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Rennes, Brittany, France, Monday 17th June 1940. Luftwaffe attack on trains.

by sgt_george

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02 February 2005


This three chaptered series of contributions is dedicated in remembrance of the more than 800 recorded British and French, both military and civilians, who died following a Luftwaffe bombing attack on the railway complex at Rennes in Brittany, France on Monday 17th June 1940.
It is particularly dedicated in remembrance of Serjeant George Fitzpatrick (1866342) of Royal Engineers who died aged thirty together with more than 170 British servicemen in the same bombing attack. Serjeant George was my grand uncle but he died long before I was born.
The contributions are based on commemorative local newspaper articles, translated from French, published on the 20th anniversary, in 1960, of the attack.
The British casualties rest in the CWGC section of Rennes Eastern Communal Cemetery. The CWGC records show 108 identified and buried casualties, killed in the bombing attack or died soon afterwards.
The regiments mentioned in these records include Royal Engineers, Pioneer Corps, Durham Light Infantry, Service Corps, Ordnance Corps, RAF, York and Lancs, Queen’s Own Royal West Kent, South Staffs, North Staffs, Manchester, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers and Royal Artillery but the majority of casualties appear to be Royal Engineers from various units.
There are a number of references in the newspaper articles to a majority of Indian troops among the British dead. However there is no mention of them in the CWGC records. It is not known if this an error or were they perhaps cremated in accordance with Hindu religion and culture? If the answer is yes, then the tally of the dead must be substantially revised upwards.

The text of these contributions has been translated from French, as appeared in a special commemorative edition, vingt ans aprés, of the local Brittany newspaper, Ouest France, published in Rennes on 17th June 1960. The articles published on that day were variously written by Jacques Bree and Pierre Cressard with photographs of the aftermath by Georges Bourgess. These articles are based on source material by M. le professeur Marquis, M. François Château, a former mayor of Rennes, Colonel Dubois, former fire chief, Captain Labastard, Abbot Christian Huet and Mme. Ladam who wrote a journal of the German occupation of Rennes. The memoirs of General de Gaulle are also referred to in these newspaper articles.

CHAPTER 1: Rennes 17th June 1940.

CHAPTER 2: Rennes 17th June 1940, Twenty Years After.

CHAPTER 3: Rennes 18th June 1940.

David Grundy.
30th January 2005.

Chapter 1 RENNES: The 17th JUNE 1940
The 17th June 1940, when there was no longer talk about 'Réduit Breton' (*1), the first German bombardment in the west left more than 800 dead at Rennes railway station. This spread terror among the civilian population. Two hours earlier Marshal Pétain broadcast this message on the radio; ‘Frenchmen we must cease fighting.’ The roads to Brittany were then open to the army of the 3rd Reich. For the twentieth anniversary of that sorrowful day, Pierre Cressard relates the catastrophic events of the day in the following article.

The battle continued on the invasion front and particularly along the course of the river Loire. There was fierce fighting throughout Orléans and in the region of Charité-sur-Loire, where the enemy that had managed to cross the Loire was contained behind the lateral canal.
The British Expeditionary Force together with the French Army were fiercely resisting the German invaders from the west of Basse Loire to the east of Chartres, in the region of Laigle, La Ferté Vidame and Châteaudun and were mounting a number of counter attacks.
This was the deteriorating situation that was summarised in the Official communiqué nr. 575 of the evening of 17th June 1940. This was the ultimate communiqué to reach our region under the control of the French military censorship.
But of this 17th June massacre of military and civilians, thus adding to the list of those thousands killed from the 10th of May, nothing is mentioned.

However in one of the newspapers consisting of only one page and blank censored columns under the title 'Aerial bombardment in the West' with five lines in Italics to say that German warplanes had bombed an unnamed town in the west and that there were many casualties.
A few days later in the newspapers of the south-east and the south-west there appeared photographs of the town hall on fire indicating that the town of Rennes had been completely destroyed. An exaggeration that did not encourage the moral of the soldiers who came from the west, who were already prisoners or who were now wandering in the region of the Loire.
All this only added to the chaos, confusion and panic that already prevailed everywhere.

For sure there was confusion at the train station of Rennes where from the 10th of May convoys of injured were passing through all the time and without stopping. There were seen many trains from the north and the east comprising wagons that were usually used for livestock, transporting refugees, the geriatrics from Petites Soeurs des Pauvres de Lille and an amazing spectacle of the inmates from the Northern Psychiatric Hospital.

