Human habitation of the Armorician peninsula began during the Paleolithic era c.8000 BC but it was arrival of the Britons in the 5th century AD that gave the land its unique culture and character. The Britons were Romanized Celts fleeing the invasions of Angles, Saxons and other Germanic tribes that followed the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain. Armoricia became a new Britain and Celts continued to call themselves Britons. The confusion was solved when cartographers began referring to the island as "Great" Britain and the continental settlements as Brittany, i.e. "little" Britain. The Britons of Armoricia became Bretons.
Conflict between the Bretons and the Germanic tribes did not end with the move to the continent. War with the Franks continued for another half millennium before Brittany’s status as an independent duchy was established in 938. That status gradually eroded over the ensuing centuries and on September 21, 1532 a Pact of Union made Brittany a French province, although it retained many rights of autonomy.
The Revolution and a decree of the National Assembly abolished that autonomy. Brittany ceased to exist as a political entity in 1789. The duchy was divided into administrative units called departments. Prefects, appointed by Paris, were sent to bring the legal, education and civil administrative systems of the departments into conformity with those decreed by the central government.
Despite the efforts of the central government, Brittany remained and remains in many ways a place apart. It was and is more rural, more conservative and more Catholic than the rest of France. The Celtic language and culture has yet to be fully supplanted by the French. The struggle between the competing cultures profoundly affected Brittany and the Bretons during the world wars.
La Grande Guerre
A million Bretons answered the French call to arms in World War I. A quarter of them never returned. Bretons were killed and wounded at a rate twice the national average.
The wartime experiences of Breton soldiers and sailors had a contradictory affect on Franco-Breton relations. For many Bretons service in the trenches of Verdun or on the Marne was their first exposure to the France and French of other regions. Most of the veterans found the bounds of their patriotism now extended beyond the borders of their native province. Contact with the broader French society also accelerated a decline in the use of Breton and Gallo dialects. Others saw Brittany’s disproportionate share of the national sacrifice as proof that in the eyes of Paris, they were ignorant peasants fit only for service as cannon fodder.
The Revival of Breton Nationalism
The decades following the Great War were a time of intellectual and political ferment. Bretons struggled with a wrenching societal change wrought by the conflict and wide variety of cures were prescribed for their pains. These ranged from revival of the old Celtic culture and language to regional autonomy within France or outright independence.
The Parti National Breton (PNB) founded in 1919 by Fanch Debauvais.and Olier Mordrel looked to Ireland and that country’s successful rebellion for inspiration. Publicly, the PNB contented itself with calls for cultural renewal in Breiz Atao (Brittany Forever), the party journal edited by Mordrel. The party’s true agenda and the means by which it would be fulfilled became more apparent and sinister as time wore on.
The PNB’s program for the creation of an independent and fascist Breton state, Strolladar ar Gelted Adsavet (Reunion of Celts Reborn), was first outlined in Breiz Atao in 1933. SaGA extolled the racial superiority of Bretons. Brittany was to be governed by a peculiar mix of ideas borrowed from fascism, communism and Christianity. Agriculture and small businesses would form the backbone of the new order. Ordinary workers would be organized into corporate syndicates. Non-Bretons were to be excluded from the rights of citizenship. Jews, Negros and Latins would be barred from public office and Bretons who opposed the regime would find themselves stripped of civic rights and treated as aliens.
Prelude to War
The PNB’s attacks on French democracy grew ever more strident as German demands pushed Europe down the path towards a second world war. Debauvais and Mordrel adopted the old IRA philosophy, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, as their mantra. The enemies of France were to be viewed as the allies of Breton nationalism. Breiz Atao began a policy of open support for Germany with editorials praising the remilitarization of the Rhineland, annexation of Austria and the Munich Pact. A secret terrorist cell was formed within the party. It was christened "Gwenn ha Du" in hommage to a Breton flag designed by Morvan Marchal in 1925. In retrospect the "terrorism" seems not very terrifying. The appearances of visiting "Parisian" dignitaries were disrupted by hecklers and a couple of monuments commemorating the union with France were blown up but the tolerance of the French authorities was pushed to the limit during the 1930s.
