Ever since I first visited Saint-Malo with my daughter in 1998, I have wanted to return.  It is a beautiful old walled city on the Brittany coast of France where extreme tides create a dynamic backdrop. However, it was not until last year when I read All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, that I realized this beautiful city was decimated during World War II by Allied artillery and bombs. Why?  Because it was the location of a heavily defended Nazi fort that refused to withdraw.

I have just spent three weeks in a village near Saint-Malo and a few days ago I was able to visit the fort, now known as Memorial 39-45. The memorial is located on a hill called Cité d’Alet that commands a superb view of the harbor and the walled city, as well as newer sections of Saint-Malo which were mainly countryside in 1945.  A steel machine gun turret riddled with large holes left by artillery shells is located beside the walking path that leads up the hill. The memorial park first appears to be nothing more than a flat grassy area with a few concrete structures.  Most of the German fortifications are deep underground and a tour of this complex is essential to understanding what really happened here in the summer immediately after D-Day.

The fort on Cité d’Alet was first built in the 18th century and was used by the French army until 1934.  After the German occupation of France, the location became important to the Nazi defense of the Atlantic coast.

In 1942, Hitler commanded the building of defensive fortresses to form a continuous belt of interlocking fire-power from Norway to the coast of France. He wanted an “Atlantic Wall” to consist of 15,000 bombproof concrete structures completed within 14 months and ready to be occupied by 300,000 men. This was a fantastical demand and most of it was never completed. However, at Saint-Malo the military and TODT, the German office of public works, began work on a three level concrete bunker with ceilings and walls two meters (6 feet, 7 inches) thick.  The complex, which required the removal of 15,000 cubic meters (about 19,600 cubic yards) of granite, included a three tier ventilation system, bunkers with periscope artillery sights, barracks for 200 men, a command post, water tanks, and generators.  Two nearby islands were also fortified with underground bunkers and artillery. One, Grand Bé, was accessible by foot from the walled city at low tide and remains a popular place for visitors. The other, Cézembre, approximately two and a half miles from shore, was home to 6 heavy guns with a range of 18 kilometers (over 11 miles) that could fire well into the countryside.  By June of 1944, the Germans considered Fortress Saint-Malo to be the best defended installation on the Atlantic Wall.  After D-Day, they had no intention of leaving their impregnable fortress without a fight to the death.

After fighting their way across Normandy, the US Third Army under General Patton entered Brittany on July 31, 1944 and headed toward Saint-Malo. The battle for the walled city began on August 4.  Allied intelligence had believed that there were 1000 German soldiers holed up in the area enclosed by the old walls and had bombed it heavily, however, when the city surrendered on August 14 only 83 German soldiers were found.
Meanwhile, on August 9, an infantry group of American forces had arrived at the foot of Cité d’Alet with no idea of the actual strength of the fortification which was now overflowing with 600 Nazi soldiers.  Intensive bombing and artillery shelling by American forces finally softened German defenses enough for an infantry attack to take the hill on their third attempt. The commander of Fortress Saint-Malo, Colonel Von Aulock, surrendered on August 17.  However, it took another 2 weeks of intensive bombing, to bring down the heavily fortified island of Cézembreꟷthe most bombed and shelled place on earth during World War II. The island surrendered on September 2, a week after the liberation of Paris.

The tour of the bunker these days includes only a small portion of the original complex as much of it remains dangerous for visitors.  However the experience was intense and informative. Tiny rooms with concrete walls and exposed ventilator ducts, and crowded with twenty five other tourists, gave a sense of what it might have felt like to live below ground as a German soldier. Each room contained artifacts.  There were maps, a model of the bunker, and life-sized dioramas enlivened with plaster figures dressed in German uniform, furniture, and assorted equipment and personal effects.

One display included the personal military record booklet called a Soldbuch which is mentioned several times in Immigrant Soldier.  These booklets, carried by every German soldier, were the first thing taken from prisoners before interrogation. I had heard so much about the Soldbuch while doing research that it was a thrill for me to see one for the first time.  I was also pleased to learn that it was the US Third Army that had liberated Saint-Malo.  I can’t help but wonder if Herman was here in 1945 and he simply forgot to mention it to me.  In the same room as the Soldbuch display, there was a chart that showed the large A arm patch of the Third Army, just like the patch on Herman’s arm in the photo on the Home page of this web-site.

By the time Fortress Saint-Malo was completely secured by the Allies, not one structure was left on Cézembre or Grand Bé and 80% of the old walled city was reduced to rubble. Clean-up began in Saint-Malo as soon as the bombing ended and it took over three years to clear and sort the wreckage. Reconstruction lasted about ten years, though the steeple of the cathedral was not completed until 1972.

Today Saint-Malo is again a beautiful city. If you are ever in Brittany, both the city and the Memorial 39-45 are well worth a visit.


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