The remarkable story of France's most heroic island

This tiny island has come to symbolise the French Resistance
This tiny island has come to symbolise the French Resistance Credit: getty

The Ile de Sein is a heroically unheroic spot. An hour across the Iroise Sea from the far west of Brittany, the island covers barely 143 acres. From above, its sea-battered shape looks vaguely (very vaguely) like a sea-horse. It is flat. Rising on average but five feet above the sea, it appears to those approaching to be a floating tea-tray. Or, as this is Brittany, a pancake. Sein is largely featureless, though does host “the last hotel before America”. 

The slightly heroic aspect of the island is that anyone at all should live on what seems a benighted outpost. According to the latest census, some 250 do. That said, the most heroic thing – the episode which forged Sein’s repute – was the island’s reaction to General de Gaulle’s 1940 radio appeal for resistance against the invading Germans and their French apologists. The scrap of an island suddenly gained valiant status in France’s wartime narrative.

The general’s June 18 appeal on the BBC from London came, as most of us are aware, 80 years ago this week. President Macron will visit London on Thursday to mark the occasion with Prince Charles and PM Boris Johnson. But the other focal point for memories of the broadcast which, essentially, founded the French Resistance was the Ile de Sein. 

An hour across the Iroise Sea from the far west of Brittany, the island covers barely 143 acres Credit: getty

三级成人视频That’s why Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National (ex-National Front) intended to travel to the island on Thursday. Mme Le Pen is often accused, rightly or wrongly, of wishing to draw the mantle of the general about her shoulders. Her planned visit didn’t elicit universal – or, indeed, any – enthusiasm. Island mayor Didier Fouquet cancelled Sein’s own day-long commemorations lest they be hi-jacked by the RN leader. Protests were organised. Mme Le Pen was outraged – but she also changed her plans, sneaking onto the island with a handful of followers a day early, on Wednesday afternoon, thus avoiding outcry. She gave a speech, to almost no-one except a TV crew. This called for all patriots to use the anniversary date to join a movement for national revival (talk about striving for Gaullist echoes). Then she left.

Even so, the island hadn’t seen such excitement for a while. The reason for all this? That Sein people – Sénans – responded more fervently than any others to de Gaulle’s 1940 BBC call to resistance. Like most French people, the Sénans didn’t hear the June 18 appeal on June 18. But they heard about it, and so were ready when the appeal was repeated on June 22. Locals gathered round one of the island’s four radio sets perched on the window-sill of a hotel. They were galvanised by both this and news from the mainland of the German advance through Brittany. Many of the island men had already been mobilised and were away with the French armed forces.

But dozens of its residents, including boys as young as 14, heeded the call of De Gaulle Credit: getty

三级成人视频Those left were either young, old or too vital to their families or the island economy to have been mobilised. Between June 24 and June 26, some 128 of them – of a then-population of 1,300 – sailed in five small fishing boats for England. Half were under 20. The youngest, at 14, hid on the boat which also carried his father and older brother. (He was also, incidentally, the last veteran of this episode to die – in October 2018, at 92.)

三级成人视频They arrived along the south-west coast. “We will never forget the warmth of the welcome,” a Sénan wrote later. There are reports that one English woman bought and distributed huge quantities of chips to arriving Frenchmen. Others offered chocolate and cigarettes. Red Cross ladies dished out biscuits and tea which, as the same man recalled, “many of us drank with grimaces”. 

They were transported to London and assembled before General de Gaulle along with other Frenchmen constituting the fledgling Free French forces. In these early days, there were about 500 in the British capital in all. The general wished to know where they’d all come from. Once he’d heard the same reply 128 times, he famously exclaimed: “So the Ile de Sein is a quarter of France!”

The general inspecting his Free French forces in 1940 Credit: getty

Many of the Sénans then served on the veteran French battleship Courbet, seized by the British in Portsmouth harbour at the outbreak of war. It was subsequently used as a floating anti-aircraft battery protecting the same city. Others joined the French merchant navy while others yet fought with the Free French. Fifteen were killed. Given that 17 other Sénans were killed in other circumstances, there are 32 names on the island’s 1939-45 war memorial. Sein is the only commune in France to have lost more men in the Second than in the First World War.

De Gaulle greeting islanders in 1946 Credit: getty

三级成人视频Post-war, General de Gaulle recognised Sein’s valour. He visited first in August 1946, to bestow the Croix-de-la-Libération award upon the island, which was also one of only five communes in France to be named a Companion of the Libération. He was back 14 years later, to unveil the island’s monument to the Free French. It is in the form of a cross of Lorraine and inscribed in Breton: “Kentoc’h Mervel” – “Better to Die”. It was before this that Marine le Pen made her speech on June 17.

Unveiling the monument in 1960 Credit: getty

三级成人视频And, if truth be told, it is one of Sein’s few tourist attractions. Like Mme Le Pen, you’ll have to walk from the village and along to it; the island allows neither cars nor bikes. You might take in the nearby lighthouse while there. This was, incidentally, initially even less popular than Mme Le Pen. Islanders deeply resented the 19th-century construction, for the regularity of loot from wrecks was one of the few things which made their impoverished lives bearable. But that was then. Subsequently, they’ve become pretty ace at saving lives at sea.

三级成人视频Back in the village, l’Abri-du-Marin folk museum has the tales of Sein’s past with, on the first floor, focus on its 1940 hour of glory. Then you must explore the pint-sized village, its white, yellow and blue houses clustered on narrow streets sinuous enough to confound wind and spray. Beyond, there’s a comely little beach backed by rolling coast and heathland which is stirring to stroll. Around one and a half miles long, 900 yards across at the island’s widest point, 50 at its narrowest, it won’t take you long.

There's a comely little beach backed by rolling coast and heathland which is stirring to stroll Credit: getty

Just enough, in fact, to work up an appetite for lunch at one of the island’s restaurants or cafés. I’d suggest the Case de Tom (0033 685 600320) or the Hotel-Restaurant Ar-Men (“the last hotel before America”; ) but I’m sure they’re all good. Go for the shellfish – oysters or lobster – but book ahead.

Careful, though, if tackling a takeaway. The Sein seagulls are fearless terrorists. They’ll steal your chips as you sit on the seawall. Believe me. Don’t get annoyed, as I did. It only makes you look stupid. And, anyway, as someone very close by said, the island has suffered considerably worse than theft by seabird.

Getting there

三级成人视频Ferries from the Saint Evette quay, Audierne with (return trip £27 low season, £31 high – including commentary during the crossing) or (restarts July 28, £29 return). Both companies have reductions for youngsters.