Reports from the Trails
Some ELMS members who have walked the Trails have written about their experiences, and the importance of the trails to them. Click on the names to read their reports:
- •Elizabeth Harrison Comete Trail – 2002
- •Stephen Sims San Martino Freedom Trail – 2003
- •Roddy Langley Comete Trail – 2005
- •Phil Douglas Comete Trail – 2006
- •Mike Davidson The Tenna Valley Trail – 2013
- Geoff Cowling The Chemin de La Liberte – 2014
- John Clinch Comete Pays Basque Walk – 2014
- Steve Sims The Tenna Valley Trail 2015
- Brid Fhionnagain The Chemin de La Liberte 2015
1992 – 2002 – Tenth Anniversary of all HOME-RUN CHALLENGES The Comete Memorial Trail – September 2002
In a number of books about the Comete Escape Line you may have noticed the faded photograph of Francia Usandizaga, the Basque widow and mother of three young children, and of her isolated farmhouse near Urrugne, in the Pyrenees close to the border with Spain. It was here, on 15 January 1943, that Dédée De Jongh, Francia and her Basque farmhand, together with three RAF evaders, Stan Hope, George Ross and Bill Greaves, were arrested by the Nazis. The airmen ended their war in German Prisoner of War camps but the three civilians were deported to concentration camps – only Dédée De Jongh survived. And there we were on 14 September 2002, in the courtyard of poor, courageous Francia’s house, enjoying a copious lunch laid on by the present owners. Sixty-seven walkers, among them Francia’s daughter Marie, only nine years old when her mother disappeared to Ravensbrück, together with Marie-Christine and Beñat, grandchildren of Kattalin Aguirre, another of the moving spirits of this end of the Comete Line. The oldest of the walkers were Paul Broué, a 79 year-old passeur from Seix near St Girons and his wife Marie, and the youngest just 17. We ‘non-walkers’ were led by Nadine (Andrée Antoine-Dumon, OBE), accompanied by Lulu Dassié, herself a helper and survivor of Ravensbrück, André de la Lindi, son of Belgian agent Paul Henry, and his wife Lydie, and Kattalin Aguirre’s high spirited daughter Fifine, mother of walkers Marie-Christine and Beñat. From Great Britain there were Gordon Mellor, Maurice Collins and his wife Dot. Sixty years earlier almost to the day, Gordon had been hidden on the first floor of this very house whilst Maurice had walked into Spain via Andorra just a few months later. Both veteran RAF evaders from enemy occupied France had crossed these mountains to fight another day. Then there was myself – formerly secretary of the RAF Escaping Society that had been founded at the British Embassy in Paris on 15 September 1945, the fifth anniversary of the Battle of Britain, persevering with its charitable work for 55 years until the end of the last century. Who can guess what thoughts, what memories, were going through everyone’s minds? Warm camaraderie and adrenaline were in parallel flow, the whole atmosphere between walkers and non-walkers, British, French, Belgian, American and Spanish, competing with the perfect weather. We laid wreaths at the graves of Kattalin and of Florentino, the most famous ‘passeur’ of them all: his last surviving brother was there, on his 85th birthday. We met many local veteran helpers, their children and grandchildren; among them were Yvonne Lapeyre (who made an impressive speech at the end of our last meal together) and her husband Robert, both key helpers in the Comete network. Guy Barletta, a Frenchman living in Biarritz, always a great help in the planning of these annual events, had welcomed us at Biarritz airport: he had joined the RAF in 1940 – in Singapore! – a faithful member of the RAF Escaping Society who had been shot down over his own country, evaded capture and escaped into neutral Spain like so many others. The walkers left the cemetery at Ciboure and headed towards Urrugne where we met up again at the town hall for a wreath laying ceremony and where refreshments had been arranged. Then the walkers continued to Francia’s farmhouse at Bidegainberri and more food and drinks appeared. Our next meeting with the walkers was late afternoon at the crossing point of the River Bidassoa. Eight non-walker veterans were crouched on boulders beside the fast flowing river. At about four-thirty the first walkers were seen scrambling down the steep, densely wooded hill towards the river from the French side. Most walkers stood for a moment to take stock of the situation. Boots were removed and in most cases trousers came off too, then espadrilles or the modern equivalent put on to protect the feet from the rocky river bed and, to the cheers of the non-walkers, the crossings began. Amongst the walkers was Scott Goodall, taking his time crossing with a Union Jack tied to his walking stick, held high as he crossed the river, carefully wading waist deep without his stick for support to an explosion of laughter, pride in achievement and delighted applause. After the crossing there was a never ending supply of cider, with local supporters cutting dozens of baguettes and grilling several hundred fat sardines to welcome the walkers after their safe arrival in Spain – there was plenty for everyone. As in WW2, the main obstacle had been crossed and the walkers were now in Spain. Later that evening we returned to St Jean de Luz leaving the walkers in Spain. We met up again late the next day when they arrived at Sarobe Farm, the former first safe-house in Spain for the Comete Line evaders. After a short stop the walkers continued on to Renterria, the Town Hall and then a traditional Basque restaurant for the final celebrations. Walkers and veterans signed the Freedom Trail visitors’ book as the Basque walkers sang their traditional songs for their appreciative guests and toasts and promises were made for the following year True memorials need not be made of bronze or stone. This trail is a ‘living memorial’ to the helpers and their evaders.
Comete Memorial Trail – 24th and 25th September 2005
By Roddy Langley
“Pugna Quin Percutias” (fight without arms), the motto of the Second World War escape line Comete, looks at first glance to be an oxymoron. But there is nothing contradictory about the achievements of the Belgian-run organisation which ensured that over 770 people – some say more – mostly aircrew, were returned to Britain to fight another day. Having been shot down over occupied Europe and evaded capture, the airmen were spirited away and passed down the line by Comete helpers from Brussels, through France and over the Pyrenees into Spain, a distance of nearly 700 miles. British consulates in Bilbao and Madrid then arranged for the airmen to be transported to Gibraltar, where the Royal Navy or RAF ferried them home. My mother, Peggy van Lier, was 24 years old at the outbreak of war, and joined Comete when she met Baron Jean Greindl (codename Nemo). He secretly used his job of running a Swedish Red Cross canteen as cover for the Brussels end of the line, and she helped bring airmen into the capital from outlying places before taking them by train to Paris. Comete blossomed – from July to October 1942 they brought out 54 airmen – but its success could not last. Word had reached German air force chief Hermann Goering, who knew only to well the value of returned airmen, and in November 1942, the Luftwaffe police infiltrated Comete and made numerous arrests. My mother was among them, but showing signs of innocence and speaking excellent German, she won over her Luftwaffe Police interrogator and was released. While fiercely independent, Comete had contact with MI9 in London and Nemo informed them that the Luftwaffe police might still suspect Peggy of involvement and that she must flee immediately. MI9 concurred, and with two other Belgians, cousins Georges and Edouard d’Oultremont, she left for Paris, continuing along the same route the airmen took with Comete to St Jean de Luz, a small fishing port in the shadow of the Pyrenees. It was here that Comete had secured the services of a tough Basque smuggler called Florentino Goicoechea, who was to become their most trusted and resourceful Pyrenees guide. (After the war, when he was awarded the King’s Medal for Freedom at Buckingham Palace, King George VI asked him what he did for a living, “I’m in the import-export business”, Florentino replied). Overnight, without any lights or hiking equipment, only espadrilles on their feet, Florentino took my mother and her companions up and down the French side of the Pyrenees, guided them to wade across the freezing cold River Bidassoa into Spain, up another steep climb before descending to a safe farmhouse were they collapsed, exhausted. I had always wanted to retrace my mothers footsteps and research on the internet led me to the website of the ELMS who organise the Comete walk as one of the Second World war ‘Memorial trails’ that they run every year. So with my friend Ian Harrison, and 106 other walkers from seven nationalities, nearly all family members of helpers or escapers, watched over by a handful of RAF veterans who had done the walk for real over 60 years ago, we laid our first wreath at the grave of Florentino (who died in 1980) in a beautiful ceremony overlooking the sea. Then the walk began in earnest, 26 miles over the next two days, led by Basque guides chirping away in their unique language, up and down 1500ft twice, blazing hot weather the first day as we climbed the ‘broad sunlit uplands’, to almost monsoonal the second. A tap on my arm at the first lunch stop organised by our brilliant Basque hosts, an introduction, and I was embracing fellow walker Brigitte d’Oultremont, daughter of Georges, who had accompanied my mother in 1942. We walked the rest of the day together, wondering aloud how our parents would have felt, and crossed the river to be greeted by a white suited RAF veteran on the Spanish side. The delicious barbequed sardines and potent local cider lifted our spirits further. At the end of the two days, everyone gathered for a final celebration lunch in a restaurant in the Spanish town of Renterria. The Basque contingent sang after the meal. Prompting one of our RAF veterans to lead some British singing in a slow, faltering voice: “Daisy, Daisy”, “Bless them all”, and a “Long way to Tipperary”. I am certain if he had sung anything by Vera Lynn, there really wouldn’t have been a dry eye in the house. It was for me, a defining memory to the courage and spirit of Comete. This is what they fought for, without arms. But not without cost. Recorded total Comete losses during the war were 216 people executed, died under torture or in concentration camps. A fairer estimate, perhaps, is that for every successful evader, a Dutch, Belgian, French, or Basque helper gave his or her life. Peggy van Lier reached Gibraltar, and was flown back to England by the RAF. She was met off the plane by the man destined to become her husband and my father, an MI9 officer from Room 900, the small unit responsible for escape and evasion lines in occupied Europe. He was ex-Coldstream Guards officer Jimmy Langley, who had himself escaped from France after being wounded and captured at Dunkirk in 1940. *****************************************
Following the Trail of Comete – 
As ten year old, Phil Douglas was captivated by the BBC television drama series ‘Secret Army’ about a secret escape line in WW2. Years later he chanced upon some ‘repeats’ which whetted his appetite to find out if there was any truth in the series. On discovering that the series was based upon a real escape line – Comete – Phil began serious research. He started with the book ‘Little Cyclone’ by Airey Neave and then began visiting Brussels to find the locations associated with the Comete Line. In the Koekelberg Basilica he found a wreath, which had been laid by ELMS at the Comete stained glass window in the RAF Chapel. So, Phil joined ELMS and embarked upon his first ‘Comete Trail’! Rather than travel direct to St Jean de Luz, Phil decided to follow in the footsteps of the Comete couriers, starting his journey in Brussels. On Friday the 01 September I spent the day visiting many locations in Brussels including the de Jonghs former home in Ave Emily Verhaeren, the building that housed the Swedish Canteen that became Comet’s headquarters in the Rue Ducale, and Nemo’s grave in Zellick. The next day I left Brussels by train to the Belgian border town of Quievrain. The station is all boarded up now; the train does not now run to Valenciennes, so I caught the bus. On day three, en-route to Corbie, I broke my journey at Arras, and took a day out to remember the sacrifice two of my uncles made during the Great War where they lost their lives, and to learn a little about the conditions they must have endured by making a tour of the local battlefields, which ended with a visit to Thiepval. At Corbie on the River Somme, I stayed overnight, and took a small stroll at night to the south side of the river to the hamlet of Hamelet. I had set myself the mission of trying to find the safe-house where Dede and her evaders rested after the crossing of the River Somme. I knew that it was owned by a lady called Nenette. I did not hold much hope of finding it, but after several enquiries, the house was finally pointed out to me by an elderly lady walking her dog. Although Renee Boulanger (Nenette) died in the eighties, her daughter and granddaughter were still living in the same house. A very pleasant hour was spent talking to Nenette’s daughter, Jean Skibinki about her memories of the evaders that would arrive after nightfall and leave early next morning. The following morning I walked as Nenette’s evaders would have done from Hamelet to the railway station at Villers Bretonneux, before catching the train to Amiens, and on to Paris Gare de Nord. Looking up at the station’s great arched roof, I remembered that it was here that Frederick de Jongh, and his friends Robert and Germaine Ayle were betrayed to the Gestapo while waiting to guide a group of evaders across Paris. I now found a map, and visited Rue Oudinot and Rue de Babylone where Dedee and her father Frederick de Jongh made their Paris headquarters. Next it was the Gare d’Austerlitz, and the overnight train to Irun. For Dedee, this must have been a major worry. Gestapo and plain clothed police were all over the station. As dawn broke, I awoke, and left the train at Bayonne to find the station café in which Operation ‘Water Closet’ was carried out by ‘B’ Johnson and Janine de Greef to avoid having evaders passing through the ticket barrier. Although the station had been renovated, I found the station café, and the Gents, with the side door through which the evaders would emerge to be greeted by Tante Go, who would be sat in a café opposite the station. From here the evaders would now make their way to St Jean de Luz by cycle. I now made my way to the Villa Chagrin, the prison in which Dedee was first kept after being arrested in Urrugne. Arriving in St Jean de Luz on Wednesday, I explored this delightful fishing town, but could not wait to meet up with other ELMS members and start the final journey over the Pyrenees. ************************************** On the Thursday I spent time chatting with ‘helper’ Andre Dumont (Nadine), at breakfast in the hotel. Other members arrived during the day, and a pleasant evening was spent in one of the many roadside restaurants enjoying a wonderful meal and a few drinks with members. Friday was official receptions, starting at St Jean de Luz War Memorial, which was followed by a reception at the Marie hosted by the Mayor. Although made very welcome at the Marie, I thought it ironic that the reception was held above the very cell that Andree de Jongh had spent her first night in captivity after being arrested in Urrugne. The Marie being above the Police Station. During the afternoon we were driven to Bayonne and Anglet, and the former home and safe-house of the de Greef family, before attending a wreath laying at the Anglet War Memorial with Resistance members, followed by another wonderful reception. Early evening and we were on the move again to Urrugne, and another splendid meal organised by our Basque friends. I now felt I would not need to eat for a week. Saturday started with the laying of wreaths on the graves of Kattalin and Florentino at Ciboure, after which our memorial walk began. I had been warned over the previous couple of days that I may find the trek difficult, but to be honest, until we reached Francia’s farmhouse at Bidegainberri, I found it rather easy. I now looked up at the mountains around us and realised that they were our goal. From here the real walk began. Until now I had kept up a good pace, but soon, the frequent breaks I took to get my breath landed me amongst the stragglers. The weather did not help. A blazing sun and temperatures in the thirties sapped my will to continue, together with my distinct lack of training made every step an agonizing chore. I now questioned the wisdom of embarking on such a trek, I continued, eventually hearing the sound of the River Bidassoa, and after wading through icy cold water, reached Spain and the welcoming smiles of our veterans and helpers, and bottles of water. On Sunday I awoke feeling fresh and full of energy, but within ten minutes of starting our second days trek, all up hill, tiredness had returned, and I was again gasping for breath. I did not think anything would be as hard as the trek on the Saturday, but if anything Sunday was worse. A heartfelt thanks must go to our Basque guides who kept me going to the farmhouse at Sarobe, with the infamous ‘just 200m more’. The journey from Brussels to St Jean de Luz was a great experience. To visit the safe-houses and locations of Comete brought Comete alive. To re-trace the steps evaders took between St Jean de Luz and Sarobe farm, although difficult, and at times painful, was an honour and a privilege. Fellow walkers like myself undertook this trek during daylight, in good weather, and over two days. How the evaders, together with Dedee, Franco, and Florentino ever completed the entire journey in one go, in darkness, and in all weathers will never fail to impress me. The warmth and loyalty of our hosts, and the friendships made with everyone from ELMS combined to make this one of my most enjoyable holidays to date. But my overriding memory will be the quality time I was able to spend listening to the stories of the veterans and Andree Dumont.
The Chemin de La Liberte – 2014
We were forewarned by Scott Goodall that our Chemin de la Liberté guide Paul Dubons had recce’d our usual route over the Pyrenees and found the last pass over the frontier into Catalunya blocked with snow and ice and too dangerous to attempt to cross. Nor would we be able to reach the Halifax crash site. For the second year running good ole global warming had dumped an unseasonable amount of snow on the Pyrenees to thwart our plans. We would have to climb back down from the Estagnous refuge after the third day and go by bus to Esterri d’Aneau, our final destination. This was huge disappointment for newcomers to Le Chemin, but did not dampen their spirits. Nor those of the usual ELMS Chemin crowd who turned up for the event – Bernard Holvoet, Brid Ni Fhinnagain, Edgar Aromin, Helen Duffee, Jeremy Pearcy, Ray Milford, Charles Wilson, among others. Before we set off, we were entertained by the Chemin de la Liberté Association with a reception at the informative Chemin Museum in the old St Girons Railway station and at a formal ceremony at the site of the old German command post at Kercabanac on the road to Seix.
The first day was trying ten hours hard walking though the densely wooded foothills of the Pyrenees, broken by the welcome picnic lunch put on by the Barrau family in honour of Louis Barrau who was gunned down by a German patrol at a shepherds’ hut nearby where a moving ceremony took place. The Pyreneen village of Seix provided a night’s rest for the majority on the hard gymnasium floor. The more experienced had earlier booked into the soft beds of the neighbouring Auberge…
The following is an extract from my diary which gives a flavour of the rest of the trail:-
Personally I have definitely decided to call the Chemin a day. Ten since 2003 is enough. With my left knee swelling (damaged in 2006 crossing the Creten White Mountains from the Med to the Libyan Sea) it became difficult to put pressure on it to haul myself up the face of the wretched 8,500′ Mt Valier, with the result that I fell way behind on the third day. It was also pouring with rain, bloody cold with visibility about 50m. Moreover along with others, I had not slept well the night before where we camped just below the snow line. Temperatures dropped to around 4C. Incessant rain hammered into my tent and water “ponded” on the ground sheet by my feet. My sleeping bag soaked up the water like blotting paper and I awoke around 0300 to find myself drenched in freezing water from the waist down. I was already fully clothed in a vain attempt to keep warm.
Scrambling down the cliff from the crest of Mt Valier to the refuge at Estagnous was almost as bad. I took a couple of tumbles in the snow but hurt no more than my pride. Even though I put myself straight to bed inside the refuge dorm on arrival, I was shivering for ages with hypothermia. All this in July – no wonder so many perished at other times of the year trying to escape for real.
It’s taken me 10 Pyreneen crossings over 12 years to work out that it is not really a good idea to increase your weight by 20% and upset your balance carrying a 15kg rucksack, then rush up a cold, slippery, icy 8,500′ mountain where the oxygen level is beginning to tail off…News from my insurance company, that they are not renewing my all-risks, world-wide policy in October because I would be 70 next year, also played a part in my decision.
For the second year running we again suffered the disappointment of not being able to cross the frontier at the Col de la Claoeure into Catalunya because of excessive snow and ice. However, when we finished the 5 hour walk-out down from Estagnous we were bussed via Vielha around to Esterri d’Aneu for a suburb reception with lots of food and a dancing display by Le Chemin Association members in full Pyreneen costume – you could not buy such an experience. Unfortunately the arrangements made with the Catalan Government and the local Mayors of Esterri and Sort for 100 local walkers to meet us for a ceremony at the 8500′ frontier Col de la Claoeure fell through because of the foul weather, and sadly none turned up at the reception.
On the other hand, several big plusses included the presence of George & Janet Duffee – thanks to Helen and Keith’s logistical efforts. Iconic moments included WWII evader George Duffee shaking hands in Esterri with WWII passeur Paul Broué (both now 91), and George surrounded by a RAF group who coincidentally came from George’s WWII 78 RAF squadron……..
And none of this could have been done without the incredible organisational and logistical efforts of Scott and Judy Goodall in L’Escure..
Good luck for the 2015 Chemin de la Liberté – third time lucky I hope…
Comet Pays Basque Walk 2014
Annually since the year since 2000, on the second weekend in September, Les Amis des Reseau Comete association have organised a commemorative walk along a route taken by the Comet Line. For 2012 the walk took the Larressore-Espelette-Dantxaria route starting at Sutar near Anglet for the first time and it was decided that a version of this route would continue to be taken every other year so in 2014 this was again the route of the walk.
As usual the weekend’s events started in St Jean de Luz with a wreath laying ceremony at the town’s war memorial followed by a “vin d’honneur” in the Mayor’s parlour. Later in the afternoon the group attended the graves of Kattalin Aguirre and Florentino Goïcochea in Ciboure and the grave of Edouard and Cyprienne Dassie in Saint Leon Cemetery Bayonne. They then continued to Anglet and met up outside the Villa Voisin (the Degreef’s House) and then to the Anglet War Memorial for a ceremony followed by another ceremony at the Comet plaque and another vin d’honneur. The evening was rounded off with a meal at the restaurant Izarlilia in Anglet-Montbrun.
The next morning a bus took the walkers to the start of the hike at the village school of Sutar where a plaque commemorates Comet helpers Marie and Pierre Elhorga. The walk then started, stopping first at what was Martha Mendiara’s “Auberge Larre” where the present day owner kindly allowed them into the cellar where the evaders were hidden. Continuing through countryside they reached the cycle path along the river Neve until they reached the Point du Diable (Devil’s Bridge) where the group stopped for a picnic lunch and a walk up to the safe house at Mandochineko Borda. A bus than took them on to Espelette for a buffet meal and a ceremony at the Espelette War Memorial and a vin d’honneur with the Mayor. During the ceremony there was a performance of a song in honour of the Comet Line “Petit Cyclone” written by Dominique Aguerre and Michel Suhubiette
“Lethal lightening struck our land
Relentless thunder deafened our lives
An eagle of doom gripped in its claws
The winds of freedom he had enslaved”.
The bus collected the walkers from St Jean de Luz at 7.30am and took them back to Espelette to continue the walk towards the Spanish border. The walking was now in the foothills of the Pyrenees so was much harder. On reaching the border the the walkers descended to the safe-house at Jauriko Borda. Impossible to reach except on foot it was a hard climb back up the mountain for the tired walkers.
Once back at the border the walkers were offered a welcome lift in a sheep trailer towed by a tractor driven by the farmer’s young daughter. A sudden shower cooled them down as they arrived at the Restaurant-Venta at Letzateko-Borda for the usual final meal of the weekend, the awarding of the honorary Comet Boinas (big black berets) to Juan Carlos and Marie-Christine and the usual beautiful Basque singing.
John Clinch 2014
The Italian Freedom Trail (Tenna Valley)
6-11 May 2015
The group arrived from the far flung corners of the world, by air, rail and road; from the UK, Australia, the Veneto and Sicily. A smaller group than originally booked (the Trail coincided with the Election and VE Day celebrations), but an enthusiastic group nevertheless. A few familiar faces returning from last year and others for the first time. Myles, Charles, Roger, Boris, the Haughie’s, the Stewart’s, Brian Lett with Gus, Gillian, Eleanor, Anne, David, Rob and Steffi to be joined by locals Ian, Giuseppe, Paolo and others.
We received a very warm welcome from Alessia and the staff at the San Marco Hotel in Servigliano (which has undergone a major refit, with work in progress). On the Wednesday evening the party assembled at the Casa Della Memoria Museum [the town’s old railway station adjacent to PG 59] with a musical greeting from the Northumbria Army Cadet Force ‘Cassino’ Band who were on a supporting concert tour of the area. To the delight of the assembled overseas visitors one of the numbers played was the theme tune from the film ‘TheGreat Escape’. The Band proved to be a popular attraction and soon drew a crowd of local people. Following the band concert, members, guests and casual visitors retired to the museum where, after welcome speeches, Giuseppe Milozzi and Ian McCarthy introduced local people whose families had hidden escapers in the area during the latter stages of 1943 and 1944 and we listened to their stories. We finished off the evening with an excellent dinner at the San Marco, washed down with several bottles of local wine.
The weather when we arrived was very warm, sunny and dry, the local temperature recorded 31C during the afternoon. Everything was set fair for the walk. Thursday morning dawned with a cool breeze and rising temperatures. We formed up at the Camp entrance and began our walk to Monte San Martino. Unfortunately, the flow rate of the Tenna River was too fast for safe crossing (as I subsequently discovered!), so the road route was the only option for the first part of the walk. It is little things like that, that remind us that those who had sought freedom during WW2 had to cross obstacles regardless of the state of the obstacle, or the weather, or their own physical condition.
The group stopped short of the village to have lunch as guests of the Barcetta family whose daughter, Lucia, had being the recipient of a bursary from the Monte San Martino Trust. We were entertained by the family with food, wine and music and it was mid-afternoon beforte we reached the square of Monte San Martino.
There in a simple ceremony a wreath was laid on the War Memorial by the Mayor and Roger Stanton, ELMS DIrector. The Cassino band gave another excellent concert in the town with Sgt Brian Hindmarsh giving a first class rendition (as usual) of the Last Post and Reveille.
Friday was again a cool start, but during the morning’s walk it warmed steadily. The route took a via a so called ‘white road’, (a gravelled track off main roads) past the Olive Press and strawberry fields heading ever higher towards Montappone and Massa Fermana. The story of the day was of Ray Ellis and his contempories who had been hidden locally. During the break at Montappone a local family renewed their connection with escapers, sharing the book of memories sent to them by local helpers.
Saturday followed a familiar pattern and we set off at about 8.30am from the Camp gates and headed towards Montelparo via white roads, shady woods and a very steep incline to arrive in the village for lunch in the undercroft of the old abbey. The group had grown in number on the way with the addition of local residents and the remainder of the Hill family from Australia [David was walking for all the family]. After the telling of the family’s story and the connection with Sidney Smith, the Royal Signals soldier executed by the SS near the town, the group made its way to Sidney’s memorial for a wreath laying. An ELMS wreath was laid by Roger together with Valeriano Ghezzi, the Mayor and Christina Franca, who with her family had been placing flowers on Smith’s memorial for over seventy years. We returned by road via various properties of ‘escaper’ significance and visited other families who had hidden escapers.
The final day, Sunday was a day for memorial visits, meeting families who had assisted escapers and wreath-laying. A change to the programme this year was a visit to Offida where, at the town hall, Prof Rainieri delivered a simple lecture on the ‘Rat-Line’ (usually the chain of safe house/locations through which escapers were moved on their way to freedom). Following the informative lecture the group moved onto the Villa Stipa for lunch provided by the local Partisan/Escape Line veterans Association. An ELMS wreath was laid on the Partisan/Resistance Memorial at the villa. The villa had been the beginning of the Rat Line heading south where a number of escapers had been hidden. Following an excellent lunch the group moved onto a very familiar location, the Villa Salvadori, another safe house, quite close to the sea, which had hidden numerous escapers over a long period of time. The present owner, Clara Muzzarelli Formentini had invited a number of other safe-house families to the villa, and provided food and drinks for everyone. She also gave the visitors a short talk on the villa and its involvement with escapers during WW2. Our last port of call on Sunday afternoon was to visit the site of the former POW camp, PG 70 at Monte Urano. Most of the original buildings are still standing and at its peak he camp had held over 8000 POWs. Following the declaration of the armistice on the 8th September 1943 the POWs were ordered to remain in camp by their SBO. This was to prove to be a catastrophe for the majority, who were quickly transported to other POW camps in Germany and elsewhere. Some did escape and there is a report elsewhere on the website of one such story. After a long and tiring day the party returned to Servigliano and enjoyed a superb farewell dinner at the San Marco Hotel.
Le Chemin de la Liberte – 2015
The twenty second edition of Le Chemin de la Liberté was brimming with potential, as the first opportunity to complete the traditional four-day crossing of the Pyrenees in three years was within reach. As ever, a widely ranging ensemble attended; with representatives of the Royal British Legion, NATO and MSF flanking a fine medley of repeat climbers along with eager first-timers for this memorable journey. Significant by their absence however, for the first time in the twenty two years of this commemoration, was that of international WWII veterans. Their role in events seventy years ago was prominent in our thoughts during the walk and the ceremonies throughout. The presence of their French comrade, Paul Broué, offered a poignant reminder of the strength, integrity and sacrifices made. The succeeding generations were well represented, with a significant number of father/son and father/daughter ensembles, including Paul Broué’s grandson, and ages ranging from a young French lady in her teens to a septuagenarian Englishman completing the group. More than two dozen ladies of various nations also attended, keeping step with the gentlemen in their midst.
Scott and Judy Goodall, in their time honoured way, kept nerves at bay and spirits high upon our arrival in St. Girons. A blissful Thursday morning bade us ‘Bon Courage’, offering the best possible start to the walkers. That afternoon and Friday saw the temperatures escalate, adding to the challenge of the young, the old, the brave and the bold assembled. Not surprisingly however, the hospitality was as warm as the weather. On the land of the Barreau family, la Mairie of Seix and at Subéra, we were guests of a multinational celebration of friendship, food, drink, singing and dancing – even a birthday or two! Such high spirits a reflection of the memory of the giants in whose footsteps we followed.
The climb to Halifax on Saturday – the first in three years – was bathed in mist and cloud, adding to the solemnity of the occasion. The cloud slowly cleared for the morning ceremony, as our thoughts were with the souls of the seven young men who lost their lives so long ago. A long, hot afternoon awaited us, casting a burdensome toll on the intrepid walkers, with the climate compounding the physical exertion felt by all. Sunday morning saw a determined start, with a slow and steady passing by the vast majority over the border into Spain. This year’s Chemin gifted the walkers the bittersweet privilege of scattering the ashes of Dot Collins, wife of the late Maurice Collins, who were both dedicated supporters of Le Chemin de la Liberté since its inauguration, following Maurice’s successful crossing during the war. Having never forgotten the courage and sacrifice of those who assisted him, Maurice’s own ashes were scattered at the border in 2006. A poignant ceremony saw the wind gently carry Dot’s remains to join those of Maurice, and the memory of so many more.
Paul Debon and his team of encadrements led us to Esterri d’Aneu, which greeted us with cold showers and cold beer – both warmly welcome! – as we were serenaded and heralded through the streets. A fine feed, glorious singing of traditional songs and impressive attempts at local dancing (considering the exertions!) saw us ready for the long bus journey to St. Girons. No Chemin is without its challenges, and this year was no exception. Two significant medical events befell this intrepid group, which were handled in a calm, controlled manner notable in the circumstances of the pre-existing exertions, and a credit to those involved. We wish both individuals a speedy recovery.
As a blistering sun sets on the twenty second edition, we find ourselves looking forward to 2016. As the years pass, and fewer veterans are present to remind us, we must strive ourselves to remember; to tell of the liberté, égalité and fraternité that has been demonstrated to us in darker times. Far braver people, in far worse conditions, with no kit have done this … at night, in snow, in fear for their lives and in hope of a better future. We will remember them.