The Germans Are Still There
100,000 Nazis garrison French ports on the Bay of Biscay . . . Canada's fighting ships help to pen them in, starve them out
LT.-CDR. WILLIAM SCLATER
There is a “forgotten front” in the European war; forgotten in the sense that it makes no newspaper headlines. Yet it demands constant effort, constant vigilance, on the part of the Canadians and other United Nations forces who are. engaged on it .. .
This is the blockade and encirclement of 100,000 crack German troops, trapped by the swift Allied advance through France, in and about four ports on the Bay of Biscay. The ports are the French naval bases of L'Orient, St. Nazaire and La Rochelle—all used as submarine bases by the. Germans. The fourth Germa n “holding force" has fortified the mouth of the Gironde and denies the United Nations the use of the great port of Bordeaux.
French Forces of the Interior contain and compress these German troops. At sea the famous Tribal Class destroyers of the Royal Canadian Navy help to blockade the. Germans, supply arms to the FFI, suppress German attempts to escape and gather information about the disposition and movements of the enemy forces.
Here is an account of a not unusual two days on H.M.C.S. Iroquois, brought back to Canada by a naval officer who has just returned.
BISCAY BAY was a calm and pleasant place on this sunlit morning, belying its stormy reputation. The only unpleasant reality lay on the coast of France, clearly visible some five miles to the eastward, and to it the lookouts in H.M.C.S. Iroquois gave their undivided attention.
American, British and Canadian Armies were far to the eastward, invading Germany. But here, isolated by the tide of war, the German garrison forces still stood to their guns, though harried continually by irregular French Forces of the Interior and some small Allied reconnaissance groups. Seaward the Germans saw grim ships of war of the United Nations maintaining a constant patrol.
It was a dangerous coast. Inshore, south of St. Nazaire, was little He d’Yeu. A picturesquely beautiful place in peacetime, with a magnificent 12th century castle and other ruins, its 30odd miles of shore line concealed numerous guns which the Wehrmacht had long waited an opportunity to use. Two days previously Iroquois, clearing hurriedly to seaward as daylight ended her crew’s foraging inshore, had come under their fire. It had been unpleasantly close, one salvo actually straddling the ship.
Germans Have Gone
“Light flashing, sir . . . signal lamp . . . green three O,” called a lookout.
Commander J. C. Hibbard, captain of Iroquois, lifted his binoculars and studied it. In the wing of the bridge
the Yeoman of Signals applied his telescope and spelled out the message to one of his henchmen.
Blinked out slowly, in French, the message was: “Germans have gone.
Send guns and food. We hold island . . . FFI.”
The captain considered the situation. A British destroyer was in sight to the north, on the same patrol. Due south was a Polish destroyer and somewhere south of that again was H.M.C.S. Haida and another British destroyer. No reports had been received from land, sea or aerial reconnaissance of any German evacuation here, although it was known that the FFI were in the area.
It could be that the Wehrmacht were trying out the spider’s role, but this was a fly which could punch back . . . Abruptly the Captain made his decision.
“Request them to send out representatives,” he instructed, adding sotto voce to the rest of the bridge, “we’ll have a look at them anyway.”
An answering blink acknowledged the message and the ship circled, waiting. Shortly a small open motor boat approached the ship. It was manned by three men and a woman, in slacks. All wore the red, white and blue arm band that is the sign and usually the only uniform of the FFI.
Alongside, one man, who said he was the commandant, accompanied by the girl, came on board and entered the captain’s cabin for a conference. The girl, Marie Ann Gaston, had been a schoolteacher on the island before the war and spoke English fluently; a pretty, dark-haired girl of 27, she had the inimitable French gift of appearing chic even in her faded slacks, sweater, sandals, and kerchief round her head.
The Boches, they said, were “Kaputt,” all finished. On the previous day the Germans entered the post office, stole all the island’s currency from its savings bank and evacuated to the mainland during the night. In the morning, observing the “English” ships off the coast, the FFI had signalled and here they were.
Yes, the Boches had gone to the mainland, a few miles away. There were thousands of them there. They had left only four days’ supply of food on the island and no fuel. Soon the people would starve. They asked permission to resume fishing. For months now the English ships off the coast had made it impossible for even small boats to go out, and they had no food but cornhusk flour and fish they could catch from the shore. For the FFI they asked guns and ammunition with which to fight.
