As the Allies fought their way inland from Normandy’s beaches in 1944, French fighters in Brittany distracted German forces by launching a guerrilla campaign codenamed “Operation Dingson.”

SHORTLY AFTER DAWN on June 18, 1944, two Citroën Traction Avants, the executive black automobiles favored by the Gestapo, drove east along a narrow country lane toward the village of Saint-Marcel in Brittany, northwest France.

The German military policemen inside the vehicles had no idea they were approaching a vast French Resistance camp. The French fired two antitank shells at the Citroën, destroying one and killing its four occupants, and immobilizing the second. One German leaped from the damaged vehicle and escaped into the nearby woods. The Battle of Saint-Marcel had begun.

The village of Saint-Marcel itself lies half a mile from where the Germans were ambushed. Close to town is a museum—first opened in 1984 and recently renovated at the cost of $4.6 million—that commemorates the battle, but otherwise the area’s rural landscape has changed little since 1944.

I walk a few minutes west from the museum, along the same road down which the two German vehicles drove, toward a farm called La Nouette. I imagine the French fighters hiding among the cornfield to my left and hunkering down in the shallow grassy ditch to my right, their hearts pumping as the Citroën’s engines grew louder.

The Frenchman who organized this initial ambush was Captain Pierre Marienne, a member of one of the two French regiments of the British Special Air Service (SAS) Brigade. Marienne and 17 men had parachuted into Brittany shortly after midnight on D-Day, June 6, in an operation codenamed “Dingson.” Their mission was to contact the French Forces of the Interior (FFI, the name of the French Resistance after February 1944) and establish two bases from which to launch a guerrilla campaign against the Germans in Brittany. Together, they were to keep as many Nazis as possible occupied in order to help the Allies 150 miles northeast as they fought their way inland from Normandy’s beaches.

Pierre Marienne, captain in a French regiment of Britain’s Special Air Service, led the fight at Saint-Marcel. (Fondation de la France Libre)
Pierre Marienne, captain in a French regiment of Britain’s Special Air Service, led the fight at Saint-Marcel. (Fondation de la France Libre)

Two days before their jump, on June 4, London had broadcast a coded radio message signaling the FFI to mobilize. Around 2,500 fighters reported for duty, congregating in the small farms and villages surrounding Saint-Marcel. The FFI selected a suitable drop zone, a small plateau nicknamed La Baleine (“the whale”) a few hundred yards west of La Nouette, and Allied aircraft began dropping equipment, including explosives, heavy weapons, and four Willys jeeps fitted with Vickers machine guns.

I stride over some rough meadowland to reach La Baleine. It was a good place for a drop zone, easily identifiable from the air and impossible for the Germans to approach without being seen by FFI lookouts posted among the trees and hedgerows encircling it. As I gaze south, I see a stark granite monument dominating the countryside. Erected in 1951 to commemorate the battle, the monument features a Cross of Lorraine—the symbol of the FFI—carved into the top of the stonework, while a large plaque at the base honors the 42 Frenchmen killed in the battle and its aftermath and records the deaths of 560 enemy troops.

This grassy plain remains mostly unchanged from when it served as an Allied drop zone in the days before the battle. A nearby granite monument (below), bearing the Resistance’s Cross of Lorraine, commemorates the dead. (Gavin Mortimer)
This grassy plain remains mostly unchanged from when it served as an Allied drop zone in the days before the battle. A nearby granite monument (below), bearing the Resistance’s Cross of Lorraine, commemorates the dead. (Gavin Mortimer)

(Gavin Mortimer)
(Gavin Mortimer)

I retrace my steps, heading back east toward Saint-Marcel. The evening before the battle, the FFI received a message from London informing them that the Allies’ breakout from the Normandy beachheads had been held up. The French SAS, who had been reinforced by the arrival by parachute of 16 officers and 171 troops from their regiment, were ordered to disperse to continue their guerrilla campaign. There was a further instruction: “Avoid at all costs a pitched battle.”

The camp’s northern and eastern sectors were manned by 1,200 men, their positions encompassing a farm called Du Bois Joly and Sainte-Geneviève, a small hamlet a few hundred yards northeast. The remaining FFI members, including a number of female liaison staff, were garrisoned at La Nouette, where there was a field kitchen, a first-aid post, and a fleet of motor cars.

In the southern sector of the FFI camp, where I now walk, were around 750 Frenchmen manning dug-in gun pits sited at 10-yard intervals along the perimeter of the FFI base, ready to strike. Some of those pits are still visible among the trees and, although they are overgrown with leaves and nettles, remain a poignant reminder that I am walking on ground for which men fought and died.

The scene was set. Early on June 18, the two German cars drove toward the FFI camp. The policeman who escaped the ambush reached the 500-strong German garrison at Malestroit, two miles east of Saint-Marcel, at 6:30 a.m. The Germans, believing the policeman’s assailants were just a well-armed local Maquis group, dispatched two companies on foot. They reached Saint-Marcel and then headed northwest toward the farm at Du Bois Joly, probably suspecting this was where the Maquis was based.

