Today, our guest blogger Carina Evans shares her experience of walking Le Chemin de la Liberté. We’ll be sharing parts 2 & 3 later this week.
My grandfather on my mother’s side, Bob Wade, was a Special Operations Executive (SOE).
SOE was Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s baby. The organisation worked closely with the men and women of rural guerrilla bands of the French Resistance, known as the Maquis, to ‘set Europe ablaze’. They created havoc to undermine the Nazi occupation and reprisals were often brutal.
In 1944, my grandfather Bob 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 was simply known as ‘Merderic-Florentin’.
We know little of their actual movements, but they were part of Operation Jedburgh – which saw personnel parachuted into occupied France to aid the Maquis.
Due to my familial connection, I’ve read all I can about SOE and have discovered a network of likeminded people all intent on keeping the memory of SOE alive. Some of the operatives, couriers, passeurs (smugglers), ex- and current military personnel are still alive today, but most of the community is made up of their descendants.
In July this year, I joined members of this community to climb the Pyrenees across the ‘Escape Lines. These high mountain passes were used by the people escaping Nazi persecution, from France into Spain.
I joined a group of English and French walkers in St Girons in the Ariège in southwestern France. It took us 8hrs with 15kg packs to reach Seix, but luckily the weather was as beautiful as the scenery.
It’s quite a taxing walk – just when you think you’ve reached the top or a plateau, the path continues upwards. We were joined by some locals, all sharing their reasons for tackling the walk.
I had plenty of questions for some of the historians in our group. It was fascinating to hear how those that needed to escape France used the paths we were walking to cross into Spain. They wore mostly what they left in and made the crossing in all weather conditions – including heavy snow – usually at night, the only light being that of their guide’s cigarette.
They were relentlessly hunted down as their routes became known to the Nazis and many were shot by Nazi patrols as they crossed the border. Those that made it were generally rounded up and put into Spanish prisons.
On the first day, there were three ceremonies. The first, at the Col de l’Artigue was to commemorate the life of 19-year-old passeur Louis Barrau, who was betrayed and shot, like his father and uncle before him.
The next ceremony was in Alos, to honour the brave men and women who hid their human ‘parcels’ before handing them over the passeurs to help across the mountains.
Finally, in the town hall in Seix, we met 92-year-old Paul Barrau, who had crossed the Pyrenees to escape the compulsory work orders imposed by the Germans. He wanted to join the Free French and fight for his country – but instead, he accused of being a spy and imprisoned for a number of months in Spain.
Find out out about Days 2 – 3 of Carina’s trip later this week.