At about 4 km north-west of Saint-Malo, the nice corsair city, there is an island, not much bigger than a rock, squatting in the eponymous bay, consisting in a large inlet of the Channel between the west coast of the peninsula Cotentin and the northern part of Brittany: it is the island of Cezembre, the most important of the Saint-Malo bay islands.
Elongated in the south-west north-east, the highest point reaches 38 meters, a length of about 700 meters and a width of about 200 meters, with an area of about 12 hectares, of which only 10% visitable1, and 1.8 km of coastline.
The south side has a fine sandy beach, giving space to the typical landing slope, right in front of the Corsair city, while the sides east, north and west are rocky and inaccessible, virtually inaccessible from the sea. It is naturally protected by marine currents of 10 knots and high amplitude tides.
It is completely desert, except for a restaurant with rooms available during the summer. Driving along the coast from Pointe du Grouin, near Cancale, to Cap Frehel, the island is always visible, low and bare, on the horizon.
In the summer of 1944 a mixed garrison of German and Italian military opposed, fighting bitterly, the advance of the Allied Forces in Normandy.
The island had been subjected to a fierce air and naval bombardment, reaching a terrible record: the most bombed land in Europe during the Second World War, more than Stalingrad, up to a total of 20,000 bombs over 12 hectares in less than a month.
What’s more, a stream of fire was poured on the earth already battered by bombs, through huge amounts of napalm, recently used in Europe, but never so extensively.
The traces of this disaster are still visible today, as the island is still infested with unexploded bombs more than 70 years since the war ended.
Bare landscape, damaged bunkers, weapons destroyed or even melted by the heat, about 2000 craters, some of which are huge, water sources completely dried up testify to the destructive fury of the war that was fought here.
Gulls of all sizes, the real lords of the island, with raucous and threatening shouts, are the real undisturbed lords of the island. For human beings are only two strips of golden beach.2
Cezembre today (September 2015)
The impression that the traveler to the island aboard the public boat, has on a quiet summer day, is of a fulfilling peace, including a landing that winds between two white beaches, almost deserted, a blue sky furrowed by seagulls follow the boat, hopeful of a few mouthfuls of food and thus prodigal of shrill screams, and a sea with reflections always greener as we approach the pier.
One would expect an island totally barren, but it is not: a low vegetation and some rare tree succeed to satisfy almost all the hard granite island, plagued by tons of explosives, napalm and white phosphorous.
At the top, like silent witnesses of a past tragedy, one can see the vestiges of rusted heavy weapons, scattered from one end to the other of Cezembre. The 75 mm anti-aircraft cannon that stands on the west side of the island exhibits an obscenely barrel bent from the heat of napalm and recalls, in appearance, the image of a beaten boxer.
A yellow sign, equipped with a grinning skull, warning the unwary visitors wishing to advance further on the island that there is a danger of death.
The pier has the shape of a long snake made of concrete and welcomes indifferent visitors, which scatter in three different directions: left, towards the western beach, smaller, to the right, where the eastern beach is more extensive, covering a surface about three times the west, and from the upper building, reached by a short flight of steps, which is home to the only place in the island dining, a restaurant with another adjoining smaller building with three rooms.
The September sun is still warm, the sea looks inviting, with crystal clear water, continuously reciprocated by perennial currents that surround the island.
On the sand, between the cracks of the rocks, among the rocks, at the bottom of the sea near the shore you can see the strange stone and rusted iron clusters, legitimate children of granite rock and iron bombs, generated, with the blessing rained heaven from napalm and white phosphorous. They are the silent witnesses of an Apocalypse forgotten, unable to impress many swimmers and vacationers who enjoy the beach.
Do not miss smaller and larger pieces of semi-molten and obscenely pockmarked metal. The idyllic atmosphere that inspires the island lit by the beautiful September sun thins out as soon as you realize that in the same month of hell 71 years ago decided to settle in Cezembre: bombs from the air, from the sea and from the mainland, night and day, almost without interruption.
