I Was There! - Marooned For Six Days on a Breton Island

The War Illustrated, Volume 3, No. 46, Page 52, July 19, 1940.

Volunteer demolition squads from the Royal Engineers helped in the destruction of French harbour works. One of these parties working at Brest had the added excitement of being marooned off the Breton coast. Their story was told exclusively to "The War Illustrated".

We reached Brest about 9 o'clock in the morning of June 18, said the corporal, and spent most of the afternoon preparing the gear for our job of demolition.

The town of Brest did not seem to have suffered much, althought there had been several air raids on the docks. People were still in the town, but the French naval staff moved out while we were there. We saw them going out all kinds of ships, from merchant ships tot the big submarine "Surcouf".

Working in cooperation with the Navy, we actually finished our demolition work (which included the blowing-up of heavy cranes) about 9.30, and left the place blazing merrily. We boarded a motor-boat which had been detailed us with one leading seaman to get across the harbour. There was a strong wind blowing which brought down thick clouds of black smoke from the oil dumps we had fired. This probably saved us from the German 'planes, but it caused us to miss our way and lose the ship we should have boarded.

We hung about outside the harbour until getting on for midnight, and then, as we had plenty of fuel on board, our captain decided to make a dash for England. The boat was a 35-ft. motor lauch, and there were fifteen of us on board Royal Engineers and one sailor. We were all seasick, and she was pitching and tossing dreadfully, and at 6 o'clock in the morning the engine broke down and we drifted for about 36 hours back on to the coast of Brittany. We failed to attrack the attention of any ships and had just about given up hope of being picked up when a couple of Frenchmen came out in a small fishing smack and towed us into the shore.

Here there was a crowd of villagers who told us that the Germans were about eight kilometers away. They suggested we should change our clothing so that we could mighle with them and get away as civilians, and they made arrangements to take us to another place which they did not think the Bosche had reached. Our uniforms and equipment were taken away and burnt; all we kept were just our boots and socks and they gave us all their clothes we looked a proper ragged lot when we'd finished! This was Thursday morning, and we had had no food to speak of since Monday (there's no time for food on demolition duty!). While we were waiting for a lorry to take us to this other port they had news that the Bosche had got through and we were encircled.

It was then decided to send us to a small island where it was thought we would be safe until arrangements could be made for us to be taken to England. We were only just in time, and soon after the Bosche came throught the town. We lay low until it was dark, and then we went into a cottage. Here we had to stay for six days with no food other than the potatoes and carrots we dug up, and a little milk which one of us got from the cow. The available water was very dirty, but fortunately we had one rainy day, and that just saved us. We were also very short of cigarettes. Every day, regularly at about 11 o'clock and 4 o'clock, a German patrol 'plane came over the island, during which time we lay low.

On the following Wednesday evening we saw a small fishing boat coming out to us, and, thinking it might contain Germans, we scattered. We were very glad to see some Frenchmen land, and they told us they had heard from the villagers that we wanted to get back to England and they were willing to take us if we were willing to take the risk. So we climbed aboard and set off for England, where we arrived after 20 hours.

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