The party had a less impressive impact in the electoral arena. It participated in the 1936 legislative contest as part of the rightist Breton Front. The Front took 207,022 of 686,507 votes cast in the region’s first round of balloting. Nationally, they were overwhelmed by Leon Blum’s Popular Front a coalition of Radical Socialists, Socialists and Communists.
The authorities kept a careful watch on the Breton extremists and by 1937 the police had gathered sufficient information to begin a crackdown. Celestin Laine, leader of the Kadervenn stormtroopers, was arrested when the police raided the group’s swearing in ceremony. He was convicted on sedition charges and given a six month prison sentence. Mordrel and Debauvais were convicted on similar charges and sentenced to a fine of 20000 francs and 1 year in prison, each. Mordrel’s sentence was later suspended.
The pair showed little remorse. Breiz Atao continued its solidarity with Germany. An editorial in the paper’s last issue demanded that no blood be shed for Danzig. It was published on August 27, 1939 just as Mordrel and Debauvais fled into neutral Belgium leaving Laine in charge of the movement inside Brittany.
WORLD WAR TWO
The Opening Act
The exiles paused in Belgium long enough to reverse party policy. They were certain of a quick German victory but feared an anti-Breton backlash from a defeated French administration. The "no blood for Danzig" policy was dropped. The nationalists, Celestin Laine among them, followed instructions and mobilized with rest of France.
Debauvais and Mordrel made their way to Berlin where they hoped to gain German support for the creation of an independent Breton state. A manifesto was issued. It declared that separation from France, if necessary by alliance with Germany, was the only means of fulfilling Breton nationalist aspirations. The Germans were still hoping to negotiate a settlement with France and Britain and gave the Bretons a rather frosty reception. A French court sentenced them in absentia to 5 years imprisonment for insubordination in time of war. The PNB was dissolved and its properties seized by decree. Celestin Laine was sent to the stockade for spreading defeatism among the troops. Laine was court martialed and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment on February 23, 1940. Debauvais and Mordrel were again tried and convicted in absentia, this time of treason. They were sentenced to death on May 7, 1940. Three days later, the Germans began to invade France and the low countries.
The first German paratrooper had no sooner brushed the dirt of Flanders off himself than Debauvais and Mordrel were once more offering their services to Berlin. This time they stole a page from the repertoire of WW1 era Irish nationalist Roger Casement. The Germans hoped to find willing turncoats among the ranks of Breton POWs. These would form part of a special advance guard which would clear the way for the occupation of Brittany and smooth things over with the local population. Debauvais and Mordrel would be the recruiters. Special camps were established to isolate Bretons from other French POWs. They had no more success than Casement. Mordrel was nearly lynched by the prisoners at Hoyerswerda camp and only the quick intervention of Landsturm troopers saved him. Some 150 homesick POWs finally volunteered but the French collapse was so swift they reached Brittany after the main German force.
The Breton Redoubt
Refuge in Brittany was never far from the thoughts of Paul Reynaud and Charles DeGaulle as the premier and the general struggled to keep France in the fight during the tragic days following Dunkirk Reynaud first suggested a removal of the government to Brittany when General Weygand informed him of the imminent threat to Paris posed by German attacks along the Somme on June 5, 1940. The idea was quickly dismissed. Weygand called the peninsula a place of no military value and Marshal Petain concurred. The Chief of the Armies and the hero of Verdun insisted the battle was lost and it was time for France to strike a bargain with the enemy. Weygand expressed a fervent hope that the victors would permit him to retain enough troops to suppress the true enemy, the communists and socialists. It was a position they would maintain through out the ordeal.
Two days later with German pressure about to force the French line, Reynaud remained insistent that the fight continue even if Paris should fall. Weygand addressed the cabinet and demanded to know how the fight could be carried on in such an event. He reminded them that the Paris region produced 70% of French arms. The Premier again called for a last stand in Brittany and again Weygand dismissed the idea calling it a fantasy. Petain insisted it was time to request an armistice.
