Wednesday, 15 September 2010

86. A Walk in the Park*

14th September 2010. I'm back home after a truly amazing weekend spent in the company of some of the most inspirational people I've ever met. A short recap follows in case you missed my earlier posts on the subject of the Comet Line.                                       (* = tongue in cheek)

After the German blitzkreig in May-June 1940 overwhelmed the defences of Holland, Belgium, France and forced the evacuation from Dunkirk of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Andrée De Jongh, a young Belgian nurse, decided that she  had to do something to help the Allied cause. As she herself put it in typically uncompromising fashion:

"When war was declared I knew what needed to be done. There was no hesitation. We could not stop what we had to do although we knew the cost. Even if it was at the expense of our lives, we had to fight until the last breath."

Inspired to action by the deeds of Edith Cavell, Dédée, as she was better known, created the Comet Line whose purpose was to guide shot-down Allied airmen to the UK to continue fight the war. Its motto was "Pugna Quin Percutias" ("Fight without killing"). The Comet Line comprised some 2,000 dedicated volunteer helpers and a chain of safe houses that stretched from Brussels to Paris and on down through occupied France to Bayonne in the Basque country. Having escorted her small groups of evaders on the express train from Paris to Bayonne, she would join up with the legendary Basque guide Florentino Goicoechea (below right) (Eng trans: here) and together they would lead the aviators over the Pyrenees and into the hands of British diplomatic staff based in 'neutral' Spain. Hundreds of Allied airmen and others were helped by the Comet Line network to escape the grisly clutches of the Third Reich. Florentino was a smuggler by trade and when awarded the King's Medal he was famously described as being 'in the import and export business'. A man of immense strength, he was not averse to pulling a knife on escapers to 'encourage' them if they said they couldn't climb another step. Bob Frost (below) recalled how he fell into a hole at night during his escape and Florentino just reached down and pulled him out with one hand.

After a betrayal in January 1943, "Dédée" was arrested, interrogated, tortured and then sent to Germany where she spent 2 years in Ravensbruck and then Mauthausen. She survived the war and spent some 28 years working in leper hospitals in pre-independence Belgian Congo, Cameroon, Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, and finally Senegal. In failing health, she eventually retired to Brussels where she died in 2007 aged 90.

I ask for your understanding for this necessarily abbreviated version of historical events and if I've omitted to mention someone - as I surely must have - I apologise.

The Comet Line is commemorated in many ways - one of which is an annual 'walk' over the exact same route out of France, over the mountains and into Spain and eventual freedom that the escapers took. It's organised locally by Jean Dassié.

Prior to the weekend, I'd contacted John Clinch, whose excellent website contains a whole slew of information about the Comet Line and the resistance in Belgium (highly recommended) and we'd arranged to meet at a café in the centre of Saint Jean de Luz on Friday in good time before the first meeting. This was to be a wreath laying at the War Memorial in St Jean de Luz followed by a vin d'honneur at the Town Hall just nearby. We were fortunate and honoured to be joined by a wartime Comet helper and three aircrew veterans who'd come down the Line and escaped back to the UK.
The veterans

Here we are at the War Memorial with 3 RAF escapers - from left to right: Bob Frost (Wellington tail gunner) shot down on his 28th mission; George Duffee (Halifax pilot) shot down on his first trip as 2nd Dicky; Andrée Dumont (English translation here) - known by her wartime codename "Nadine" - she courier'd the aircrew from Brussels to Paris. Captured & tortured, sent first to Ravensbruck then to the infamous Mauthausen. Received the OBE in 1946. A real heroine! Gordon Mellor (Halifax navigator) - shot down on his 17th trip. Next is a deputy mayor from St Jean de Luz. Raymond from Rheims (on the extreme right) was in the Resistance and was deported and jailed. He spent a few years in a cell with a couple of RAF aircrew - where he learnt his English.. I felt privileged to meet all of these Comet helpers and aircrew over the course of the weekend.
Ramiro Arrue painting in the town hall at St Jean de Luz 

Mr Jean Dassié today
Lucienne Dassié 
(devenue Mme André Saboulard) 
After a friendly welcome at the Town Hall where, incidentally, one of our hosts was kind enough to show Nadine and I three magnificent works (one of which above) by the noted Basque artist Ramiro Arrue - we all separated for lunch before travelling up to Bayonne for another wreath-laying ceremony at the grave of the Dassié family. Both Mr and Madame Dassié actively supported the Comet Line along with their daughter Lucienne (aka "Lulu"). However, all three were betrayed and they were arrested by the Gestapo and spent two years in Buchenwald and Ravensbruck respectively. The Germans left young Jean, aged 7, at home on his own.. After the father was released in 1945 he was repatriated to Paris and saw his family one last time before dying the following day from the ill-treatment he had received. Both "Lulu" and Jean were present for this commemorative weekend.
As it is today

Then we continued on to nearby Anglet to visit the unassuming Villa Voisin - the safe house where many of the escaping airmen stayed (5 mins from where I write) and where the southern end of the network was controlled by Elvire de Greef (aka "Tante Go"). It doesn't appear to have changed too much. We then made our way to the War Memorial in Anglet for a further wreath laying there followed by a vin d'honneur.. Then we all sped off to a local restaurant for the evening. There must have been between 50-60 of us altogether.

