15 September, 2008

Saint-Malo and the Infernal Machine

Photo: Sunset from the ramparts of Saint-Malo.

I have resolved to blog with renewed zeal to reward the interest of all my new readers. So we travel to north-western France, destination for Cardinal Wolsey's last holiday in late August, for the first in a series of vacation posts.

The overnight ferry from Her Majesty's Dockyard in Portsmouth to Saint-Malo is a good choice - you get to review the British fleet on the way out (at least the ships not yet sold to Chile) and arrive in the morning at the gateway to Brittany. Very civilised, even with the children intoning "are we there yet?" as we steamed past the Isle of Wight.

Most Brits will drive off the ramp and head west or south without looking at Saint-Malo, but this is a mistake, as this historic town has lots to offer. The impressive walled citadel was once home to pirates and privateers, although most of the buildings are reconstructions. Unfortunately Gen.Patton had a little trouble dislodging the Germans in 1944, and 80% of the original citadel was flattened.

What of the "Infernal Machine?". Until WW2, Saint-Malo was never captured, in spite of many attempts by the Brits to do so (we didn't like towns that hosted privateers and corsairs). In 1673, during William of Orange's conflict with Louis XIV, the Royal Navy tried using an old warship as a powerkeg and set it loose towards Saint-Malo.

There is a good description what happened next in this piece on Admiral Benbow, who was in command.

"The vessel took the form of a barque crammed with upwards of a hundred barrels of gunpowder, roofed over with a ceiling of planks and covered with thatch, faggots of wood, pitch, tar, resin; in short, anything that burned. On top of all that came the missiles. Canon-balls of iron and stone, bombs, iron chains and shells were wrapped in tarpaulin".

The ploy failed when the wind changed, and it blew up against some rocks with an almighty bang. The citadel was rocked and damaged, but the English did not attempt to take it (lack of enough marines).

More English bombardments in 1695 also failed to defeat the defences, which were later strengthened further by the great military architect Vauban.

Anyway, here's an earlier unsuccesful attempt to take a French castle!

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