“Isle of martyrs”, then “forbidden island”: near Saint-Malo, Sesembr rises from the ashes

“There is a lagoon effect, it’s wonderful!”, Maryse Wilmart, a sixty-year-old resident of La Rochelle, enthuses, contemplating the beautiful sandy beach with turquoise water and the unique view of the ramparts of Saint-Malo.

“But when you see it all behind… Do you even imagine what happened here?” she wonders, not far from the barbed wire and signs. Danger! Uncleared land behind the fences”.

Sesembre Island during World War II

Because you have to go back 80 years to understand what happened on this uninhabited granite island with an area of ​​about ten hectares with a steep topography in the northern part. In 1942, the German occupation army captured the island, which was of strategic importance to 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 Sezembre, 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.

“They say that this is the largest number of bombings per square meter in all theaters of World War II. Between 4,000 and 5,000 bombs were dropped,” some of which included napalm, explains Philippe Delacott, the book’s author. the book “Secrets of Sesembre Island” (Christel).

On September 2, 1944, the white flag was finally raised and about 350 exhausted men surrendered. “Some of the survivors could say it was like Stalingrad,” says Mr Delacott. The island is completely devastated, so much so that its height has fallen due to the bombs.

⋙ Battle of Stalingrad: a war for memory in Volgograd

Demining

“One of the consequences of these bombings is that at the end of the war, the Ministry of Defense became the owner of the island and closed the area completely,” explains Gwenal Ervuet, project manager for the construction of the conservatory. coast, which became the owner of the island in 2017.

If the first demining, particularly of the beach, began in the 1950s, it was necessary to wait until 2018 for approximately 3% of the island’s surface to finally become accessible to visitors: an approximately 800-meter path allows meandering. between rusting cannons and bunkers, with breathtaking views of Cap Fréhel and Pointe de la Varde.

Martyrs Island, Forbidden Island, now a tourist island

“We can still see the huge cracks and the cannons are impressive,” says Olivier, 25, a farmer from Savoy, one of the hundred or so elderly visitors who came to play the Robinsons on that August day. short vegetation, where there is a restaurant of fine cuisine. The shipping company provides a daily rotation, mostly in summer, from Saint Malo and Dinard.

Since the path opened, “there hasn’t been a single accident,” even though “there are always people who want to go beyond the permitted part,” admits Jean-Christophe René, a coast guard and work technician for the department that manages the site. .

Biodiversity is back on Sesembre Island

Over time, colonies of seabirds such as gulls, cormorants, torda penguins and common terns reappeared. “Everything is great with biodiversity, everything has been resettled and vegetation restored, birds have taken over the territory. It’s just a joy,” says Mr. Hervue.

⋙ A seagull and a seagull: how to distinguish them?

Proof of the importance given to wildlife is that the trail was partially closed in April “to increase the chances of success and flight of the peregrine falcon chicks”, explains Manon Simonnot, head of monitoring for the Bretagne Vivante islands.

Some hikers say they hope the trail will be extended to allow a full view of the island. A pious wish, responds the Conservatoire du littoral: the sums for demining would be astronomical, and now the birds and nature are the masters of Cézembre.

Read also:

Vacation in Europe: 10 islands not to be missed this summer

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Ecotourism: which islands in France are best to visit without a car?

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