Ile de Tatihou

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

The island of Tatihou is situated near Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue on the east coast of the Cotentin peninsular. This is the region between Normandy and Brittany pointing out into the English Channel with Cherbourg on the north coast. Saint-Vaast has been a harbour since the middle-ages and has always been of strategic importance. The harbour was easily accessible and formed a good shelter for ships operating in the Channel.

In the 16th century there already was a tower mounting a few cannon on the island. The king of France ordered its destruction in 1662 and by 1666 the tower was gone. Troops have been stationed on the island for centuries - in the 17th century there were some small barracks and powder magazines'on the island (which have since disappeared). The earthwork bastioned'trace around the island also dates from this period.

In 1688 the Catholic king of England (James II) lost his throne to William of Orange in the glorious revolution. James fled to France, seeking the protection of his nephew, King Louis XIV. Louis promised to help him get back his throne by attacking England and began to gather an invasion fleet. In 1692 the Anglo-Dutch fleet attacked and defeated the French just off the coast at the Battle of Barfleur. The surviving French ships retreated to Saint-Vaast and the pursuing English and Dutch ships sank a number of French ships off the Ile de Tatihou.

Following this battle, the Anglo-Dutch forces conducted several raids on the coasts of Brittany and Normandy. As a consequence of this it was decided that the coastal defences needed to be reinforced. In 1694 the building of fortifications at Saint-Vaast and on the Ile de Tatihou began under the supervision of Benjamin de Combes (one of Vauban's'pupils). Vauban himself came to Tatihou to inspect the work in 1699.

The fortifications of Tatihou included a large stone watchtower mounting cannon. This tower is the biggest of all towers of this type that were built in this region (St Jacut, Cap Frehel, Saint-Vaast and Tatihou). These towers are cone-shaped and consist of a main tower with a spiral staircase in a smaller tower built against it.

This gives the towers a unique and aesthetically very beautiful form. The tower of Tatihou is about 20m high and 25m wide at the base. It offered shelter to about 80 men. The tower was a fortress in itself: food and powder were stored in the cellar, with the upper floors being used as accommodation for the garrison. The open terrace on top of the tower offered place for ten heavy cannon (the other towers of this type only offered place for small calibre, lighter cannon).

The walls are about 4m thick at the base and 2m at the top. The main tower is vaulted to resist bombs. In the case of the tower in Tatihou the vault rests on a big central pillar because of the large diameter of the room, which makes this room even more beautiful. There is a ditch'around the tower that is flooded at high tide. A wall around the outer edge of the ditch gives extra strength.

The only entrance to the tower is a door at the base of the staircase. It is protected by a drawbridge and a small balcony above it. Outside the tower is a small chapel dating from the 17th century and there used to be a small farm there. In the 19th century the fortifications were enlarged with a barracks, walls and powder magazines. During the Second World War, the Nazis built a concrete 'blockhaus' fortification on the Ile Tatihou.

The Fort d'Ilet existed in the 17th century but its current form dates from the 19th century (you can walk to it at low tide but it is inaccessible because it is a birds reserve). On an isthmus near Saint-Vaast a similar, smaller watchtower and some small fortifications were built, which can be easily seen from the Tatihou tower. I have not visited this site. As far as I know it is only possible to visit it on the outside.

Vauban planned a big harbour in Saint-Vaast in 1699 but the work was never carried out. Instead, a large harbour was built in Cherbourg in the 19th century.

Visiting Tatihou

The island of Tatihou is situated just off Saint-Vaast. At low tide you could walk to the island but you have to go there on an amphibious vehicle (which is more fun anyway). A limited amount of people are allowed on the island so you have to make reservations to go there at the local tourist office. The ticket for the boat includes entrance to the Vauban tower.

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