Fighting For Peace: The Stockport Link To France's Last D-Day Commando

Former Stockport Deputy Head pays tribute to French centenarian Léon Gautier
Alan Davidge
July 4, 2023

Alan Davidge is a former deputy head from Stockport College who retired to Northern France, where he leads tourist trips to the beaches of Normandy.

Through his interest and expertise around the D-Day Landings, Alan became very good friends with former French Commando Léon Gautier - the last surviving member of 1er Bataillon de Fusiliers Marins Commandos - who was one of the first troops to land on Sword Beach on 6 June 1944, and has passed away aged 100 on 3 July, 2023. Gautier, who married an Englishwoman, lived for many years in the UK after the Second War.

A FRENCH soldier who was trained with British Commandos ahead of the D Day landings has died, aged 100.

Léon Gautier was the last survivor of the 177 Marine Commandos, commanded by Colonel Philippe Kieffer who landed on Sword Beach on 6 June 1944. He died on July 3, 2023.

Aged 17, Léon joined the French Navy as an apprentice gunner and served on the Courbet, a World War 1 Dreadnought Class Warship and fought against the Germans in the early days of the war until his country's leaders capitulated and signed an armistice with the Nazis.

He then left France and followed Charles de Gaulle to England, signing up with the Free French to continue the war. Serving on Atlantic convoys and spending time as a Submariner, he found his way with a group of comrades to the Lebanon.

Léon Gautier 1922-2023

In his travels abroad he met both the Forces' Sweetheart, Vera Lynn and the American favourite Betty Grable, whom he joined in an impromptu duet, much to the amusement of his mates.

In 1943 he seized the opportunity to join the Anglo-French Commandos and trained at the Achnacarry centre at the foot of Ben Nevis to gain his Green Beret.

Léon enjoyed his time in England and soon picked up the language. Whilst in Dover, he met an English girl, Dorothy and the couple were soon engaged. Although separated during the run-up to D Day, Léon promised to keep himself safe and marry Dorothy when he returned.

On the morning of D Day, more than 170,000 British, American and Canadian troops landed in France, but among them were Kieffer's commandos who shared the first wave with the British troops on Sword Beach, now the ferry port of Caen-Ouistreham.

The French were given the honour of going ashore first and Léon was the second man to exit his landing craft, after his officer. The commandos played a major role in capturing the beach and soon Léon followed the British troops inland for a ferocious 78 days and nights of fighting before being finally relieved. Only 26 commandos survived without being killed or wounded and Léon was one of them. In September '44, fully intact, he returned to England and married his Dorothy, with whom he enjoyed over 70 years of marriage.

After the war, the couple returned to France, before heading back to England as Léon pursued employment as a vehicle body worker. Finding work was not easy in either Britain or France after the war but they managed to cope and bring up two daughters, eventually returning to Léon's native Brittany.

In the 1990s they moved to a house in Ouistreham, only 600 metres from the beach where Léon had landed on D Day. He became an active member of veteran commando groups and began to dedicate his life to "Fighting for Peace".

He eventually teamed up with a former German paratrooper, Johannes Börner who had settled in the area and together wrote a book "Brothers and Enemies".

No opportunity was overlooked in campaigning for peace and stressing the horrors of war. Léon worked tirelessly with his friend André Ledran, the local mayor to create a museum dedicated to his former unit No 4 Commando and build memorials to his comrades who gave their lives in liberating France.

Léon and President Macron At This Year's D Day Commemorations

Léon played an active role in all the annual D Day commemorations, meeting countless heads of state and less than a month ago was congratulated by the French President Emmanuel Macron at a ceremony on Sword Beach. He then went on to unveil a plaque in Amfreville, in honour of his friend Guy Laot who was killed at the age of 20.

Léon received countless awards during active service and subsequent contributions after the war such as the Military Medal and the Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour. He will be remembered as one of France's favourite warriors bur also as a ferocious campaigner for peace.

Header Image: French and British Commandos head inland from Sword Beach on D Day