The traces are visible everywhere: bunkers partially demolished or heavily corroded, rusted iron bristling and twisted or sticking out of the concrete, more or less intact cannons lying on the ground, in the grass, shot down like animals, enormous holes, about 2000, they say , caused by intense shelling, and parts of weapons destroyed by the Americans or by the Germans before surrendering, an orphan firing line, except a few, of their powerful cannons.
It reigns over all the rust, which year after year come to wipe out the last traces of this rusty threatening insular universe.
It’s time of return, and the boat approaches the dock. Visitors to the island go up orderly on board, casting a last glance to the now deserted beach, where some seagulls venture exploring in search of scraps.
In the silence broken only by the discreet hum of the marine engine, it seems to perceive a mixture murmur to the wounded cries of pain piled in underground storage of which Cezembre is full.
But maybe that’s just the verses of the seagulls that accompany the murmur of the surf. The charm of the place is strong, amplified by the knowledge of past events.
The more than fifty dead still missing on the island, literally destroyed by the sword and by enemy fire, finally rest in peace, surrounded by the blue sea of Brittany.
A bit of history
Inhabited since the Neolithic period (about 4000 B.C.E.), its name means “the highest hill” in the Celtic language. At that time it was linked to the mainland, forming the eastern tip of the estuary of the River Rance3. A story in the nineteenth century told by Abbot François Manet talks about a tsunami that occurred in 709 caused the separation of Cezembre from the mainland4.
Until the seventeenth century it was inhabited only by hermits and rabbits, the last survived to the present day.
In 1468 the French Franciscans, known as Cordeliers, built a monastery, and later on several chapels.
In 1693 a new English attack ended the religious experience on the island and all subsequent interventions served to turn it into a military garrison.
Began, shortly after the British attack, in 16965, the architect of Louis XIV, the Marquis de Vauban, a great military expert of sieges and cities and fortresses.
Four batteries and two piers are the first works put at the service of a small garrison of 130 men, including 80 gunners equipped with 6 cannons.
In 1720 they constructed buildings for quarantine of sick and suspect goods, before they go ashore in Saint-Malo, to address the epidemic of plague in Marseilles.
In the years to follow the military defenses were increased by more powerful batteries, a guard is established on the island, performing mainly customs duties.
In 1870, the island serve as a target for cannon fire, thus destroying the fortifications of Vauban. But a strong period of tension with neighboring England again imposes massive fortification of Cezembre6.
In 1899 the island is off limits to civilians, unless by army permission.
Before World War I, it turns into a disciplinary camp for a hundred colonial soldiers of the army and navy. During the conflict, also the Belgian army installs a disciplinary company, following the invasion of Belgium by the Germans.
The rocky coasts of the island are often the scene of shipwrecks, the most notable of which was the one which took place in November 1905, the SS Hilda, a British steamship of 800 t which served the route Southampton-Saint-Malo. The victims were more than a hundred, including many Breton farmers who probably were going back home.
In 1929 a French poet Théophile Briant, covered the distance of 4 km in 2 hours and 15′ swimming between Cezembre and Rochebonne Beach (Saint-Malo)7.
World War II
The fortifications and armament
The island was rearmed in 1939, but soon the French Army was evacuated before the arrival of the Germans in June 1940. The Germans occupied it and strengthened it considerably, as did to the major port cities on the Atlantic coast, from July ‘ 42, making a clean sweep of the previous fortifications of the late nineteenth century and built several bunkers (the largest of which, type M157 of the Kriegsmarine, spread over four levels and is equipped with an armored cupola on which was placed a rangefinder of 6 meters ), casemates and artillery protection. The cement was B Grade, that is, more often (at least 1 m of concrete, 3 m in some places) and better armed than the current works8.
Barbed wire, machine guns and minefields completed the anti-landing defenses.
Cezembre entered so fully, with 27 fortifications built by the Todt Organization9, to be an integral part of the Atlantic Wall, the imposing defensive system of coastal fortifications, never completed, which extend for about 4,000 km from the north of Norway to the French-Spanish border, with 15,000 works in reinforced concrete (about 4 works per linear kilometer).
As the Ostwall, the island will become one of the main elements of the Festung Saint-Malo (the Fortress Saint-Malo).
