Every year, hikers trek the “Chemin de la Liberte” in the Pyrenees, to commemorate the 800 or so Allied airmen and Jewish refugees who risked their lives on a 60km (40 miles) route escaping Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.
“The good escaper,” says a 1944 British military document called Tips for Escapers and Evaders, “is the man who keeps himself fit, cheerful and comfortable.”[…]
Reflect on what it was like, for example, to be shot down over Belgium when you are only 19 years old. Your parachute works – something of a surprise in itself, since you have had only the most rudimentary training – and when you land you find yourself behind enemy lines, with most of Nazi-occupied Europe between you and freedom.You have to ask someone for help, even though you know they are risking their lives if they give it to you. And if you are lucky and they do not turn you in, there is still the long journey south to negotiate, past German checkpoints and patrols with, at the end of it all, the climb over these massive mountains.
Or think of the Jewish families who attempted the Pyrenees just one step ahead of arrest and deportation to the death camps.
I was told the story of a woman who carried her two-year-old daughter across in November snow. When the child cried in the cold their guide said she should be suffocated because the noise might alert the German patrols.
And what of the French helpers? One local supporter of the Chemin remembered his mother hiding escaping Allied airmen in her mountain bed and breakfast, where she was providing lodgings for German troops at the same time.
All of these experiences are so far beyond our own that they seem to belong almost to another dimension. The walk, I reasoned, might help me build an imaginative bridge over that chasm.
At the pass where we crossed the frontier into Spain – 2,280m above sea level – we paused for a brief ceremony in remembrance of Maurice Collins, an RAF pilot who asked that his ashes should be scattered there.
Collins had needed real grit and determination to get home in 1941 – he crossed the mountains “up to my testicles in snow”, as he later so vividly put it, and spent three months in a Spanish concentration camp before the British authorities were able to extract him.
It seemed ironic that he had chosen the mountains which had caused him so much pain and suffering as his final resting place.[…] The Escape Lines Memorial Society calls the Chemin a “walking memorial”, and it has become a way of passing the idea of remembrance on down the generations.
You can hear more about Ed Stourton’s journey in The Freedom Trail, broadcast on Monday, 14 November 2011 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4.
Here is the website of the Escape Lines Memorial Society.
The WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society is dedicated to the ‘helpers’, escapers and evaders who either organised or used the escape lines of mainland Europe during WW2. Our membership is made up of former WW2 ‘helpers’, escapers and evaders, their families and friends, historians, researchers, and others who are interested in our aims.
Our aim is to preserve and commemorate the memory of the ‘helpers’ of the escape lines and of the ‘helpers’ who worked alone, in order to teach successive generations about their vital role in WW2. Without those brave people, many Allied soldiers and airmen, who found themselves stranded behind enemy lines, would not have been able to return to the UK to continue the common fight for freedom; they would have been captured, or dead. They have never forgotten the people who helped them.
The ‘‘helpers’’ of the escape lines aided Allies of many nationalities by sheltering, feeding, nursing, and guiding them – they did this at great cost to themselves and their families – many paid with their lives for their selfless acts of humanity and courage towards total strangers.
At the Conscript Heroes site, you can read things like this:
The Escaper List is a list of some of those who escaped or evaded from enemy territory and got back to the UK. The names are shown in alphabetical order of surnames for easier searching.
|The Escape Lines page gives brief descriptions of some of the escape lines that helped so many servicemen get home.|
|The Articles page has stories and other details about escape and evasion.|