The town has a major harbour, on the right bank of the Loire River estuary, near the Atlantic Ocean. The town is at the south of the second-largest swamp in France, called "la Brière". Given its location, Saint-Nazaire has a long tradition of fishing and shipbuilding. The Chantiers de l'Atlantique, one of the largest shipyards in the world, has constructed iconic superliners such as the SS Normandie, SS France, RMS Queen Mary 2 and MS Harmony of the Seas, the largest passenger ship in the world as of 2016.
What was a small village until the industrial area became a large town in the second half of the 19th century, thanks to the construction of railways and the growth of the seaport. Saint-Nazaire progressively replaced Nantes as the main haven on the Loire estuary. The town was one of the most damaged ones in France during World War Two. Being a major marine base for the Nazis, it was subject to a British raid in 1942 and it was heavily bombed by the Allies until 1945. Being part of one of the Atlantic pockets, Saint-Nazaire was one of the last territories in Europe to be liberated from the Nazis, on 11 May 1945.
Archaeologists believe that Saint-Nazaire is built upon the remnants of Corbilo, an Armorican Gaulish city populated by the Namnetes tribe, which (according to the Greek navigator Pytheas) was the second-largest Gaulish city, after Massilia (now Marseille). Archeology suggests that the area has been inhabited since at least the Neolithic period, as evidenced by the presence of monuments like the tumulus of Dissignac and the dolmen located in the centre of the present-day city, and ancient bronzes found in the vicinity.
According to the 15th-century chronicler Alain Bouchart, Brutus of Troy, the mythical ancestor of the Bretons, travelled toward Saint-Nazaire to set foot upon the new homeland of his people. Historical accounts note that at the end of the Roman Empire, some Britons colonized the Loire estuary, and later, the peninsula containing Guérande. The furthest extent of the ancient Breton language in the Loire region is Donges, to the east of Saint-Nazaire.
According to the late-6th-century writer Gregory of Tours, the Roman Church sheltered the remains of the martyr Nazarius in a local basilica. According to legend, the Breton chief Waroch II sent an emissary to seize the relics. The plot was foiled when the emissary fractured his skull upon the lintel of the church door. Waroch, interpreting this as a miracle, was deterred, and the village thenceforth took the name of Sanctus Nazarius de Sinuario.
After this point, the history of Saint-Nazaire, like much of Europe during the Dark Ages, is not well understood. Battles occurred, such as in 1380 when Jehan d'Ust defended the city in the name of John V, Duke of Brittany (known in France as Jean IV) against the Castilian fleet during the Hundred Years' War. After this time, Saint-Nazaire became the seat of a parish extending from Penhoët to Pornichet, part of the Viscountcy of Saint-Nazaire.
Like the whole of Brittany, Saint-Nazaire formed part of the Duchy of Brittany until 1532, when it was annexed by France. In 1624, the city was threatened by the Calvinists. In 1756, a fort was built on the order of the governor of Brittany to protect the town, which by then had 600 inhabitants. Until the French revolution, Saint-Nazaire belonged to the province of Brittany.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the port only consisted of one simple harbor. As the town was so far inland, its main economy was not based on commercial fishing, but its strategic location as the lowest possible navigation point for large ships, and the supply of pilots for navigation further up the Loire. In 1800, the parish of Saint-Nazaire had around 3216 inhabitants.
The modern Saint-Nazaire was created by the administration of Napoleon III, and came about from the various national and regional truces which had prevented its development up to that point. The population of 3216 in 1800 shows that battered history, with a mainly local (Brière), of Low-Brittany (of Morbihan in the Finistère-south), and minor representation from most other areas of France. From this point forward the population of Saint-Nazaire experienced an exponential growth, which was reflected in its nickname of "Little Breton California", or "Liverpool of the West".
In 1802, a roadway was built to develop the port, which extended by 1835, to a breakwater with a navigational lighthouse at its end. The development, included new basins for ships to unload to barges which carried goods further up the river. This development moved the town into the area of the city which is now called the district of "Little Morocco". This development made the town the base for the passenger steamships of the Nantes–Saint-Nazaire line, as well as making the town the alternate port for ships which could not access Nantes.
