Monday, 31 December 2012

The Guides - Part Nine

Le Chemin de la Liberté

Le Chemin de la Liberté

Andrée De Jongh (Dédée)
Baron Jean-François Nothomb (Franco)

My apologies for the late post – have not been able to sit and type at the PC due to RSI.
In the Mountains

For many evaders and escapers in Holland, Belgium and France, the natural barrier of the Pyrenees Mountains had to be crossed before travelling through ‘neutral’ Spain to Gibraltar. Few evading service personnel walked over without guides, and the organised escape lines relied on them totally.

Initially the main evasion route used by the Pat O'Leary Line centred on the Mediterranean coast at Marseilles, and escape by sea, but many other evaders helped by that network were subsequently filtered down through middle France to Agen and Toulouse, then on to the central Pyrenees and the starting point of Le Chemin de la Liberté route at Saint Girons in Ariège.  This difficult high mountain route had been carefully chosen to minimise travel near official checkpoints and reduce the risk of encountering German patrols. No climbers today would tackle parts of the journey without appropriate clothing, shoes and equipment, and most would avoid crossing in the winter. Evaders and escapers travelled over the route with their guides at all times of the year, often through the night and with no suitable clothing or equipment.  
In 1941 and 1942, the Comete Escape Line concentrated on the Atlantic coast area south of  Bayonne, with guides and evaders making a sixteen hour journey at night over the mountains from Urrugne (near Saint Jean de Luz), crossing  the Bidassoa River and then walking to Oiartzun where the evaders were taken on to San Sebastian.. This route became extremely dangerous because of its regular use, so alternative passages had to be found. From July 1943 to January 1944, the evaders left the Café Larre in Sutar (just south of Bayonne) with their guides and journeyed over the mountains into Spain via the established Saint Jean de Luz route or two new eastern passages known as ‘Larressore’ and ‘Souraide.’ These were all gruelling journeys with the latter two sometimes taking up to five days where variations to the route occurred.

Andrée De Jongh (Dédée) and Florentino Goicoechea the famous  Basque guide, led evaders over the Saint Jean de Luz passage until the former was arrested in Urrugne on 15th January 1943.  The route continued with Jean-François Nothomb (‘Franco’) becoming the main guide into Spain for the whole of Comete’s Southern Section. This included Larressore and Souraide once they were opened. As with Florentino on the Saint Jean de Luz passage, these longer routes also included carefully selected Basque guides. 

Herbert Spiller crossed at night via Saint Jean de Luz in 1942 with Dédée and Florentino. The terrain was steep and treacherous with the evaders  struggling to see in the dark and keep up with their guides’ zig-zag routes . Constant vigilance was essential. The party often stopped to hide and wait for enemy patrols and smugglers to pass. 
When they reached the fast flowing freezing waters of the River Bidassoa, which formed the natural border with Spain, Spiller described what happened next:

‘Dédée explained how we would cross. Trousers would be removed and the legs tied in a knot behind our necks. The loose ends of the trousers would serve as a handhold for the person behind, enabling the column to enter the water as a connected whole. Occasionally a small searchlight operated by the frontier guards was shone down river to detect smugglers crossing the water. If and when the command was given we must stop and bend as low as we could against the water but under no circumstances were we to look towards the light.’
Spiller had a further problem as he began to remove his trousers.

‘Dédée gave a gasp of horror as I revealed my white silk long johns and told me in no uncertain terms to take them off with my trousers and to tie both garments around my neck. It would not matter in the water, but emerging on the other side of the river I would be presenting a very white target for any guard on the alert.’
There was no time for modesty and he had to remove the underwear.

Apart from being spotted by the Spanish frontier guards, the river crossing was in itself hazardous. Spiller described how so much depended on the strength of Florentino after he had tied a length of rope around the base of one of the riverside trees:
‘We watched Florentino descend into the swirling water. The giant Basque pushed himself into the fast moving current to the extent of his rope and then turned to face us, holding the rope taut….One by one we entered the water holding on to the rope for dear life. Florentino was well up to his waist…The water was icy cold and already the current was pushing against my legs making moving forward a slow process. By the time the column had reached Florentino, the water was up to my chest and I was fighting to keep my balance. Florentino turned round and Dédée linked up with him as we each took hold of the trouser legs around the neck of the man ahead of us.
We began to move forward slowly, Florentino had let go of the rope and we were at the mercy of the river as the column swayed to and fro in the rushing torrent.’

Spiller and his group eventually made it safely across, but disaster struck American flyer Art Horning’s party when he crossed the river at a similar point. Florentino was absent that night with a high fever, a replacement guide was in charge and the river roared through again. An American evader and top Comete operative were swept away and drowned. (More on that incident in a future post.) 

On the Larressore routes, airmen reported long spells on the gruelling journey without food from their guides or shelterers. USAAF Sergeant Harold Pope reported that his party had nothing to eat for the first forty eight hours and First Lieutenant John Justice said regarding two stages of his journey over the mountains:
‘We came to a very small cabin way up in the hills and went inside. The four of us sat to one side, the man who lived in the cabin, the two guides, and two other Spaniards sat and talked and talked, ate bread and cheese, drank wine and offered us absolutely nothing. We tried to ask for food, but these people were mercenaries and mean and refused to feed us. We asked to go to bed. They took us into an adjoining building where the chickens were sleeping and told us to sleep on the floor.’
Later on in his crossing, Justice reported:
‘We walked mostly at night, staying in barns and eating sugar beets and fodder which we found in the barns.’

