Near Saint-Malo: “Isle of Martyrs”, then “Forbidden Island”, Sesembre Rises from the Ashes

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 MEYER)

“This path allows you to discover history”: Cézembre, near Saint Malotrail opened in 2018 after her deminingreceives dozens of summer visitors every day, fascinated and moved by the discovery of this island, which was the most bombed area per square meter during the Second World War.

“There is a lagoon effect, it’s great! – exclaims Maryse Wilmart, a sixty-year-old girl from La Rochelle, looking at the beautiful sandy beach with turquoise water and a unique view of 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 “Danger! The land behind the fences is not cleared.”

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.

Flood of fire

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 were napalm, explains Philippe Delacott, author of Les secrets de l’île de Cézembre (Cristel).

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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.

Demining

“One of the consequences of this bombing 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 Hervoet, project manager for the Conservatoire du littoral, which became the owner of the island in 2017.

If the first deminingin particular the beach, which began in the 1950s, had to wait until 2018 for about 3% of the island to finally become accessible to visitors: a path about 800 m long allows meandering between rusty cannons and bunkers with breathtaking views of Cap Fréhel and Pointe de la Varde.

“We can still see the huge cracks and the cannons are impressive,” says Olivier, 25, a farmer from Savoy who is one of about a hundred summer guests who have come to play Robinsons on the island that August day. vegetation, where there is a gourmet restaurant.

The shipping company provides a daily rotation, mostly in summer, from Saint Malo and Dinard.

Not by chance, but…

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. .

Over time, seabird colonies reappeared as seagulls, cormorants, tord penguins or common murres.

“Biodiversity is great, everything has been re-colonized and re-vegetated, the birds have taken over the site. It’s just a joy,” slips Mr. Hervue.

Evidence of the importance placed on wildlife is that the trail was partially closed in April maximize the chances of success and hatching peregrine falcon chicks “, explains Manon Simonnot, responsible for monitoring the island for Bretagne vivant.

Some hikers say they hope the trail will be extended so the island can be fully explored.

A pious hope, answers the Conservatoire du littoral: the sums for demining would be astronomical, and now the birds and nature are the masters of Cézembre.

Source: © 2022 AFP / Benjamin MASSO.

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