Battles of Saint-Marcel

June 1944

Operation zones of the SAS and the resistance movements (maquis) in Brittany. Source: GNU Free Documentation License.
Operation zones of the SAS and the resistance movements (maquis) in Brittany. Source: GNU Free Documentation License.

The battles in Saint-Marcel marked an important turn of events in Brittany's Resistance movement.

Corps 1

Not far from Vannes, at the western fringes of the village of Saint-Marcel, La Nouette farm was chosen as the landing site for paratroopers and equipment sent by the Free French air operations bureau to the Morbihan Resistance. The operation was codenamed ”Baleine” (whale in French). The first and only parachute landing before the fighting in 1944 was made in May 1943.

However, in late 1943, this area of land was chosen by the departmental head of France's Secret Army to receive arms and reinforcements to be parachuted in at the time of the future landing. A small group of resistance fighters was stationed around the camp.

Operation zones of the SAS and the resistance movements (maquis) in Brittany. Source: GNU Free Documentation License.

The first sabotage operations on the region's railways were launched in May 1944, while the regional military delegate and the commander of Brittany's battalion of artillery workers (BOA) Valentin Abeille arrived in La Nouette. On 23 May, the ”Green Plan” was deployed to destroy all the region's railways, along with the ”Purple Plan”, designed to bring down the telephone lines. The department of Morbihan was divided into five FFI (French Forces of the Interior) sectors.
While on 3 June 1944 the enemy succeeded in arresting Valentin Abeille and his deputy, Edouard Paysant of the BOA arrived in Morbihan with radio equipment. The next day, Radio Londres ordered the immediate execution of both plans and then on 5 June came the order to launch the ”Red Plan” consisting of the guerilla warfare operations. All these operations were intended to facilitate the imminent landing by disrupting the enemy's lines of communications. However, Colonel Morice, head of Le Finistère's FFI declared general mobilisation and the grouping of four FFI battalions while he called on the allied command to parachute arms into the region.

Paul Chanaillier, alias Colonel Morice. Source: DR

During the night of 5 June 1944, at the same time as the first British and American troops were flown into Normandy, the first paratroopers landed in Brittany.

At the door of a C-47 Dakota airplane, a French paratrooper of the SAS (Special Air Service) French Squadron is ready to jump. At his feet is the bag containing his equipment. Source: ECPAD

They were part of the Free French paratroopers, who depended on the SAS (Special Airborne Service), the 2nd Parachutist 'Hunters' Regiment who had already earned itself a reputation for victory, notably as part of the British 8th Army during the Libya Campaign in 1942 and 1943. This unit was led by Colonel Bourgoin.

Colonel Bourgoin. Source: Musée de l'Ordre de la Libération

The paratroopers had a twofold mission: to carry out sabotage operations to cut off the Breton peninsula and block the route for transporting German reinforcements to the landing sites and to infiltrate Brittany and set up bases to receive parachute and airborne units. Thus two precursory detachments were dropped onto the northern coasts and into Morbihan to investigate the enemy forces and the defensive opportunities in cooperation with the Resistance, with the intention of setting up home base for future operations.

Corps 2

Likewise, in Morbihan, Lieutenant Marienne's group was parachuted in to Plumelec and Lieutenant Deplante's near Guéhenno. Marienne's group came under heavy attack by the German garrison in Plumelec and lost one man, Corporal Bouëtard from Brittany, the first allied soldier killed in the Liberation battles. Three radios and transmission equipment were captured by the enemy.

Lieutenant Marienne. Source: DR

On 6 June, the local and departmental Resistance leaders all met at the camp in La Nouette. Some maquisards (rural guerrilla bands) also came, joined on 7 June by many volonteers including a notable number of women and paratroopers including lieutenants Marienne and Deplante.

1940s retrospective. Source: Ouest France

La Nouette, codenamed base Dingson, was the designated rallying point for the paratroopers in Morbihan. On 8 June, impressed by the size and efficient organisation of the maquis, Marienne sent a message to Colonel Bourgoin, at that time based in London, requesting arms, petrol, medical supplies and uniforms. He urged his superior to join him. Over the following days, the maquis was reinforced notably by a battalion sent from Ploërmel-Josselin and then by Colonel Bourgoin himself. A few days later still, some fifty or men joined the camp followed by 150 more. British planes dropped a significant load of equipment, some 700 containers, during the night of 13 June.
While Colonel Bourgoin decided to continue guerrilla warfare operations and avoid all pitched battles, the Germans launched six regiments from the ”Eastern Units” to hunt down the so-called ”terrorists”. Consequently, the battles started before the order to disperse the maquis could be given. During the battle, the camp in La Nouette was protected by some 2,400 men, resistance members and paratroopers. The Germans attacked with twice the manpower and superior armament.
In the morning of 18 June 1944, the Germans launched two successive attacks. After several hours of fighting and suffering heavy losses, they were obliged to withdraw. In the afternoon, the Wehrmacht launched a third attack after receiving receiving reinforcements, mostly from a paratrooper division. The enemy managed to advance during violent fighting while the Germans were bombarded by British planes. The Germans were sent further reinforcements. While Bois Joly farm was taken by the enemy, a side counter-offensive pushed the enemy troops back. However, that night, the Germans advanced in force. The battles were extremely bloody and Colonels Bourgoin and Morice ordered the pulling out and dispersal of the maquis. The camp was slowly evacuated after the reserves of explosives and munitions were exploded. The following day, 19 June, the Germans completely invaded the camp.

1940s retrospective. Source: Ouest France

In Saint-Marcel and the surrounding towns and villages, the maquisards were hunted and the populations terrorised. The brutalities increased and summary executions took place, mainly of several resistance fighters and paratroopers but also of civilians. On 25 and 27 June the chateaux of Sainte-Geneviève and Hardys-Béhélec were burned down and what remained of the farms and the town of Saint Marcel was destroyed.

German forces interrogating the inhabitants of a Breton village suspected of being terrorists. July 1944. Source: German Federal Archive

It's important to remember that during the battles some 30 French soldiers were killed, some sixty were wounded and fifteen or so taken prisoner. German losses were estimated to be between 300 and 500 men, showing the intensity of the fighting.
After the maquis were dispersed, the paratroopers and resistance members continued with their mission to disrupt and sabotage the enemy's rear.
It wasn't until August when the Americans penetrated the enemy line at Avranches to head to the east and south of France that all of Brittany fell under control of the maquisards. Then nearly 80,000 men fought alongside the American troops and liberated the south coast of Brittany as far as Quiberon and Crozon in late August. The Germans were forced to withdraw to the ports of Brest, Lorient and Saint-Nazaire.