Two WW2 soldiers - one French, one German - united in will to remember

Mon May 12, 2014 7:50am EDT
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By Lucien Libert and Alexandria Sage

OUISTREHAM France (Reuters) - When Leon Gautier landed on Sword Beach in a hail of enemy fire on June 6, 1944, as one of the first wave of French commandos to set foot on Normandy soil, the last thing he expected was that 70 years later one of the "Boches" he was fighting against would be a friend and neighbor.

    Today, 91-year-old Gautier and his friend Johannes Boerner, 88, are two of the dwindling number of veterans of the Allied D-Day landings and the ensuing nearly three-month battle of attrition that began to push German forces back from the western front of Nazi-occupied Europe.

Time and understanding have forged a bond between the former French elite commando and the German parachutist from Leipzig, who as neighbors in the Normandy town of Ouistreham celebrated Christmas together in 2012, and will both attend ceremonies next month marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

    "We're like brothers now, it's just great for both of us," said Boerner, who took French citizenship in 1956 after marrying a local Norman woman.

    It is one of the vagaries of history that both men live today in the same town where Gautier landed on D-Day, Tommy gun in hand and a year of training under his belt, one of Commander Philippe Kieffer's 177 French soldiers who battled the machine gun fire, landmines and barbed wire of Sword Beach as part of the No. 4 British Commando unit.

    Besides the unforgettable sight of the armada of boats filling the sea, Gautier recalls rechecking his ammunition cartridge and his grenade just before landing, and how the photo of his wife Dorothea in his pocket got "a little wet".

    "It was OK, though, I fixed it later," he said. "I still have it."

    Shells from German bunkers rained down on Gautier and his commandos even before they reached land, but months of training and a surge of adrenaline outweighed their fear of the "Boches", the derogatory term used by the French for their enemy.   Continued...

A combination photo shows the French former member of the Kieffer's green berets commando, Leon Gautier (R), aged 91, and former German army paratrooper Johannes Borner (L), aged 88, outside the number 4 Anglo-French commando museum at Ouistreham, Western France, April 30, 2014. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/Files