There was no guile in these people, only acceptance of whatever might be their lot. They had suffered much but they could suffer more. In their hearts France lived.
Found!—A Piece of Soap
Squeals of delight came from Marie Ann Gaston when she found a piece of soap. This was too much for the sailors. In a matter of minutes she was loaded with cigarettes, soap, candy—treasures
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to her—until her eyes were bright with tears of thankfulness.
Meantime the boat was being loaded with provisions for the FFI and the captain announced that a landing party of an officer and three men, with signal equipment, would accompany them ashore to investigate and report on the local situation.
“Going ashore to land at Port Joinville we were somewhat dubious about what sort of reception we might get. We thought the odd collaborationist or sniper might be around. We were ready, as we thought, for anything but we never got a chance,” later reported Lieut. Jim Saks, Edmonton, leader of the party. “The whole town had turned out and all were waiting at the quayside.
“As we came alongside flowers were dropped on us and all round us. When they discovered some of us could speak French and were Canadians their joy knew no bounds. Despite their halfhearted protests the seamen were hoisted shoulder-high and their gear picked up by willing hands. I managed to stay on my feet but it was an effort.
“At the town hall they fixed up an interrogation room and rounded up everyone who could tell us anything. Pretty soon we knew all there was to know in that area and about the German defenses and dispositions on the mainland.
“It was here that Telegraphist Y. Chevalier, Montreal, met one of those smartly uniformed gendarmes. They both had the same surname and within a matter of minutes had traced their ancestry and discovered they were related. From then on the gendarme was our companion, counsellor and friend. We were part of the family.
“The next problem was to find a spot sufficiently high to set up our signal equipment and call up the ship. The first place we tried was an old 12th century church tower. The priest gave us permission to use it and we started to climb up inside.
“There was a lot of spontaneous joy going on, however, and some enthusiast started to ring the bells just when we were up near the top. It was worse than gunfire on the ears and we came down hurriedly.
“There was another old tower the Germans had been using. We approached it diffidently, suspecting booby traps. There was a strange buzzing on the telephone switchboard in the tower, which the FFI didn’t like a bit. We tied a line to a plug and hauled on it from a safe distance. Nothing happened except that the buzzing stopped. Apparently the switchboard was still getting power and a phone was plugged in. The tower was several miles out of town but an ideal location and gave us a splendid lookout.
“A farmer resurrected an old car which hadn’t run for four years; the FFI produced some gas from a secret cache and we took our equipment out and set it up. A liberation dinner had been planned for us in the town hall that evening but we decided, with regret, that duty would compel us to stand watch.
“The FFI offered to send out a hot meal later on but we asked them not to go to that trouble as we had our rations and would be quite comfortable. They left us then, promising to return in the morning.
“Once the equipment was set up we called the ship but she was beyond our range. We knew, however, that she would close the coast during the night so we set our watches turn and turnabout and made ourselves as comfortable as we could.
“I was on watch when the moon
came up and showed how close we were to the mainland. Through the binoculars I could see every tree and house over there. The knowledge that thousands of Germans were around gave me quite an unusual feeling.
A Festive Floor
“The moonlight was brilliant, but the night was very cold. About three o’clock, when we had established communication and passed our information to the ship, I began to wish I hadn’t been so insistent about turning down the hot meal the FFI had offered. Then we heard a truck coming.
“We got the guns ready and waited. In the truck were four of the leading citizens, accompanied by their wives and all of them dressed up in their Sunday best. When they learned that we couldn’t come to the liberation dinner they had decided to bring it to us.
“And was that ever a party in that old signal tower! We tore down doors for firewood and used our torches for illumination. In the flickering light we could see the German ‘Achtung! The Enemy Is Listening’ notices on the walls as we gathered round the festive floorboards.
“Our hosts had brought fresh lobsters, mayonnaise, which had come from goodness knows where, and champagne, which they had hoarded against the day when they would be free again. With the last remnants of their carefully hoarded flour they had baked a tremendous cake. It was two and a half feet in diameter and about three inches thick. On it was lettered, ‘Vive la France, le Canada, l’Angleterre et l’Amerique.’
“We toasted them and they toasted us, again and again. As our contribution to the feast we produced our rations. They included bread and jam. Our bread is English wartime bread, which is far from white, but it looked white to them, and when they saw the jam their mouths watered. To them it was the greatest delicacy.
