Page 229 - The Rifles Bugle Autumn 2019
P. 229

   The Chemin de Liberte - WW2 escape route from France into Spain across The Pyrenees – An unforgettable trek, a living memorial, a time for camaraderie – July 2019
I think it’s fair to agree with the statement “you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone”. My grandfather on my mother’s side, Bob Wade was SOE. First off he parachuted into Yugoslavia to help the Partisans, then in 1944 he was sent behind enemy lines into France, his code name was ‘Florentin’ and he went in with his great friend Major Pilkington whose code name was ‘Merderic’; their mission name was thus simply known as ‘Merderic-Florentin’. We know little of their actual movements but know they were Jedburghs, parachuted in to aid the Maquis in organizing their resistance.
As this particular readership knows full well, the Special Operations Executive was Churchill’s baby and the organization worked closely with the brave men and women of the Maquis in France and other Resistance groups to ‘set Europe ablaze’ and cause havoc thereby undermining the occupying Germans whose reprisals were at times un-speakably brutal. Having read all I can get my hands on about SOE and cutting a long story short I have, through my research, discovered another network of like-minded people of varying ages and nationalities, all intent on keeping the memory of SOE and freedom from Nazi oppression alive; descendants of operatives, couriers, passeurs and ex and current military personnel, some of whom are still alive today. It’s a fascinating, humble and largely un assuming community and in July this year I was able to walk in some of their footsteps by climbing the Pyrenees across the ‘Escape Lines’, high mountain passes that many of these people took to escape Nazi persecution, from France to Spain.
My journey started in St Girons in the Ariège department in southwestern France. I joined a group of English and French walkers. Day 1 was 8 hours with 15kg packs from St Grions to Seix. Luckily the weather had been beautiful, matching the scenery. It was very much up hill and down dale, but all was steep and just when you thought you had reached the top or a plateau, up and up the path continued to go. Locals joined us, and our numbers rose to approx. 70 people so there was lots to chat about and many people to meet, the morning passed quickly.
The most frequent questions was about how one happened to be on the trip. My Grandfather being SOE and my brother in law’s father having escaped from Colditz meant that I had plenty of questions for some quite learned historians. It was fascinating to hear how those that used these paths to cross into Spain did so; what they wore, (mostly what they stood in), what weather conditions they crossed in (all, including and frequently in heavy snow), when they crossed (usually at night with the only light being that of the passeur’s cigarette), how they were relentlessly hunted down as their routes became known to the Nazis, how they were betrayed by many French Nazi sympathizers, how the passeurs handled the ‘parcels’ of men, women and children in their care and how lucky those that made it over were, even though they were generally rounded up and put into Spanish prisons on reaching Spain if they were not shot just after crossing the border by Nazi patrols in Spain.
We had 3 ceremonies on day 1. The first at the Col de l’Artigue was to commemorate the life of 19-year-old passeur Louis Barrau who was betrayed and murdered by the Nazis, as his father and uncle had been before him. His hiding place (where we had lunch) was set on fire and he was shot. The next ceremony in Alos was to honour those brave women and men who hid human ‘parcels’ before handing them over to the passeurs to cross the mountains. The mayor of each location led the ceremonies of remembrance and the British Legion in France laid wreaths. The last ceremony was in the town hall in Seix where we met the 92 year old Paul Barrau who had crossed the Pyrenees to flee the compulsory work orders imposed by the Germans so that he could join the Free French and fight for his country. Instead he was imprisoned for a number of months in Spain and accused of being a spy. He now runs the local taxi and ambulance firm and seemed to be in more than fine fettle. Here we were treated to delicious canapes and fortified local French wine which at lunch I had mistaken for apple juice. It did make the second half of the day easier but the pain no less!
Carina Evans about to lay the Rifles wreath with other UK & FR military
        THE RIFLES

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