Only rarely do military units assume the name of their commanders. The Commando Kieffer owes its name to a banker born in Haiti who, at the age of 40, decided to join the military. ‘Civilian in Uniform’ Philippe Kieffer was commander of the sole French unit present in Normandy on 6 June 1944.
Philippe Kieffer was born in 1899 at Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He was a bank director, who made a career in London and New York. He left his comfortable life in the spring of 1939. When he arrived in France, with no military experience, he volunteered for the army. After the French defeat of June 1940 he rallied to London and to the cause of ‘France Libre’.
He became a naval officer at the Free French Headquarters in Portsmouth, but quickly got bored with his administrative duties. The impact of the British raid on the Loften Islands in March 1941 acted upon him like a trigger and Kieffer convinced his hierarchy and the British to create a French commando. By the Spring of 1942 he had gathered some twenty men. During the raid on Dieppe in August 1942 his men experienced their baptism of fire. The night raids during the winter of 1943-1944 completed the troops’ training before they were deployed in Normandy. Wounded during the landing on D-Day, 6 June, and again during the attack on Ouistreham Casino, Kieffer was evacuated to England on the 8th, but returned a month later when he participated, at the head of his battalion, in the Normandy campaign until the end. He also took part in the landings at Walcheren of 1 November 1944 and in the campaign in the Netherlands.
Invited to sit at the French provisional consultative assembly as representative for ‘France Combattante’, Kieffer relinquished his command in April 1945. He was demobilised in 1946 and attempted a political career in Normandy, without great success. Decorated many times, he was struck by illness and died in 1962. He rests in the cemetery of Grandcamp-Maisy in the Calvados department.
The city of Ouistreham presents three commemorative sites dedicated to the history of D-Day: the German Bunker, the Museum of 4th Commando and the Monument of the Flame. The museum and the monument pay tribute to the French commandos landed on Sword Beach on 6 June 1944.
The Liberation Museum Zeeland takes us back to a special part of Zeelands history. During the Second World War Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen of various nationalities united in the fight against the German occupation forces. This struggle resulted in a lot of dead and wounded on both sides. The local population in Zeeland also suffered heavy casualties.
Following the invasion of the U.S.S.R. and the entry into the war of the U.S.A. on the British side, German strategy in the West changed from the offensive to the defensive. Hitler agreed to the construction of a fortified line along the western coastline, capable of repulsing any Allied attempt of invasion. Construction work of the Atlantic Wall began in early 1942.
On 6 June 1944, 177 French commandos landed in the first wave on Sword Beach in Colleville. Their objective was to capture the German fortified casino in Ouistreham and to join with troops of the 6th Airborne Division at Benouville. Led by Philippe Kieffer, these were the only French soldiers to land on French soil on D-Day.