Tall, with a refined face resembling a statesman, Phillipe Kieffer was 40 years old when he volunteered for active military service in French Navy after it declared war on Germany in September 1940. He served aboard a battleship, then at Northern Fleet headquarters, as he watched his beloved France crumbled under the heel of German jackboots invading from Belgium.
He realized the gravity of the situation, when on May 31st, 1940, British and French forces began wading by the thousands out to ships of every size to evacuate them to England, knowing France was doomed.
Those left behind fought fiercely, but to little avail, so smaller evacuations continued. Among those leaving near the end was Kieffer, arriving in London on June 19, three days before the surrender. Here he waited and searched for another opportunity to carry the fight back, and was rewarded on July 1, when he joined the Free French Naval Forces.
Serving as a translator and cipher officer, Phillipe Kiefer became enamored of the newly formed British commandos to the point that he requested authorization to create an all-French unit adopting the same model of training and structure.
Their methods of selection typified the harshness of special forces training, and several men died as they struggled to complete the course. They become known as the ‘1st Company of Naval Rifles,’ organized into the No. 10 Inter Allied commando unit, made up of Dutch, Polish Belgian, Norwegian and Mediterranean units.
This first company of Frenchman and those that followed proved the best of the remaining French military still able to fight the Germans. And unique in the fact that missions often took them into their occupied homeland, with the most famous of the early years being Operation Jubilee, the disastrous raid on the port city of Dieppe in August 1942. During the mission, the French fought alongside their Canadian comrades and also acted as interpreters before their withdrawal back to England.
By 1944, Phillipe Kieffer’s command had grown into two troops and had been integrated with Britain’s No.4 Commando as part of the 1st Special Service Brigade under Lord Lovat. It was this unit that came ashore on June 6, 1944 and provided the 176 men led by Kieffer himself, with its greatest challenge.
Sword beach was the easternmost of the designated landing areas on D-Day, and stretched from the coastal village of Saint Aubin-sur Mer to the small resort village of Ouistreham. Here lay the remains of a gambling casino that had been heavily fortified into a strongpoint containing Anti-Tank guns as well as machine gun nests.
Nearby towered a large concrete observation bunker for heavy artillery that lay camouflaged inland. The task of assaulting and destroying the strongpoint fell to the French. If successful, it would remove a powerful position and create a breach 500 meters to the left of the beach. They also, as courtesy, were given the honor of being first ashore, spearheading part of the British advance that morning.
Wearing the green beret like his men, Kieffer, recently promoted to Capitaine de Corvette (Leuitenant-Commander), personally led them off landing craft at 0731 hours. This time there would be no retreat into the sea, as they waded in under shelling that seemed to increase by the minute. In the midst of this, they heard the sound of Lord Lovat’s piper Bill Millin’s bagpipes urging more of the 1st Brigade on, but not before some 40 commandoes were killed or wounded as they reached the end of sand and started onto the road towards Ouistreham.
It didn’t take long to near the objective. The commandos ducked into cover behind sand dunes, shed their packs, and waited for the order to attack.
Closer observance revealed the casino strongpoint as a monster. Pillboxes provided interlocking fire, a maze of trenches and barbed wire curled around it, and minefields lay in likely approaches.
Kieffer decided to attack the position from behind. He split his force into two groups and hit the fortification at two points, starting with a race between buildings, firing rifles and automatic weapons as they charged.
German positions raked the commandos, pinning them down in front of the Casino. Anti-Tank guns belched at them from embrasures. Phillipe Kieffer knew they had nothing in their arsenal to handle them, and he watched the attack stall as men clamored for cover. Then, in a stroke of luck, his radioman informed him tanks were on the streets of Ouistreham. At that instant, Kieffer set off to find one, harried by German fire until he disappeared.
With no clue if he would be back, the men continued their battle for nearly 30 minutes, hurling grenades and trying to get a lucky shot through the embrasures. It seemed futile.
Then they heard the throaty rumble of a diesel engine.
A Sherman approached with Kieffer riding outside directing the fire. Its turret swung toward the embrasures and nests, firing its main gun at them repeatedly until they were silenced.
With the heaviest fire destroyed, the commandos raced forward toward the position, the German fire a shadow of the carnage it spewed earlier, until they breached the fortification and silenced it forever, as others cleared more trenches until battle abated and the commandos cleared the area for advance.
They left the fortified water tower to be mopped up by other forces as they rejoined Lovat to link up with the 6th Airborne Paras holding the Benouville and Ranville bridges.
Counting those lost on the beach, the commandos suffered 21 dead and 93 wounded. Kieffer himself had been hit by shrapnel at the start of action but continued on as an example to his troops. He finally visited a medical facility two days later, but checked out on June 14 to rejoin his men as they continued fighting during the Normandy breakout and the race towards Paris. Here Phillipe Kieffer and two of his men made history by being the first of the Free French Forces to enter the city.
The honor proved bittersweet, though. He later learned his son, 18 at the time, had been fighting with the French resistance and was killed the same day on the outskirts of Paris.
Two months later he was leading his commandos, now three companies strong, in the fighting on the Dutch islands of Vlissingen and Walcheren to help the Allies capture the vital port of Antwerp which proved so vital in the closing months of the war, and was the main target of the German’s during the Battle of the Bulge.
Phillipe Kieffer left his beloved command soon after that when he was promoted to work in the Inter-Allied forces headquarters, where he stayed until the end of the war. Afterwards, he continued in the Navy, revered as a hero, until his death in 1962, a faithful servant to his country.
The commando troop he created and led, lives on today in the form of the French Naval Commandos.
(Featured Image Courtesy: vivelaresistance.unblog.fr)
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