RAF Sergeant Kenneth Skidmore tackled le Chemin de la Liberte with another RAF evader, four American flyers and various guides. Parts of the four day trek were virtual mountaineering and sometimes the group fought their way through waist deep snow with no specialist clothing or shoes. Some of Skidmore’s experiences were typical of fugitives travelling on that route. He noted that the evaders carried between them:
‘two haversacks containing two cooked rabbits, two bottles of cognac and four bottles of cheap red wine. Surprisingly no water.’  He recorded what happened as the group continued to climb:

‘Conversation diminished as we went on. Every breath was needed to keep going as we continued to climb. We were short of more than breath. Climbing skill was absent as was safety equipment. Ropes would have been a considerable advantage. The culmination of these combined problems was that we lost our rabbits and bottles of wine during one of our many falls. This catastrophe left us with two bottles of cognac. After all the exertion we desperately needed nourishment. If only we had made sure that the supplies obtained for us by the first two guides, had included water instead of this useless cognac. Our present guides had come prepared with a skin bottle of water each, but this was sufficient only for themselves. My diary entry continued “We walked for twelve hours all through the night, climbing seven thousand feet high.” ’
One of the Americans (Pitner) eventually collapsed and was unable go on. Skidmore watched what happened:

‘Our leader anxious to press on said that we must get beyond a certain point because there were patrols who kept to a routine. We must pass this point at a certain time, he insisted. He appeared to be indicating that there was only one thing to do – leave Pitner behind. Under no circumstances would we tolerate or accept this. If he did not go, then we stayed. Without hesitation, he picked up the motionless Pitner and began to carry him over his shoulder. I was completely staggered at the sight of this feat. A man of such small stature able to lift, and carry through the snow, more than his own body weight.’


Ticket to Freedom – Herbert Spiller

Unpublished Memoirs – John Justice

USAAF Evader Report – Harold Pope

Follow the Man With the Pitcher – Kenneth Skidmore

© Keith Morley



  1. Informative and shocking, Keith. What terrible conditions they had to move in. Goodness only knows how they kept going. What happened when Dédée was arrested? Or will I have to wait to hear that part?

  2. Thanks Liz. Dédée was an amazing Belgian lady. After she was arrested on 15 January 1943, she did everything possible to convince the Germans that she was the founder and leader of the Comete Line, in order to save others. The Germans would not believe that this tiny girl was capable of running the line and trekking backwards and forwards over the Pyrenees. How wrong they were. Condemned to death she was sent to Ravensbruck and Mauthausen but the warrant for her execution was never carried out. Dédée survived by managing to assume the identify of a concentration camp inmate who had died. After liberation she returned home and in the post-war period devoted herself to working with lepers in Africa and was eventually was given a distinction by being named a Comtesse. This amazing woman died in October 2007 aged 90.

    1. Blimey, you could write a novel based on Dédée's life alone. What an interesting life that lady led. I wonder what drove her forward to do what she did?

    2. Airey Neave of MI9 and later prominent in British politics did write a book all about her Maria. Nicknamed 'The Little Cyclone' by her father, she turned up at the British Consulate in Bilbao in August 1941 with a British soldier and a couple of Belgian volunteers and asked for support for her escape network. She had escorted the men from Paris to Bayonne by train and then on foot over the Pyrenees. The British took a bit of convincing, for the same reasons I guess, that the Germans would later after her arrest simply not believe she was the head of Comete .
      I know that she was born in Schaerbeek Belgium which was under German occupation in the First World War and Edith Cavell was a heroine in her youth, so I would say they may have been a driving force along with her father, who was active in Comete until his arrest and execution in 1943.
      Amazing to think that after she returned from the camps in poor health, when the war was over she still went out to Africa to work in the leper hospitals putting her nurses training (studied and passed before the war) to good use.

    3. She sounds almost like an angel, such courage, her life was certainly not a wasted one. Every so often these good souls turn up through history, as if they have been sent by a higher force to protect and do good. Amazing strength of character...

  3. What perilous treks the escapers and evaders had to go on in this latest break-neck post by Keith.Dédée was indeed an extraordinary woman. She was in her mid-20s but looked younger, just another girl in ankle socks, pretty enough in her light blue floral dress and dark jumper but with nothing to make her stand out in a crowd. Her ordinariness was her disguise. It hid the steeliness and courage to carry out extraordinary deeds. In 1941, she took a group of escaping Belgian soldiers across the Pyrenees and presented herself at the British consulate in Bilbao. She explained that her family had been helping British evaders since Dunkirk and that she had put in place a chain of safe houses all the way from Belgium. She said she was prepared to pass more servicemen along it, so long as an organisation was set up to collect them once they crossed the mountains. Although Spain was neutral, its government sympathised with the Nazis - and previous evaders had been arrested and thrown in concentration camps. Her pitch - from such a sweet and ineffectual-looking girl - was greeted with incredulity and then scepticism. Surely she was far too fragile to have made the mountain crossing? A quick check established that she had. But was she a German plant, an infiltrator? London was drawn into the discussions. The acting head of MI6 dismissed her as a phoney - he distrusted all women - but cooler heads ordered checks on her, and she came up clean.With the new code name of 'Postman', she was directed back across the Pyrenees to fetch the next batch of evaders. She was told to concentrate on British airmen, now being shot down in increasing numbers as the bombing war against Germany intensified. As the escapers must have discovered;

    “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
    (Edmund Hillary.)

    Look forward to the next post and these amazing feats of endurance and courage.