Events in June

This summer will see an important anniversary in Anglo French history and a commemoration of the part played in this story by the neighbouring Celtic countries of Brittany & Cornwall, writes John MacWilliams.

70 years ago this summer, most of France was occupied by the Nazi army. Hundreds of French people, unwilling to accept German occupation, escaped to the UK, many of them to Cornwall.

On 15th June 1940 General de Gaulle left France and on the 18th made his famous radio broadcast from London to the French people. He told them, We have lost the battle; We have not lost the War. He asked them to join him in fighting for a Free France. This was the beginning of the Free French movement which was to grow into a major force fighting alongside the Allies.

At a time when much of Europe was occupied and Britain was fighting alone, many people thought this a hopeless cause. Not the people of the tiny island of Sein off Brittany’s Land’s End, the Pointe du Raz.

The local lighthouse keeper had a radio and listened to General de Gaulle’s message. He told the islanders about it and they held a meeting to decide what to do. In an act of extraordinary faith and courage, they decided that practically all the men of the island would leave and sail to Newlyn to join the Free French.

The first wave set sail from the Ile de Sein and headed for Newlyn on the 24th June 1940 in the local light house tender Velleda and Prosper Couillandre’s sloop crabber Rouanez ar Mor (Breton:Queen of the Sea.) The second wave of volunteers sailed for Newlyn two days later in three crabbers, Martin Guilcher’s Maris Stella Au 1703 (Star of the Sea), Francois Fouquet’s Rouanez ar Peoc’h (Breton: Queen of Peace) and Pierre Couillandre’s Corbeau des Mers Au 1684 (Sea Raven).

Meanwhile, in nearby Audierne, a group of young volunteers boarded the Ile de Sein mail boat Ar Zenith and were soon joined by Lieutenant Dupont and his 15 soldiers of the Chasseurs Alpins regiment. The Ar Zenith headed for Plymouth with her volunteers. She served as an ammunition carrier at Falmouth docks during the War and is now preserved as a French national monument at St Servan near St Malo.

On 19th June the large crawfish boat Trebouliste, which had spent her peacetime voyages fishing off Mauritania, West Africa, set sail from Douarnenez with 108 young pilots from the French Airforce school near Morlaix. Many of these young flyers were to give their lives fighting for a Free France. They are honoured by a monument on Douarnenez’s Rosmeur harbour.

Many others escaped from Brittany in fishing boats. Among the best known was Jules Mevel, known in Cornwall as Captain Jules who sailed from Camaret in his crabber Louis Jules Cm 2436 and fished from Padstow throughout the War. When he later built a new boat she was called the Padstow.

The Germans soon tightened up their control of the occupied coast and escapes became more difficult and dangerous. On 16th December 1940 the crabber Emigrant Cm 2212 left Camaret with 14 escapers, including two RAF pilots, nailed into a secret compartment. The crabber was searched by the Germans with their dogs. They went ashore wishing them Bon Voyach!. This escape was led by French Airforce pilot Jacques Andrieux and the legendary Daniel Lomenech who became a leader in secret operations. Among the crew was Jean Louis le Breton who later married a local girl & settled in Penzance.

Colonel Andrieux wrote of their arrival off Cornwall, The skipper shouted “Cornwall straight ahead!” Everyone was delirious. The boat rushed on through a heavy swell. England was there, a dark line on the horizon. The skipper— unrolled the Tricolour which was wrapped around his body. In an instant our colours were flapping at the masthead. We were welcomed like heroes. Surrounded by men of the security service, we left for London.

On 3rd October 1942 the le Guilvinec crabber Audacieux Gv 5167 was escorted into Newlyn by the Belgian trawler Zeemeermin H 56. The Audacieux had been involved in landing arms to the French Resistance and her crew escaped from the Gestapo in the nick of time. They spent the rest of the War living safely at Gwavas Quay, Newlyn & working for J & F Pool of Hayle.

Cornwall was also deeply involved in Secret Operations sending agents into occupied France in French fishing boats. Agents sailed from Newlyn, Falmouth, the Helford & the Isles of Scilly. M Franck Bauer, who served as Free French officer at Newlyn wrote, In effect there reigned at Newlyn an odour of secrecy and espionage. I met, without always identifying them, many of the actors in this silent war.

Not all secret operations were successful. Starting in October 1940 the Camaret crabber Marie Louise made 5 secret voyages from Newlyn to the little coves of Cap Sizun for the Free French which ended with her entrapment and capture on 14th February 1941. The Emigrant was also sent on secret operations and was captured on her second voyage on 19th April 1941.

The most successful operation was led by Lieutenant Stephen Mackenzie and Daniel Lomenech in the ex Concarneau trawler le Dinan in April 1942. They sailed from the Isles of Scilly, made a rendezvous with the courageous crew of the little Concarneau sailing boat Les deux Anges and rescued resistance hero Colonel Remy and his family. They also brought back the War winning plans of the German Atlantic Wall coastal defences.

Among those who served in secret operations was Mr George Peake who later became French consul at Newlyn where he was greatly liked and respected by generations of French fishermen who knew him as Monsieur Georges. He served in the sailing vessel le Mutin which still sails as the oldest ship in the French Navy. Her crew are well aware of her story and take great pride in it.

On 7th November 1942 the Allies began Operation Torch, the invasion of French North Africa. The Germans immediately invaded the Vichy or Free Zone of France and in February 1943 introduced compulsory work service, “Service de Travail Obligatoire” under which thousands of young French people were shipped off to work in German factories. This speeded up the pace of escapes to join the Free French, many of them from Brittany to Cornwall. The Germans were infuriated by the number of escapes from Douarnenez and imposed even stricter controls.

Perhaps few Cornish people realise the role of Cornwall in these dramatic and dangerous times, leading eventually to the Liberation of France and the defeat of Nazism. Plans are being made to commemorate this story in a lively and imaginative way. In June a flotilla of Breton traditional boats will arrive at Newlyn to remember the events of June 1940 and the beginning of Free France. It is hoped that the boats will include the Belle Etoile from Camaret, the Cap Sizun from Audierne and the Corbeau des Mers, one of the original four Ile de Sein crabbers which brought those courageous volunteers to carry on the struggle against Nazi tyranny seventy years ago.