“At daybreak, when we were preparing to return to the ship, the FFI commandant, who was to accompany us back and pick up a supply of automatic rifles and other weapons, asked us if we would do them a favor. It was to go back via the cemetery. They wanted, on this great day, to hold a short service there for the dead.
“It was only slightly out of our route and would be short, so we readily agreed and they took us up there by car. It was a quiet little cemetery, surrounded by pines, on a headland looking out over the Atlantic. There were seven British graves and it was over them they held the first service.
“Four of the dead were British soldiers who, swept back in the tide of the great retreat before the advancing Germans in 1940, had found this little island. Here, with their back to the Atlantic, they had stood and fought to the finish. For them there was no surrender.
“Two were Royal Air Force men, whose bodies had been washed ashore by the tides of Biscay, showing the French that the battle still was being fought. The last was a young woman. She had drifted to land without any identification, probably the victim of some submarine attack on a convoy.
“Here they rested under the pines that looked out across the Atlantic, in graves that had been reverently made and reverently tended. They had died fighting for freedom. Each of the graves had a headstone, about four feet high.
“More than a thousand of the townfolks had gathered round, including many Great War veterans wearing their medals. Twenty bugles sang out
and then from the drummers came the last roll of the drums. As the echoes died away the crowd stood with bared, bowed heads, honoring brave souls. Over at the other side of the cemetery the ceremony was repeated over the graves of Frenchmen killed in the last war.
“The French made a last speech of farewell and again asked if they might resume fishing. For weeks past not a single fishing boat had been able to go to sea, so intensive had been the blockade. Night after night they had heard the roll of gunfire to seaward and day after day they had seen the bodies of hundreds of German dead washed ashore after attempts to get away from beleaguered seaports up the coast.
“The last signal from Commander Hibbard had told us that the people could resume fishing in daylight and this announcement made them very happy.
“Our motor cutter had landed arms. As we pushed off the people deluged us again with flowers and shouted ‘Vive les Canadiens?’ At the last moment our gendarme ran down with a bottle of vintage champagne, which he passed to us reverently."
Heads Shaved—But Pretty
Again the Iroquois stood to the northward. From the information which he had gathered Commander Hibbard had decided that another landing would have to be made at a place called Penmärch Point. The situation there needed clarification. It also required a larger landing party so that forces could be split if necessary. Lieut. Richard A. Scrivener, Toronto, led the additional men. On this landing Lieut. Saks states they met the prettiest girls they had seen since they left Canada. They saw quite a few collaborationist girls. Their heads had been shaved and they had covered them with scarves. They looked pretty, too, he said.
Here the FFI had turned out in style and a snappy French racing car took them to the barracks for lunch. This was the most interesting, for they met Frenchmen who had been prisoners of war in Silesia and other prison camps before escaping to join the FFI.
The meal, luxurious to these Frenchmen, was pretty unsatisfying by RCN standards. It consisted of poor quality French wine, a sardine in oil and a mash of dried peas. Here, too, they heard grim stories of the German garrison.
Many SS detachments had been stationed at Penmarch Point, and the garrison was changed frequently. Often they conducted house - to - house searches. If even an empty cartridge case was found the inhabitants were dragged out, beaten and then shot. Their bodies were tossed into the house and it was set aflame.
There was a mass grave where 60 French men and women had been buried after being shot. They had been brought here from another area. As at He d’Yeu the ordinary German soldiery had behaved fairly well, hut the SS detachments were a different breed.
Driven south by the FFI and Allied patrols the German Forces had abandoned the town the previous day. In their retreat to this area the SS troops had lived up to their reputation. One gang of 17-year-old toughs had been playing the white flag trick, offering surrender and then machine-gunning the Allied patrol which came forward to take them. Another little stratagem of theirs was to fit machine guns in Red Cross ambulances and open fire on unsuspecting troops.
On the previous day three wounded Americans, captured by the white flag
method, had been brought in and housed in the local barracks. Early in the afternoon, when the Germans began to evacuate, the young SS toughs gathered up their gear and prepared to leave.
Their last act was to jeer and spit on the helpless prisoners, and then they kicked them, again and again, with their heavy boots. When this failed to make the prisoners grovel they kicked them to death.
