Léon Gautier, the last surviving member of an elite French unit that joined Allied forces in the D-Day invasion to wrest Normandy from Nazi Germany’s control, has died at 100.
The death was announced on Monday by Romain Bail, the mayor of Ouistreham, an English Channel coastal community where Allied forces landed on June 6, 1944, and where Mr. Gautier lived out his final decades. He had been hospitalized with lung trouble, Mr. Bail said.
Mr. Gautier, a nationally known figure, met with President Emmanuel Macron last month as part of commemorations for the 79th anniversary of D-Day.
In France, he was a voice of memory of World War II, and of warning. “The younger generations have to be told — they need to know,” he told The Associated Press in 2019. “War is ugly. War is misery — misery everywhere.”
Mr. Gautier devoted much of his life after the war to giving interviews, taking part in commemorations and helping put together a museum in Ouistreham that commemorates the French commandos who helped liberate Normandy.
“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.”
Léon Gautier was born on Oct. 27, 1922, in Fougères, a village in Brittany, and grew up amid bitter memories of World War I. He joined the French navy in 1940 at 17. When France fell in June that year to the German blitzkrieg, he shipped off to Britain, where Gen. Charles de Gaulle of France was rallying his countrymen.
On D-Day, Mr. Gautier and his comrades in the Kieffer Commando unit were among the first waves of Allied troops to storm the heavily defended beaches of occupied northern France, beginning the liberation of western Europe. In a huge invasion force made up largely of American, British and Canadian soldiers, Capt. Philippe Kieffer’s commandos ensured that France had feats to be proud of too, after the dishonor of its Nazi occupation, in which some chose to collaborate with Adolf Hitler’s forces.
“For us it was special,” Mr. Gautier recalled in the 2019 article. “We were happy to come home. We were at the head of the landing. The British let us go a few meters in front.” He added, “For us it was the liberation of France, the return into the family.”
The commandos came ashore on what was code-named Sword Beach, carrying four days’ worth of rations and ammunition. As they sprinted up the beach, they cut through barbed wire under a hail of bullets. They spent 78 days on the front lines, in ever-dwindling numbers. Of the 177 who had waded ashore, just two dozen escaped death or injury.
Their initial objective was a heavily fortified bunker a few miles away, and it took the commandos four hours of fighting to get there and take it. “When we arrived near the walls of the bunkers, we threw grenades in through the slits,” Mr. Gautier recalled. He later injured his left ankle jumping off a train and had to sit out much of the rest of the war. His ankle remained painfully swollen for the rest of his long life.
Mr. Gautier met his wife, Dorothy, when he was stationed in Britain, and they were married for more than 70 years. After the war, he worked building car bodies and then training mechanics, living in Britain, Nigeria and Cameroon before returning to France.
Mr. Gautier said he didn’t like talking about the war. “The older you get, you think that maybe you killed a father, made a widow of a woman,” he said, adding, “It’s not easy to live with.”
He built a close friendship with a former German soldier who had settled in Normandy, Johannes Borner, and the two often spoke together about the horrors they saw. In a statement, Mr. Macron said Mr. Gautier had “united the virtues of a warrior and those of a peacemaker.”
Mr. Gautier is survived by many descendants, including a great-great-grandson who was born on June 6, 2017 — exactly 73 years after D-Day.
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