histoires-de-graffitismro-snat.jpgHistoires De Graffitis
©Mathieu Rodriguez De Oliveira

War and Peace Stories in Saint-Nazaire

In 1917, the American Forces joined the war, fighting alongside the Allies against Germany, and chose Saint-Nazaire as one of their most important entry harbours to France and Western European battlefields. From 1941, German troops turned the city into a stronghold when they built the huge submarine base.
The city has preserved the traces of this past. As a witness to history, they provide a better understanding of today’s Saint-Nazaire.

War Stories World War I

World War I

On June 26, 1917, the first American Expeditionary Forces arrived in France via Saint-Nazaire. The USA had joined the war, fighting alongside the Allies, and chose Saint-Nazaire as one of their most important entry harbours to France and Western European battlefields. Between 1917 and 1919, almost 198,000 troops and a daily average of 4,000 tons of material transited through Saint-Nazaire. Day in day out, some 35,000 “Nazairians” lived alongside 30,000 Americans. The Americans carried out considerable work in the harbour as well as in the city to meet their needs, contributing to the modernisation of Saint-Nazaire.

Where is Sammy? In Saint-Nazaire


The “American monument“, nicknamed “Sammy” or even “Saint-Nazaire’s statue of Liberty”, was inaugurated in 1927, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the arrival of American troops in Saint-Nazaire during World War I. The German army destroyed the monument in 1941, but due to a Franco-American subscription campaign, it was rebuilt in 1989.

War Stories World War II

World War II

After the relative bonhomie of the American presence during World War I, people in Saint-Nazaire were in for a shock when German troops arrived in June 1940 and immediately began to build the huge submarine base, a key element of what was called the “Atlantic Wall”. Because of the strategic importance of the submarine base, the city became a choice target for the Allied air forces from 1942. Liberated only on May 11, 1945, three days after V-E Day, more than 85% of Saint-Nazaire was destroyed… and the city no longer had a reason to look towards the harbour: the prospect was no longer of elegant ocean liners but of the submarine base, stark reminder of the city’s darkest days.

The Saint-Nazaire raid, or “Operation Chariot”

On March 28, 1942, at half past one in the morning, the British destroyer HMS Campbeltown, which had undergone some modifications to make her resemble a German warship, appeared in the heart of the harbour of Saint-Nazaire, stronghold of the German Kriegsmarine. Filled to the brim with delayed-action explosives, the ship was rammed into the gates of the huge “Joubert lock”, also known as the Normandie dock, a target which had been chosen very carefully.

The Normandie dock was the only dry dock on the Atlantic coast big enough to shelter large German warships, such as the Tirpitz, if they needed repair. The plan worked out perfectly: the explosives blew up the ship several hours later, and put the dry dock out of use for the rest of the war, while commandos attacked various structures in and around the harbour.

Only 227 men returned to Britain after the raid, 169 were killed and 215 made prisoners by the Germans. Minutely planned and almost incredibly daring, the Saint-Nazaire raid is also known as “the greatest raid of all”. A souvenir ceremony takes place in Saint-Nazaire every year on March 28.

Please note: the cannon from HMS Campbeltown is no longer near Place du Commando, but has been installed on the roof terrace above the submarine Espadon, near its target at the time of the raid, the Normandie dock. As to the tall granite column honouring the victims, it is now standing very close to the estuary, where the ships of the raid came sailing in. You can find it near the Vieux Môle (the Old Jetty).


The Lancastria tragedy

17 June 1940. More than 5,000 people, mostly British soldiers, were crowded aboard the British ocean liner Lancastria off the coast of Saint-Nazaire to escape the German offensive. While she was about to leave the entrance of the Loire estuary, Lancastria was hit by several German bombs: she sank in fifteen minutes… taking over 4,000 souls with her. No one will ever know the exact number of fatalities.