By June 10th the Germans were less than 40 miles from the capital. It was now time for the government to depart or face capture. The cabinet met to discuss the flight. Reynaud again urged his generals to prepare for a last stand in Brittany. "It’s a waste of time", Weygand testily retorted. Privately, Weygand opined that the idea was a bad joke. He blamed DeGaulle for, "pushing the premier into this fantasy of a Breton redoubt".
The next morning, Degaulle met with Reynaud in Tours. He argued for the Breton Redoubt at length and persuasively. He explained how the narrow hilly terrain of the peninsula would lend itself to anti-tank defense. He extolled its proximity to England as offering the best chance for procuring supplies and support from the RAF and the British and French fleets. The French armies in Brittany and the Vosges would have a chance to regroup while the Germans were thinking twice about entering the gap between them. The fight would go on. The Premier seemed convinced. He authorized preparations for a move to Quimper but the cabinet continued to support a move to Bordeaux and the Quimper plan was scuttled that afternoon.
On the evening of June 12th, the Premier and his cabinet met with President LeBrun to discuss the worsening military situation. Reynaud expressed his determination to carry on preferably from a redoubt in Brittany or Algeria if necessary. "The Breton redoubt exists only in the mind of the Premier. There are no troops left to defend it." replied Weygand. Petain concurred and proceeded to lecture the President and his ministers on their duty to remain on French soil. The government would leave for Bordeaux on the morning of June 14th.
The redoubt was not to be but a part of DeGaulle and Reynaud’s last desperate effort was played out on the Breton stage. DeGaulle began the final and ultimately tragic weekend with a drive to Brittany where he board a destroyer for England where he hoped to arrange support for a move to Algiers. On Sunday afternoon he telephoned the Premier and informed him of Churchill’s offer of political and economic union with Great Britain. Reynaud was ecstatic and agreed to meet the Prime Minister the following day on a ship anchored off Concarneau. The cabinet’s response was less enthusiastic. The offer was rejected and a motion to request the terms of an armistice was adopted by a vote of 13 to 10. Reynaud tendered his resignation and the meeting adjourned at 10 p.m. The now former premier met with the British ambassador a short while later. Reynaud appeared to be losing his grip on reality. After announcing the decision, he speculated on the prospects of Petain providing him with a plane to take him to the rendezvous with Churchill. General Spears replied curtly, "Tomorrow there will be another government and you will no longer speak for anyone. The meeting has been cancelled." DeGaulle was the next to hear the news. He had returned to Bordeaux at 9.30 p.m. on a British plane. DeGaulle informed Reynaud of his decision to continue the war from England and was given 100,000 francs from a secret fund. Reynaud also agreed to arrange for the departure of the general’s family. The general left the next morning on a British plane.
The Fall of Brittany
The situation in Brittany was no less chaotic than it was in Bordeaux. The Allies evacuated 57,000 troops from Saint Nazaire and another 32,000 from Brest during the fateful weekend. On Monday morning DeGaulle’s plane took one last sweep across the peninsula before heading to London. The general’s wife and children had boarded one of the last ships to leave Brest but several days would pass before he learned of their safe arrival in England. The last British forces departed Brest on June 18th destroying the port facilities as they withdrew.
The government of Marshal Petain requested Germany’s terms for granting an armistice on June 17th . The next day all cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants were declared "open". Petain hadn’t bothered to wait for a German response or a ceasefire. The declaration was tantamount to unconditional surrender and most of the surviving French combatants acted accordingly. The 10th Army surrendered Rennes without firing a shot in the city’s defense. The general staff and several hundred officers surrendered to a corporal. The Nantes garrison stacked their arms, returned to barracks and waited for the Germans. They surrendered to a lone panzer. The tank’s driver was stunned by the lack of resistance and proceeded to hand out cigarettes. The commandant of Brest ordered his officers to disarm the troops and confine them to barracks. The 5th Panzer Division arrived the next evening and Brest was surrender without a fight. The defenders of Lorient suffered a similar fate. Orders were issued banning any attempt to escape. The Germans arrived on June 21st and the Lorient garrison was marched off to POW camps. It was a disgraceful performance. The Germans and Italians refused to grant a ceasefire in advance of an armistice and continued to attack French positions until June 25th.
