The following is an excerpt from the forward of So Close to Freedom: A World War II Story of Peril and Betrayal in the Pyrenees by Jean-Luc E. Cartron (April 2019).
Many years ago while serving in the British Army, I was involved with the Army POW Escaping Club (APOWEC) and the RAF Escaping Society (RAFES). Members of both organizations had tremendous personal stories to tell but they always gave precedence to the deeds of another group—their “helpers.” Without those people, many of the escapers and evaders would not have survived the rigors of being alone and “on the run” in occupied territory. If they did not perish while attempting escape over treacherous mountain routes, the fates awaiting solo escapers and evaders often included capture, torture, or even execution for being mistaken as a spy. They would have most certainly ended up in a pow camp or, in some cases, a concentration camp.
In the years following my meetings with the APOWEC and the RAFES, I began to research the helpers and their selfless exploits to aid the Allied cause of freedom from tyranny, who were always forefront in the accounts of the escapers and evaders. Together with like-minded researchers, these stories were followed up, and we traced helpers and their “parcels” and the routes they had taken, piecing together their stories. In 1988 the escapers, evaders, and helpers, together with their families, researchers, historians, and supporters were gathered into one commemorative organization called the Escape Lines Reunion which, over the years, evolved into the World War II Escape Lines Memorial Society (or ELMS). The society, now a registered charity, includes helpers, veterans, families, students, researchers, and other supporters intent on maintaining the memory of seldom-broadcast selfless acts of courage.
In the dark days of 1940 when, on mainland Europe, all seemed lost to the might of the German army, the helpers came forward at great risk to themselves and their families, to assist fleeing Allied soldiers and airmen and other fugitives to make a “Home Run” and return home safely to England to continue the fight against a common enemy. The helpers hid, clothed, nursed, and fed their charges; they escorted them across occupied Europe to neutral countries, or over dangerous, forbidding borders into Spain or Andorra, then onward to Gibraltar or Lisbon. The helpers were given no training, were not armed, received no payment, and if caught were subjected to harsh treatment by the Gestapo: they were tortured; many were executed; and those who survived interrogation were thrown into concentration camps, where many died owing to the harsh conditions. Life expectancy on an escape line could be as low as three months before capture. Many believe that for every escaper or evader who made it home, four escape line helpers died or suffered in a concentration camp.
“Helpers” came from all walks of life: the rich and the poor, farmers, lawyers, nurses and doctors, teachers, train drivers, priests, police and criminals, even boy scouts and girl guides. Many adopted professions that allowed them to avoid curfews, enabling them to “legitimately” pursue their work at night. Anonymous people gave money and produced passes and permits. Farmers provided food. Doctors treated the injured and asked no questions. Many, mainly young girls, acted as couriers. Tough mountain guides took their “parcels” over the dangerous mountain routes, while at home their wives often provided a safe house for the next group to cross. Regardless of nationality, communication was not a major barrier. Helpers all played their part in ensuring that more than 3,500 British and colonial Allied servicemen and more than 3,400 Americans returned home from occupied Europe to Great Britain to fight again.
Women played a key role in the work of the escape lines, as many men from mainland Europe had escaped to England to join their countrymen in the free forces of European nations. Others had taken to the hills to join Resistance forces in the mountains and wooded areas. Many others had been deported to Germany under the German Todt organization to work in factories or in farming. So it fell to the women to not only run the safe houses but also to take on the roles of couriers moving messages, supplies, and evaders both locally and on the dangerous intercity routes.
Wartime life on mainland Europe was particularly hard. To enhance their supplies the enemy requisitioned or stole food, water, fuel, vehicles, and animals from their occupied territories and local populations. Factories making clothing and shoes ceased operations. Households practiced frugality and improvisation, so a helper giving food and clothing to a stranger who had suddenly appeared and did not speak the language would cause much hardship to a family who were rationing and hardly had sufficient food and supplies for their own needs.
