Fort du Petit Bé

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

Le Petit Bé is a fort situated in the bay just outside the St Malo city walls. At first sight the forts seem to be placed in the bay at random, but when you take a closer look on the map and keep the other forts in similar, smaller, bays in mind (Taureau, Cézon) you will see that the forts are placed in such a way that they seal off the only four passages into St Malo.

This is a feature of most costal defences in Brittany; strong currents caused by the numerous small islands and rocks mean that most bays can only be entered in a few ways. The fort was designed in 1689 and replaces a smaller fort dating from 1667.

When St Malo was attacked in 1693 the fort was under construction. In 1695 at the time of the second English attack the fort, although still under construction, played an active role in the defence of the city. The fort was finally finished in 1707.

It lies within cannon-range of the city. The sea front is formed by a semi-circular battery mounting 19 guns controlling the waters between Fort Harbour and Fort La Conchée (both clearly visible from Le Petit Bé).

Crossing fire with both forts, its main purpose was to seal off the entrance to the River Rance along with Fort Harbour. This front is protected by two bastions, with the entrance gate situated between them. The fort is not complete, which is why the entrance is a few metres above the level of the rocks.

An outwork was planned on the rocks in front of the entrance: a demi-lune, linked to the main fort via a staircase. Several different designs for the outwork were proposed but in the end none of them were carried out.

For forts like these, situated on a small island in the sea, the supply of fresh drinking water has always been a problem. This problem was solved in the following way: All rain water that landed on the fort was collected in a large underground cistern.

The water was brought there through a system of drains and gutters on the roof and floors of the fort. Before entering the reservoir the water was filtered in various sand beds. The reservoir of Petit Bé has been restored and works again.

This way of collecting drinking water is quite common and is visible at other similar forts, for example Fort National and Fort du Taureau.

At the end of the 19th century the fort lost its military importance and became the property of the council. At the beginning of the 20th century it was almost turned into a pumping station, but the outbreak of WWI prevented that. The fort was declared a monument in 1921.

Visiting Petit Bé

At low tide you can walk to Petit Bé. There is an entrance fee and a guided tour through the fort. Apart from access to most of the fort you will also get to see the different designs that have been made for the land front and some very beautiful scale models of this fort and the other forts in the bay.

When the sky is clear there is an excellent view of the complete defence line around St Malo: First of all the other forts in the bay (Conchée, Harbour and National). Secondly to the east the 28th century Pointe de la Varde Fort which holds a coastal battery and finally to the west Cap Frehel and Fort la Latte. The tower at Ile des Hebihens, situated between St Malo and Cap Frehel, is difficult to see.

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

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