An unfortunate situation developed on the 17th June in the number of trains that were held in this bottleneck awaiting a track to be freed or a decision to be made. A munitions train was among the trains held. This train contained a deadly cargo of high explosives, artillery shells and cartridges.
There arose a serious altercation between the military commander, who wanted to keep this deadly train nearby and the rail authorities at the station who were concerned about its security and wanted to dispatch this train to Bruz.
But there is no point today to talk about this old quarrel between these people or to apportion blame.
We will only know for sure, on the day of judgement, whether the Germans were merely intending to announce their arrival in Brittany by a few bombs in Rennes or were they informed by fifth columnists about the presence of the explosives train at Saint Hélier and if they were aware of the devastation they were going to create on that day.

Anyway on Monday 17th June shortly before 10:00 without any warning or alarm being sounded (because the D.C.A. services had left the town the previous day) war planes with the German cross, three Heinkels said some, others counted five, were seen flying at low altitude and strafed a convoy on the road to Vitré á Rennes.
Then because there was no opposition the planes approached the railway and dropped a number of 500kg bombs;
+On a refugee train from Paris and Liseaux
+On a train (212 and 203 artillery) in which were recruits mostly from Paris, the north and from Alsace.
+On the train of British soldiers, the majority Indians(*2), who were leaving Rennes to return to England.
+On a train (222 artillery A.L.C.D.) in which were recruits for the most part from the south.
We stop here this tragic summary which explains itself later on.

In no time the town was shook by an enormous explosion. Debris fell from the sky and windows were blown away while tiles were flying from roofs. In the vicinity of the railway, houses were collapsing and loosing roofs like hats in the wind.
The munitions train had exploded and in its place was an enormous crater 80m long, 20m wide and 5m deep.
Entire wagons together with their bogies were catapulted up to 300m away.
Thick black fumes hung throughout the town like a death veil.
With the progress of the flames along the munitions train the frequency of the ammunition detonations increased. This would last for two long days.
The town of Rennes awoke in a panic to find itself like an ant’s nest that has been turned upside down. Before the evening many of the population had fled to nearby villages.
The courageous rail workers and firemen together with the territorials attempted to approach the area of the catastrophe.

The walking injured and those that had to be carried were sent to civilian, military or other hospitals and to the Cancer Hospital at Pontchaillou and to various clinics that in no time are full from top to bottom.

Many of the injured were operated on but many of them will die later in the day or the next day.

The soldiers who were trapped under the burning rail cars were screaming in convulsions.

The local commandant, who went to the bridge at Saint Hélier, which overlooks the bombed location, gave the order not to approach because of the ongoing risk from the munitions explosions.
But the bravery and heroism of the men ignored the caution of this order and a group of rescuers under the initiative of a fire service captain connected their fire hoses to the fire tenders and tackled the blazing train. The next day the trainee military doctors from Lyons, who were in the barracks at Margueritte, came to join them and they would have to initiate these trainees to the human pain and the vision of the carnage they were to encounter.

For a full week, without taking off their muddied boots, inside which their tired feet were swollen and without cleaning their blood soaked leather jackets, the men left their families and their day to day occupations. While ignoring the invasion, they rescued people and recovered bodies from the flames and after many days finally extinguished that hell fire.
And then in a stiflingly hot atmosphere smelling of charred human remains they collected the bodies and buried them in the meadows at Saint Héllier, (today the rail workers stadium) at Baud and in communal graves at Bray and Cesson Sévigne.

Three months later Doctor Patay, vice president of the French veterans, obtained permission for the exhumation of all the bodies, had them placed in coffins and transferred to the Eastern Cemetery at Rennes.
At that time were counted 175 British soldiers, including 77 unidentified, 31 civilians, 11 unidentified and several children.
Twenty bodies plus many limbs, said sadly a report of that time, came from a refugee train of which a coach was completely destroyed.
591 French soldiers, 202 unidentified, were also counted.
If you add to that sad count the eight bodies that were never found, that according to some accounts of the time were completely incinerated, we arrive at a total of 805 dead.

Further to that number we must also consider the victims who were earlier buried individually and the number of bodies that were completely pulverised. Many injured also died later in the hospitals.

If France had not been in a trance and with so many fleeing on the roads, this would have been one of the most painful injuries of the war.

(Translated from the original French text by Severine Deputie and David Grundy)

*1. 'Réduit Breton' A planned but never implemented joint British/French strategy to defend the Brittany peninsula against the Germans.

*2. Although Indian soldiers are mentioned a number of times in the source newpaper articles there are no recorded burials of Indian casualties in the C.W.G.C. records for Rennes Eastern Communal Cemetery of 17th June 1940.

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