Friday, 22 March 2013

The Last Five Over

RAF Pilot Officer Len Barnes - False ID Photo
RAF Sergeant Ron Emeny - False ID Photo

USAAF Lt Colonel Thomas Hubbard - False ID Photo
USAAF Major Donald Willis - False ID Photo

Thanks note from Barnes - Pierre Elhorga's Notebook
Thanks note from Emeny - Pierre Elhorga's Notebook

Thanks note from Willis - Pierre Elhorga's notebook
Thanks note from Hubbard  - Pierre Elhorga's notebook


Thanks note from Cornett - Pierre Elhorga's notebook

On 4 June 1944, the last five evaders to cross the Pyrenees via the Comete Escape Line began the final leg of their journey close to the mountains. USAAF airmen Lt Colonel Thomas Hubbard, Major Donald Willis and Second Lieutenant Jack Cornett were already acquainted with RAF Pilot Officer Len Barnes and Sergeant Ron Emeny from Paris. They had travelled down to Bayonne ‘separately’ with their guides in the usual Comete style and had cycled through the hills to the Café Larre run by Martha Mendiara (see prev post on Café Larre), arriving just before nightfall.

Hubbard was a P47 Thunderbolt pilot with the nickname ‘Speed’. This character stamped him, as despite the risks involved, he had refused to surrender his Colt 45 pistol to Comete and still carried the weapon. Cornett flew the same make of aircraft whilst Willis, also a fighter pilot was on Lockheed Lightings.

Len Barnes and Ron Emeny were aircrew on separate RAF Lancasters. Both men had experienced tricky journeys to reach the Café Larre. Barnes the pilot was the only survivor of his crew to still be at large, whilst Emeny a gunner had also ridden his luck to reach this point.

The evaders had recorded their thanks in the notebook of Comete guide operator Pierre Elhorga. In the early morning of 4th June the five evaders left on bicycles with their conyoyer, travelling to a wood where they hid for the rest of the day to wait for a Basque guide to collect them for the journey to the Spanish border. This area near the frontier was extremely dangerous and frequented by German patrols, hence the guides using remote back lanes and tracks.

As darkness approached, a short and stocky man brought them bread, cheese and milk. He only spoke Spanish, but Donald Willis was able to understand and translate the guide’s instructions to the others. His knowledge of the language had come from working around the Mexican border.

The journey became a relentless slog with the airmen struggling to cope with the pace and testing route which the guide was taking in order to avoid detection by German patrols. For the evaders, weeks and months on the run, sometimes with inadequate food had already begun to tell. Rest breaks meant more time in the danger area and the airmen sometimes had to beg for the group to stop.

After five hours of walking, they arrived at a river (a tributary of the Nivelle) forming the border between France and Spain. The guide stepped into the icy water, with the evaders struggling to keep up and retain their balance on the slippery rocks. Once out of the river, the party struggled on with another guide until 4:00 in the morning. It was essential to clear the immediate area as Spanish patrols were operational and the danger of arrest, imprisonment and being handed over to the Germans was a real threat.

Eventually the party was forced to stop as the evaders were unable to continue. After a stop and drink they struggled on, arriving just after sunrise at an old sheep shed where the guide left them for the day, with instructions to rest and he would return at dusk that night. Without food or drink, the airmen fell asleep exhausted.

The guide returned as promised and they left. Hubbard had developed badly blistered feet and was soon in agony with every step. Fortunately, Willis administered a last injection of morphine from his escape kit and they were able to continue. Just as the airmen reached a point where they were unable to carry on, two men came into view and waved them forward to follow. A few minutes later they reached an isolated farm where they were able to rest for the night in a barn.
The following morning, events took a more sinister turn. Willis overheard the agitated farmer telling his daughter not to speak to the airmen, or tell them exactly where they were. This was immediately relayed to the others and Barnes made the decision despite the physical state of the group to leave immediately. He quickly led the way out followed by the others and they later learned that one of the men who had led them to the house had been to the police. They were to have been arrested and returned to the Germans in France for a reward of a sack of grain for each airman.
The evaders had no map or knowledge of their current whereabouts. Willis had never surrendered his compass, so the group decided to move in a southerly direction. They soon arrived at a road, which they tracked seeking cover when necessary so as not to risk attention. After walking for another two days with no food and only water from troughs and streams the evaders decided they must finally ask for help.
So many accounts of evader’s journeys via the Larressore or Souraide routes over the Pyrenees show long periods without food or water, huge distances walked and minimal shelter being taken in rough stone sheep sheds or barns. They were dangerous times over inhospitable terrain. Despite most of these men being young, it is difficult to imagine how they kept going.
Willis and the other evaders passed through the foot hills near Oricain and spotted an isolated farm. They had to take a chance and make themselves known. The plan was to get food in exchange for French money, with Willis the only Spanish speaker doing the talking. They approached the farm and he knocked the door.
The farmer, startled by the five scruffy men in front of him, would not feed them and directed the party towards Pamplona, ​​a town lying a few miles below. He recommended they go to the police.
In the early afternoon of the 8 June, the men arrived in the town. No one had challenged them and they reached a park before collapsing with exhaustion. This was hardly surprising, as they have travelled around 100 km over the 5 days.

