Wednesday, 14 September 2011

165. 70th anniversary of the Comet Line in the Pays Basque

13th September 2011. This last weekend has flown by - it was the 70th Anniversary of the Comet Line - the noted WWII escape network founded not long after Dunkirk by Andrée de Jongh, a 24 year old Belgian girl. There are many links in the left hand column on this blog to Andrée de Jongh, the Comet Line, Florentino Goicoechea and the Villa Voisin if you'd like to know more about this most noble and inspirational of stories. This map shows the Comet's main operating locations in the Pays Basque.

This year saw the 70th anniversary of the first British escaper to make it safely through and back to the UK. The weekend started off with the laying of a wreath at the War Memorial at St Jean de Luz (left) by Andrée Dumont OBE, aka "Nadine" - a brave and charismatic wartime helper whose sprightly appearance belies her years, ably assisted here by Roger Stanton of ELMS.

Even though she'd spent 2 long years in prisons and concentration camps (including the infamous Mauthausen) when asked if she'd do it again, she replied firmly and without hesitation - yes. I introduced her to the three serving RAF officers present and she held her thumb and index finger out about an inch apart and said, "Comet.." She then extended her arm high above her head and said, "The RAF.." Unfailingly modest and humble to a fault, I have the utmost admiration for her and others like her who were prepared to give their all in that dark chapter of European history. Comet is the story of the best and the worst of humanity.

Allan Cowan 
We then adjourned to the nearby Town Hall of St Jean de Luz (right) where we were warmly received by the deputy mayor. He welcomed us to the Pays Basque and St Jean de Luz in a short speech before inviting us to share some cold rosé with him. As this was only my second "Comet" weekend, I took the opportunity to listen to as many people as I could. There were as many different stories in the room as there were those attending. For example, Allan Cowan (above left),  who crossed the mountains in the second group in October '41, was represented, as last year, by his charming daughter Marie while the Greaves family - a brother and 2 sisters - had travelled over from New York the day before. Their father had been arrested at Bidegain Berri farm with Dédée in January 1943.  Another was a reader* of this blog whose father had managed successfully to return to the UK. So many stories.  (* N - I have some photos for you - let me know your email address via the comments section - I won't publish it)

After the vin d'honneur we were free for lunch so I drove the three RAF participants out to Ascain, the best of all Basque villages in my opinion. Following a very pleasant relaxed lunch we then drove north to Bayonne to the cemetery where we met up with everyone else again at the Dassié family grave (left). In a short but moving ceremony we honoured the memory of his parents. Jean Dassié was just 7 years old when both his parents and 'Lulu', his elder sister, were taken away. He never saw his father again. His mother survived the end of the war by only 2 years as a result of the treatment she'd received at Ravensbruck. Thankfully, 'Lulu' survived and was present during the weekend. 

Villa Voisin, Anglet
From the cemetery it was but a short journey to the Villa Voisin, the legendary nerve centre of the Comet Line in the Pays Basque. The house had been occupied by the de Greef family, Belgian refugees from the German invasion, and they were to make an immense contribution to Comet activities in the south west. An untrained civilian, Elvire de Greef managed to outwit the professionals of the German Abwehr and  the notorious Gestapo throughout the war. Amazingly, they were never able to catch her. Today, the Villa Voisin is an anonymous grey house that offers up no clue as to the dangerous nature of its activities all those years ago. We stood outside this unlived-in house with its closed shutters and wondered at the daring deeds that it had known. 

From the Villa Voisin, it was another short journey to the War Memorial at Anglet where more wreaths would be laid. This was in the full heat of the afternoon and the old soldiers were standing in the dappled shade of the platanes with their proud bleu-blanc-rouge standards leaning against the trunks. There were a few jutting-jawed ex-paras scattered among them - instantly recognisable, as paras are the world over. The scene brought to mind a painting by Monet.
The mayor of Anglet arrived to do the honours and soon the air was filled with those distinctive sounds of the French military - provided by a couple of rattling drums and a single trumpet. One by one, the civic dignitaries and those of Comète stepped up to leave their floral tributes.

A local Basque choir then sang the "Song of the Partisans" - a song, written in wartime, with a hard unequivocal message - one that leaves no doubt whatsoever as to the feelings of those who wrote it. No Vera Lynn warbling "White Cliffs of Dover" here - the "Song of the Partisans" remains a brutal reminder of what it must have been like to be occupied. Here's President Sarkozy on the day of his inauguration paying homage to the Résistants - notably Guy Moquet (his letter here) - who fought and died for France, listening to a choir singing "The Song of the Partisans" and looking visibly moved. The English lyrics are underneath.

My friend, do you hear the dark flight of the crows over our plains?
My friend, do you hear the dulled cries of our countries in chains?

Oh, friends, do you hear, workers, farmers, in your ears alarm bells ringing?
Tonight all our tears will be turned to tongues of flame in our blood singing!

