Valor Friday

| July 21, 2023

Léon Gautier

On 3 July 2023 France lost their last living D-Day veteran, Léon Gautier. He was 100 years old, living just over 79 years after surviving the assault on fortress Europe that fateful June morning in 1944.

Born in Brittany, France, Gautier was only 17 at the beginning of World War II. He’d been employed as an apprentice car body maker when he heeded the call and enlisted in the French Navy, too young for enlistment in the Army.

He served as a gunner aboard the French battleship Courbet. Courbet was a World War I veteran and the lead ship of her class. Commissioned in 1911, she was the first dreadnought battleship built for France. Obsolete by the 1930s, Courbet was a gunnery training ship when Germany invaded France in May 1940.

Courbet was hastily recommissioned for front-line service in defense of the country, and with Gautier aboard, defended the Allied retreat at Cherbourg in mid-June. The ship then took refuge in the UK as France fell to the Blitzkrieg.

In Britain, as France officially surrendered to the Germans, the Royal Navy seized Courbet and turned it over to General de Gaulle’s Free French Forces. He marched with the Free French Naval Forces in a parade in London under de Gaulle in July 1940.

Gautier’s path took him next to the French merchantman Le Gallois, participating in Atlantic convoy duty. On one journey the convoy was attacked by German U-boats. Several ships were sunk.

To protect the remaining ships of the convoy, standing orders were for the column of ships to continue on. If they stopped and collected survivors, they would not be able to outrun the U-boats. Indeed, turning back to effect a rescue operation would put the ships right into the crosshairs of the already successful German sub commander’s gun. Gautier was haunted for the rest of his life by the memory of having to abandon the survivors as they screamed for help.

Enlisting with the Free French, Gautier served as a gunner aboard the submarine Surcouf. According to several media sources, they saw action in Africa and the Middle East, but Surcouf does not appear to have operated in that theater during this time.

In 1942, Free French Navy Lieutenant Commander Philippe Kieffer, who had served aboard Courbet at the same time as Gautier (but their paths likely never crossed), had seen the British Commandos and was impressed. He requested and received permission to form the Fusiliers-Marins Commandos (Marine Rifle Commandos). They took part in the ill-fated Dieppe Raid later that year.

In 1943, Gautier volunteered for service with the Free French Commandos. He underwent their rigorous training in Scotland. The training was notoriously harsh, and several students died as they prepared to recapture their homeland from the Nazis.

According to the same news reports I mentioned earlier, Gautier was said to have served with the Commandos in Congo, Syria, and Lebanon before the Invasion of Normandy. Again, I can find little evidence to support this. The French Commandos were used for several night raids on France and the Netherlands in the run up to Normandy.

For D-Day, the French Commandos were placed under the command of their British brethren. They fell under Brigadier Lord Lovat, who we briefly discussed recently in another Valor Friday piece.

At 2230 hours on 5 June 1944 the commandos set off across the Channel. The mood was apprehensive, but the French commandos were buoyed by the enthusiasm of their British comrades. About 0600, as dawn broke over the east, the Free French saw their homeland. For Gautier, it was the first time in four years.

At 0731 hours on 6 June 1944, at Sword Beach, the French Commandos (clad in their characteristic green berets, from which American Special Forces would later adopt similar headgear) led the charge against their country’s occupiers.

British Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Dawson was in charge of the lead elements of Allied commandos. He thought the French should be the first ashore. “Messieurs les Françaises,” he boomed at the vessels carrying members of the Free French forces through the breakwaters. “Tirez les premiers!” (Be the first to shoot).

Honored, the Free Frenchmen were more than happy to be the liberators of their country. As they moved ashore and established their beachhead, the British continued to defer to the French. Gautier remembered, “The British let us go a few meters in front, ‘Your move, the French,’ ‘After you’.”

Storming the beach, the French Commandos had to cut the barbed wire under withering German automatic weapons fire. Gautier said, “Ten men were killed that day and 36 were wounded and evacuated, including our commander, Kieffer. Unfortunately I lost a friend there. He just had time to see France and die.” They pressed forward through four hours of fighting to their initial objective, a fortified bunker a few miles inland.

In the next 78 days of combat, the men of Gautier’s No 4 Commando suffered 50% casualties. Of the 177 who had come ashore on 6 June, just 24 survived without injury. Towards the end of August, this included Gautier. He wounded his ankle and was evacuated back to England. The war would end before he could return to full duty.