In 1856, the first wet dock basin was dug in the handle of "Halluard City", making it possible for ships to moor and turn. This brought about the construction of the town's first railway connection. In 1857, the Chemin de Fer de Paris à Orléans railroad company of Orléans connected Saint-Nazaire to Nantes. In 1862, the first transatlantic telegraph lines were installed from France towards South America, which came ashore at Saint-Nazaire. 1862 also saw the construction of major ship building facilities, including those of Chantier Scott, which launched of the first French constructed ships with metal hulls (the company went bankrupt in 1866). In 1868, Saint-Nazaire became a sub-prefecture in lieu of the town of Savenay. A second dock basin was created at Penhoët in 1881, to allow the servicing of larger ships, but a lock gate built to access it cut the town in two, thus creating Old Saint-Nazaire and an artificial island called "Little Morocco".
In early 1870, Nantes born Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau joined the bar in Saint-Nazaire. In September he became, in spite of his youth, secretary to the municipal commission temporarily appointed to carry on the town business. He organized the National Defense at Saint-Nazaire, and marched out with his contingent, though they saw no active service due to lack of ammunition (their private store having been commandeered by the state). In 1873, he moved to the bar of Rennes, following the establishment of the Third Republic in 1871.
On 30 March 1894, a strike occurred at the forging mills of Trignac in opposition to a reduction of the work force. What had seemed a small dispute escalated after a shooting in Fourmies, resulting in the town getting its national nickname of "Red City". Socialists flocked to the town in defense of the striking workers joining in the declaration of the "Fusillade de Fourmies".
In 1900, the commune of Pornichet was created by stripping off the larger commune of Saint-Nazaire.
During World War I, the city became an important unloading port of the allied troops, and particularly in the latter stages for the United States Army. When they entered the war in 1917, they developed the town and port infrastructure, by adding additional drinking water storage ponds for the town's water treatment plants, and a refrigeration terminal to the docks for shipment and storage of meat and dairy products to supply their troops.
However, the presence of legal brothels (Maisons Tolérée) resulted in a diplomatic incident. As a result of strict reformist public health concerns at home, the American Expeditionary Force placed the Maisons Tolérée off limits, resulting in a dispute between the towns brothel owners backed by the mayor, versus the US Army forces. With the dispute escalating, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau sent a memo to Gen. John Pershing offering a compromise: American medical authorities would control designated brothels operated solely for American soldiers. Pershing passed the proposal to Raymond Fosdick, who on giving it to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker promptly responded: "For God’s sake, Raymond, don’t show this to the president or he’ll stop the war." Only after the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, when the US Army could no longer plead military necessity as grounds for curtailing leave, did venereal disease rates among US Army troops shoot up.
The post-war period brought about a period of economic depression for the ship builders, who consequently diversified into building seaplanes from 1922. In 1926 the district of Paimbœuf was suppressed and merged with the district of Saint-Nazaire, thus reinforcing the influence of the city on the south bank of the Loire River.
Although having built the SS Paris, between 1913 and 1921, and SS Ile de France between 1925 and 1926, as a result of the 1930s Great Depression the French government commissioned a series of state programs to aid national economic activity. The state owned shipping company Compagnie Générale Transatlantique commissioned the ship builders of Saint-Nazaire to construct a new large passenger ship, which as a result between 1928 and 1934 created the Albert Caquot engineered the Louis Joubert dry dock – at 1,200 m × 60 m (3,940 ft × 200 ft), the largest of its kind in the world at the time – necessary to be able to accommodate the construction of the SS Normandie. In 1932, the casino of Saint-Nazaire came bankrupt and was resold to the town of Nantes: the site was redeveloped from 1935 with the first part of the current Saint-Louis school.
As a result of the national general strike of June 1936, to ensure completion of the nationally prestigious project SS Normandie, the government nationalised the various private shipyards into one state owned entity, the 1861 founded Chantiers de l'Atlantique.
After the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany's Wehrmacht army at the start of World War II, the combined forces of the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force failed to hold the oncoming onslaught. As part of Operation Ariel, Saint-Nazaire like Dunkirk became an evacuation point for the British back to England, with those successfully embarking including the writer John Renshaw Starr.
The Miracle of St Nazaire
The belly gunner of an American B-17F bomber fell 20,000 feet onto the glass roof of the train station, even though his parachute had been destroyed by German flak while still on his plane. The US airman survived the fall. A German military surgeon was able to save his nearly severed arm. The airman credits his survival to a prayer to "the Almighty" as he recovered consciousness during his fall.
