Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I have been to... St Nazaire

Being the 'sad muppet' (transl. "geek") I am, I have a strong interest in military history of all periods, and I have long had a desire to visit the U Boat pens in St. Nazaire. Now we've been holidaying in various parts of Brittany and the Vendee for a number of years now (10+), so it's been at least for as long as that.. but given the added interest of perhaps being able to explore the "Operation Chariot" aspect then this year was definitely going to be "it" as far as I was concerned!

As it turned out I was able to persuade the family that they really did want to sit in the car for an hour while we travelled from where we were staying to St. Nazaire (offered ice creams, shops and opportunity to spend holiday money!), but better still, unlike my normal battlefield visits the weather was very kind being sunny and warm..!

So was it worth it?? Very definitely "yes" & funnily enough, for a slightly different reason, I think the family would agree with that as well... more on that later.

First off, the site is very easy to get to; when you travel from the south as we were doing you come over the bridge, and immediately start looking for left turns marked "vielle port" or old port - follow these and after a mile or so the pens loom up in front of you...

First impression - they are absolutely huge - the picture following shows the "back" of the pens (ie. the side facing inland) with a full size fluids tanker parked against the wall for scale.

The pens at St. Nazaire were just one of five U-boat bases on the Atlantic coast of France, servicing the U-Boats operating into the Bay of Biscay. This one was was constructed between January 1941 and December 1942 by several thousand slave labourers of the Todt organisation. When finished it consisted of U-Boat docks/pens (14 of them), offices, workshops, a hospital, and store rooms.

It covers a total area of around 390,000 square meters and required 480,000 square meters of concrete to build the structure with 3.5 meter thick walls and a 5 meter deep roof, which was designed to withstand bombs of up to 3.5 tons (this was called "fangrost" by the Germans and was a system of displaced beams to allow a bomb blast to be dissipated rather than concentrated).

The site is in remarkably good condition - no doubt the sheer size/strength of it is enough to put off most demolition attempts, but I was quite surprised at the condition of the concrete and that more of it wasn't crumbling - I read on the web that it used so much concrete that the Germans had to resort to dredging to get enough hard core to mix into the cement, and from experience salt and cement don't mix well.

The site is also completely open - you can wander around it to hearts content, no ticket needed - the pens are all there to see (except the two end one's - more anon)

...and you can even still see notices painted on the wall - I spotted this one, which a German colleague translated for me - he thinks it says: "This side is a walkway and must not be blocked with" ?? something (possibly Gerüsthölzer, which would make some sense in a military environment as it means scaffolding equipment planks/poles etc.)

You can also get to the top of the pens via steps or via a road that the French have built for easy access - the views are stunning.... the blockhouse opposite now hosts a museum devoted to the French submarine service, but originally it was the fortified dock entrance to the basin (the modern entrance can be seen immediately to the right of it) - you can still see a pill box on top of it..

..and this is what they would have looked like at the time..

The other reason I wanted to visit the area was to see the site of "Operation Chariot" that I mentioned in a previous post on the Nazaire raid... now I should have known that it was all going too well, but who would have known that Steve the Wargamer would pick the one day that the whole of that area of the port was to be closed off for a music festival!

Undeterred however, and in the true spirit of Mr Featherstone, I looked for an alternate access to the area and managed to get the following pictures... this is the old mole which was where the commando's were to land (you can see the music tent to the right!). I took this from the breakwater by the entrance to the Normandy dock - I'd estimate it was no more than 300 yards away??

Turning to my left I also got this which is the entrance to the dock - the structure with the tyre hanging on it is the right hand side of the entrance and this was where Campbeltown would have struck - it was rebuilt after the war, but the breakwater I was standing on comprised huge chunks of broken reinforced concrete which may have been rubble from the explosion re-used afterwards??

Another view of the fortified dock entrance

Finally a view of the dock gate, and one of a number of buildings surrounding the dock, now reused, but which to me look like they may have been constructed at the same time as the pens, and the dock entrance - the concrete is very thick for just a garage (which is what they are now) and I'm wondering if they may have protected the various pieces of equipment (pumps etc.) to operate the dry dock.

Not withstanding all this scrambling up and down broken rubble to get pictures - while my family looked on in amazement (though they should know me by now) - when I asked them if they'd enjoyed the day there was a unanimous "yes". Have to be honest and say that this wasn't because of a burgeoning interest in military history as more because of the visit they'd taken to the museum located within the first two pens of the U-Boat base.

St. Nazaire is famous for it's shipbuilding heritage - the reason the dry dock was there was for this reason. The big blue ribbon transatlantic liners ("Normandy", France", etc.) were built here, and to celebrate this there is an absolutely brilliant museum to visit - Escal Atlantique.

The museum is entered via a "gang plank" and the whole of the museum is then in the form of being on one of the liners. There's lots of old films to see, cabin interiors as they would have been at the time, engine rooms, state rooms, restaurants etc. Lots of pictures and things to look at and see.. If you're going to St. Nazaire then I wholeheartedly recommend it - it was fascinating.... and the bit the girls liked best was the exit from the museum, which was the most fun way I've ever left a museum bar none (and no I'll not tell you anymore, you need to visit!)


  1. Great post!

    I almost expect to hear the sinister theme music from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' and see a huge swastika hanging from a gantry crane sweep by me.

  2. Steve,

    That was an excellent and informative post. Hats off to you for combining your trip with a great day for the rest of the family!


  3. Excellent photos, Steve.

    Best wishes


  4. V interesting post. I hope you saw Jeremy Clarkson's recently repeated TV prog on the St. Nazaire raid. A friend of mine was on the accompanying programme which showed how they built the model etc. He helped build the model of Cambletown. Just increadible bravery from those taking part.


  5. Thanks for the report. I will never get to visit . . . indeed I may never leave British Columbia (west coast of Canada for those who don't know) . . . so I appreciate the photos and accounts of your visits to historic places.

    -- Jeff

  6. Hi Steve,

    Terrific photos and description of your family's visit. Thanks for sharing. It looks absolutely fascinating!

    Best Regards,