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The Port of Bordeaux

by Cristiano D'Adamo

The autonomous port of Bordeaux (meaning an independently running organization marginally controlled by the state) included the smaller docking facilities at Le Verdon, Pauillac, Bec d’Amber and Basseurs. The port of Bordeaux, unusual for its location (well over 50 km from the sea), used to be a regular port of call for French, Dutch, British, Swedish, Norwegian and other merchant ships. Before World War II, traffic originated mostly from Morocco, the Antilles, French West Africa and Madagascar. Also considerable was the traffic from the United Kingdom, since one third of the total interchange consisted of coal originating from the British Isles, while the remaining goods included oil, peanuts, tobacco, and other raw products. Naturally, one of the most recognized trades was the export of the famous Bordeaux wines, mostly reds.

The port of Bordeaux is fluvial and therefore prone to building up of sediments. The port authorities continuously dragged the river Gironde, thus guaranteeing access to the main channel to ships drafting up to 8.5 meters (25 feet) of water. Port facilities included several kilometers of “quais”, French for docks, and three dry-docks. Also parts of the facilities were three “bassin à flot” (tidal basins), enclosed waterways accessible through locks and protected from the tide. Although the port is over 50 kilometers from the ocean, the tide can move back and forth up to 6 meters (18 feet). Signs of this tidal shift can be easily seen along the river.

Access to the tidal basin from the Garonne was guaranteed by a set of locks leading to bassin à flot Number 1. The first basin led, through a small gate, to a second, and then a third. Also within the first basin there were two dry-docks, one measuring 105 meters and a second one 152. A third dry-dock, measuring 202 meters, was also available in the nearby naval yard.

Just before the French capitulation, Bordeaux was the de facto capital of the quickly dissolving French Republic. The port was used as a last resort for landing incoming troops, mostly colonial regiments, but also Polish troops, and it was also used to ship out gold from the national treasury. By June 23rd, the Germans controlled Royan, the seaside town facing Le Verdon across the opening of the Gironde into the ocean, thus virtually severing access to the city. A week later, on the 30th, the Germans occupied the city, and after a period of complete inactivity, the port reopened to commercial traffic, mostly to and from Morocco. Notably, the port was the final destination for most of the German and Italian “block raiders”, but by 1942 all traffic had ceased again, given that Allied interdiction at sea had become almost complete.

By the time the Germans evacuated Bordeaux, several ships had been sunk to obstruct the port, amongst them the famous Italian block raider Himalaya. It would take the port authorities over one year to clear access to the docks, thus allowing for the first ship, one of the Liberty class, to call on July 18th, 1945. Today, the town of Bordeaux is demolishing the remaining docks, called “hangar”, giving room to a modern waterfront and opening the view to the splendid old buildings facing the “quai”. Most of the commercial traffic has been rerouted to the new port of Le Verdon, while Bordeaux is still visited by large cruise ships, which dock just in front of the old Royal Palace.

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