The small rocky islet off Saint-Malo was the most bombed territory per square meter of the Second World War. After the demining of the island of Cézembre, a path was opened in 2018. It welcomes dozens of summer visitors every day, delighted and moved to discover “this path [which] allows you to discover history”.
“There is a lagoon effect, it’s magnificent!”, raves Maryse Wilmart, a sixty-year-old from La Rochelle, contemplating the superb sandy beach with turquoise waters, with a unique view of the ramparts of the corsair city.
“But when behind you can see everything that… Can we even imagine what happened here?” , she asks herself, not far from the barbed wire and signs “Danger! Land not cleared beyond the fences”. Because you have to go back 80 years to understand what happened on this uninhabited granite island of about ten hectares, with steep relief in its northern part.
Shuttles are provided all summer between the island of Cézembre and Saint-Malo • © Damien MEYER / AFP
In 1942, the German occupation army seized the strategic importance of the islet for the Atlantic Wall and installed bunkers, casemates and artillery pieces. On August 17, 1944, Saint-Malo was liberated by the Americans but the Nazi commander of Cézembre, attached to Jersey, at the head of 400 men, refused to surrender. A deluge of fire follows from the air and from the Allied continent. “It is said that per square meter it is the greatest number of bombardments of all the theaters of operation of the Second World War. There were between 4 000 and 5 000 bombs dropped”, some of them napalm, explains Philippe Delacotte, author of the book “The secrets of the island of Cézembre” (Cristel).
On September 2, 1944, the white flag was finally hoisted and some 350 haggard men surrendered. “Some survivors were able to say that it was like Stalingrad”, relates the Saint-Malo author. The island is completely devastated, so much so that its altitude has dropped because of the bombs.
“One of the consequences of these bombardments is that the Ministry of Defence, at the end of the war, became the owner of the island and completely closed the site” , explains Gwenal Hervouët, in charge of mission of the site for the Conservatoire du littoral, which became the owner of the island in 2017.
If the first demining, in particular of the beach, began in the 1950s, it was necessary to wait until 2018 for around 3% of the area of the island to finally be accessible to visitors: the path of around 800 m allows you to meander between rusty cannons and bunkers, with breathtaking landscapes on Cap Fréhel and the tip of the Varde.
“We can still see the huge crevasses and the cannons are impressive”, notes Olivier, 25, a farmer in Savoie, who is one of the hundred or so summer visitors who came to play Robinson on this island on this August afternoon. with sparse vegetation, where there is a gourmet restaurant. A shipping company provides a daily rotation, mainly in summer, from Saint-Malo and Dinard.
A path was opened in 2018, bordered by remains of blockhouses and German artillery • © Damien MEYER / AFP
Since the opening of the trail, “there was no accident” even if “there are always people who want to go beyond the authorized part”, says Jean-Christophe Renais, coastal guard and works technician for the department, which manages the site.
Over time, colonies of seabirds have reappeared, such as gulls, cormorants, torda penguins and common guillemots. “Biodiversity is doing wonderfully, everything has been recolonized and revegetated, the birds have taken possession of the site. It’s just a joy” , slips Gwenaël Hervouët. Proof of the importance given to wildlife, the trail was partially closed in April “to maximize the chances of success and flight of peregrine falcon chicks”, explains Manon Simonneau, responsible for monitoring the island for Bretagne vivant.
Some walkers say they hope the path will be lengthened to allow a complete tour of the island. birds and nature that are the masters of Cézembre.