Heavy armament consisted of 6 dilapidated French naval guns, 194 mm, model 1870, used as ground rail cannons10 by the French during the Great War, with a range of 15 km and of 83 kg projectiles, firing four shots per minute.
The pitches of the guns were not protected by bunkers, but by a kind of reinforced concrete tank, for which they could be rotated through 360°, and then fire in all directions. Some Tobruks were placed in defense of each position, and 5 armored shelters R622 type, capable of housing 20 people, served as personnel shelter11,12.
Crossing the shot of their guns with those of the Jersey Island, which was occupied, they could not only control access to the port of Saint-Malo, through the deep waters13 of the channel, and the estuary of the Rance, but also the access to the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel.
The direction of fire was located on the southeast tip of the island. The counter-air defense was provided by several French cannons 75 mm, model 1932, with a maximum firing range of 8 km and cadence of 25 shots per minute.
At the center of the island, a German antiaircraft gun 150 mm fired flair bullets. At the two ends, instead, two 150 cm spotlights were installed.
Other smaller caliber guns, machine guns and bunkers provided a medium coverage and short distance, protecting access to the island.
No less than 28 different calibers from 10 countries are located on the island.
All land and sea access are sprinkled with mines14.
Various casemates were used by the German garrison, commanded by 47-year old Oberleutnant (Lt.) Richard Seuss, managing more than 400 men, most of them former Kriegsmarine, framed in the Marine Artillerie Abteilung 608 (608th Navy Artillery Battalion)15.
Starting in ’44, 5316 Italian soldiers who survived the battle of Normandy arrived, accompanied by two officers17. Dressed in the gray uniform of the Italian Social Republic (RSI), they settled on the southwest tip of the island. Several sources18 accredit their origin from the submarine base of Bordeaux Atlantic, created in 1940 to support the Italian submarines operating in the Atlantic (BETASOM) and German occupied on September 9, 1943, following the armistice of Italy with the Allies.
The exact number of Italian soldiers is unknown, with estimates oscillating between a dozen and seventy men, mostly antiaircraft gunners.
In the report about the surrender of the island, filled out on September 3, 1944 by the captain of the US Navy Reserve James E. Arnold, he speaks explicitly of 67 Italian soldiers19.
Three of them tried to swim from the island to reach Saint-Malo, braving strong currents. But they do not go far and were captured on a rock not far from Cezembre. On a Sunday night, August 20, another Italian, a chef, manages to reach Saint-Malo swimming.
Some sources20 also speak of Russian21 and Georgian soldiers, part of the approximately 10,000 Soviets recruited by the Germans in the prisoner camps22. It is uncertain the presence of Moroccans and Poles.
In August 1944, following the release of Saint-Malo from the VIIIth American Corps, the island was heavily bombarded for more than three weeks by the American terrestrial artillery, by two British battleships, HMS Warspite and her sister ship HMS Malaya, equipped with cannons 380 mm (15″) that sent projectiles 1.75 m long and 875 kg heavy, and by wings of bombers B-24 Liberator. Alongside the classic bombs, also phosphorus and napalm23,24 bombs were used, causing more than 2,000 craters still visible, poorly disguised by the vegetation25. On 31 August, just missing the surrender of the garrison, other 18 napalm bombs 150 type affect the island26.
At this point a few buildings, mostly destroyed or severely damaged, remained standing. A warehouse of ammunition blew up. Drinking water is scarce, the wounded people are cluttering the old French basements, before used as ammunition deposits27, over 50 dead bodies lined up outside. Other bombings eliminate every trace of the spoils.
However, any request to surrender is stubbornly refused. The Seuss commander is determined to keep the island until it receives an opposite order from his superiors28.
But radio communications sent to the command that resides in Jersey are not answered, for fear of Allied interceptions. At the end an antiaircraft projector was used to send Morse signals against the low clouds in the grey sky, finally getting a reply from Jersey.
The situation is critical
The food and ammunition supplies, primarily, as well as medicines and spare parts, depend on small patroller units FK07, controlled by Oberleutnant Herbert Grohne29, the only ones that can hope to escape, at night, at the close ally control, covering the route Jersey-Cezembre in 4 hours. Some man arrives to reinforce the garrison, some injured soldiers are boarded to be taken to the hospital in Jersey30.
