Mine-riddled French island becomes unlikely walkers’ paradise

ILE DE CEZEMBRE • Every year, thousands of day-trippers make the short boat journey from France’s northern coast to the island of Cezembre, marvelling at the spectacular maritime views and flourishing wildlife.

But they better tread carefully and stick to the path, as almost all the island remains perilous due to unexploded munitions from World War II.

Cezembre opened to visits only in 2018, over seven decades after the end of World War II, after extensive demining efforts allowed the opening of a marked path for visitors.

However, the area safe for visitors makes up just 3% of the island, which experts say was the most bombed area of all of World War II in terms of the number of hits per square metre.

“It’s magnificent!” enthused Maryse Wilmart, a 60-year-old visitor from the southwestern town of La Rochelle, contemplating the sandy beach with turquoise waters and looking out to the ramparts of the port city of Saint-Malo beyond.

“But when you see all that behind us…Can you even imagine what happened here?” she asked, pointing to the barbed wire and signs warning “Danger! Ground not cleared beyond the fences!”

‘Like Stalingrad’

A visitor needs to go back 80 years to understand what happened on this usually uninhabited rocky outcrop.

In 1942, the occupying Nazi German army seized the strategically important island and installed bunkers and artillery pieces.

On Aug 17, 1944, Saint-Malo was liberated by the Americans but the Nazi commander of Cezembre, leading some 400 men, refused to surrender.

There then followed a devastating bombardment from the air by the Allies.

“It is said that per square metre it sustained the greatest number of bombardments of all the theatres of operation of World War II,” said Philippe Delacotte, author of the book “The Secrets of the Island of Cezembre”.

“There were between 4,000 and 5,000 bombs dropped”, some of which contained napalm, he said.

On Sept 2, 1944, the white flag was finally raised and some 350 exhausted men surrendered. 

“Some survivors claimed it was like Stalingrad,” Delacotte said. The island was completely devastated, to the extent that its altitude even dropped because of the bombs.

After the war, the island became the property of the French Ministry of Defence and access was totally closed, with the first demining efforts starting in the 1950s.

It was handed over to a public coastal conservation body, the Conservatoire du Littoral, in 2017.

Tourists walk to look at the wreckage of an artillery gun and German bunker on Cezembre Island, off Saint-Malo’s coast (pic AFP)

‘Recolonised and Revegetated’

The path of about 800m (875 yards) lets visitors wander between rusty cannons and bunkers, with breathtaking views towards Cap Frehel and the Pointe de la Varde.

Since the opening of the path, “there has been no accident” even if “there are always people who want to go beyond the authorised section”, said Jean-Christophe Renais, a coast guard.

Over time, colonies of seabirds have reappeared, including seagulls, cormorants, razorbills and guillemots.

“Biodiversity is doing wonderfully, everything has been recolonised and revegetated, birds have taken back possession of the site,” said Gwenal Hervouet, who manages the site for Conservatoire du Littoral. “It’s just a joy.”

Because of the focus on restoring wildlife, the trail was partially closed in April “to maximise the chances of success and the flight of peregrine falcon chicks”, said local conservation activist Manon Simonneau.

Some walkers say they hope the trail will be lengthened to allow a complete tour of the island, but according to the Conservatoire there is little chance of this — the cost of further demining would be astronomical, so it is now birds and nature that are the masters of Cezembre. — AFP / Pics by AFP