A Town and its Harbour

American soldiers in Saint-Nazaire, 1917
The German submarine base during WW2

Heritage of two World Wars

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; there were mutual discovery, concerts, fights and weddings… At that time, Saint-Nazaire and neighbouring Nantes also were probably the main gateways of jazz into Europe.

After the relative bonhomie of the American presence during World War 1, 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, important element of what was called the “Atlantic Wall”. 14 pens assured shelter for the infamous U-boats, which regularly attacked Allied convoys in the North Sea and the Atlantic. What’s more, the submarine base crushed under its monstrous volume of 480,000 cubic metres of concrete the former transatlantic docks; and because of the strategic importance of the submarine base, the city became a choice target for the Allied air forces. Liberated only on May 11, 1945, three days after V-E Day, Saint-Nazaire was destroyed at more than 85%... 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.

Read about "operation Chariot", the daring British raid of March 28, 1942...