By Roderick Miller
At least 2 Channel Islanders were imprisoned in Fort de la Cité d’Alet in St Servan (now a sub-district of St Malo), France. The Fort is often referred to in English simply as ‘the Citadel’. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the coastal town of St Malo had fallen under British attack on numerous occasions, and it was decided in 1759 to build a vast fort on the nearby Alet Peninsula. The construction of the fort was completed in 1762 and included sea walls, trench walls, two bastions of artillery commanding a view of the harbour, and classical fortification on the land side, including two guardhouses, three stores, an armoury, and – important for this story – a prison.
After the Nazi occupation of France in 1940, the Germans initially showed little interest in the Fort at St Servan, as it was considered obsolete by modern standards. But with Hitler’s decision to build the Atlantic Wall fortifications in 1942, German geologists and engineers designed a deep underground system to protect the Fort’s soldiers from artillery and aerial attack. Renovation work began in early 1943, using up to 2000 forced labourers and Organisation Todt employees from throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. The Festung St-Malo (‘St Malo Fortress’) became one of the major Atlantic Wall headquarters, with a garrison of 8,000 German troops in the Fort and another 4,000 in the immediate area – troop numbers that were later seriously underestimated by the allies.
Channel Islanders Joseph Tierney and Frederick Page were deported together from Jersey and imprisoned for two nights in St Servan, from 18 to 20 September 1943. They had been convicted of radio offences by the German Feldkommandantur 515 and were held in a brief stopover in the Fort de la Cité on the way to their first long-term incarceration in Fort d’Hauteville Prison near Dijon. The only known documentary evidence of their stay in St Servan is an undated letter from Joseph Tierney to his family, sent from Fort d’Hauteville:
Dear Mum and Dad,
I am just writing to let you know that I am alright. We had a rather rough crossing and I was a little bit sick. When we arrived at St Malo we went on to a prison at St Servan where we had to stay until Monday morning. For our tea Sunday evening we had plenty of mashed potatoes, cauliflower + about 1/2 a pound of fish. We had so much we could not eat it all.
They were soon on their way to Dijon and the terrible living conditions of Fort d’Hauteville prison.
After the Allied D-Day invasion of June 1944, securing St Malo from the Germans became an Allied priority. Here is a description of the Fort in St Servan just prior to the Allied attacks, referred to in this article as ‘the Citadel’. This gives some indication of what the two Islanders may have witnessed whilst imprisoned there:
A casemated strongpoint of connected blockhouses, the Citadel was effective against an approach from almost any direction. Where the guns of the Citadel could not fire, pieces at Dinard and Cézembre [other St Malo forts] could. Although the firepower that the fort could deliver was not overwhelmingly impressive – half a dozen field pieces (the largest of 105-mm. caliber), several mortars, and perhaps 18 or 20 machine guns comprised the armament – the weapons were mutually supporting. In the event that invaders would manage somehow to scale the walls, weapons were fixed to cover the interior court. The walls shielding the defenders were of concrete, stone, and steel, so thick that they were virtually impervious to artillery and air bombardment. Inside the fort, aeration and heat ducts, a vast reservoir of water, a large amount of food and supplies, and a subterranean railroad to transport ammunition and heavy equipment facilitated the ability to withstand siege. Blocking the landward approaches were barbed wire, four lines of steel rails placed vertically in cement, and an antitank ditch. Periscopes emerging from the ground level roof of the interior fort provided observation. To improve visibility and fields of fire, the Germans had knocked down several houses in St Servan, and only the pleading of the mayor had saved a 12th century church from a similar fate. Personifying the strength of the Citadel was the commander, Aulock, who was determined to bring credit to himself and his forces. According to prisoners, resistance continued ‘only because of Colonel von Aulock.‘ —Martin Blumenson
The US Army laid extended siege to the Fort during the first weeks of August 1944, yet despite numerous ground troop attacks and constant artillery and air attacks – the latter of which include some of the earliest uses of a new weapon called ‘napalm’ – the Germans were able to hold out until finally surrendering on 17 August, probably more from battle fatigue than from casualties or shortage of supplies and ammunition. Around 10,000 German Wehrmacht troops were taken prisoner in the St Malo area alone. The fate and number of non-German forced labourers who were trapped inside the Fort during the Allied attack is unknown. The Allies had liberated St Malo, but at a price: heavy casualties among US troops and 80% of the medieval town of St Malo lay in ruins.
After the war, the town of St Servan was incorporated into the community of St Malo (in 1967), and the Fort became a memorial centre that includes a museum run by the city. It is a popular tourist attraction for the city and is even included as part of a series of bunker tours run by businesses operating out of Jersey.
Neither of the Channel Islanders imprisoned in the Fort de la Cité d’Alet in St Servan survived Nazi captivity: Frederick Page died on 5 January 1945 in Naumburg Prison, and Joseph Tierney died on 4 May 1945 in a prison transport cattle wagon near the town of Kaštice in the current Czech Republic.
Blumenson, Martin: ‘St Malo and the North Shore’, in United States Army in World War II, Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington DC, 1960, pp. 389-415. Link
Peyle, Éric, Les ouvrages de défense de la presqu’île de la Cité d’Alet du XVIIe siècle à 1944 (in French), Société d’histoire et d’archéologie de Bretagne. PDF (38k)
Private archive belonging to the family of Joseph Tierney.