At 8:30 a.m. the Germans surprised an FFI outpost just east of Du Bois Joly, killing its four occupants, including brothers Paul and Jean Le Blavec, aged 20 and 22. In the short fight a stray bullet fatally wounded a 14-year-old girl tending her cattle in the field. The names of all five are engraved on a six-foot-high stone obelisk 100 yards south of the house that stands at Du Bois Joly. No longer a working farm, the house’s front door overlooks a slope that falls away to the south. Much of the countryside is wooded, and I can picture how the Germans were able to use the terrain to their advantage as they approached the outpost.

Some of the Germans fought their way inside the farmyard of Du Bois Joly, but the arrival of Captain Marienne and several of his SAS troops drove them out, and they withdrew down the slope. The route of the German retreat forms part of a three-mile walking or driving tour of the sprawling battlefield called the “Memorial Trail,” officially launched in 2020. On foot, I get a sense of the claustrophobic nature of the terrain: the hedgerows, sunken lanes, and copses that were exploited by Frenchmen and Germans alike.

At 10 a.m. the Germans launched a fresh assault against Du Bois Joly as well as nearby Sainte-Geneviève. The French SAS used their jeeps to evacuate the wounded one-and-a-half miles west to La Nouette’s farmhouse and to carry fresh FFI reinforcements on their return. A company of German paratroopers attacked again in the afternoon, but withering fire from the twin Vickers of the SAS jeeps forced them to retire. When the Germans brought in reinforcements, the French SAS called up air support. Four U.S. Army Air Forces P-47 Thunderbolts arrived and strafed the German positions, which, according to one French SAS officer, Captain Pierre Leblond, lifted the spirits of the French fighters, creating a “big morale effect on the ground.”

After ferocious close-quarter fighting and many casualties, the Germans finally succeeded in taking Du Bois Joly in the early evening of June 18. Meanwhile, at dusk the Germans tried without success to capture the farm buildings in the tiny community of Les Hardys-Béhélec, in the southern perimeter, where the museum is now situated.

The French guessed that the Germans would bring armor to the battle the next day, so during the night they slipped away through the battlefield’s northern perimeter, which the Germans had negligently left unguarded. Captain Leblond recalled that “orderliness and discipline were not of the best” among the FFI, but they nonetheless exfiltrated without incident. The French SAS dispersed across Brittany to continue their sabotage campaign, the largest group under the command of Captain Marienne. The Germans, however, with the aid of the French fascist paramilitaries called the Milice, were on their tail. Someone betrayed Marienne’s hideout to the Nazis, who surprised the captain and six of his men, along with 11 FFI, at dawn on July 12 in the hamlet of Kerihuel en Plumelec, 13 miles west of Saint-Marcel. The Germans summarily executed the 18 men; a memorial in their honor stands at the location where they were shot.

Germany exacted cruel revenge the day after the costly battle, executing three innocent civilians on this spot in the hamlet of Les Hardys-Béhélec. (Gavin Mortimer)
Germany exacted cruel revenge the day after the costly battle, executing three innocent civilians on this spot in the hamlet of Les Hardys-Béhélec. (Gavin Mortimer)

The Memorial Trail is well-signposted with information boards, although there are no English translations. The Trail’s most affecting memorial is at Les Hardys-Béhélec, where the names of three villagers are engraved on a slab of granite. It was at this spot on the morning of June 19 that the Germans, wanting revenge, shot the first French they encountered: an 83-year-old woman, a 31-year-old man, and a 15-year-old boy. As the accompanying board states, the memorial honors those “who paid with their lives in the struggle to recover freedom.” Photographs of the three victims adorn the board, and I look into the faces of the man, who was executed in front of his wife, and the boy, slain as he cowered under a table. The battle of Saint-Marcel was brief, but it was brutal. ✯


WHEN YOU GO

Saint-Marcel is 250 miles west of Paris and 20 miles northeast of Vannes, a charming coastal town of cobbled streets and half-timbered houses about 2.5 hours from the capital by regular train service. There are several car rental companies based at Vannes station. There are also daily 75-minute flights from Paris to Brest, a port city with its own rich wartime history, 115 miles northwest of Saint-Marcel.

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT

Vannes has an abundance of hotels and B & Bs, but there are also plenty of accommodations close to Saint-Marcel, including budget and more luxurious hotels in Ploërmel, 10 miles north, and Josselin, 13 miles northwest. Should you work up an appetite while walking around Saint-Marcel’s Memorial Trail, a good restaurant one mile east of the museum, Le Relais du Maquis, serves traditional French cuisine.

WHAT ELSE TO SEE AND DO 

The Museum of Resistance in Brittany at Saint-Marcel features an impressive array of wartime exhibits, including uniforms, weapons, and vehicles. The Liberty Road commemorates the route Allied forces took after D-Day and passes through several towns in the area that were liberated by the 4th Armored Division, including Vannes, Auray, Ploërmel, and Josselin.

This article was published in the December 2021 issue of World War II.