The Battle of the Atlantic
Where General Weygand saw nothing of military value the Germans saw a strategic treasure. The entire Breton peninsula was incorporated into the zone of occupation. The harbors and dockyards of Brittany became the main base for German attacks on the convoys ferrying supplies between North America and Britain. The first U-boat began operating from Brest on August 22, 1940. A month later, Admiral Donitz began directing operations from headquarters at Lorient. The wolfpacks were transferred from bases at Kiel and Danzig on the Baltic to captured French ones on the Atlantic at Brest, Lorient and Saint Nazaire. The distance to their feeding grounds was shortened by nearly 500 miles and operational periods increased accordingly. The arsenals of Brest and Lorient no longer launched ships named Clemenceau, Dunkerque and Bretagne. Now they serviced vessels called Scharnhorst, Gesenienau and Prinz Eugen. The home of the world’s largest submarine, Surcouf, was now occupied by boats whose only identification was the letter U followed by a number.
The Royal Air Force began to counterattack with a September 27, 1940 raid on Lorient followed by others on Brest and Saint Nazaire in January 1941. The initial air raids caused little damaged but the Germans became aware of their vulnerability in the exposed harbors. They began rectifying the situation immediately. Reinforced concrete shelters called Dombunkers and Keromans covering tens of thousands of square meters were constructed over the next two years. The Saint Nazaire bunkers were the largest with pens for 14 submarines. The RAF flew 30 missions against them during March 1942. Direct hits were scored 18 times but they caused minimal damage and fail to penetrate the six meters of concrete shielding the submarines. Sixty two aircraft were lost in the attempt. The collateral damage to the adjacent town was more severe. Eighty percent of Saint Nazaire was reduced to rubble by the end of the war. Brest was the target of eighty British and American air raids. The last three, conducted during the August, 1944 siege were the most successful. The RAF scored nine direct hits on the Brest shelter with some of the largest bombs in their arsenal, 12000 pound Tallboys, five of them penetrated the shelter’s roof but caused little damage to the submarines.
The Royal Navy fared somewhat better against the Germans’ surface operations. The Scharnhorst, Gesenienau and Prinz Eugen had a close call while returning to the North Sea following an overhaul at Brest in March 1942. Two of the ships were damaged by mines and nearly sank while the task force was taking a shortcut through the English Channel.
The Tirpitz became operational later that month. The Admiralty began a determined effort to prevent the battleship from getting into the Atlantic and recreating the havoc caused by the Bismarck. Plans were drawn up for Operation Chariot. Chariot would destroy the only facility on the Atlantic large enough to berth the dreadnought, the Normandie lock at Saint Nazaire. HMS Campbellton, an aging lend lease destroyer, was packed with explosives and sent to ram the lock. In the early morning hours of March 28, 1942, the Campbellton entered the mouth of the Loire. The ship managed to evaded detection by the port’s defenders long enough get up to full speed before ramming its target. The ship plowed 36 feet into the closed lock. The commandos set about causing as much damage as possible before being forced to withdraw. The Germans managed to sink all but three of the small launches that were supposed to take the raiders to another destroyer which was waiting to return them to Plymouth. A quarter of the 600 man force was killed and most of the survivors taken prisoner. Just before noon the following day, a delayed charge detonated the Campbellton’s explosive cargo and destroyed the lock. At the time, a large contingent of high ranking Germans was on board inspecting the ship. All were killed. The repeated explosions cause a panic in the German ranks. They opened fire killing several hundred of their own and a number of French dock workers. Shortly after, Admiral Donitz returned to Paris. The Lorient headquarters seemed too vulnerable in the wake of the St. Nazaire raid.
