The creation of the "1er Bataillon de Fusiliers Marins Commandos" (1er B.F.M.C.)

“They had to volunteer twice: a first time to join the Free French, a second time to join the Commandos”


In January 1942, Philippe Kieffer, by dint of obstinacy, got the authorization to form this company which then numbered only about twenty volunteers.

In March of the same year, after a training session at the camp of the Royal Marines in Eastney, the company officially took the name of “Compagnie de Fusiliers Marins Français” and requested to be incorporated into a British unit. The men of the company underwent in April and May 1942 a six week training session to become commandos.

This formation took place in the camp of Achnaccary, in Scotland. It intended to test the physical abilities and the obstinacy of the future commandos.
The purpose of this training session was to sort out amongst the men of the company in order to keep only the most fit ones for constituting a crack unit.

In July 1942, Philippe Kieffer’s men were attached to N° 10 Inter-allied Commando. Since the company still numbered less than 80 men, it could not be considered a troop nor carry out any mission.
On the other hand, 15 of its men were selected to take part in operation JUBILEE on Dieppe, on August, 19th, 1942. They were dispatched among the various commandos which took part in the operation.
During this unfortunate episode, the company lost Sgt. Montailler who did not outlive his wounds and Cpl. Cesar who was taken prisoner.

The company followed on its training, but the commandos grew impatient not to be assigned a mission.
Only during the 1943 winter were the French commandos requested to take part in sounding raids.
These raids intended to achieve locations and to take samples near the German defence system. Between December 24th, 1943 and February 28th , 1944, the French carried out five raids, others being given up because of bad weather conditions while already in progress.
These five raids were carried out on the French and Dutch coasts:

· At Gravelines (France),
· Onto the Anglo-Norman islands of Jersey and Sark,
· At Quinéville (département de la Manche - France),
· At Wassenaar (in the Netherlands).

The raids on Gravelines and Wassenaar were failures. The battalion lost two teams that is to say 12 men plus two commandos who were killed by the blast of a mine during the operation on the island of Sark.

Actually, five out of the six men reported missing at the time of the raid on Gravelines will not be arrested and will manage to hide close to relatives or friends.
However, by the end of the winter, these raids had entailed for the company the loss of 12 men amongst whom the one of Charles Trepel, second in command of this unit.

In March 1944, the arrival of new volunteers enabled the creation of the “Bataillon de Fusiliers Marins Commandos” (B.F.M.C.) always under Philippe Kieffer.
A few weeks before the D-Day Landings onto the coasts of Basse Normandie, this battalion was attached to N° 4 Commando which itself was part of the 1st Special Service Brigade under brigadier Lord Lovat.

A few days before the Landings, this battalion included two troops, a fire-support platoon or "K-guns" manned by 24 commandos and a command platoon which numbered 14 French and 6 British commandos amongst whom a medical antenna of 5 commandos (Dr. Cap. Lion, 3 medical orderlies and chaplain  René de Naurois). Troop 1 manned by 69 commandos was placed under Guy Vourc'h's command, troop 8 manned by 71 commandos under Alexandre Lofi.

 

On May 26th, the commandos were informed of their objectives in the camp of Titchfield where they had arrived the day before. They were to land at "Queen Red" in the "Sword" sector. In a first time, they had to take the German strongholds in the rear from Riva-Bella to the mouth of the river Orne  and to liberate Ouistreham in order to take intact the canal locks. In a second time, they had to join the paratroopers of the 6th Airborne at the bridges over the canal and the river Orne. The names of the places were to remained unveiled up to the morning of June 6th, but some Normans of the battalion identified them.

TROOP 8 - N° 4 COMMANDO

D-DAY

On June 5th, the commandos left Great-Britain at the mouth of the river Hamble to rally Picadilly Circus, the famous gathering point of the allied armada. Troop 1 had boarded LCI (S) 527 and troop 8 had boarded LCI (S) 523. Command and "K-guns" platoons had been dispatched on both ships.

 

 LCI (S) 523 (troop 8) setting to sea in the river Hamble

LCI (S) 527 (troop 1) can be seen in the background

 

 

On June 6th in the morning, about 07.25 a.m., the barges arrived off "La Brèche". Lt colonel Dawson let the men of 1er BFMC be the first to set foot on the French soil. The commandos crossed the shore as fast as possible and rallied on the site of a former children's holidays camp where they put down their heavy rucksacks. At the end of this first stage, about thirty of them were already missing, killed or wounded, including all the officers. However, the back of the work had still to be done. Henceforth, the commandos had to neutralize the German batteries and strongholds by attacking in reverse.