The last throw of the dice was to somehow try and contact the nearest British or American Consulate before they were finally arrested and imprisoned by the Spanish. Willis would try to reach the town Post Office, convince the clerk that a telephone call to the Consulate was imperative and persuade them to let him use the phone.
He managed to locate the Post Office and Willis succeeded in convincing the suspicious employee to allow him to make the call. The British Consulate in San Sebastian took the details but advised that they would be arrested immediately as the Police were sure to be notified. Leaving the Post Office, Willis noticed a Spanish Police Officer and two of his men ahead. It was over, and he knew it. The Policemen instantly spotted him and he told them where the other evaders were. Len Barnes remembered opening his eyes in the sun and staring at a gun barrel pointing at him.

What happened next did not follow the pattern experienced by many evaders picked up in Spain. A picture of dirty jails or camps before eventual release and transfer to the British authorities in Gibraltar would have been a likely scenario, but instead the evaders were taken to clean themselves up, then escorted to a restaurant and given food. The next day, they rested between three good meals and a spa, before being taken by bus to San Sebastian and from there on a short train journey to Irun where stayed in a hotel for a week.

Amazingly in Irun, they ended up only a few kilometres from the border with France and 30km from the Café Larre, where their epic journey began. After a week’s stay in a hotel and fresh clothes from an English family, the group were ready to move. Willis, Hubbard and Cornett were collected by a US representative from their Consulate in Madrid and then put on a train to Gibraltar. Hubbard and Willis flew to England on 28 June 1944 and Cornett followed on two days later. Barnes and Emeny spent one night in Sarragosa, five days in Alhama and two days in Madrid, before arriving at Gibraltar on 23 June. They were flown from Gibraltar on 24 June arriving at Whitechurch) on June 25 where they were debriefed the same day.

The last journey from Bayonne into Spain via the Comete Escape Line passed like many before; with exhaustion, lack of food, cold, inhospitable terrain and fear of capture testing the strength and spirit of the evaders. Events did take a more variant turn for the final five men whilst they were in Spanish custody and the days spent in Gibraltar must have mirrored the experiences of many previous evaders who had reached safety. A decision had already been made to abandon the Comete route to Spain due to the planned destruction of the French railway network before D-Day. Instead agents were ordered by London to create holding camps in remote areas and collect rescued airmen until they could be liberated by the advancing Allied armies. Evaders were to be assembled in camps in the Belgian Ardennes and around Châteaudun in France. This was also a political decision to try and prevent the death or incarceration of helpers and lodgers, and where possible avoid the key assembly point cities of Brussels and Paris where so many enemy infiltrations had already occurred. Comete agents were later brought under the umbrella of the new Marathon Network which covered the camps.

MI9& MIS-X Files

1 comment:

  1. Another interesting post by Keith which was compelling. Here are a few stats of other escapees.
    •Mass escapes from German POW camps
    •January 5, 1942 - Airey Neave and Anthony Luteyn successfully escaped from Colditz Castle, Germany, Neave being the first British officer to accomplish this feat.
    •October 30, 1942 - Camp 57, Italy. 14 Australians and five New Zealanders escaped through a tunnel, but were all recaptured. August 30, 1942 - Two Australian and two British soldiers were recaptured and executed after escaping from Changi Prison, Singapore. See also Selarang Barracks Incident.
    •March 29, 1943 - Six British and New Zealand officers escaped through a tunnel from Castello di Vincigliata (Campo 12) near Florence, Italy. Four were recaptured. New Zealand Brigadiers James Hargest and Reginald Miles escaped to Switzerland.
    •April 4, 1943 - American Air Force pilot Samuel Grashio, American Air Force Lt. Col. William Dyess, American Marine Austin Shofner, seven other Americans and two Filipinos escaped from a work camp in Davao Region, the Philippines. This was the only successful mass escape from a Japanese camp.

    I congratulate Keith on the first year of this unique blog which is serving to educate, inform, entertain and fill us with awe at the human condition and the will to live and return home at all costs saluting those who helped them at great peril to themselves some of whom made the ultimate sacrifice….
    ‘Let us sacrifice our today so that our children can have a better tomorrow.’
    Abdul Kalam.