Breton Nationalism Succumbs to Realpolitik
The nationalist’s dream of establishing an independent Breton state with German aid evaporated as quickly as the French army had in Flanders. The Germans found a willing collaborator in Vichy and Breton nationalism became an obstacle to Franco German cooperation.
Debauvais and Mordrel were allowed to revive the PNB but permission to hold a rally was granted only on condition that it be kept private affair. The meeting was held at Pontivy on July 3, 1940 and drew barely 200 loyalists, including the recently freed Celestin Laine. Cries of "sales boches" greeted the delegates and German troops were needed to protect them from the wrath of the local citizens. The principle order of business was the adoption of Mordrel’s proposal to establish a Conseil National Breton to replace the PNB as controlling body in the coordination of nationalist activities and the formation of a fascist and anti-semitic Brittany.
The CNB’s was given permisson to publish a newspaper called L’Heure Bretonne on July 14, 1940. The sharp anti-French and anti-Vichy tone of its first issues caused the Germans to reconsider. Strict censorship, aimed at appeasing Vichy and collaborationists in the Catholic hierarchy, was imposed. The editors circumvented the restrictions by filling the paper’s columns with news unfavorable to Vichy but without the editorial elaboration.
Hitler met with Petain at Montoire on Oct. 24, 1940 and left satisfied with the value and faithfulness of his new ally. The special Breton POW camps were disbanded. Vichy was granted permission to suppress the CNB and L’Heure Bretonne and Archbishop Duparic joined in the condemnation of the nationalists by issuing a threat of excommunication. Debauvais read the handwriting on the wall and retired from politics. Mordrel resurrect the PNB and continued on. He was ousted from leadership of the party and control of L’Heure Bretonne a month later. The coup was engineered by Laine and Marcel Guieysse.
Mordrel and Debauvais were arrested shortly thereafter and barred from politics. Mordrel’s recalcitrance was rewarded with a six month internment in Stuttgart. He returned to Paris in May, 1941 but was barred from entering Brittany. Debauvais moved on to Alsace were he died on March 20, 1944.
Vichy Attempts A Reconciliation
Breton independence was anathema to Vichy as it had been to previous French regimes but the Petainists found much to admire in the reactionary and collaboration prone PNB. Once Debauvais and Mordrel were out of the way Vichy set out to co-opt more malleable members of the movement. The party changed its attitude and leadership and continued to operate under the watchful guidance of Vichy and the Germans. Raymond Delaporte, who had opposed many of Mordrel’s most extreme positions during the 1930s, was appointed party leader and L’Heure Bretonne resumed publication after Laine and Guieysse agreed to take a pro-Vichy stance. Delaporte’s first editorial officially reversed the party’s hostility to the French state and its Breton supporters. Petain’s favorable views on decentralization and vague notions of restoring the historic provinces of France were cited as reasons for the about face. The PNB staged a modest recovery. Membership climbed to about 4,000 and circulation of L’Heure Bretonne averaged 25,000 copies a week by the end of 1941.
Vichy took further measures to ingratiate itself to the conservative and nationalist element in Brittany by reversing republican policies that promoted integration of the region into the larger French culture. Radio Rennes Bretagne began a weekly one hour broadcast devoted to Breton subjects in late 1940. Breton history courses were introduced in the primary and secondary schools and a ban on the use of the Breton language in classrooms was lifted in March, 1941. Breton speaking teachers were granted a 600 francs per annum subsidy a year later. In May 1942 Vichy named Jean Quenette "Prefect of all Brittany" (note: Brittany no longer included Nantes and the surrounding Department of Loire Inferieure after June 1941). The centerpiece of Quenette’s administration was the Comite Consultatif de Bretagne. The committee was given the task of advising the Prefect on "cultural, linguistic, folkloric traditions and the intellectual life of Brittany" but granted little power to carry out its mission.
