How was La Rocco Tower damaged
The damaged tower in the 1950s
We in Jersey are fortunate enough to have a number of what are now called iconic structures, such as Corbiere Lighthouse, the two major castles, and the surviving entrance to Grosnez Castle.
Another is La Rocco Tower in the middle of the superb sweep of St Ouen's Bay, the last of the pre-Martello Jersey round towers, but really a fort because of its bulwark base, which also had cannons. Because of wartime damage, left unrepaired until the 1970s, there was a real danger that the entire structure would have collapsed and the stones litter that magnificent beach. Timely action with a mixture of public and private money preserved it.
How did the wartime damage occur? Common folklore is that the Germans used It for artillery target practice. Was this the case? They did at times express regret at the destruction of such heritage, for example in the case of the destruction of the tower at Bel Royal, but military considerations took priority, just as our own military engineers destroyed the medieval Chapelle des Pas in Green Street because it obstructed the line of fire from Fort Regent.
Similarly, the Germans blew up the Martello Tower at L'Etacq to replace it with a bunker.
St Ouen's Bay was seen as one of the most likely Allied landing places. The amount of defensive fire power surrounding the bay was formidable from a line of bunkers along the shore from the headland south of La Pulente to L'Etacq, at Val de la Mare and on the hills above, from Les Landes to La Corbiere, including from a very big gun near St Ouen's Church.
From early 1942 notices would appear in the ‘’Evening Post’’ giving warning that target practice would take place over the bay between certain hours and instructing the relatively few residents in the St Ouen's Bay area to stay indoors with windows slightly open to minimise cracked glass. Outdoor movement was forbidden.
Were they really aiming at the tower? With that level of fire power, had that been the object, absolutely nothing would have been left of it by the mid-morning break for 'ersatz' acorn coffee on the first day.
German gunners were not that incompetent. Moreover, these gunnery practices went on at intervals for two years, until the summer of 1944, when they were halted to conserve stocks of shells, as fresh supplies could no longer be brought in after the liberation of St Malo by the Americans.
It is now known from the evidence of German soldiers, many of whom revisited the island after the war, that they did fear that La Rocco might be used to land British commandoes under cover of darkness in order to make their way across the beach at low tide and then inland.
Accordingly, a 27cm captured French shell was buried under the flagstones of the bulwark at the base of the tower, which could have been activated from the 'resistance nest' at the top of Le Braye slip by means of a cable buried under the beach. Would they really have gone to all this trouble if they were simultaneously using the tower as a target? A German photo of August 1944, taken from the La Pulente side, shows no damage at all, although the following account indicates some, possibly slight damage must by then have occurred.
Then what about the damage which did occur? In the summer of 1985 two tourists of late middle age visited the German naval battery at Noirmont. The lady seemed a little uneasy about the visit, when the man introduced himself. He had been an 18-year-old conscript in the German Army, sent here early in 1944 shortly before the D-Day landings in Normandy.
His name was Horst Herrmann and after the liberation he became a PoW, working on a farm in the Midlands. After his release he married an English girl who had just been demobbed from the ATS.
His home had been in East Berlin, now in the Soviet zone of Germany, where he had no desire to settle. He was able to remain in England, living in St Ives in Huntingdonshire and got work with the Coalite Division of ICI, ending up as their chief accountant, and obtained British nationality. Mrs Herrmann had been reluctant to enter the battery, fearing a hostile reception, which was not the case.
Mr Herrmann, as an Army recruit, had not, of course, been in the Noirmont Naval Battery. He had been stationed in one of the gun emplacements at La Corbiere, the one below the crest of the hill and reached by a footpath from the main road, shortly after it begins the descent to Petit Port, officially known at Strongpoint K2. At that time it was not open to the general public, but arrangements were made for him to be taken there by Michael Ginns, then secretary of the Channel Island Occupation Society.
Then came the confession. He had been partially responsible for some of the damage to La Rocco Tower. He and another youngster were being instructed in gunnery with as target one of the large rocks in St Ouens Bay. Mr Herrmann's job was to aim the gun and his companion had to pull the lanyard.
Worried about the noise of the detonation in a confined space, the other lad let the lanyard slip through his fingers, the gun jerked and then they saw what looked to be, in Mr Herrmann's words, 'a puff of dust' from the top of the tower. We now know that this must have been the origin of the damage to one of the machiolations in the south or Corbiere side of the tower. There is no knowledge of any other damage to the tower itself during the war. Mr Herrmann, incidentally, died in 2007.
Later, sometime in the winter of 1944/45, further and more serious damage was caused to the southern base of the bulwark. This could not have been caused by a German shell, as target practice had then ceased. The most likely culprit was a sea mine drifting ashore. The RAF had dropped several between the islands, and in the winter gales a number drifted ashore, one on the beach at First Tower, another even going as far as Fauvic as recorded in Leslie Sinel's diary.
It is not surprising, once there was a breach in the wall of the bulwark, that a quarter of a¬century of neglect and exposure to Atlantic gales led to the sad mess that existed when repairs at last began, not a precise restoration of what had been there before’ as that would have been too costly, but at least a conservation of the main structure.
Of course, the myth of prolonged target practice is so ingrained that it will probably endure with no explanation of why, over two years of concentrated firing, it should apparently only have been hit once. The myth was even enshrined a few years ago in the official book of the Parish of St Brelade. Most of us are reluctant to have even one part of our cherished oral folklore challenged but, in the course of historical truth, what really happened must be recorded.
Note: The author is indebted to Mr Michael Ginns, from whose encyclopaedic knowledge of those times he was able to draw.