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Colombelles (Municipality, Calvados, France)

Last modified: 2021-07-03 by ivan sache
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Flag of Colombelles - Image by Olivier Touzeau, 19 March 2021

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Presentation of Colombelles

The municipality of Colombelles (6,941 inhabitants in 2018; 714 ha) is located east of Caen. At the beginning of the 20th century, the population of the village (200 inhabitants) grew quickly after August Thyssen bought plots in 1909 to establish a steel mill.

The German tycoon August Thyssen (1842-1926) controlled an industrial empire that spread from France to Russia. In 1907, Thyssen acquired the iron mines of Soumont, located 40 km of Caen, and Diélette, whose ore very rich in iron had been exploited since the early 19th century, and industrialized them. He initiated the building of an industrial complex to produce steel, to be used in his German factories, from local iron and coal imported for his Ruhr mines. To this aim, he established in 1910 the Société des hauts fourneaux de Caen (SHFC).
The creation of a industrial complex funded by German capital stirred sour controversy in France. On 10 July 1913, the local Moniteur du Calvados titled "A national hazard - German espionage and invasion in France". In L'Avant guerre (1914), the ultra-nationalist polemicist Léon Daudat claimed "Nothing will be easier than transforming this hue factory in a genuine small German garrison, where nobody would be allow to enter." Accordingly, the company was renamed in 1912 to Société des hauts fourneaux et aciéries de Caen (AHFC), now dominated by French shareholders. Presided by Louis Le Chatelier (1853-1928), steel industrialist in Denain and shareholder of Russian iron mines, the board was composed of six French and three German members, August Thyssen and his son, Fritz, included. Violently criticized for this "collaboration" with Germany, Le Chatelier resigned in 1914.

Originally planned to be located neat river Orne, the project was relocated to the plateau overlooking the town of Caen, a non-floodable area, Two smelting furnaces, a steelworks and rolling mills had to be built using the most advanced technologies of the time. Two iron bridges were erected over river Orne to connect the complex wit the port and the railway station of Caen. A private railway line was built between the Soumont mines and the factory. The Canal from Caen to the Sea, inaugurated in 1857 was increased to accommodate bigger ships, while the company established a private port in Hérouville. Most material, locomotives and railways included, was supplied by Le Chatelier's factory in Denain.
A garden-city was designed to use the factory's staff. The director and the board's members were housed in a manor designed in neo-Normand styles. The architects and the administration was housed in the "grands bureaux", a big building made of white stone equipped with a 40 m x 15 m terrace offering a dual view, on one side to the countryside and on the other side to the industrial complex. The nearby Palace-Hôtel was used to welcome prestigious guests visiting the factory. Engineers and heads of services lived in the "aristocratic" borough, composed of estates modeled on the sea resorts of Villers-sur-Mer, Houlgate and Sainte-Adresse.
Habitations économiques de Basse-Normandie (HEBN) was incorporated in 1931 to design workers' housing estates in Colombelles, Mondeville, Giberville and Cuverville.

When the first World War broke out, the iron mines were closed and the factory's building site was stopped. Most foreign workers were expelled, while most French staff and workers were mobilized. Established in June 1914, a foundry supplied 600 tons shells during the war.
Located far from the fronts and deemed of strategic interest, the industrial complex was transferred to the Schneider company, based in Le Creusot, with the task of achieving the building of the factory. The Aciéries de la Marine et d'Homécourt, based in Saint-Chamond, supplied locomotives and armament material.
The Société normande de métallurige (SNM) was established in March 1916, controlled at 58% by Schneider and 32% by the Aciéries de la Marine et d'Homécourt. The huge building site resumed under the supervision of the army, while the "grands bureaux" were transformed into a military hospital, equipped with 220 beds. On 12 November 1916, Marcel Sembat, Minister of Public Works, Albert Thomas, Undersecretary for Artillery, and Eugène Schneider switched on the coke furnace of the SNM, which were supplied with British coal. On 19 August 1917, the very same Albert Thomas, then Minister of Armament, Eugène Schneider, and Louis Loucheur, Undersecretary for War Industries, switched on the SNM's first smelting furnace. In September 1917, the SNM hired 6,000 workers, including German war prisoners and women; on 5 August 1917, a women aged 18 asked during a union's conference gathering 3,000 workers that women can join the union and obtain specific facilities on their working places.
Chinese, Spanish, Italian, Algerian and Kabyle workers were also employed, who soon entered on strike to obtain the same work conditions as the French workers. The first big strike at the SNM took place from 18 to 25 November 1918, one week after the Armistice. At the end of the war, the building of the industrial complex was mostly completed, 70 km of railways included, served by 34 locomotives and 350 wagons. A second smelting furnace was inaugurated in May 1918.

Bankrupted in 1930, the company was re-created in 1924 as the Société métallurgique de Normandie (SMN). The site, mostly destroyed during the Battle of Normandy in June 1944, resumed activity in 1950. The SMN peaked in 1974, employing 6,400 workers for the production of 958,000 tons steel, mostly wire bobbins and wire-mesh for reinforced concrete. The steel crises caused the nationalization of French steelworks and the incorporation of the SNM to Unimétal in 1984. Production was re-oriented to less expensive products of lower quality, which did not prevent the decline of the factory, whose last cast was ran on 5 November 1993. Most of the site was dismantled and transferred to China.
[Calvados 1907-1918. Les hauts-fourneaux et la grande guerre; La Société métallurgique de Normandie]

Olivier Touzeau & Ivan Sache, 3 July 2021

Flag of Colombelles

The flag of Colombelles (photo) is white with the municipal logo.

The logo features the town's skyline, composed of:
- the refrigerating tower and the adjacent electricity workshop of the former industrial complex (photo, photo);
- the parish church dedicated to St. Martin (12th-13th centuries) (photos);
- the Colombelles tower, once located at the entrance of a castle built in Empire style and destroyed during the Battle of Normandy, maybe used to house the castle's janitor (photo);
- the bridge over river Orne (photo);
- the St. Sergius of Radonezh Orthodox church, built by Russian and Ukrainian workers, which was inaugurated in 1926 by Eulogius, Metropolitan bishop of Russian Orthodox churches in Western Europe (photo).

Olivier Touzeau & Ivan Sache, 3 July 2021