On 17 June 1940 an estimated 9,000 British Army soldiers were embarked aboard the Clyde-built troopship RMS Lancastria, which was then attacked and sunk by German Junkers Ju 88 bombers, mainly from Kampfgeschwader 30, taking with her around 4,000 victims. It is the worst disaster in British maritime history, and the worst loss of life for British forces in the whole of World War II. Winston Churchill banned all news coverage of the disaster on learning of it and it remained largely forgotten by history. A Lancastria memorial is located near the U-boat pens in St Nazaire.
Following the surrender of France to German forces later in June 1940, the port immediately became a base of operations for the Kriegsmarine and was as such the target of Allied operations. A heavily fortified U-boat Saint-Nazaire submarine base was built by Organisation Todt shortly after occupation, with its 9-metre-thick (30 ft) concrete ceiling, was capable of withstanding almost any bomb in use at the time.
The base provided a home during the war to many of the most well known U-Boat staff, including:
The base still stands today, as its extremely sturdy construction makes demolition uneconomical. The base is now used by cafes, a bar and on the roof is an exhibition about Saint-Nazaire.
The huge Joubert drydock built for SS Normandie was the only port on the Atlantic capable of servicing the German battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz. This gave the port a strong strategic importance to both the Axis Powers and the Allies during the Second World War.
After Operation Rheinübung on 18–27 May 1941, in which the Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen were to have ended the operational raid at Saint-Nazaire, but which resulted in the sinking of HMS Hood and the sinking of the Bismarck; the need for the Allies to take the Joubert dry dock out of operation was increased.
On 28 March 1942, a force of 611 British Commandos and the Royal Navy launched the St. Nazaire Raid against the shipyards of Saint-Nazaire, codenamed Operation Chariot. An obsolete American-built destroyer HMS Campbeltown was used as a ram-ship loaded with explosives, and it and the commandos succeeded in destroying the gates and machinery of the Joubert drydock, preventing its further use by Nazi Germany during the war. Of the 200 who were expected to return, 120 were alive and half were wounded. Five Victoria Crosses and 69 other awards were rewarded. The Joubert dry dock was not brought back into operation until 1948.
The U-boat threat to supply convoys across the Atlantic made Saint-Nazaire a constant target of Allied air forces, in the face of determined Luftwaffe fighter opposition to the daylight raids by USAAF Eighth Air Force bombers. On 3 January 1943 Col. Curtis LeMay led 85 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 1st Bombardment Wing against the U-Boat pens at Saint-Nazaire, on the Eighth Air Force's sixth raid against the facility. LeMay also introduced the combat box defensive formation, echeloning three-plane elements within a squadron, and squadrons within a group, to concentrate defensive firepower against fighter opposition. Only 76 aircraft found and hit the target, and during the mission seven bombers were shot down and 47 damaged.
As a result of the raid, on 14 January 1943 under directive (S.46239/?? A.C.A.S. Ops), the Allies implemented incendiary bomb tactics against U-Boat pens, under the Area bombing directive. To minimize civilian casualties during air attacks, the Allies devised a plan to force an evacuation of the town. For three days in 1943, British Royal Air Force and American aircraft dropped scores of leaflets warning the population of a planned fire-bombing raid. At the end of the third day, the raid came and burned the entire city to the ground. Casualties were light as most of the civilians had heeded the warning and fled to the safety of the countryside, but after that point except for the self-contained U-boat base, Saint-Nazaire remained abandoned until the end of the war.
After D-day and the liberation of most of France in 1944, German troops in Saint-Nazaire's submarine base refused to surrender, and they holed up (as did their counterparts in the La Rochelle and Lorient bases). Since the Germans could no longer conduct major submarine operations from the bases without a supply line, the SHAEF commander, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to simply bypass these ports, and the Allied armies focused their resources on the invasion of Germany. Saint-Nazaire and the other two German "pockets" remained under Nazi control until the last day of the war in Europe, 8 May 1945.
The town of St. Nazaire was rebuilt in the late 1940s in a minimalist functional style.
