75 years ago today thousands of Allied soldiers were preparing for the long awaited invasion of Europe. The day before 6 June 1944 was a hectic one. As we look back and remember all who participated in the D-Day landings I thought it would be interesting to examine the important role played by a small group of elite French Commandos. There are many people who make disparaging remarks about the role of French soldiers during the liberation of Europe. It's easy for truth to get lost in such a large story. However, the French coastal town of Ouistreham will never forget its fellow countrymen who came to its rescue 75 years ago on June 6th, 1944. In their honor a memorial site today overlooks the Channel.
On D-Day American, British and Commonwealth troops landed in Normandy, France to break through Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and begin the long awaited liberation of Europe. It’s interesting to note that with the Commonwealth troops landing on Sword Beach was a small contingent of French troops. Not just regular troops either, but a small unit of highly trained Commandos.
To aid the invasion troops, each of the Commonwealth Forces’ designated beach landing zones had a group of elite assault troops assigned to it. Sword Beach was the area given to the 1st Special Service Brigade. Within it were four battalions (No. 3, 4, 6 and 45 (RM) Commandos) of highly trained volunteer Commandos, a precursor of today’s Special Forces, to lead the invasion. Their commander, Lord Lovat was an extremely colorful character who made detailed preparations. He deliberately included a contingent of 176 French volunteers under the command of Captain Philippe Kieffer to join No. 4 Commando. These men were originally from Troop 1, Troop 8 and K-Gun of the No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando unit. Like British Commandos, the men of No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando went through the six-week intensive commando course at Achnacarry in the Scottish Highlands. The course concentrated on fitness, speed marches, weapons training, map reading, climbing, small boat operations and demolitions both by day and by night.
The 1st Special Service Brigade had a very clear mission on D-Day. They were to clear a path to, and relieve the airborne forces at the Canal de Caen and Orne River Bridges. These bridges were the key in allowing the invasion to continue forward toward the vital city of Caen. Any German counterattack launched from this area could move down the entire coastline unimpeded and drive half of the invasion force back into the sea.
The airborne troops, although courageous were very lightly equipped and just too few in number to hold out for an extended period of time on their own. Speed was of the utmost importance and Lord Lovat knew he would have to ignore most of the German coastal defenses to reach his primary objective. He assigned Captain Kiefer’s Free French Commando unit to protect his thrust inland from any of the forces occupying Ouistreham.
Lord Lovat addressed his entire command as the brigade prepared for its departure on June 5th. As he concluded his rousing speech he spoke the following words, “Demain matin on les aura”. This was specifically for his French contingent as it translates “tomorrow morning you will have glory”. These men would employ grit and determination as rifles and grenades. Captain Keiffer and his men would be the first to land on Sword Beach. From there they helped clear a coastal artillery battery before moving on to their main target, Ouistreham and the fortified River Bella Casino.
They cleared the city house by house as it, and the casino, had to be taken on that vital first day. The casino itself had been transformed into a monstrosity of a concrete bunker and pillboxes. Unable to do anything with their limited small arms, Captain Keiffer had to improvise. He raced back to the beach where he commandeered a Centaur close support tank from the Royal Marines. Although wounded, he rode the tank back to the city and directed its 95mm howitzer onto the casino. As ordered, the French Commandos took the city on that faithful day. The unit suffered 21 killed and 93 wounded. Kieffer himself was wounded twice by shrapnel in the leg, but refused evacuation for two days. Some of their actions were sequenced into the movie “The Longest Day” but that was just the beginning.
The Frenchmen remained with No. 4 Commando and continued on the leading edge of the fight to liberate France for another 82 days before being forced to be relieved for refit and replacements. Of the 177 men that landed on that beach only 40 were fit to return to duty and 21 paid the ultimate price. It’s interesting to note the French Commandos who landed on D-Day are the predecessors of today’s French Navy’s Commando Marine special operations unit. Remember to honor all who have served and fallen. May we never forget the sacrifices of so many, or the victory they wrought. Viva La France!