Fort La Latte

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

The earliest historical record of a fort on the Cap La Latte to the west of Saint Malo dates from the 14th century, but local legends claim that it is much older. It is the most strategic position in the area, from this point it is possible to observe almost all of the nearby coast and overlook the Fresnaye bay, which could be used as an anchorage.

By the time Vauban'recognised its strategic significance, the fort already had a colourful history - it was besieged by one of Brittany’s and France’s greatest heroes of the 100 years war; Du Guesclin “Constable of France” in 1379 and later in 1490 again by the English.

In 1597, during the wars of religion the fort was demolished and mostly burned down. When Vauban visited the fort it had been in ruins for almost a century, but was still in use.

Because of its excellent strategic position the fort was given a new a lease of life and was restored and updated to modern standards of warfare by Garengeau, the Director of Fortifications for Brittany, between 1689 and 1715. The fort's current appearance dates from this period.

Most of the surviving medieval castle was left intact, but its walls were lowered so that they could be used by artillery. The keep was turned into a powder magazine'and was also used as a watchtower and beacon between St Jacut and Cap Frehel.

Two small watchtowers overlooking the sea and a chapel were built together with a long wall to protect the interior of the fort from cannonballs shot from the sea. The most important addition is the semi-circular coastal battery at the north end of the fort.

Unlike other batteries built in the late 17th century, this battery has no embrasures'to protect the guns. Instead, cannon were fired directly over the parapet, so that their field of fire covered a much greater angle than cannon shooting through embrasures.

From this time on the most important role of Fort la Latte was to protect the Fresnaye bay. Because some ships could only enter Saint Malo at high tide, they sometimes had to wait for the tide in the Fresnaye bay. Ships in this sheltered anchorage were protected by the fort's guns.

At the same time it could prevent enemy ships from using the bay to wait for the right tide to launch an attack or go ashore here because a large part of the bay is dry at low tide, becoming a good firm beach.

The batteries of Fort la Latte cross fire with those built on the other side of the bay on the isthmus of St Cast facing the fort. In 1693 Fort la Latte was bombed by an Anglo-Dutch fleet on a reconnaisance mission along the coast near Saint Malo.

During the later attacks on Saint Malo and the battle of St Cast in 1758 Fort la Latte played no role. An interesting feature of the fort is the furnace for heating cannon-balls, installed there at the end of the 18th century.

The cannonballs rolled slowly through a fire, when they rolled out they were red hot, about a 1000 degrees. The hot cannonballs were put in the barrel of the cannon. If one of these heated cannonballs hit a wooden sailing ship, the ship would catch fire.

To prevent the gunpowder from exploding before the cannon was fired, a wet cloth was put between the cannonball and the gunpowder. If the cloth was inside the barrel too long it could make the gunpowder wet and when the cannonball was inside the barrel too long the cloth could dry and the heat would ignite the gunpowder. So the cannon had to befired as quickly as possible once it was loaded.

Visiting Fort La Latte

The fort lost its military significance in 1890 and was declared a monument in 1925. In 1931 it was bought by a family that still lives there now. They restored the fort and opend it to the public. Since the late 50s the fort has been the set for several movies, TV-series and video clips. Its great condition and the spectacular location makes the fort well worth a visit. Fort la Latte is open most of the year and can easily be reached by car.

For the visit you’ll have to pay an entrance fee, for a little extra you can get a description of the fort in various languages.

Cap Frehel Lighthouse

In the line of coastal fortifications protecting St Malo the lighthouse of Cap Frehel forms the most extreme point on the west. Its purpose was to warn St Malo of approaching enemy ships and to be a beacon for friendly ships approaching its harbour and the bay of Fresnaye.

The lighthouse was lit for the first time in 1702. The tower was of the same design as the one at Tatihou; two cone shaped towers joined together, the smaller one carrying the staircase the larger one the living space. Instead of cannon, the upper terrace held the light.

This tower is smaller than those used for artillery. The diameter of both sections of the tower is smaller in comparison to its height and the difference in diameter between the cones is less. This makes it look taller than it actually its true height, which is only 15 metres.

The lighthouse was replaced with a new one in the 19th century but this new lighthouse was blown up by the Nazis in 1944. From 1944 until 1950 Vauban's old tower was used as a lighthouse once again until the current lighthouse was finished in 1950. The lighthouse on the Ile d'Ouessant (to the west of Brest), which was first lit in 1700, served as a model for the lighthouse on Cap Frehel. This tower is taller than the one on Cap Frehel and is still be used.

Visiting Cap Frehel

From the nearby Fort la Latte it is possible to take a footpath along the coast to Cap Frehel.

Although the tower isn't very spectacular, can't be visited and is rather eclipsed by the much larger new lighthouse, Cap Frehel is well worth a visit because of the splendid views (with clear weather you can see up to Granville and the Channel Islands), the beauty of the cape itself and the nearby more spectacular fortifications.

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

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