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Hubert Faure, French commando who landed in Normandy, dies at 106

Hubert Faure, during World War II.

By PHIL DAVISON | Special To The Washington Post | Published: April 20, 2021

Hubert Faure, who died April 17 at 106, was one of the last two survivors of a 177-man French commando unit that landed alongside British forces under withering German machine-gun, mortar and shellfire on Sword Beach, Normandy, on June 6, 1944.

With the rank of chief warrant officer, Faure was part of the 1st Battalion Marine Commando Fusiliers — known as "Kieffer commandos" after its leader, Lt. Philippe Kieffer. It was the only French unit to take part in the D-Day landings, although the domestic French resistance had been harassing the Germans with guerrilla tactics throughout the war.

The Frenchmen were assigned to a special British commando brigade led by Brigadier Simon Fraser, a Scottish Highlander also known by the inherited title of Lord Lovat. Lovat's men stormed ashore close to the Frenchmen they had trained, and Lovat allowed the French to be the first ashore as a symbolic gesture to liberate their homeland. The French-British assault featured prominently in the all-star 1962 Hollywood war drama "The Longest Day," in which Peter Lawford played the Scot.

Faure recalled one British officer booming in French through a bullhorn from his landing craft: "Messieurs les français, tirez les premiers (French gentlemen, be the first to shoot)." And they were.

Faure briefly took cover in a shell hole in the sand, coughing blood from the effects of the explosion in his lungs and briefly losing his rifle and green commando beret with its Free French logo, the Cross of Lorraine. Thinking he had been hit by a shell, the French commando group's chaplain René de Naurois gave Faure Communion in the sand. Kieffer was wounded in the thigh but continued fighting.

Faure rarely spoke of the war, but one of his comrades, René Rossey, who was 17 during the landing and died in 2016, recalled: "We were pinned down on the beach, many of our comrades killed or missing. But when Lovat's piper walked up and down the beach, piping his lungs out, the Germans seemed stunned, as if they had seen a ghost. They briefly stopped firing, perhaps even to laugh, and in that brief moment we made it through the barbed wire at the top of the beach."

Lovat had ordered the piper to play the Scottish tune"Hielan' Laddie" to inspire his men.

Facing German artillery, tank, machine-gun, mortar and rifle fire, as well as flamethrowers, from blockhaus bunkers, Faure and his comrades took only a few hours to reach their first goal: the fishing port of Ouistreham.

At Ouistreham, they drove the German defenders from a casino they had turned into a fortress, a major breakthrough in the Normandy landings. Their next fight was to get through crowds of ecstatic French civilians, many of them in their pajamas and offering bottles of wine or the local Calvados brandy.

Over the next nine hours, the Kieffer commandos fought their way along the Caen Canal to the critical Pegasus Bridge that had been captured by British glider-borne troops.

On July 7, Faure was wounded by shrapnel and medevaced to England, but he was back on the front lines the next month, fighting on despite damaging his spine when his Jeep accidentally collided with an Allied tank in the confusion of combat. During the 12-week Battle of Normandy, 140 of the 177-man Kieffer commandos were killed or seriously wounded.

Hubert Émile Faure was born May 28, 1914, in Neuvic, southwestern France. He had just completed Jesuit high school when his father, a justice bailiff and former infantryman, died in 1933 from the lingering effects of a German gas attack at the Battle of Verdun during World War I.

He then enlisted in the French army and was part of a tank unit in a division commanded by then-Col. Charles de Gaulle when the Nazis began invading France in May 1940.

He fought in the Battle of Montcornet on May 17 that year, when de Gaulle's outnumbered tanks drove the German Panzers back — one of the few French successes of what became known overall as the Battle of France. But the Germans ultimately broke through elsewhere to take control of the country. In June 1940, Faure was taken prisoner by the Germans but escaped after the French government signed an armistice with Adolf Hitler.

Intending to join the Free French resistance in England, he fled through Spain but was captured by Gen. Francisco Franco's Nazi-sympathizing Civil Guard and held in the notorious Miranda de Ebro prison camp near Bilbao along with Spanish republican detainees. On near-starvation rations, every captive was forced to shout "Viva Franco!" at dawn every day.

He escaped in May 1943 and reached Portugal, where he was also imprisoned until the French resistance negotiated his release and he was able to get to England to join the Free French forces.

Described as having "an excellent physique and of moral steel," he was assigned to the Kieffer commandos for training under Lord Lovat in a forested estate at Achnacarry, near Fort William in the Scottish Highlands, where conditions were deliberately harsh to weed out the weak.

Along with U.S. Army Rangers and trainee commandos from the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Poland and Czechoslovakia, he learned to climb mountains, wade across fast-moving rivers, run for miles with a heavy pack and engage in hand-to-hand combat — much of it under live gunfire from instructors. It was there that he earned the coveted green beret and his Fairbairn-Sykes commando dagger.

On the evening of June 5, 1944, he boarded a landing craft at Warsash, England, to cross the channel to France. Before embarking, Kieffer addressed his men.

"The commander told us there would be many casualties," Faure recalled in a French radio interview. "He said those who didn't want to go could leave now. It wouldn't be held against them. But no one chickened out. At that age, we had no fear of dying. We were proud to participate in the liberation of our country."

Still suffering from spinal damage, Faure quit the French armed forces at the end of the war in 1945, marrying the same year and with Kieffer as his best man. He became a public works engineer. No details of any family survivors were immediately available.

His death, at his home in Paris, was announced in a nationwide tribute by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Last year, already 106 years old, Faure joined French military and resistance veterans to oppose a "Homage to Heroes" theme park proposed by local authorities across the D-Day sites, including re-enactments of the beach battles, aiming to open by the 80th anniversary of the Normandy invasion in 2024.

An average of 5 million tourists, many of them Americans or Canadians, visit the current, largely untouched sites and surrounding graveyards each year. Faure told reporters: "It would be a desecration. Here, where so many died, we don't need a Disneyland."