Saturday, June 06, 2009

Commando Kieffer, June 6 1944.

Above the quiet beach, these simple stones honour them where they fell.
They belonged to the Commando Kieffer, whose commander is depicted on depicted on the stone above. theirs. (r) .

The significance of their action is marked by the memorial in steel, the German gun emplacement they stormed, transformed into the flame of freedom.

OUISTREHAM, is just behind Riva Bella on the Normany coast,some 14 km. north of Caen. It was raining heavily when I arrived early one morning just before Easter, several years ago, and even after the rain stopped the beach was fairly quiet, apart from a few riders. It was not so quiet 65 years ago, when a different kind of rain was falling on Allied troops coming ashore here, at the eastern end of 'Sword' beach.

Because of Ouistreham's strategic position, by the mouth of the river Orne and the Caen canal, it had been heavily fortified, and the German guns could sweep along the beach.

It was given to 177 French soldiers under Commander Kieffer, part of the Royal Marines no.4 Commando, to be first to tread the Normandy soil and take out this obstacle. They left 40 men killed or wounded on the beach, and Kieffer himself was hit, with shrapnel in his leg, but carried on with his men. They were supported by a tank from the 13/18th Hussars of the 27th Armoured Brigade.

The German blockhouse was taken out, and by late morning. Ouistreham had been liberated.

Philippe Kieffer, born in Port au Prince, Haiti, and as his surname suggests, of Alsatian origin, had begun his career as a naval officer before he decided to persuade his superiors to let him create and lead a force modelled on the British commandos. They trained at Achnacarry in Scotland. Commander Kieffer was awarded a Croix de Guerre for his D-Day action and went on to be a Commander in the Legion d'Honneur.

Earlier in the morning that Ouistreham was freed, a battalion of the Oxfordshire and Bucks Light Infantry, part of 6th Airborne Division, accompanied by a Royal Engineers platoon and the Glider Pilots, altogether forming a force about the same size as the Kieffer Commando, made their glider-born assault to secure the Pegasus bridge, as it became known after the airborne division's winged horse badge.

Some Free French and British forces advanced inland towards Caen, but were driven back by counter-attacking Panzers. It was to be some months before the Normandy city, heavily bombed and suffering high civilin casualties, was finally captured.

On my second day at Ouistreham I walked along the canal to the new Pegasus bridge, and went into the old Gondree cafe besides it, which served the British airborne troops and claims to be the first place in France to have been liberated. The furniture seemed unaltered, but the coffee was fresh. I'd hoped to get some film for my camera too, but was out of luck till I got back to Ouistreham, so did not get any photos. I did get a postcard of the bridge which I posted to my old history prof, the late Austin Woolrych, who took part in the Normandy landings. I didn't realise it at the time, but I've since read that my Dad's old regiment, the Loyals, were engaged in the operation to secure the bridges, though he was on other duties by then with the Royal Signals.

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