Back in late 2011 I heard a BBC Radio 4 programme in which Edward Stourton joined an annual walk, Le Chemin de la Liberté, across the Pyrennees which celebrates the Second World War route used by Allied soldiers, Jews, French resistance fighters, spies and many other groups of people who were trying to escape Nazi tyranny. The annual “pilgrimage” across the Freedom Trail (as it has become known) is joined by many people around the world, including those who travel with the Royal British Legion’s party.
Following his radio programmes, Ed Stourton has now written a book, Cruel Crossing, which is a very detailed account of the history of the Freedom Trail and also an account of his own journey on the route. He has included interviews with fellow walkers on the annual pilgrimage, and also some of the remaining survivors from the 1940s. His thirteen pages of notes at the end of the book amount to a a meticulous survey of written sources about the trail, many of them previously unseen. These include recorded interviews, published books and original documents.
Stourton has divided his book into themed chapters such as “Tales of Warriors”, “Tales of Children”, “Belgians, Bravery and Betrayal” and “Guides, Smugglers and Spaniards”. Under each chapter he tells the stories of people who braved this challenging mountain range in an effort to escape the Gestapo. We read of many heroic people such as Paul Broué, an escape line helper who carried on walking the trail well into his eighties and who was still participating in the ceremonies which open and close the trek when Stourton walked it in 2011. Other helpers like Andrée (Dédée) de Jongh were betrayed and arrested and experienced a brutalising imprisonment, eventually ending up in Ravensbruck concentration camp where with other helpers on the trail, she met her death.
Typical of the beneficiaries of the trail was Bob Frost, who at nineteen years old baled out of his Wellington bomber over Belgium and was smuggled down through France on the “Comet Line” (the escorted route run by the Resistance). He ended up being passed over to Dédée de Jongh at the base of the Pyrenees and after the gruelling walk across the mountains was passed over to British contacts in neutral Spain who helped him get home to England.
The book is full of personal stories and makes for an exciting read – once I started it I could hardly put it down and I read it over a weekend. Ed Stourton points out that it is not difficult to understand why such tales hold such power over the imagination of the generation that came just after the war, myself included. Most of us have led rather mundane lives, working in peaceful conditions with relatively stable lives, and when we read of what happened to so many “ordinary” people like us, just a few years before we were born, there we experience a touch of envy, along with a fear that perhaps we would not have risen to the occasion as well as they did.
One aspect of the book I particularly enjoyed was Stourton’s account of his own travails on the walk. He was in a large party including military people and it turned out to be a gruelling four-day challenge rather than a leisurely pilgrimage. Expecting to be able to appreciate the wonderful panoramas, he found found himself having to “keep his head down, eyes on the boots in front, concentrating on each step as you take it”. Incidentally, he took his Kindle with him and found its illumination to be a useful way of navigating around pitch-dark bunk-houses in the dead of night.
Stourton writes that he found it most difficult to research the closing months of the war in 1944 when even though it was becoming evident that the Germans were going to lose the war, the German troops seemed determined to remain true to the very worst aspects of Nazi repression – as did the French collaborators of the Vichy goverment, and there are some sad tales of this period which make for uncomfortable reading.
Ed Stourton was evidently deeply moved by his experiences on the trail, the people he met and the stories he heard. He was encouraged to find that although the people who traversed the trail in the 1940s are a fast dwindling band, that a new generation of people are finding inspiration from their stories and taking up the baton of memory. Most of the walkers were simply “commemorating the personal stories of those who walked to freedom and those who helped them”.
Incidentally, for those who are thinking of undertaking the journey for themselves, Scott Goodall has written a guide to the The Freedom Trail: Following one of the hardest wartime escape routes across the central Pyrenees into Northern Spain. I would also recommend Love And War In The Pyrenees: A Story Of Courage, Fear And Hope, 1939-1944 by Rosemary Bailey which includes a useful history of the emigration in the other direction of Spanish refugees from the Civil War who crossed over to France, to meet a very mixed and often cruel reception.
The photograph above of the Pyrenees was taken by Jon Atkins.