Resistance and Reprisal
The French defeat had been swift. Many Bretons welcomed the armistice as a deliverance from the brutality of a war they now believed should never have been undertaken. Most were simply too shocked to react let alone contemplate resistance. DeGaulle’s appeal was heard by few and answered by fewer. If only because the electricity had been shutoff in many towns and radios ceased to function.
There was no organized resistance just small groups of men determined not to submit. The officers of the River Clyde were returning troops of the Norwegian expedition from Narvik to Lorient when they got word of the armistice. They changed course and sailed for England. Twenty one cadets from the Naval School in Brest boarded a fishing trawler and crossed the Channel. The most dramatic episode came on June 24th when 130 fishermen living on the Ile de Sein decide to leave before the Germans arrived. They landed at Portsmouth and later joined the Free French Naval Force formed by Admiral Muselier. Other Bretons stayed behind, collected abandoned weapons and stockpiled them in secret caches for future use.
The occupation began in an orderly manner. The occupiers and the occupied maintained a correct if cool relationship.
The shock of the defeat wore off as time passed. It was replaced by a sense of shame and anger. Many Bretons could no longer contain their hostility towards the conquerors and suffered the consequences. The newspaper began to fill their columns with lists of ordinary people fined or jailed for publicly insulting members of the occupation force. A student was sentenced to a week, a laundress to 3 months, a railway worker to 6 months. More extreme measures would be taken as the resistance grew and became more defiant.
The French Communist Party had taken refuge among the democrats of the Popular Front in 1936 and then went over to the defeatists after the Nonaggression Pact was signed by the Soviets in August, 1939. The Party was suppressed at the outbreak of the war. Vichy continued to persecute communists but the party took no part in the resistance until the German attack on the Soviet Union in June, 1941.
The commandant of Nantes, Lieutenant Colonel Hotz, had worked in the city during the ‘30s and was considered a Francophile. Hotz did his best to protect the Nantais from the more gruesome aspects of the occupation but on October 20, 1941 he was assassinated. Hotz’s executioner was an agent of the Communist FTP resistance named Brustlein. The Germans felt their tolerance had been abused and retaliation was in order. On October 22nd fifty hostages were shot at Nantes, another 27 at Chateaubriant and still more at Mont-Valerian outside Paris. The reprisals came as a shock to many Bretons. Their faith in Marshal Petain’s promises of protection was shaken.
The Nazi war machine was a voracious consumer of labor. In June, 1942 Berlin offered to release one POW for every three workers Vichy supplied them. La releve was voluntary and the supply of willing volunteers dried up quickly after news of conditions in Germany got back to France. Vichy instituted Service du Travail Obligitoire in February, 1943. The unwilling would now be conscripted to labor for Germany. The STO was enforced with particular vigor in Brittany and the ranks of the resistance swelled as hundreds of young men fled into the woods and hills to escape. They were now "maquis". The French word literally translated as scrub brush.
Conditions in the guerrilla camps were harsh. The Germans and the Vichy militias hunted them mercilessly. Arms were scarce and food was scarcer. The maquisards were outlaws and as such had no ration cards. Those who became desperate enough to enter the towns in search of sustenance ran the risk of denunciation. The winter of 1943 was particularly harsh and the weather kept Allied airdrops to a minimum.
The Allied airdrops increased sharply beginning in February 1944 as preparations for the Normandy landings accelerated. Conditions improved and after D-Day the ranks of the Breton branch of the Forces Francaise de l’Intereiure swelled to over 30,000.
The Press Under the Occupation
The Occupation was a time of opportunity for journalists who could toe the German and Vichy party line. The publisher who stepped out of line soon ran out of newsprint or gasoline for his delivery trucks.
Yann Fouere epitomised the new breed of Breton journalist that flourished under the occupation. Fouere headed a group of Quimper entrepreneurs who founded a Rennes daily, La Bretange, in March 1941. Under Fouere’s editorship, La Bretagne’s tone was pro-Vichy, anti-nationalist and seldom critical of the Germans. Fouere’s loyalty did not go unnoticed. He was rewarded with subsidies for La Bretagne and weekly papers in the departments of Morbihan, Cotes du Nord and Ile et Vilaine.
