon and Nigeria, then became an automotive expert in France.

Gautier was drawn back to Ouistreham, the scene of his greatest military exploit, as if by a magnet. “In 1992, on a whim, my wife and I wanted to live there,” he said. “We bought the first house that became available and we stayed.” Dorothy died in 2016. The couple are buried in Ouistreham cemetery.

Their house was a few hundred metres from the ruins of the German bunker that Gautier had helped to seize. For the rest of his life, he ran a local museum dedicated to No. 4 Commando and forged a strong friendship with Johannes Borner, a former German paratrooper who also settled in Ouistreham. Decked in medals, wearing his green beret, Gautier was a fixture at D-Day commemorations.

Gautier said war memories could prevent him sleeping. “Sometimes, you think of the widows and orphans left by the war. Perhaps I created widows and orphans; I don’t know. You don’t regret what you did because you had to do it. But you regret that it happened.”

These 79 years later, the war in Ukraine echoes the minefields and horrendous casualties of 1944. Another dictator is on the loose and the extreme right is on the rise across Europe. Leon Gautier proved that one can fight back and win.