But the northern part of the island, covered from the view of the Allies deployed on malüina coast, is formed by the dangerous cliffs that make landing very difficult. In fact one of the two rescue boats is shipwrecked. The other has not a better fate: it had run aground during the night, unable to get away with the tide when it is day and is immediately sunk by enemy artillery fire. The survivors manage to swim to the island and to take shelter in bunkers they had left at the departure.
Another boat FISK manages to get away from the island with nine seriously injured on board, but their fate is unknown. The Allies are aware of the serious difficulties facing the entire island garrison and try again to persuade them to surrender. Uselessly. Not even launched leaflets profusely on the island, with an invitation to surrender, manage to make inroads in the stubbornness of Seuss.
Another problem is plaguing the garrison: the howitzers for the cannons of 194 and 150 mm, dating back to World War I, are no longer available throughout France under German occupation31. Now one just shoots with 20mm and 75 mm cannons, in Saint-Malo and its surroundings, to discourage all attempts to attack32.
Boats from Guernesey manage to unload the current ammunitions, and depart after 22 Italians of the garrison boarded because no longer welcome by their colleagues33. The situation on the island is increasingly critical: to evacuate forty seriously wounded, the defenders are forced to dig rudimentary steps in the north granite wall to reach a creek. The dead, hastily buried in the rocky terrain, are torn apart by bombs raining down on the island; it is estimated that the soil retains at least fifty bodies never found. It is then decided to avoid burying on the island, instead throwing them into the sea closed in sacks weighed down by stones.
In addition, a senior official of the garrison, the Leutenant Eckert, is seriously injured and to this is added the difficulty of communication with the soldiers, speaking Italian and Russian, under the continuous noise of bombing34.
Meanwhile the Americans, after heading for Brest, decided to finish with the island, preparing an amphibious operation with 28 boats arrived specially from the beaches of Normandy by land.
From August 25 to 27 conducted 1,500 air strikes were carried out, dwarfing even the heavy bombing of Stalingrad!
On August 26, an ammunition depot located under 3 meters of concrete explodes and 3 out 6 194 mm guns were put out of action.
The achieved temperatures can melt concrete and iron. Even today, the island and its surrounding waters are rich with these strange objects, born from the union of rock and iron fused together.
Three other Italians managed to escape by swimming from the island. The information provided to the Americans convince them to get it over with as soon as possible.
On August 30, 75 bombers bomb the island. On August 31, 24 fighter-P38 unload their cargo of napalm and phosphorus on Cezembre, transforming it into a cluster of craters and pillars of smoke.
More bombs follow shortly, bringing the total of napalm bombs dropped on the island to a total of 176.
The naval bombardment, powered by 8 guns of 380 mm on each English battleship35, causes heavy damage, crumbling like lumps of sugar the reinforced concrete shelters.
The garrison is also weakened by the island’s disease, diarrhea.
His uninterrupted bombing forced the soldiers to curl up on themselves, closer to the ground, to avoid being thrown against the wall by the air movements generated by the explosions. A thick dust makes the air unbreathable, despite gas masks worn by all. The access door moves to the rhythm of the explosions. Some maneuver the heavy doors with ropes or chains in order to minimize the air pressure. Some Russians are hit in a bunker and burned alive36.
On September 1, another Anglo-American bombing disseminate the island of napalm. From the little island of Grand Bé a German cannon, captured by the Americans, bombard the island. The third request of surrender is sent to the garrison of 400 men, 277 of whom had been wounded, including 70 Italians and 25 Russians37.
At 10 Colonel French, heading a delegation, landed on the island waving a white flag. Seuss once again refuses to surrender.
But a new factor intervenes: the battery of the Italians does not obey its commander and raises the white flag, after having learned that the wounded could not be evacuated to Jersey.
In addition, the shortage of drinking water (about 7500 liters were needed every day38) makes it difficult, if not impossible, to resist much longer.
Seuss, after having received a negative response to his request to surrender by his superior Hüffmeier, orders to destroy codes, planes and radio transmitters and sends a final message to German headquarter.