The old breed was represented by Dr. Victor LeGorgeu, editor and publisher of La Depeche de Brest. Le Gorgeu was also the mayor of Brest. On New Year’s eve, 1941, he lead the successful opposition to a city council resolution expressing confidence in the leadership of Marshal Petain. Vichy was not pleased. The council was dissolved and Le Gorgeu dismissed as mayor. Four months later he was squeezed out of financial and editorial control of La Depeche. The new publisher of La Depeche was none other than Yann Fouere.
Joseph Mantray, a man popular in Vichyite business and political circles, was named editor of La Depeche in December, 1943. Mantray was also a member of the Landivisiau based resistance group "Defense de la France". Under Mantray, La Depeche assumed a more neutral approach towards the regime and occasional jibes at the Germans became more frequent. The German withdrawal from the eastern front was reported under the headline, "German Troops Advancing to the West".
Fouere shutdown his papers at the beginning of the Allied sweep through Brittany in August, 1944. Mantray slipped through the lines to join the Maquis at Lamballe just before the siege of Brest. After the Allied control was established in the region, Dr. LeGorgeu was named provisional commissioner for the Breton departments. He quickly moved to prosecute Fouere and the rest of the occupation journalists. Mantray was the only editor of an occupation era paper not jailed after the liberation and one of the few members of the Vichy Consultative Committee of Brittany not prosecuted after the war. He later headed the first Breton autonomists groups permitted to function after the war.
Wars within Wars
Vichy’s co-option of the Breton nationalist movement was superficially successful but failed to eliminated the true believers or their capacity to complicate matters. The terrorist element began to regroup and prepared to fight or ally itself as necessary to achieve the goal of establishing an independent fascist Brittany.
By the beginning of 1941, Celestin Laine was forming a secret Breton Army. Laine modeled his "Lu Brezon" on the Irish Republican Army and prepared it to fight Vichy in the aftermath of the inevitable German victory. Existance of the Lu Brezon was a poorly kept secret. On July 5, 1941 the German commandant of Rennes ordered Laine to surrender his weapons. Laine made a token handover. The Germans, mindful of the day when they might need allies against the French, looked the other way.
By late 1943, it was apparent that the following spring would bring an Allied invasion of France. The warring factions within Brittany prepared for the cataclysm and began to settle old scores. The Resistance began the Brittany’s civil war within a war by executing a number of prominent collaborators. The maquis’ most noteworthy victim was Abbe Perrot, a prominent nationalist intellectual. The priest’s murder infuriated Laine. The Lu Brezon was rechristened "Bezenn Perrot" and began waging an open war on the Resistance. The Germans were requested to supply arms and special uniforms for the Bezenn Perrott who refused to wear the uniform of the Vichy Milice. The request was denied. The Germans countered with an offer to take the Bezenn Perrot into the Waffen SS and allow them to function as an auxiliary police force. The offer was accepted and the Bezenn Perrot spent the first half of 1944 hunting down their patron’s killers and resistance members in general.
Laine wasn’t the only one in the nationalist camp sifting the tea leaves as the day of reckoning approached. Raymond Delaporte realized the price the movement would pay for its policies in the wake of an allied victory. He expelled Laine and the Bezenn Perrot from the party in late 1943 and L’Heure Bretonne assumed a neutral stance between collaboration and resistance.
The Breton resistance was ready when the invasion came. It was so successful in disrupting the region’s rail system that the German 7th Army gave up its efforts to reinforce the Normandy front from Brittany. The maquis also continued the vicious civil war with the Bezenn Perrot and Vichy. The collaborators were becoming desperate as their position deteriorated. Dozens of resistance sympathizers and innocent hostages died at their hands in the final weeks before the liberation.
