September 13, 2008

St. Malo & Fort de la Cite

Filed under: France — sensel @ 8:44 am

St. Malo was interesting not only because there was a French submarine in port, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a submarine in the actual water before — not to mention the accident that happened with this one, but I digress — but also because it’s a walled city with walls that are fully intact and that have never been successfully sieged, not even by the vikings, who pretty much had their way everywhere else they went after. It’s known (charitably) in France as the City of the Corsairs — aka pirates. It was the center of French privateering, and they used to sail out into the channel and rob the English blind and then sail back behind their walls and thumb their noses. English armadas came several times to try to spank them and never succeeded.

And its reputation as an invincible fortress held out through WWII, when the Germans held it and the Fort de la Cite (a nearby site of a Roman fort, which the Germans spent nearly the whole war super-re- fortifying b/c control of the river here, the Rance, pretty much locked up a big chunk of France).

The fort is just outside St. Malo across the sea inlet and on one shore of the river, and there are loads of small islands and rocks in the river mouth and out to sea between here and Guernsey & Jersey, and virtually every one bigger than a boat has a stone fort on it, most of them put there by the Germans. There was a really interesting “39-45 Memorial” here (they’re called that all over here) at the Fort de la Cite, which had several gunning platforms and about a dozen steel “cloches blindee,” which I think is equivalent to what we call pillboxes, though all the pillboxes I’ve seen before have been stone or concrete and these were steel, round, and had extensive tunneling from the fort to get to them. (See photo, tho unfortunately it can’t show the tunnels.)

After Normandy D-day and the allies moving farther into France from there, the allied forces, mostly the US 83rd infantry, had to retake the Fort before they could even begin to liberate St. Malo or Dinard, which is across the river’s mouth from St. Malo. (The fort between them.) The infantry took five days to get close to and blockade the fort. Then the cloches took a heck of a shelling (the flyer that I was able to more or less translate says “two particularly bloody infantry assaults and eight days of intense shelling” before the German general there finally gave up. You can see the amazing impacts of the shells on the cloche in the photo above, and near the center, two chunks to the right from the main gunner hole, there’s still most of the shell melted forever into the metal.

And then the Allies had to deal with St. Malo, which is the walled city with the lighthouse (above), b/c the Germans holding that refused to yield, even with the fort overtaken. And French historians said, ‘good luck.’ And the Americans said, “to heck with that” and flattened the city from the air without (still) breaching the walls. 80% of the city was flattened to rubble, but afterward they rebuilt it stone by stone to what it had been before, using historical info and photos — of which there were a lot, because of its fame and wealth re: the pirates.


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