Sunday, 28 April 2013

Sur La Plage Bonaparte

When people want to visit the war museums and cemeteries of Northern France they generally head for the coastal towns of Normandy where there are an abundance of sites dedicated to those who fought on French soil....

But in Brittany there are reminders everywhere of the bravery of the Breton people
A stone cross by the roadside to mark the spot where the entire male population of a village was shot by the Nazis in punishment for the shooting of one of its officers....
A memorial erected to the men and women of the Resistance...
A single rose placed by a stream on Remembrance Sunday
The people of Brittany did not submit to German occupation lightly

In a couple of weeks The Ragazza and I will be making our first trip of the year to our home in Brittany, and so I am planning a few days out in order to make the most of our time. I've already set aside a full day for a visit to Océanopolis, the aquarium just outside Brest, inspired by our love of the sea and its treasures, and a return to l'Île de Bréhat which is so beautiful and so relaxing, but I thought I'd also take her to La Plage Bonaparte and teach her a little about the heroism of the Breton people during the second World War... 

"En novembre 1943, deux Franco-canadiens Lucien Dumais et Raymond Labrosse viennent organiser et diriger le réseau " Shelburn ", le le but est de récupérer le personnel navigant des avions alliés abattus en France, et de lui permettre de rejoindre l'Angleterre.

La formation de ce personnel est en effet longue et coûteuse et leur retour Outre-Manche d'autant plus important.

Recueillis en différents points de France, les aviateurs étaient convoyés en train jusqu'aux gares de Saint-Brieuc et Guingamp puis, hébergés dans plusieurs maisons de la région.

De la ils étaient regroupés pour l'embarquement dans la maison de J. Gicquel située à deux kilomètres environ de l'Anse Cochât, plage choisie pour les opérations d'évacuation.

Sous la conduite de Plouhatins connaissant bien les falaises, 20 à 25 aviateurs se rendaient par la lande, à travers des champs de mines, jusqu'à la plage, d'où, à bord d'embarcations en caoutchouc, ils rejoignaient la corvette anglaise qui tous feux éteints mouillait au large.

Le jour prévu pour l'opération était annoncé par la radio anglaise par un message comme :

" Bonjour à tous dans la maison d'Alphonse "

II restait ensuite 180 km à parcourir avant de rejoindre les côtes anglaises.

Cette opération Bonaparte fut menée à bien, huit fois, de janvier à août 1944, permettant d'embarquer 135 personnes, aviateurs américains et canadiens ainsi que des agents secrets.

Elle put réussir grâce au courage et au dévouement de Plouhatins, de Plouhatines mais aussi de plusieurs personnes de la région qui au risque de leur vie, hébergèrent et convoyèrent les aviateurs alliés.

De la maison d'Alphonse, brûlée par les Allemands, il ne reste que quelques pierres."

(Thanks To This Site)

Between January and August, 1944, a total of 135 American and Canadian airmen who had been shot down by the Germans, were secretly taken through these cliffs on dark and moonless nights to await the small boats that would carry them to safety across the channel


The sign reads:

From this beach l'Anse Cochat, now known as Bonaparte Beach, 135 allied airmen shot down on French soil by the Nazis secretly boarded boats for England during the dark nights of 1944.

Thank you to the Resistance of the Shelburn Network of Plouma and of the local area who helped them

Another plaque on the wall of the tunnel read:

The Royal Air Forces Escaping Committee
(Canadian Branch)
Thanks to the Resistance movement and people of this area for their aid in helping Canadian airmen escape or evade capture during 1939-1945


This is Bonaparte Beach

Covered in large pebbles that are difficult to walk on, especially when a strong tide is tugging at your feet

A sheer granite wall to your back and crumbling earth on one side

It is small and secluded and very vulnerable to attack from the surrounding cliffs

This is the beach to which groups of airmen were brought in the dead of night. They had been gathered from all over France, brought to Brittany, hidden in the homes, barns and sheds of the local Bretons and then, when the signal went out
"Hello to everyone in Alphone's house", they were escorted here to await their rescue

Can you imagine standing on the large stones and pebbles of the beach, the tide at your feet, gazing out to sea, your heart pounding with stress, every nerve in your body taut with fear, a prayer on your lips as you listen for the sound of an approaching boat

and praying all the while that you will not be discovered by the enemy because, believe me, once you were on this beach there would have been only one way out alive....

I had thought, briefly, that there should be blood-red poppies pushing through the earth at this spot...

And then I reflected a little more...

From this beach 135 allied airmen were plucked to safety

This is not a place of mourning but of celebration for the bravery of the allied airmen who joined the fight to liberate France, and for the courage of the men and women of Brittany who, in gratitude, risked their lives to send them to safety in England

It is fitting that the cliffs are, today, a veritable wild flower meadow

 I get quite cross when people joke about the part that the French people played in the two World Wars, in fact I become very indignant.

If I could take each one of them to La Plage Bonaparte and tell them the stories associated with this place then I think that they would be a little more respectful of the brave people of Brittany.

PS On a purely personal note, while composing this post I was viewing the photographs that I took during a visit in June 2008. And in the folder was a short video clip that I'd obviously recorded without realizing it, in which my former partner can be heard quite clearly chatting to me as we walked back from the beach. It took me totally unaware, like the sudden appearance of a ghostly image, this voice from the past...      


  1. Thank you for this post. My daughter is studying History of the Holocaust in high school this semester. I am sending her a link to your post. I am sure this is not part of the material they are covering and it is a very important part! When we were in France in 2006, we made a trip out from Paris on a train headed to Rouen. We decided when we reached Rouen not to get off the train but to go wherever it took us. We visited the lovely town of Dieppe, saw the beaches and learned the history of the Dieppe Raid.

  2. Hello operagirl. France is full of such places where heroic deeds took place, and where ordinary people risked their lives in the fight against the occupation. I never fail to be moved by the crosses and plaques that I see everywhere. It is good to remember, it's in remembering that we pay homage to the victims, I think


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