Vice Admiral Hüffmeier, a fanatic Nazi, finally gave the authorization to surrender.
Saturday, September 2, 1944, at 9.40, a clear message announces the official surrender of the garrison.
A young officer of 19 years, Hahn, does not think so: turns the gun on himself and committed suicide.
Everything was destroyed, except the food, by order of the commander Seuss. A 194 mm cannon escapes the order of destruction and is still visible on the island in all its grandeur.
The soldiers are grouped on the small beach, after having thrown their guns in the water.
Seuss asks the Colonel J. K. French to separate surrender ceremonies: on one hand his men, on the other the Italians.
But both the US command and the French forces pay tribute to the combatants39, who resisted in inhumane conditions on a strip of land turned into a kind of apocalypse.
37640,41,42 survivors43 leave the island, including 71 Italians and 20 Russians, as well as 6 seriously injured and 8 corpses44.
A source also speaks of 12 German nurses45.
The surrender report is written the next day (Annex 1).
U.S. NAVAL PORT – ST MALO
S-E-C-R-E-T September 3, 1944
From: Senior Naval Officer – St Malo
To: Commander U.S. Ports and Bases, FRANCE
Subject: Island of Cezembre – Report of Surrender of.
- The island of Cezembre, guarding the approaches of St Malo, Dinard and the fishing village of Cancale surrendered at 0930, 2 September 1944. Sixteen LCVPs and elements of the 330th Infantry of the 83rd Division made the trip to the island and took prisoner the one officer, a Navy Lieutenant of Navy, and three hundred and twenty two men. Four of these were stretcher cases, sixty seven were Italians. No U.S. Navy casualties were sustained. One LCVP was breached and so badly pounded on the beach by heavy waves that it must be considered lost.
- The white flag of true was first observed at approximately 0800 by the Army artillery observation posts. The surrender boat with a representative (colonel J.K. French, ed) of the commanding officer of the 83rd division, Major General Charles Macon, US Army, preceded the other LCVPs and accepted the surrender of the German Naval Lieutenant. A cerise aircraft recognition panel was displayed to forestall possible American bombing attacks on the island. The remaining LCVPs with Navy crews and Army guards followed. The writer and General Macon, with their respective parties, made the trip to the island through heavy sea. A holding force was left on the island to forestall possible reoccupation by German forces from the Channel islands area.
- The German commanding officer said that American strength had been too great for him. He blamed the Italians of his force to surrender and said that once they hoisted the white flag there had been nothing else for him to do. All German material had apparently been destroyed and broken guns, revolvers and other equipments were in evidence. All heavy guns had been hit by American fire and bombing. The surface of the island was completely pitted and churned up. Despite the heavy shelling and bombing, examination of tunnels on the island revealed only slight damage within. The Germans had set fire to ammunition dumps in two of the mouths of the tunnels.
- Small boat officers and crews displayed fine seamanships in handling their LCVPs through very heavy seas in making the trips necessary to pick up all of the prisoners.
James E. Arnold
|194 mm TAZ Mod. 1870/93||French Railway gun
|4 cm47 Flak 28
||Swedish anti-aircraft gun Bofors||
|7,5 cm Flak Mod. 32 (36)
||French anti-aircraft gun
|15 cm S.K.L Mod. 1917
||German naval gun
|2 cm Flak 38
||German anti-aircraft gun||
|2 cm Flak 29
||German anti-aircraft gun||
|5 cm Granatwerfer 36||Light mortar (GrWfr)||
|Searchlight 150 cm||
|Gun emplacement (Geschutzstellung)||for 194 mm gun||
|M157 Leitstand||3 levels control station||
|M158||emplacement for 150 mm gun firing illumination shells||
|R622||twin group bunker||
|R635||twin group with forward apron||
|MG Stand||MG emplacement||
|Vf Beobachtung||Observation emplacement||
|Stellung schweinwerfer||150 cm spotlight emplacement||
|Vf58c Tobruk for MG||MG tobruk||
|Vf61 Tobruk GrWfr||
Tobruk for German mortar
2 Wishing to visit by boats in public service, you can choose to start from Dinard or Saint Malo, with Compagnie Corsaire, active from April to October, with daily departures in July and August, Sunday and feast day in other months. You can also quickly reach it with taxi boats, but it is required a minimum number of people to maintain the cheap cost.