The Americans finally broke the German lines at Avranches on August 1st. The VIII Corps of Patton’s Third Army under General Middleton launched a two pronged attack aimed at cutting off German troops on the peninsula. The 4th Armored Division rolled south capturing Rennes on August 4th and Nantes on August 6th. Four divisions of the German 7th Army were trapped. The 6th Armored Division reached the outskirts of Brest that evening. The 4th Division pushed on reaching the outskirts of Lorient on August 7th . The resistance performed magnificently, blocking roads and clearing the enemy from the interior. The maquis now guarded the same railways they had sabotaged a few days earlier. The lines would be needed to supply the Allied effort until a port could be captured.
Attention next turned to St. Malo. The Americans had bypassed it after encountering strong resistance during the drive on Brest. A week of shelling and air raids weakened the defenders resolve and the city fell on August 17th.
The gap between Middleton’s force and the main body of Patton’s army widened as the focus of the war effort shifted toward Paris. The Breton ports lost much of their value and General Bradley ordered Middleton to contain the Germans in pockets around Lorient and Saint Nazaire and continue the siege of Brest.
The Brest garrison under General Ramcke included a crack parachute division and seemed to pose the greatest threat to the Allied forces. The seven week siege cost the Americans 10,000 casualties. The city was surrendered on September 19th . The victors marched into a smoking ruin. Seven thousand of Brest’s 16,500 homes were destroyed and 5000 were so badly damaged they had to be demolished. German troops on the Crozon peninsula on the far shore of Brest harbor surrendered later that day. German resistance in Brittany outside the Lorient and Saint Nazaire pockets came to a conclusion.
The U-boat war was also at an end. The last submarine left Brest of September 4th , Lorient on the 5th and Saint Nazaire on the 23rd. U-boats returned to the besieged fortresses in November and again in February and March of 1945 but their torpedoes had been removed to make room for more supplies. General Fahrmbacher surrendered Lorient and its 15,000 man garrison on May 10th . The fighting in Europe ended with General Junck’s surrender of Saint Nazaire on May 11, 1945 .
The day of reckoning had arrived for Brittany’s collaborators. Dr. Le Gorgeu was named commissioner for the departments of Finistere, Morbihan, Cotes du Nord and Ile et Vilaine by the Provisional Government of France on August 18, 1944.. A dual level court system was established. Cours de Justice tried serious cases involving the death penalty. Chambres Civiques handled less serious offenses for which the punishment might be a fine, banishment or civil degradation. The collaborationist press was shutdown. The PNB was dissolved and its properties seized.
In November, Dr. Le Gorgeu order a roundup of the PNB membership. Over a thousand were arrested. The PNB’s wartime membership list had been destroyed and the purge was conducted using prewar rolls. Many of those caught up in the retribution had done no more than attend a Breton language class during the 1930s. A backlash ensued and in the spring of 1945 General DeGaulle felt it necessary to address the issue. He told a press conference at Vannes, "if Breton autonomists have committed treason they will be punished for it. If they have only been autonomists without betraying France that is another matter."
The Breton nationalists and collaborationists were remarkably successful in evading capture. The leadership of the PNB went on trial in June, 1946. Guieysse appeared and was sentenced to death. Mordrel, Laine and Yann Goulet (leader of the Bagadou Stourm militia) were sentenced to death in absentia. Raymond Delaport was sentenced to 20 years hard labor, loss of property and banishment from Brittany. Nine members of the Bezenn Perrot were sentenced to death.
The Bezenn Perrot had scattered after D-Day. Many of its members escaped to Spain, Ireland or South America. Celestin Laine left with the retreating Germans made his way to Ireland and later to the United States where he reportedly obtain citizenship. He was last sighted in the Netherlands. Mordrel found refuge in South America and returned to Brittany in the late 1960s under an amnesty program. Delaporte and Guieysse escaped from prison. Publisher Yann Fouere escaped while out on bail. He returned to France from Ireland in 1955. Yann Goulet and Alan Heussaf were granted asylum in Ireland and continued to lead militant Breton nationalist factions from exile.
Breton nationalism and the cultural revival remained under a cloud of suspicion for a generation.
16 pictures from the Atlantic wall at Brest and the memorials of Brittany (248k).
by Richard Doody