Kattalin Aguirre
At Florentino's grave
The next morning saw the start of the hard work. I arrived early at St Jean de Luz and walked around the bay to Ciboure where there was another wreath laying ceremony at the graves of Florentino Goicoechea and Kattalin Aguirre.  

On the Saturday, the group split into two - the walkers and those who would travel between RVs by bus.. After breakfast at a beachside cafe nearby, the walkers set off for Urrugne which is where we were going to have lunch.. (provided by the commune) For us, we were glad to be finally moving and it only took us an hour or so to reach Urrugne, a small village en route to the mountains. After a short ceremony by the War Memorial, we walked the short distance down to a local school where a copious lunch of ham, cheese, fruit, bread, cider and wine had been set up in the sunshine. I broke the habit of a lifetime for once and ate sparingly and kept to water. 

Then we set off for the mountains.. although there was one final final stop at "Bidegain Berri", the farm in the foothills that was used by the escapers as the jumping-off point and where Dédée was arrested in Jan '43. This was the farmhouse belonging to brave Frantxia Usandizaga, who sheltered the airmen in the last safe house in France as they waited for nightfall before attempting to cross the mountains. She was betrayed, along with Dédée de Jongh, but unlike her, she didn't return and she died in Ravensbruck. The house itself had been modernised and appeared anonymous, bearing no witness to the dramatic events that had taken place there so many years before. Yet again we heard speeches extolling the bravery of those who had given their lives in the cause of freedom.

Bidegain Berri
This was the start of the walk proper, and it was time for anyone who could not complete to get on the coach, as there would be no way back. This is where the pain started.. We set off briskly and gradually the road turned into gravel and grass, then we turned up a steep track that was loosely surfaced and then we were on the mountain. It was difficult to set a rhythm when part of a long snake of other climbers stopping and starting on a crumbly, sometimes muddy, slippy underfoot, uneven, steep rocky surface. It was hot too - according to a fellow walker with a multi-function watch it was 35C (95F). And it was humid.. All attempts at conversation ceased now as we tried individually to find our own pace. Each time I reached what I thought was a summit, the mountain opened up to reveal another even steeper climb before me.

My legs became heavier and heavier, I was stumbling, sweat was pouring off me and I could feel my climbing ability reducing with every step. I stopped now and again to ease the burning in my legs but there was no respite from the sun which beat down on us. I did start to think the unthinkable (i.e. going back..). I thought my rowing training would have stood me in good stead but the magnitude of the effort required for this took me by surprise. I thought it would be hard but I just couldn't see myself being able to finish this. I decided not to look ahead and to take it one step at a time. Even then I had to stop every few yards. Luckily some kind soul (I never did catch his name) stopped with me each time and after a few seconds rest, encouraged me to my feet with an "Allez allez!" (I found him at the finish and thanked him)

I kept telling myself that the airmen who tackled the climb during the war did so in the dark, wearing espadrilles, perhaps weak from enforced inactivity and injury, plus they would have the ever-present fear of capture, which could have meant imprisonment, torture and execution. That they found it a gruelling climb is no surprise - that they were able to complete the walk is a tribute to them and perhaps also to the encouragement offered by Florentino and Dédée. By all accounts, many were tempted to give up. 

Suddenly we were at the summit and a magnificent panorama stretched out before us with the outline of Fuenterrabia in Spain clearly visible below.. I lay as if pole-axed for a few minutes before climbing to my feet again for the descent which was not as easy as it appeared on the slippery rocks and loose surface.. My water bottle was now all but empty and I was unable to swallow an energy bar. The morale in our small group rose sharply when we came across a trickling spring of cold water. A lifesaver..!

The sound of the Bidassoa river was now clearly audible below and our pace quickened as we scrambled down the final hurdle of a steep descent of a slippery rock face. We emerged from the woodland and there before us lay the Bidassoa. What a relief to step into its cool fast flowing waters! Cheered across by the veterans and others, we made it across the slippery river bed and up the other side to be met with cold rough cider and grilled sardines prepared for us by our Spanish Basque helpers..

I was too tired to even eat a sardine which must be some sort of a record for me! The coach taking us back to our hotels that night was very quiet, as we were all too exhausted to speak. We were told the next day would be equally as arduous, but as we would be starting early we would feel stronger. That was it for me.. This was the hardest physical challenge I've ever done and I was really at the end of my tether - rubber legs, the ground moving, pounding in my ears et al. Madame reminded me when I returned home that my doc had told me no climbing with my dodgy knees! So, as I'd just paid my rowing subscription for the year, we decided that discretion would be the better part of valour etc so the following day saw me on the bus.