3 Kornicker V., Cézembre. L’île interdite, La Rochelle, La Découvrance, 2008
4 There is no trace of such a tsunami at the site of the BRGM (Bureau de Recherches et géologiques Minières)
6 Kornicker V., Cézembre. L’île interdite, La Rochelle, La Découvrance, 2008
7 Kornicker V., Cézembre. L’île interdite, La Rochelle, La Découvrance, 2008
8 Monsaingeon D., Atlantik Wall, 2008
9 Marion P., Déminage et démineurs en Ille-et-Vilaine et dans les Côtes-du- Nord (1944-1947), Université Rennes 2 – Haute Bretagne, 2012
10 Ramsey Winston G., After the Battle, Issue no. 33, pag. 29-37
14 Marion P., Déminage et démineurs en Ille-et-Vilaine et dans les Côtes-du- Nord (1944-1947), Université Rennes 2 – Haute Bretagne, 2012
15 Cox S., The Strategic Air War Against Germany, 1939-1945: Report of the British Bombing Survey Unit, Frank Cass Publisher, London, 1998, pag. 138
16 About 200 artillery specialists, according to F. M. Puddu, Ibid.
17 Kornicker V., Cézembre. L’île interdite, La Rochelle, La Découvrance, 2008
18 Puddu F.M., L’isola che non voleva arrendersi, Storia Militare n. 165, giugno 2007
20 Otto Koch, German veteran of Cezembre.
21 Ramsey Winston G., After the Battle, Issue no. 33, pag. 29-37
22 F.M. Puddu speaks of about 100 White Russians, freiwilligen, volunteers at the service of the Germans.
23 Napalm is a flammable liquid used in war. It’s a mixture consisting of a gelatinous agent and oil (or similar fuels), which generates temperatures of 800 to 1200 ° C. Since 1980 the UN has banned the use against civilians.
24 Confidential report of the US Air Force on August 17, 1944: Launch of 68 type 165 napalm bombs at 14h27 on Cezembre
26 Kornicker V., Cézembre. L’île interdite, La Rochelle, La Découvrance, 2008
29 Ramsey Winston G., After the Battle, Issue no. 33, pag. 29-37
30 Monsaingeon D., Atlantik Wall, Monsaingeon, 2008, pag. 37
31 Ramsey Winston G., After the Battle, Issue no. 33, pag. 29-37
32 Ramsey Winston G., After the Battle, Issue no. 33, pag. 29-37
33 Kornicker V., Cézembre. L’île interdite, La Rochelle, La Découvrance, 2008
34 Ramsey Winston G., After the Battle, Issue no. 33, pag. 29-37
35 Monsaingeon D., PFC Michael A. Vaccaro, D. Monsaingeon, 1995
36 Friedrich Radenberg, German veteran of Cézembre
37 Ramsey Winston G., After the Battle, Issue no. 33, pag. 29-37
39 News reported by various sources, but all without objective references.
40 323 men, according to Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.: The invasion of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Little, Brown, and Company, 1957, pag. 301
41 323 prisoners, including 232 Germans, 71 Italians and 20 Russians according to Brigitte and Denis Lafond, L’Eté des moissons rouges, 2008, pag. 430
42 323 men, according to Report After Action Against the Enemy, 1 october 1944, HEADQUARTERS 330TH INFANTRY APO 83, U.S. Army
44 Kornicker V., Cézembre. L’île interdite, La Rochelle, La Découvrance, 2008
45 Gawne J., 1944 Americans in Brittany-The Battle for Brest, Histoire & Collections, 2001
46 Andersen Bő P., Le Mur de l’Atlantique en Bretagne, Editions OUEST-FRANCE, 2011, pag. 60-63
47 Sizes are indicated in centimeters for German weapons, in mm for the Allies
48 Histomag ’44, Dossier special: Bretagne 1940 – 1944, n° 75 – janvier/fevrier 2012, pag. 52