Back in the UK, young Léon reacquainted himself with a young British lass. Three weeks later they were engaged. They married in October and wouldn’t part until her death in 2016. They had two daughters.

Post-war, the Gautiers lived in France. Despite his war record, many of the Green Berets (who had served with and under the British during the war) faced hostility from other French war veterans. They moved to England.

For seven years in the UK Gautier worked as a panel beater. Panel beater is the job title the Brits give to auto body mechanics in a delightfully blunt and forthright description of the gig. They then spent several years in Cameroon and Nigeria before settling in France where Gautier made a successful car business.

As with many combat veterans, Gautier didn’t share his wartime experiences. It wasn’t until nearly 40 years later, in 1982, that he started to attend veterans events. He helped found the No 4 Commando Museum. He also spoke of the horrors and downsides to war.

“War is a misery,” Gautier said in 2019. “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’. 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.”

Gautier was last honored with a visit with French President Emmanuel Macron last month as part of the 79th Anniversary commemoration of D-Day. Gautier once said, “The French are sometimes forgotten at D-Day but they forget more in France than they do in Britain.”

Légion d’honneur

Gautier was a recipient of his country’s highest honor as he was a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor (the second highest grade within the order, and only held by about 300 living people). He was also awarded the French Military Medal, the second highest award for combat bravery. He received the Croix de Guerre with two citations in orders (depending on level of citation analogous to an American Silver Star or Bronze Star Medal) the Resistance Medal, the Volunteer Combatant’s Cross, and the Commemorative medal for voluntary service in Free France. From Britain, he was made a Member in the Order of the British Empire (MBE).

After his death on 3 July 2023, President Macron said Gautier, the final surviving French D-Day veteran, “united the virtues of a warrior and those of a peacemaker.” The mayor of Gautier’s hometown said, “He was a father to us, a grandfather to us, an important figure of daily life.” The mayor said. “He was the hero of 1944, the hero of June 6, but also the little old guy that everyone knew.”

Among the family Gautier left behind is a great-great-grandson who was born 6 June 2017, 73 years to the day after his grand-père helped France toss off the yoke of German occupation.

Category: Historical, Navy, Valor, We Remember

16 Comments
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Charles

Born in Brittany, France, Gautier was only 17 at the beginning of World War I.” Should that be WW II not WW I?
WW I would make him 126 years old.

ninja

Charles, yes, you are correct.

Most likely a typo error!

😉😎

Skivvy Stacker

You’d probably be an international criminal and have the death penalty on 7 planets.

BlueCord Dad

Repose-toi bien guerrier 🇫🇷

ninja

Rest In Peace, Sir.

Salute.

Never Forget.

Thank You, Mason, for sharing another Valor story about an Unsung Hero.

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STSC(SW/SS)

“War is a misery,” Gautier said in 2019. “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’. 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.”

War is hell and it is usually fought by men who do not desire it. Mr. Gautier was one of them.

RIP Mr. Gautier

Wilson

Rest in peace.

ninja

BTW…

Tony Bennett, Masterful Stylist Of American Musical Standards, Dies At 96″

https://www.stripes.com/theaters/us/2023-07-21/tony-bennett-dies-10809995.html

“Bennett was a military veteran who served in Germany during World War II. He arrived in Europe around January 1945 and was a combat infantryman in the 63rd Infantry Division, which was based in the Rhineland and southern Germany, according to his bio.”

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President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande

Got dusty in here all of a sudden. Damned allergies.
Pass the Kleenex, tout-sweet.

Too bad a trooper with the courage and honor of Gautier was presented with his nation’s highest honors by a socialist rat-bag such as Macaroon.

Last edited 11 months ago by President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande
STSC(SW/SS)

By calling Macaroon a rat-bag you are being too kind and insulting rat-bags everywhere.

President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande

With apologies, I couldn’t think of anything better at the moment.
Any suggestions for next time?

Prior Service

Respect to the man. RIP. However, next time I go into an assault I’ve got to remember to grab a Frenchman and let him lead!!

Skivvy Stacker

Puissiez-vous être en paix pour l’éternité, mon ami.

Dustoff

Men like these don’t get enough respect/recognition imho.It was only after my Dad passed in 1983 ( WW2 Merchant Mariner Battle of the Atlantic) that I realised how important the Atlantic Convoys were.

KoB

God Speed, Fare Well, and Rest Easy, Warrior. A reminder that not all Frenchies keep a white flag handy.

Thanks, Mason.