WWII: Antibes’ 75th Tribute for HMS Unbroken

It is a time of anniversaries. World War I’s centennial commemorations have dotted the globe. Canada celebrated its 150th. Even Lolo’s summer camp in the woods of Ontario proudly handed out t-shirts with “100” on them.

World War II anniversaries cannot yet claim three digits. Partly because of the war’s relative recentness, and partly because of its direct impact on the Côte d’Azur, parades and wreath-laying ceremonies are annual events here in late August. To be precise, on August 24, 1944 – only 73 years ago – our town of Antibes celebrated its Libération from the occupying forces.

This past spring, though, Antibes celebrated a 75-year World War II anniversary. The reason is stamped on a copper-green plate affixed to the limestone shard at the end of l’Îlette peninsula, a rocky outcrop that protrudes into the bay beside Antibes’ picture-perfect old town. During my earliest years here, that monument was simply another war relic to me – a statue marking an obscure event that happened long ago.

Over time that shard has morphed from a cold stone into a breathing story. I stumbled on the heroic adventure underpinning it in Antibes’ Archives Municipales, and shared the details here in “World War II: Two Tales of a City.” My later-in-life appreciation of history had begun.

This summer a much-reduced version of this post appeared in the Summer 2017 edition of The Good Life France Magazine.

This is the plot in a nutshell: One pitch-dark night 75 years ago, the unassuming cove beside old Antibes was the setting for a shared, high-stakes operation between the British Special Operations Executive and the French Résistance, both key forces in the eventual liberation of the Côte d’Azur. A British submarine brought two undercover radio operators into town, where they eventually filtered into the local Résistance movement. When the vessel departed these waters some hours later, it unexpectedly added a French diplomat to its passenger roster. The journey toward freedom pressed onward.

Earlier this year – on April 21, to coincide with the H.M.S. Unbroken’s landing – there was a reunion of sorts under the gaze of that limestone shard. In both French and English, the gathered group recalled the skill, determination and bravery of those who participated in this operation. Then, paying tribute in the way we know best, attendees placed poppy wreathes at the base of the monument:

The H.M.S. Unbroken submarine was part of the “Fighting Tenth” – the 10th Submarine Flotilla, based in Malta during the war:

Christopher Thirsk stumbled on this tribute after holidaying in the South of France with friends in the Eighties. Afterward his father wondered whether certain holiday snaps were taken in Antibes. He was familiar with the area, he told his son, because he’d navigated a submarine into the bay there one night in 1942 to land some agents.

The junior Thirsk was the driving force behind this year’s ceremony. His father, Lieutenant Paul Thirsk, was the Navigating Officer aboard the H.M.S. Unbroken:

The monument became a story . . . and now it connects history with the modern day. Thanks to men and women like those remembered by the silent shard, we can continue our annual celebrations of the Côte d’Azur’s Libération.

French Lessons thanks Kevin Baily, Patricia Sands and Judy Walters for sharing their springtime photos.

10 thoughts on “WWII: Antibes’ 75th Tribute for HMS Unbroken

  1. Found this fascinating. I would like to write a novel set in France and wonder if I could set it around these incidents. I’m just checking it’s not something you plan to do?

    1. Bonjour Jane, and isn’t it a thrilling story! I’m working on a book of non-fiction myself and have included this incident in the current draft, but it’s not the backbone of the narrative by any means. Good question – and best of writing juices to you with your work. Keep us in the loop! -Jemma

      1. I will! It’ll be my third novel. My first is ‘Thirty-five minutes from St Tropez’ and the sequel is to be ‘Stolen Summer’ – to be self-published on Amazon probably next month, proof-reading dependant!
        I’ve been wanting to write a story about WW2 for ages and your article really got me thinking….
        Thanks for all your interesting pieces.
        Best wishes

    2. @Jane There are many fascinating characters and events around the SOE. This service is particularly interesting due to the very active involvement of women compared to other services at the time. Quite a few novels have been written in English by English authors from an English point of view but I have always wondered what the feelings of French Resistance members were to these (often quite unlikely) heroes (or maybe “would-be heroes”?) dropping out of the sky from England to “save the day”.

      1. Yes HJay and hello. I’ve read lots of them but would write my story around a young French woman. Not at all sure of an idea yet but this has certainly spurred me on! Just about to publish my second novel on Amazon Kindle…

  2. Thanks once again for bringing attention to this rather untold event in the recent history of Antibes. A meaningful pause at this unobtrusive shard at the tip of L’Îlette is frequently part of my morning walks when I am there. Your investigative efforts are commended, mon amie!

  3. It’s a lovely little monument, visited today . Just a pity that the Union Flag was flying upside-down.

    1. Agreed, Rodney, and merci for writing. Let’s hope they sort the situation out soon. The beauty of the story is the French-British partnership!

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