The Kieffer commandos

The Kieffer commandos

© Caen Memorial

Publication date: May 2016

Historical context

1er commando marines battalion

This photograph, taken between June 1943 and June 1944, shows some members of the commandos conducting training in Scotland. Created on April 2, 1942 and placed under the command of Lieutenant Kieffer (promoted Lieutenant-Commander on June 5, 1944), the Commando Marines Battalion (BFMC) is integrated into the Special Service Brigade, within the Allied Commando no 10 (and therefore placed under British authority). The soldiers of the 1er BFMC undergo intensive training with British commandos (the Green Berets) at Achnacarry Castle, located in the Scottish Highlands.

Organized in two troops and a section of K-Gun machine guns, they are one hundred and seventy-seven to participate in the landing of June 6, 1944, the only representatives of France to reach the Normandy coast by sea. After fighting until the end of the Battle of Normandy, the 1er BFMC was notably involved during the liberation of Flushing, in the Netherlands, in November 1944.

This shot is only released after operations, as everything relating to the commandos and their preparation is top secret and under the control of British forces. Endowed with documentary value and an instrument of Allied propaganda, it also allows, in its own way, to embody the elite of the fighters of Free France, thereby acquiring a symbolic dimension.

Image Analysis

Figures of Free France

This anonymous snapshot plunges us into the heart of a military training exercise that these commandos follow daily for several months. Its author could be a member of 1er battalion, more likely a photographer authorized and commissioned by the allied forces.

By placing himself in front of the marching commandos, he chooses to represent a instantaneous eloquent. The soldiers come closer to the photographer and seem to swoop in on the viewer, giving the impression of a moving force that nothing can stop.

Three columns of four or five well-aligned soldiers thus walk with a regular pace (rhythmic, arms by their sides) a country road, passing next to a brick house typical of the region. The sun is shining brightly, judging by the rolled up sleeves and open collars of the shirts. The ordinary commandos are young men wearing a British uniform and a beret (which is not yet the Green Beret, this one being given at the end of the training). The older officers at the head of each column are also distinguished by their headgear, identified as those of the navy. Unfortunately, the badges on them are illegible in the image.

The photographer has, finally, chosen to center Lieutenant Kieffer, who is the commander of these troops in exercise. If some faces are quite relaxed, his is rather closed, determined, serious. He sets the goal by continuing to advance, straight, martial, warrior. In any case, he appears to be the main actor in this photograph.

Interpretation

On the march, ready for battle

This snapshot therefore reveals some of the faces of those who usually have to stay underground before operating behind enemy lines. The commandos were, in fact, particularly feared and targeted by the Nazis (Hitler ordered all those who were taken prisoner in October 1942 to be shot down). Likewise, because it summarily indicates the location of their training, this image is not intended to be released for some time.

It makes it possible to embody the soldiers of the 1er battalion, nearly half of which were Bretons. The heroes are young people, sometimes still teenagers (first row left and right of the image). If the photograph gives some indications on the reality of their training (equipment, material, exercise), the document mainly intends to present a “usual” scene (walking) of their training, taken on the spot.

The central figure of Kieffer is better known. Born in 1899 and died in 1962, he responded to General De Gaulle's call on June 19 before joining the Free French Naval Forces on the day they were created, on 1er July 1940. Inspired by the functioning of the British Special Forces, he constitutes and directs the first commandos of the French navy, which will take his name only well after the conflict. This image certainly shows a group, but a group following its leader.

Although distributed after the D-Day landings, this image also has an ideological and symbolic value. It testifies to the fact that the French did indeed constitute a part of the allied elite troops, suggesting, on the one hand, that free France is not only a concept and, on the other hand, that the British knew rely on refugee nationalities (Poles, French, Greeks, etc.) to whom they have given pride of place. Soon ready for the most extreme battles, these men and the one who guides them with pride are full players in the Liberation. Hand-picked, their training and abilities make them formidable soldiers on the march to inevitable victory.

  • War of 39-45
  • army
  • Liberation (war)
  • Normandy landing

Bibliography

AZÉMA Jean-Pierre, New history of contemporary France. XIV: From Munich to the Liberation (1938-1944), Paris, Le Seuil, coll. “Points: History” (no 114), 1979.

KIEFFER Philippe, Green beret, Paris, France-Empire, s. d. [1951?].

MAN John, Atlas of the D-Day Landings and the Battle of Normandy (June 6 - August 24, 1944), Paris, Autrement, coll. "Atlas: memories" (no 1), 1994.

MASSIEU Benjamin, Philippe Kieffer: leader of the commandos of Free France, Paris, Pierre de Taillac, 2013.

SIMONNET Stéphane, The 177 French on D-Day, Paris, Tallandier / Ministry of Defense, 2014.

WIEVIORKA Olivier, History of the Normandy landings: from the origins to the liberation of Paris (1941-1944), Paris, Le Seuil, coll. "The Historical Universe", 2007.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "Les commandos Kieffer"


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