“Isle of Martyrs”, then “Forbidden Island”, Sesembre rises from the ashes off the coast of Brittany

“There’s a lagoon effect, it’s great!”Maryse Wilmart, a sixty-year-old girl from La Rochelle, admires, looking at the wonderful sandy beach with turquoise water and the unique view of the defense ramparts of the corsair city.

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

Visitors look at the ruins of a German bunker with a rusted gun on August 5, 2022, on the island of Sesembre near Saint-Malo. AFP / Damien MAYER.

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.”including some with napalm, explains Philip Delacott, author of the book “Mysteries of Sesembre Island” (Crystal).

A sign warns visitors of danger on the island of Sesembre near Saint-Malo on August 5, 2022 AFP / Damien MAYER.

On September 2, 1944, the white flag was finally raised and about 350 exhausted men surrendered. “Some survivors may 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.


“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 place completely”– explains Gwenal Hervoet, project manager for the Conservatoire du littoral, which became the owner of the island in 2017.

View from the height of the fortifications on the island of Sesembr near Saint-Malo, August 4, 2022. AFP / Damien MAYER.

If the first demining, in particular 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: a path approximately 800 m long allows you to loop around. between rusting cannons and bunkers, with breathtaking views of Cap Fréhel and Pointe de la Varde.

“We can still see huge cracks and the guns are impressive”, says Olivier, 25, a farmer from Savoy, one of about a hundred summer visitors who have come to play Robinsons this August day on this sparsely vegetated island, which has a gourmet restaurant. The shipping company provides a daily rotation, mostly in summer, from Saint Malo and Dinard.

Since the opening of the trail, “there was no accident” the same “if there are still those who wish to go beyond the permitted part”– says Jean-Christophe René, coast guard and technician of the department that manages the facility.

Visitors walk on the island of Sesembre near Saint-Malo on August 5, 2022. AFP / Damien MAYER.

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

Evidence of the importance placed on wildlife is that the trail was partially closed in April “maximize the chances of success and fledging of peregrine falcons”– explains Manon Simonnot, responsible for monitoring the island for Bretagne Vivante.

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.


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