The D-Day Landings on the Normandy beaches took place on June 6, 1944, led by 57,500 American soldiers, 58,815 Brits, 21,400 Canadians, and just 177 Frenchmen! A tiny but elite commando force the history books have long forgotten.
“Action stations, 0430 hours, the last coffee before France. The night is drawing to an end, we are stunned by the sight of everything around us. An armada stretches as far as the eye can see, thousands of vessels of all shapes and sizes. All these ships dancing, pitching, and rolling, depending on their seafaring stability. We must not be far from the shore.”
These are the words of private René Goujon, recorded in his diary and published posthumously in 2004. On the morning of June 6, 1944, he was preparing to return to France with 176 compatriots. They had all fled their native country to England to escape the German occupation. Some had been imprisoned in Germany and Spain, and most were just 20 years old. Together they formed the 1st French Marine Rifles Battalion, placed under English command. Their D-Day objective was to seize the small town of Ouistreham on the eastern flank of the Allied invasion.
Kieffer, the Banker Who Became a Soldier
The concept of foreign units in the British Army dates back to 1942, when hundreds of soldiers from countries invaded by Germany – France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Poland, and Yugoslavia – escaped to England, determined to continue the fight. Philippe Kieffer, a former banker in Haiti and an officer in the French Navy, arrived in England following the evacuation of Dunkirk in June 1940 and was allowed to create a French commando unit.
Some 30 volunteers arrived at Achnacarry Castle in the Scottish Highlands in April 1942. The setting was austere, life was hard, and the training was harder. Exercises included running, using firearms and explosives, hand-to-hand combat, and assaults using real bullets, along with mountain climbing and landings aboard small vessels. At the end of the 12-week program, the soldiers received a green beret to be worn in the English style tilted over the left ear.
The French commandos in Scotland. © Imperial War Museum
The French commandos were praised by General de Gaulle in London on July 14, 1942, and took part in several reconnaissance missions on the Normandy coast before the D-Day Landings. A few weeks before Operation Overlord, the 177 Frenchmen received their insignia, a bronze coat of arms featuring the commando dagger and a two-masted sailing boat symbolizing adventure, and the Lorraine Cross, the emblem of the Free French Forces.
The First to Arrive on Sword Beach
The French battalion was assigned to a beach at Colleville-sur-Orne in the Calvados département. They were among the first Allied soldiers to land on “Sword Beach” at 0732 hours. Some 30 soldiers were killed or injured in the assault. “The sand seemed to boil under the bullets and explosions,” wrote René Goujon. “A Churchill tank of the East Yorkshire Pioneers had landed a few minutes before us and was supposed to breach the enemy’s front-line defenses. They had taken a direct hit; the turret was in flames and a man — also in flames — was screaming as he clambered out.”
The assault was then given on the port of Ouistreham, where the French were tasked with capturing the former casino and neutralizing the German artillery that was decimating the Allied troops who had landed further west. This battle was portrayed in the U.S. black-and-white movie The Longest Day in 1962. Philippe Kieffer worked as a military consultant on the set and was played by French actor Christian Marquand, who starred alongside Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Woman.
A Commemoration on June 6, 2019
By the evening of D-Day, the French commandos had joined up with the British troops and occupied the village of Amfreville on the right bank of the River Orne. The battalion had lost a quarter of its men — 10 dead, 36 wounded — but remained on the front until August 27, 1944. After the Battles of Normandy, the French took part in the liberation of Antwerp in Belgium, as well as completing several reconnaissance missions in Germany.
Private Jean Priez in Amfreville on June 10, 1944. © Musée des fusiliers marins
Seventy years after this feat of arms, the “Kieffer Commando,” as it is known today, only has three survivors left: Jean Morel, Hubert Faurel, and Léon Gautier. Emmanuel Macron will be paying homage to them at a commemorative ceremony in Colleville-sur-Orne (now Colleville-Montgomery) on June 6, 2019, at 4:30 pm (local time). “We want to honor our French veterans,” said the French Secretary of State for the Minister of the Armed Forces. “The Kieffer Commando in particular, but also local Resistance members and all those who took part or suffered in the Battle of Normandy.”