Most people today have not been personally touched by total war, but in Great Britain in the 1950s and 1960s nearly every family had a World War II connection, and almost all had been affected by the war. Today few people are aware of the courage, physical hardship, and endurance that the World War II generation experienced. How can we possibly imagine what it would be like to be in charge of a Lancaster Bomber on a night operation over enemy territory, targeted by enemy night fighters and anti-aircraft guns and illuminated by searchlights—at only twenty-one years of age, and commanding a crew possibly younger than that? Nor do we know what it would be like to storm ashore on a Normandy beach under withering enemy machine gun fire, an artillery barrage, and an air attack from enemy fighters—when only eighteen years of age! Or to be in a convoy to Murmansk in Arctic waters, pursued by enemy submarines! And what was it like to suddenly find yourself alone, possibly injured, in a foreign country, knowing that enemy forces were all around you?
In all the Allied nations young men and women, barely out of school, volunteered to fight for their freedom. Within the occupied territories many young people came forward to fight with Resistance forces, overtly carrying out sabotage attacks, while others covertly collected Allied escapers, evaders, and other fugitives. For the Allied serviceman, particularly aircrew, the knowledge that there were people on the ground in the occupied territories who could help them return home to England was the best morale booster they could receive as they embarked on their operations.
Most countries are bounded by natural borders such as mountains, rivers, or seas. These were the obstacles placed before the escapers and evaders; some were more surmountable than others. Fast Royal Navy motor gunboats (MGBS) or motor torpedo boats (MTBS) from isolated beaches on the Brittany coast provided an extraction route across the English Channel. Small fishing boats from Denmark took their charges to Sweden. Norwegian fishing boats transported their evaders to the Shetland Isles and Newcastle. For many their fates rested on the expertise and knowledge of the passeurs: the French, Spanish, Basque, and Catalonian mountain guides of the Pyrenean routes. Dutch routes initially ran to Switzerland before changing to the Pyrenees. There were the contadini of the Italian mountains and countryside; the Cretan and Greek guides; the Polish and Norwegian mountain guides who often worked in subzero temperatures. The guides were prepared not only to risk their lives against the enemy, but also against harsh nature and the elements abounding in the mountains and in the seas, to assist their brother combatants and achieve a common goal.
Escapers and evaders from all branches of the services knew their options were bleak if captured in civilian clothing. When apprehended, many who could prove their identity as airmen or soldiers were entitled to be treated as prisoners of war. Others were treated more harshly; some were shot, especially if they were evading in Germany. Eventually most were sent to, or returned to, a pow camp. Some of the least fortunate were directed to concentration camps.
But what about the helpers? To be caught with evaders was, in most cases, a death sentence for men and a concentration camp for women, but not before harsh interrogation by the Gestapo prior to their sentencing. In many cases complete families suffered the same fate, regardless of their knowledge or complicity—for strange though it sounds, many helpers went about their work without the awareness of their families, although often it was a “family business.” That dreaded knock on the door in the middle of the night has haunted many helpers for the rest of their lives. Instead of a “friend in need” it could have been the enemy, the Gestapo or English-speaking Germans posing as escapers. Right or wrong, a decision had to be taken and a response made!
As a guest at a safe house, evaders shouldered a tremendous responsibility toward their hosts in order not to compromise them. Life at the safe house had to appear normal to the locals and not attract attention: why is madame buying so many provisions? The light was on way after madame’s bedtime! There is men’s clothing on the washing line but madame lives alone! Did we hear the toilet flush when madame was out? Suspicions and rumors led to betrayal.
Today there is often talk of “man’s inhumanity toward man,” but the helpers demonstrated “man’s humanity toward man” in the most practical of ways. In the United Kingdom there existed the spirit of “pulling together,” uniting communities, supporting neighbors, and welcoming strangers. A different story unfolded in continental Europe and other occupied areas, where the enemy and collaborators were all around and communities were often unsure who was in their midst. Every stranger was suspect, and many helpers were often betrayed by their own people. In any occupied country the enemy seeks clues; local knowledge is vital to their intelligence gathering, and those best equipped to supply it are local collaborators, many often collaborating solely for their own survival or gain rather than for any political ideology. No one knew whom they could trust, yet the helpers took a risk, seeking out Allied strangers in need and offering assistance.