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Port-en-Bessin-Huppain (Municipality, Calvados, France)

Last modified: 2021-07-06 by ivan sache
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Flag of Port-en-Bessin-Huppain - Image by Olivier Touzeau, 21 March 2021

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Presentation of Port-en-Bessin-Huppain

The municipality of Port-en-Bessin-Huppain (1,949 inhabitants in 2018; 756 ha; municipal website) is located 10 km north-east of Bayeux. The municipality was established in 1972 as the merger of the former municipalities of Port-en-Bessin and Huppain

Port-en-Bessin might have been established by the Bodiocasses / Baiocasses Gallic tribe in a natural harbor ("valleuse") flanked by two cliffs, Huppain cliff in the west and mount Castel in the west, to control trade between southern Britain and Normandy. Mount Castel, which overlooks the port, was already settled in the late Bronze Age (1350-800 BC) and fortified as an oppidum in the very late Iron Age (150-30 BC). During excavations of the site performed in 2010, militaria dated to the end of the Roman Republic were found; this seems to indicate that a Roman camp was established on the site of the Celtic oppidum, as it occurred at the end of the conquest of Gaul until the foundation of garrisons in the Gallo-Roman towns.
The village was first mentioned, as "portus", in as charter issued in 1096 by the bishop of Bayeux.

Elected 59th bishop of Bayeux in 1459, Louis of Harcourt, a former Governor of Normandy and Keeper of the Seals of the king of France, in order "to make of his town one of the richest and nicest in the province" initiated the building of "a basin in Port-en-Bessin, where ships would enter and bring goods". Around 1475, a basin of c. 400 m on 80 m was established, surrounded by walls and protected by two stone moles coated with wood. The basin was cut into two parts by a seven-arched stone lock-bridge, a structure very unusual at the time, to handle tide. Damaged by sea storms and silted up, the port was no longer used in the 17th century; in 1629, the inhabitants of Port-en-Bessin petitioned for its revamping, to no avail. In the late 18th century, Canon Renauld described the port as "filled by sand carried away by north-western winds and transformed into a kind of muddy swamp"; only the lock-bridge seemed to have resisted.

The decline of the port caused the economical decline of Bayeux; leather, cloth and cheesecloth could no longer be exported, while a few ships still traded butter and cider to Rouen. In the late 18th century, the bishop of Bayeux let build man-powered capstans, depicted on a painting made around 1830 by Eugène Lepoitevin. Scattered over five docks, the capstans were suppressed, as was the lock-bridge, at the end of the 19th century when the new port was built.
In the late 17th century, Vauban ordered the building of a redoubt equipped with three cannons on mount Castel, still standing as the Vauban Tower, and a second battery and a powder-house on the Huppain cliff.

In the next century, French vessels were still under constant English threat. A report presented to Louis XV's Royal Council stated that "Port-en-Bessin is the most suitable site on the Channel to establish a port to be used as a shelter and to protect the French trade". All along the 18th century, the notables and traders from Caen submitted several reports to the authorities to prevent the establishment of a port in Port-en-Bessin; scared by potential competition for sea trade, they claimed that the port of Isigny was big enough to manage the export of products from Bessin and Cotentin, and that Colleville would be a much more suitable place to create a new port. They also pointed out that canalization of river Orne between Caen and Ouistreham was urgently required to foster the town's trade and industry. Quite dishonestly, they added that the revamping of the "bishops' port" would be a waste of money, since Bayeux was only a place of residence for the nobility and the clergy.
Port-en-Bessin was eventually registered as a "shelter port" by the Law passed on 16 July 1845, while 950,000 francs were allocated to the building site. However, the notables of Bayeux refused to fund the project because they did not trust the proposal made by engineer Bouniceau; in Port-en-Bessin, people claimed that the building of the port would cause the decline of the emerging sea resort by suppressing a significant part of the beach.

The new port, whose building was completed in 1864 for 2 millions francs, soon confirmed the notables' predictions. On 14 May 1866, the Municipal Council stated that "the port is a source of damage for ships" and that "captains refuse to enter it in winter and by harsh weather". Fishers offered 20,000 francs to re-establish an inner port on the model of the early bishops' port. After ten years of procrastination, the authorities validated on 17 March 1876 a project of inner port of 150 m on 50 m, connected to the sea port by a 75 m long channel. Completed in 1880, the newer port proved to be safe but was soon deemed to small to handle both fishing boats and steamships used for trade. In 1882, the increase of the port was validated, as "urgent", by the Chamber; the building of a second inner basin was completed in 1886. Subsequent, more or less realistic, proposals of increase of the port failed because of local rivalry and, mostly, of the two World Wars.
After the Second World War, the basins were revamped using the most modern technologies, such as trials on a reduced-scale model designed by the Laboratoire national d'Hydraulique in Chatou. Damaging effect of swell was controlled by increasing the length of the existing moles and building new ones, and by adding locks.

The pointillist painter Paul Signac convinced his friend Georges Seurat to visit Port-en-Bessin; during his stay in summer 1888, Seurat designed six marine paintings. In the second part of the 20th century, Port-en-Bessin served as natural scenery for several movies. Georges Simenon wrote in 1937 the novel La Marie du port while staying at Hôtel de l'Europe in Port-en-Bessin; Marcel Carné shot there the movie of the same name in 1949, starring Jean Gabin, Nicole Courcel and Blanchette Brunoy. The seizure of the casino of Ouistreham by the Kieffer commando was reconstituted and shot in 1962 in Port-en-Bessin by Darryl F. Zanuck for The Longest Day. Several scenes of Un singe en hiver, starring Jean Gabin and Jean-Paul Belmondo, were shot the same year in Port-en-Bessin by Henri Verneuil.

Port-en-Bessin is still Normandy's first traditional fishing port.
The Blessing of the Sea has been organized in Port-en-Bessin every five years since 1908. On 11-12 August 2018, the last Blessing of the Sea gathered more than 10,000 visitors. The maritime procession involved 33 decorated trawlers, led by flagship Vilou, which was boarded by the bishop of Bayeux-Lisieux, who blesses the sea, the ships and their crews, and prayed for the disappeared.
[La Renaissance, 13 August 2018]

During the Battle of Normandy, Port-en-Bessin was located between Omaha Beach and Gold Beach. On 6 June 1944, the 47th Royal Marine Commando landed est of Arromanches; they assaulted the next day the western side of the port of Port-en-Bessin, supported by air raids. The same day, the US 16th Regimental Combat Team, landed at Omaha Beach, liberated Sainte-Honorine-des-Portes and reached Huppain. On 8 June in the morning, the British commandos liberated Port-en-Bessin and joined elements from the US 2nd Infantry Division.
[Matériels terrestres 39/45]

Ivan Sache, 7 July 2021

Flag of Port-en-Bessin-Huppain

The flag of Port-en-Bessin-Huppain (photo) is white with the municipal coat of arms, "Tierced per fess, 1. Gules a crozier head or (argent on the flag), 2. Argent plain, 3. Azure three contourned fishes argent between the two ends of a wharf of the same masonned sable issuant from the sides of the shield debruised overall by a two-master sable sails argent".
The crozier recalls that Port-en-Bessin was established by the bishops of Bayeux. The ship, fish and masoned moles represent Port-en-Bessin as a fishing port.

Olivier Touzeau & Ivan Sache, 7 July 2021