Mengant and Cornouaille Batteries

Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.

Brest has a deep naturally sheltered harbour that can only be reached by passing a waterway called the Goulet de Brest. The key to an effective defence of the harbour lay in a good defence of the coastlines south and north of the Goulet (throat). The defence works along these coastlines served three purposes. Firstly, they defended anchorages where friendly ships could wait for the right tide and winds to pass through the Goulet and enter the harbour. The tower of Camaret and the Fort of Bertheaume served this purpose. Secondly, the forts had to defend the coast against an enemy landing. The tower of Camaret and the batteries near the beach of Le Conquet (Plage des Blancs Sablons) are examples of those defences. The third purpose was served by the Mengant and Cornouailles batteries; preventing enemy ships from passing through the Goulet.

One site along the Goulet was of special interest; the passage along the Roche Mengant, a small rock pointing out of the water almost exactly in the middle of the waterway. Here ships were forced to sail closer to the coastline to avoid a series of rocks below the surface of the water, making it the perfect spot for defences. Before Vauban'inspected the coastlines for the first time in 1683 several batteries had been planned and built on this site. The Beaufort battery for example, which is now in ruins but still visible. Vauban decided to build two batteries on the coastline. On the north side the Mengant battery, and the Cornouaille battery on the south side. The fields of fire from the two batteries overlapped, thus closing the waterway.

Work on the Mengant battery started in 1684 and was finished around 1687. At the foot of the cliff a semicircular battery was built, holding about 40 cannon. The inside of the battery was filled with storage rooms, barracks and a guardhouse. A powder magazine'was carved out of the cliff. The battery was defended from attacks over land by a redoubt'and a square watchtower built on the top of the cliff. The watchtower was roughly the same as the one at Camaret. The redoubt and battery were connected by two walls running up the cliff. In the 1690s the redoubt was considered to be too weak, making the whole fort weak. If the redoubt should fall, the battery could never hold out because it was dominated by its surroundings. In order to strengthen the fort Vauban designed a crownwork'around the redoubt but due to lack of funds it was never carried out.

Work on the Cornouaille battery started in 1684 as well but due to lack of funds the work was stopped shortly afterwards, only to be resumed in 1692. The battery was finished in 1696. The terrace of this battery is carved out of the rock. The rock that was taken out of the cliff was used for the masonry of the battery wall. The battery follows the curved form of the cliff and held about 40 cannon as well. The inside of the battery was taken up with barracks, storage rooms etc. and with a powder magazine carved out of the rock. It is said that the black masonry of the walls used to be plastered orange-red just like the tower of Camaret.

A redoubt up on the cliff and connection walls were planned for this battery as well but were never built due to lack of funds. Judging from the situation of the battery this was not such a strange choice. The Cornouaille battery is located on the Pointe de Espagnols, a small peninsula. At the point where this peninsula is connected to the mainland (the Crozon peninsula) an entrenched line with redoubts was built cutting off all access. In order to attack the Cornouaille battery from behind, this line would have had to be passed first. In 1813 a redoubt, of the standard 1811 model, was built on the top of the cliff. At this time the connection walls between redoubt and battery were planned again but not carried out.

In 1680 François Ferry'made plans for a fort on the Roche Mengant, located almost exactly in the centre of the Goulet. This fort could seal off the Goulet all by itself and would be a masterpiece of engineering. Vauban was seduced by this spectacular idea and from 1683 to 1685 he tried to build the fort, but the strong currents made it impossible to even lay the foundations. Had this work succeeded, Brest would have had a chain of fortresses similar to those in the Gironde; Blaye, Paté and Médoc.

Until the Second World War both batteries retained their military purpose and were updated. Both have some rather spectacular modern constructions among which the 19th century cannon cellars carved out of the cliffs of the Cornouaille battery and the concrete lift construction for radar testing of the Mengant battery (1960s) are worth a special mention. It is a pity that practically all of the buildings inside the batteries have been demolished and that nothing remains of the old watchtower, an even bigger shame.

Today the Mengant battery is used as a training site for the navy and is only open for visitors on special occasions or on request. You can get a very good view of the fort from the footpath along the coast though, so waiting for the right time to visit is not really necessary. The upper part of the fort can never be visited. The Cornouaille battery is located on military land but can be visited as long as you stay on the footpaths. A walk along the coast both on the north and south side of the Goulet is highly recommended. The scenery is beautiful and you get a very good view of the strategic value of the landscape around Brest. Looking out over the waters to the Roche Mengant you can't help but wonder what could have been.

Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.

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