I've 'lifted' this description (from John Clinch's site) of the second day from Anna Moreland who completed it in 2004:

Next morning saw us up before dawn without even time for breakfast and marching off to join the coach which would relay us to the point where we had finished the night before. The giddying ascent started immediately and our calf muscles aching from the day before were soon searing with pain. Again we climbed and climbed in single file, with some paths so steep that we were looking for any handhold just to stop sliding down. Just when it seemed that we were at the very end of endurance we stopped on a grassy knoll. Looking about us in every direction we could see nothing but other mountain peaks, equally majestic, encircled with swirling mists. Their sides were lush and verdant, buzzards soared, the air smelt of spruce, wild mint and mountain thyme, and the view was giddying with no sign of humanity. It felt as if earth had touched the heavens in that one magical spot. I'm sure those like myself who had never done any real climbing must have felt all the effort worthwhile just for those few moments.

We were offered a packet of biscuits by a couple who spoke only Euskera, the language of the Basques, and we ate them gratefully, sharing those magical moments in a companionable silence. We could have stayed there for ages, drinking in the view, but Roger soon had us moving on again as we had deadlines to meet.

Sarobe Farm
The next few hours passed in more painful ascents, crossing a busy road that of course had not been there originally, and then, at last, a gradual descent through the woods towards Sarobe farm. We arrived at about midday to find a farmhouse untouched by the years. It was not hard to imagine the relief the aircrew must have felt as they staggered through the door into the warmth and shelter of a large kitchen where a table would have been laid with food and warm drinks for them, and bowls of salt water would be provided to soak their bleeding and blistered feet. Then they would be shown to a hay loft where they were given blankets and allowed finally to sleep. The farm is still owned by the same family, and their welcome was sincere and touching. Refreshments of their own home made cider and bread and nuts were provided on a long trestle table outside, as we wearily awaited the coach with the veterans, who had been delayed.

Having arrived here by a small bus, I rejoined the walkers at this point.

15,000 litre cider barrels (3300 gallons)
We set off on the last stage of the freedom trail down a tarmac road under the heat of the midday sun. This was just a hard slog to the finish. Pressing on, we encouraged each other to keep going and eventually we found our buses.. which took us to our cidrerie - which was full of Spanish Basques all talking 20 to the dozen.. We sat at long tables and some very welcome rough cider appeared followed by some powerful local Rioja.. These cidreries (ours was #5 on this list) are popular in the Spanish Basque country.

Food arrived unbidden.. served on one large communal plate between every 2 or 4 people.. an omelette with cod, followed by cod with green peppers and then a cote de boeuf between two. This had been shown a grill - briefly - and, as my Dad would have said, a good vet could have had it back on its feet in 5 minutes..!
From l to r: Cod omelette, cod with peppers, cote de boeuf, cheese with quince & honey
They race 13 man boats known as traînières in the Spanish Basque country - I've rowed with them a few times at San Sebastian out on the long rolling Atlantic swells (right) and difficult it is too - and it just so happened that the local club to our cidrerie had won the final of "Le Drapeau de la Concha" and they were celebrating in the adjacent dining room. When they heard that our three veterans were in the next dining room, they all poured in. They love singing and an accordion appeared and they started (below) with a song of farewell (one that they used to sing as the fishing boats left) which was for the Veterans - and there wasn't a dry eye in the house.. or a lump-free throat. It was incredibly moving.. and I'd have thought it almost impossible to capture the atmosphere with a camera.. but John Clinch managed it brilliantly with his clip:
They then sang Hegoak, a Basque song (roughly equivalent to Flower of Scotland) that's sung across the Basque country on both sides of the border. Here's a short clip of trainieres at San Sebastian rowing out at speed into the Atlantic and also some youngsters at Saint-Jean-de-Luz:
Our final stop of the day was at Florentino's birthplace in Hernani, a small Spanish Basque village. There, a small memorial to their greatest son had been set up at the roadside and it was here that we assembled - together with Florentino's brother Antonio (an astonishingly sprightly 93!) and his family. After some heartfelt thanks from the 'vets' - which, incidentally, were translated into Basque by Joe, an Irishman living in San Sebastian - about 10 ladies gave an extremely moving rendition of Hegoak.

Everyone there at the Comet weekend had a story to tell. One woman had come all the way from Australia to re-trace her Dad's footsteps. Another daughter came from California. The story of the Comet Line is a very human story and it showed humanity at its best - and at its worst.

If anyone is interested in the period covering the German occupation of the Côte Basque during WWII, then I would recommend this site. It's packed with information, accounts and photographs that go a long way to explaining many of the remains that litter the Côte Basque to this day..

Almost finished - as I write, Suzanne Dando, a former British Olympic athlete, is participating in a similar event further east - le Chemin de la Liberté. this involves a 4 day crossing of the Pyrenees at altitudes of up to 8,000ft. I wish her and her team of women every encouragement. Well done ladies!  

15th September 2010. Finally, I went rowing yesterday evening - had an excellent solid outing in an VIII on a beautiful evening. 12km. (running total 165km)

23rd September 2010. Rowing tonight - good sortie in a IV - 13km. (running total 178km)

No comments: