The Burning of Saint Malo

Philip Beck

In August 1944 the historic walled city of Saint Malo, the brightest jewel of the Emerald Coast of Brittany, France, was almost totally destroyed by fire. This should not have happened.

If the attacking U.S. forces had not believed a false report that there were thousands of Germans within the city it might have been saved. They ignored the advice of two citizens who got to their lines and insisted that there were less than 100 Germans -- the members of two anti-aircraft units -- in the city, together with hundreds of civilians who could not get out because the Germans had closed the gates.

A ring of U.S. mortars showered incendiary shells on the magnificent granite houses, which contained much fine panelling and oak staircases as well as antique furniture and porcelain; zealously guarded by successive generations. Thirty thousand valuable books and manuscripts were lost in the burning of the library and the paper ashes were blown miles out to sea. Of the 865 buildings within the walls only 182 remained standing and all were damaged to some degree.

Churchill, in his History of the Second World War,, said two armored and three infantry divisions were detached by Patton from the American assault forces in Normandy to clear the Brittany peninsula. The Germans, he said, "were pressed into their defensive perimeters of Saint Malo, Brest, Lorient and Saint Nazaire."

"Here," he added, "they could be penned and left to wither, thus saving the unnecessary losses which immediate assaults would have required."

This "leaving to wither" hardly happened at Saint Malo. Martin Blumenson in his book Breakout and Pursuit said few of the Americans who set out to take Saint Malo thought it would be a difficult task. But it wasn't long before the 8th Corps, and particularly the 83rd Ohio Division under General Macon, realized they had "a nasty job ahead of them."

The Germans' main defense was concentrated in five strongpoints built by the Todt Organization: to the west of the city, the La Cite fort, a vast subterranean complex carved out of a peninsula between the Rance estauary and the Bay of Saint Servan; in the Bay of Saint Malo, two fortified islands, Cezembre and the Grand Bey; and to the east, the Montaigne Saint Joseph and the La Varde fort, natural geographical features fortified with concrete, which were the first stubborn pockets of resistance encountered by the U.S. forces coming from that direction.

The garrison commander, Colonel Andreas von Aulock, a European representative of General Motors before the war, directed operations from the underground complex. The two AA sites within the city were operated by the Luftwaffe. One, on the walls of the castle at the eastern end, was commanded by Lieutenant Franz Kuster, a pre-war lawyer who subsequently became a judge in West Germany, and the other, in a little public garden facing the sea, was run by an Austrian sergeant.

To this day, a proportion of the citizens of Saint Malo believe the Germans deliberately burnt the city as an act of spite when they realized they were defeated. But all the evidence is against this.

There were many eye-witnesses to the shower of incendiaries launched by the Americans from the east, south and west of the city and the remains of a large number of these missiles were subsequently found in the ruins and identified by experts. There was no evidence of any German incendiary device having been used. In any case, it would have been illogical for Von Aulock, who certainly wasn't a fanatic, to try to burn out the city when he knew the AA units were still there. Besides, he had on the whole been attentive to the safety of the people. He had urged them on several occasions to leave the city, warning them of the horror of street fighting such as he had witnessed at Stalingrad. But a large proportion had preferred to stay because they felt they would be safer in the vast deep cellars created by Saint Malo's famed corsairs for storing their booty, than in the open country which might be transformed into a battlefield. They also feared that their houses might be looted of their valuables if left empty. Von Aulock decreed that any of his men caught looting would be shot, as would any NCO or officer who neglected his duty in this respect. Looting did take place, but the culprits were mainly civilians.

The Germans did, however, cause considerable damage in other respects. On 6 August, a minesweeper in the harbor shelled the cathedral spire which fell, causing extensive damage to the fabric. The excuse was that the spire was being used as an observation post by "terrorists." Von Aulock was furious and told Commander Breithaup, of the 12th minesweeper flotilla that the act "hardly covered the German navy with glory."

The harbor installations, including the massive lockgates, were blown up by the Germans on 7 August, and a number of vessels were scuttled there, thus ensuring that the port could not be used by the Allies.

Another German act was the rounding up of all the men between 16 and 60 in the city for internment at the Fort National, an historic fort on an islet near the castle, only accessible at low tide. This was Von Aulock's revenge for a skirmish which took place in the city on the night of 5-6 August. He was told that "terrorists" had fired on Germans. The French said it was a fight between German soldiers and mutinous sailors; there had been a marked slackening of discipline in the navy.

Unfortunately the fort was in the line of fire between the Americans coming from the east and the fortified island known as Le Grand Bey and inevitably a shell eventually fell in the midst of the several hundred hostages killing or mortally wounding 18.

The old city itself suffered from the exchange of fire between the Americans and the big guns in the underground fort. Many buildings were hit by shells as well as bombs dropped by aircraft.

However, if the damage had been restricted to shells and bombs, most of the city would have been spared. It was the concentrated attack with incendiary mortar shells which destroyed most buildings.

The Americans' belief in the presence of a large number of Germans within the city was fortified by two incidents. On 10 August, two jeeps carrying four Americans and five Frenchmen tried to enter the city by the main gate. The party was under the mistaken impression that it had been liberated. They came under a hail of machinegun fire. An American officer and two of the French were killed and the others taken prisoner.

The following day a truck carrying clothing and ammunition for the Resistance also tried to get in. The two occupants were captured and the vehicle was burnt.

These attacks were the work of the Luftwaffe men on the AA sites but the Americans watching about 500 yards away could well have thought in the confusion of the incidents that the defenders were a much larger force.

However, it is hard to understand why they were scornful of the news brought by the two French emissaries from the city. Yves Burgot and Jean Vergniaud were sent from the castle where they had been sheltering to ask for morphia for the wounded Americans and Germans. They were received coolly by an officer who asked how many Germans remained in the city. They told him there were less than a hundred but he would not accept this and the shelling and burning continued.

A truce was arranged on 13 August to allow the people to get out of the city. By this time a large part of it was either in flames or had been destroyed. The firemen could do little to prevent the spread of the fires as the Americans had severed the water main.

The Americans attacked with tanks on 14 August and, to their undoubted surprise, found the burning city almost empty.

The underground fortress continued to fight until August 17 when Von Aulock surrendered. He was subsequently accused of "the barbaric act of burning the corsairs' city," but after an examination of the ruins including the remains of incendiary shells and the questioning of witnesses, he was vindicated.

From The Journal of Historical Review, Winter 1981 (Vol. 2, No. 4), page 301-304.

About the Author

Philip Beck was an English journalist, historian, artist, actor and theatrical director. For years he lived in the Vale of Evesham (England). He was editor of Berrow's Worcester Journal, and sub-editor of the Evesham Journal. Among his published works were Oradour: The Death of a Village, and The Burning of Saint-Malo, of which this article is a condensation or summary. He and his French wife, Marie-Cecile, were both bi-lingual. He died in 2007, age 92, at his home in Saint Malo (France).