 

 

 

The commandos reaching the walls of the wrecked "children holidays camp"

 

Then the commandos ran into the streets of Riva-Bella. German snipers hidden in the villas inflicted many casualties on them. When reaching the little railway station, each troop headed to its objectives, while the British commandos proceeded to the locks.

Taking hold of the casino was not achieved without difficulties; the shots fired by the commandos' anti-tank "PIAT" turned out to be uneffectual to silence the guns of the bunker. Philippe Kieffer who had heard of the landing of "Centaure" tanks through the radio, came rapidly back with one of them. The shots fired by the tank neutralized the guns of the battery, thus enabling Kieffer's men to storm the casino. After having cleaned up Ouistreham, the 1er B.F.M.C. went back to the children's holydays camp, rally point with the rest of N°4 Commando.

 

 

Captain LION, medical officer of N°4 Commando, killed during the onslaught on the casino

 

About 12.40 the commandos took back their rucksacks and made for their second objective of the day: rallying the 6th Airborne paratroopers on the bridges over the canal and the Orne. Then N°4 Commando took the direction of the village of Colleville-sur-Orne, crossed Saint Aubin d'Arquenay and reached Bénouville about 4.00 p.m. , not whithout getting under German snipers' fire here too. Once they have set foot on the right bank of the Orne, the 1er B.F.M.C. took up position at Le Plain in the village of Amfréville, in the evening of June 6th. Together with the different commandos which composed the 1st Special Service Brigade and the men of the 6th Airborne, the 1er B.F.M.C. had to maintain its position to protect the eastern flank of the Landings zone to prevent a German counter-offensive. On the evening of this long day, the battalion grieved over the death of 10 commandos and the loss of 36 wounded. Henceforward, for it, the Battle of Normandy began.

The Battle of Normandy

This campaign was to last over 80 days. It will be very tiring for the commandos who will have to face a situation quite different from the one which they had trained for: a static and trench warfare where inactivity periods were longer than the action phases.

From June 6th in the evening until June 29th, the commandos remained in Amfréville, at Le Plain then at the Hauger hamlet. From June 29th until July 26th, they took up position before Bréville then proceeded eastwards up to the edge of the Bavent wood where they stood until August 16th.

Philippe Kieffer, who had been evacuated on June 9th because of the wounds he had suffered on June 6th, joined back his men on July 13th, 1944. He then became conscious of the falling spirit of his men, weary and tired of this static warfare. At the beginning of August, the German resistance weakened and they attempted no more counter-offensive. On august 16th, the whole n°4 Commando moved to Bavent and joined th 1st Special Service Brigage in Goustrainville in the evening of August 19th, destroyed a strong point at "La Ferme de l'Epine" in the morning of August 20th then proceeded on towards the Seine. From this moment on, the 1er BFMC did not meet real resistance and arrived in Beuzeville (département de l'Eure) on August 23rd, 1944. It remained there until September 6th and this date marked the end of this campaign for it. As soon as the day after, Kieffer's men embarked for England in Arromanches artificial harbour. 17 commandos died during the Battle of Normandy. Out of the 177 men of the battalion who landed on June 6th, only 24 ended this campaign without having been wounded.

 

THE CAMPAIGN OF HOLLAND

 

At the end of September, the 1er BFMC was reorganised, both troops were reduced in number and a third one joined the battalion in Holland. On October 8th, N°4 Commando left England to Ostend (Belgium). Since the German were still holding the right bank of the Escaut and the islands which make up its estuary, the Allies were to attempt a frontal landing on these islands.

On October 29th, the 1er BFMC studied its objective: to take the town of Flessingue situated in the island of Walcheren. This landing took place on November 1st, 1944. The troops set sail from Brekens, a little harbour on the left bank of the Escaut. After their landing, the commandos delivered a real street-fight and had to face many German snipers hidden in the houses. After two days of unceasing  fighting, the town was taken by an English battalion. On November 8th, N° 4 Commando was assigned a new mission: to take Vrouwepolder, the last town occupied by the enemy. The accomplishment of this objective was achieved without major difficulties and enabled the Allies to use the harbour of Antwerp.

In December 1944, the 1er BFMC numbered then 210 commandos divided into three troops. It took part in offensive raids on the island of Schouwen in order to gather information about the German positions and to harass the enemy. These raids were the last actions of the 1er BFMC during WWII.

 

"After the campaign of the Netherlands, the adventure of the 1er BFMC of free France was definitely over. But epopees will be as dreams. Can they die?" (Gwenn-Aël BOLLORE, J'ai débarqué le 6 juin 1944, commando de la France libre, Le Cherche Midi éditeur, 1994).