The submarine base was used by the French Navy from 1945 to 1948. It then came under the control of various chemical companies and shipbuilders. As of 2016, the French diesel submarine "Espadon" is moored within the U-boat pens. Tours of the submarine are available to the public.
After the construction of the SS France in 1961, the last Compagnie Générale Transatlantique liner and the subsequent closure of the Suez Canal, Chantiers de l'Atlantique began building large oil tankers, including Batillus, Bellamya, Pierre Guillaumat and Prairial. A new dry dock (Basin C) was planned for the construction of tankers over 1,000,000 tonnes but this fell through with the re-opening of the Suez Canal. The RMS Queen Mary 2 was constructed at Chantiers de l'Atlantique in 2003.
The nursery schools and the elementary schools resident of Saint-Nazaire (Carnot, Jean-Jaurès, Lamartine, Jules Ferry, Ferdinand Bush, Boncourt, etc.) educate nearly 8,000 pupils divided in 30 school complexes.
The Junior schools have nearly 7,000 pupils divided in 12 colleges: public colleges Albert Vinçon; Pierre Norange; Manon Roland; Jean de Neyman; Jean Moulin, accommodate around 1,350 pupils each. Private colleges include:
The high-schools educate 6,000 pupils divided into 11 colleges, with the technical Aristide Briand having some 3,500 pupils, one of the largest colleges of France [ref. necessary]; the experimental college, public lycée managed jointly by the teachers and the pupils; the private college of Saint-Louis mainstream education; the hotel private college Holy-Anne; the private of mainstream education and technological college Our-Lady-in Espérance. The Cité Scolaire of Saint-Nazaire is one of largest of France, with nearly 4,000 high-school pupils.
The university of Saint-Nazaire is a college of the University of Nantes, the second largest university in France with approximately 35,000 students, including nearly 5,000 on the university pole of Saint-Nazaire. The campus resident of Saint-Nazaire is composed of four university fields: Gavy, Océanis, Heinlex and the Cité Scolaire of Saint-Nazaire.
The Route nationale N165/N161 (E60 route), gives motorway access to Nantes and Rennes via the Pont de Saint-Nazaire, which crosses the Loire. Paris is then accessed via the a10/A11 (in Nantes). Valves, Lorient, Quimper and Brest are accessed via the N165.
A project to review a second crossing of the Loire between Nantes and Saint Nazaire is being considered to be constructed and operational by 2025.
Saint-Nazaire railway station is served by both the TGV and the regional trains and buses of the TER Pays de la Loire. TGV (high speed train) connection to Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Lille, and Strasbourg, with trains to Paris via the LGV Atlantique taking just over 2 hours. TER Pays de la Loire provides links to Nantes, Angers, Le Mans, La Roche sur Yon, and many other regional cities and towns.
Saint-Nazaire airport is located 5 km (3 mi) south-east of Saint-Nazaire, in the commune of Montoir-de-Bretagne. It has an annual capacity for approximately 150,000 passengers, and is the operational and maintenance base for Eagle Aviation France.
International travel is via Nantes Atlantique Airport, the biggest airport in western France, linking with several French and European cities, as well as Montreal in Canada (seasonally) and some cities in North Africa. It is currently planned that this airport will be supplemented by a new Aéroport du Grand Ouest, that will be situated 30 km (19 mi) to the north-west of Nantes in the commune of Notre-Dame-des-Landes. The €580 million project was approved in February 2008, with construction expected now to start in 2014 and an opening date in 2017.
The economy of the city is founded on the activity of the port: exportation of products manufactured, but also on the services, being given sizeable size of the city. Commercial fishing has almost completely disappeared, in spite of the subsistence of a small fleet of fisheries and fishing vessels.
Saint-Nazaire suffered heavily from the downsizing of shipbuilding activity in western Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, during which again she completed the new national passenger liner SS France. For a long time in the 1980s, Saint-Nazaire remained an economically depressed area with unemployment rates above 20%. Today, the local economy is more diversified and its situation is more in line with that of France as a whole. The major industries are:
Saint-Nazaire is one of the two seats of the Chamber of commerce and industry of Nantes and Saint-Nazaire which is that of Loire-Atlantique.
Saint-Nazaire is twinned with:
It has also cooperation agreements with:
In 2008, there was 0.41% of the children attended the bilingual schools in primary education.