Questioned which escape route the Germans responsible for this outrage had followed the Commandant smiled. “There are several thousand,” he said. “When they went south we were waiting. They turned west and found themselves trapped on a peninsula. Your ships do not allow them to escape to seaward and we are on the landward side. In two days, three days, or a week it will be finished. We are very glad to have cornered this particular crowd. They will pay.” As he said that he squeezed his fist shut. There were more than four years of hatred in that gesture.
Every evidence showed that the Germans had made a hasty departure from this area. The signal equipment was found practically intact, and in a forgotten dispatch case was found the most valuable information of all: the complete plans and layout of all German coast and harbor defenses in this area, and valuable data on the disposition of German forces farther south.
“It was apparent from these records that they had been ordered to evacuate the area and make their way back to Germany in any possible manner,” said Commander Hibbard, adding, “it looks as though they had decided to consolidate here when they found themselves cut off by the Allied advance from the south of France. The FFI haven’t much equipment but they are doing a good job and not many of these Germans will get away.”
He could have added that during the previous night he had chased three shiploads of them back onto the beach and blasted them with shellfire when they attempted to wade ashore.
The seaboat had hardly been hoisted when information was received that a German ship was attempting to run the blockade from St. Nazaire. Iroquois engines were revved up swiftly and she sped to the southward to take position to seaward in conformance with the intricate pattern of the blockade. Less than an hour later a laconic message
informed them that the blockade runner had been intercepted and sunk, and she turned back to the northward again, awaiting orders, a unit in the Biscay Patrol.
She had come a long way since her commissioning early in 1943. With her sister Tribals, the crack H.M.C.S. Haida, Huron and Athabaskan, her first employment had been in the bleak wastes of the Arctic seas, running the grim convoy passage to Murmansk.
On Dec. 26, 1943, they were providing close escort on a North Russian convoy when the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst closed in to attack. The six-inch guns of three British cruisers were the heaviest defense the convoy had against the great guns and high speed of the raider.
Up there in the mist-shrouded gloom of the northern seas they fought it out and Scharnhorst was on the run, limping home, when H.M.S. Duke of York came up in time to give her the coup de grâce. The convoy came through unscathed, despite the trailing U-boats and hovering planes of the Luftwaffe that had been waiting to go in for the kill once the Scharnhorst had broken up the convoy.
January brought them to the western approaches of the English Channel and there they stayed through the long months of 1944. Night after night as the sun set over the English coast they slipped and went to sea on the short run to the enemy-held coast of France, to the dark, looming bulk of the land that was under German rule.
In the tradition of Drake, Nelson, Cochrane, and many another admiral of the past, they sought and engaged the enemy. There in the narrow Channel, in the coastal waters held by the Nazis, their guns flamed in many a fierce engagement in the dark, shell-torn nights.
There the crack H.M.C.S. Haida built a reputation that will live for ever in our annals of the sea. There the gallant Athabaskan went to her fighting end. At Ile de Vierge and Ile de Bas, at Sept Iles and off the Brittany Coast they sought and fought the enemy and defeated him on every occasion. D-Day found them guarding the great invasion armada into France and three days later they smashed the German attempt to attack the invasion route in a fight that lasted until after dawn.
Battle-scarred and battlewise they slashed at the Biscay coast, ship after ship going down under their guns, and
German soldiery, tossed in their hundreds into the dark waters, found once again that command of the seas, even off the coasts they held, still rested where it had ever been; that there was no escape that way for them.
Off the beleaguered seaport of Brest they cruised and watched the sky, lit by the fires of the burning city, foretell its end. Southward then to the Spanish border, off the Gironde, off Arcachon and St. Nazaire they kept their grim patrol and every fishing boat in the broad expanse of the Bay came to recognize them and acknowledge their rule.
Now in the daylight they cruise
boldly off the shores of France. Aiding and helping the FFI they are playing their part in harrying the Germans. To every Frenchman still in the occupied areas their silhouettes to seaward symbolize the coming of the forces of liberation.
The men in the ships, among them many who took part in the great evacuation of 1940 when they saw the night close over France, and with them now many who have fought the U-boats on the North Atlantic convoy routes from Halifax, “Newfie” and ’Derry, look on this liberation as symbolic. The long night is over and the day is breaking, a new and a better day . . .