The last surviving French D-Day fighter, Leon Gautier, has died aged 100.
Mr Gautier was part of a French commando unit alongside other Allied forces in the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944 – the largest sea invasion in history that ultimately liberated Western Europe from Nazi control.
Only several men from the 177-strong French battalion escaped death or injury that day – one of them being Mr Gautier.
In his later years, he would decry war as “ugly” and rife with “misery”.
The veteran’s death was announced by mayor Roman Bail of Ouistreham, a commune in Normandy where the Allies landed almost 80 years ago and where the Frenchman spent his final decades.
Mr Gautier had been in hospital for the past week suffering from lung trouble, Mr Bail said.
‘Hero of 1944, but also the little old guy everyone knew’
The mayor praised Mr Gautier’s influence as “a father to us, a grandfather to us, an important figure of daily life” and “the hero of 1944, the hero of June 6, but also the little old guy that everyone knew”.
Mr Gautier was born in 1922 and joined the navy in 1940. He would be transferred to England later that year when France fell to Nazi occupation.
On D-Day, Mr Gautier and his fellow troops, under the command of Captain Philippe Kieffer, were among the first to charge the German-controlled beaches in Normandy.
Mr Gautier recalled how the unit was “at the head of the landing” with the British forces letting them go “a few metres in front”.
He said: “We were being shot at, but we shot at them too. When we arrived near the walls of the bunkers, we threw grenades in through the slits.
“For us, it was the liberation of France, the return into the family… we were happy to come home.”
Mr Gautier injured his ankle, which sidelined him for much of the remainder of the war.
After it ended, he worked in the automotive industry building car bodies and training mechanics, living in England, Nigeria and Cameroon before returning to his homeland.
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted a tribute to the centenarian saying: “The last member of the Kieffer commando who landed with his 176 French comrades in Normandy on June 6, 1944, hero of the Liberation, Léon Gautier has left us. We won’t forget him.”
Mr Gautier is survived by many descendants – including a great-great-grandson, born on 6 June 2017 – exactly 73 years after D-Day.