Climb up from the mine, out from hiding in the pines, all you comrades,
Take out from the hay all your guns, your munitions and your grenades;

Hey you, assassins, with your bullets and your knives, kill tonight!
Hey you, saboteurs, be careful with your burden, dynamite!

We are the ones who break the jail bars in two for our brothers,
hunger drives, hate pursues, misery binds us to one another.

There are countries where people sleep without a care and lie dreaming.
But here, do you see, we march on, we kill on, we die screaming.

But here, each one knows what he wants, what he does with his choice;
My friend, if you fall, from the shadows on the wall, another steps into your place.

Tomorrow, black blood shall dry out in the sunlight on the streets.
But sing, companions, freedom hears us in the night still so sweet.

My friend, do you hear the dark flight of the crows over our plains?
My friend, do you hear the dulled cries of our countries in chains?

After the "Marseillaise", we walked over to the nearby Anglet Town Hall where speeches from the mayor and Jean Dassié were followed by another Vin d'Honneur after which we set off in a straggling convoy for the restaurant where we were to have dinner.

Saturday morning saw us meeting up at the cemetery at Ciboure where wreathes were laid at the graves of the great Basque guide Florentino Goicoechea and his friend, the widow Katalin Aguirre, who housed so many evaders. Set into the hillside, the cemetery is in an idyllic setting overlooking the peaceful bay of St Jean de Luz. While I had decided not to attempt the whole two day march this year as my knees are decidedly creaky, I thought I could manage the leg from Ciboure to Urrugne. So it was, after a breakfast in a beach café at Socoa, we all set off for Urrugne, our numbers swelled by several Basque walkers from Spain. We were also joined by 70 young officer cadets from the Royal Military Academy, Belgium and they soon raced off into the distance. They'd selected the inspirational Andrée de Jongh as their 'godmother' for their year. Those who weren't walking were provided with a coach to take them to the next  rendezvous at Urrugne.

The route took us through a housing estate before launching off into a narrow track. It was soon clear to me that any thoughts I might have entertained that my knees would allow me to complete the entire 2 day walk were hopelessly wide of the mark. It was with some relief that we entered Urrugne - with the encouragement of the waiting 'Nadine' - and my decision had been made for me.
Ceremony at Urrugne
The Greaves family from New York are pictured (left) honouring the memorial in Urrugne to Frantxa Usandizaga and Juan Larburu. It was at Frantxa's farmhouse - named  'Bidegain Berri' - where their father was captured along with Dédée. Frantxia and Juan were never to return. The walkers continued on after the ceremony while I stayed behind feeling unhappy with  this turn of events, ie, that I was unable to walk even to 'Bidegain Berri'. However, things brightened up considerably when we were invited into a room at the rear of the Tourist Office to find a long table laden with charcuterie, cheese, fruit and wine. Ah, decisions, decisions..!

Meanwhile the walkers were heading for the last stop before the mountains and that was the farm at 'Bidegain Berri'.. Here are the Greaves family again outside the farm where their father had been arrested in January 1943 - a real pilgrimage for them.
'Bidegain Berri'
Now it was a case of bringing on the pain. The temperature was in the low 30s with nil wind and afterwards all the walkers mentioned the relentless heat on the mountain. It all sounded very similar to last year.
Les Trois Couronnes

Meanwhile, after an excellent lunch in good company, us non-walkers made our way by coach around to the disused station of San Miguel on the banks of the Bidassoa river that marks the frontier between France and Spain and waited for the first of the walkers to emerge from the trees on the opposite bank. Here's the indefatigable 'Nadine' (right) welcoming the walkers across the river with a large Belgian flag. The river was quite low and seemingly benign. However, in wartime, it would have been an entirely different proposition wading across this river at night, in its icy waters in winter with Franco-ist guards patrolling ready to open fire. There were no friendly Spanish Basques waiting with cold cider and grilled sardines as today - back then, it was a case of scrambling up the river bank and somehow plodding on to Sarobe farm another 4-5 hours distant.
The young Belgian Army contingent soon had their pup tents set up as they were staying the night in place while we returned to St Jean de Luz on Saturday evening. 

Sunday morning at 7.30am (!) saw the walkers deposited back at the same place at San Miguel ready to resume the walk which started with a steady climb straight up.. We - the coach party - left a little later and caught up with the walkers at around 11am when they made a short refuelling stop for some drinks and oranges. Here are the walkers setting off afterwards on the last leg to Sarobe farm. 
Jean Dassié and 'Lulu'
Paco and 'Nadine'
And so, finally, to Sarobe farm. The exhausted and footsore wartime evaders must have been glad to arrive here after their long overnight march from the farm at Urrugne to Sarobe farm in Spain. Today? We received the same warm welcome from Paco and his extended family - and the same nourishing soup, delicious tortilla and robust Rioja red wine that the escapers would have been offered. Paco had been a youngster of 8-9 years old at the time of these great events. The Belgian contingent presented a small plaque which was unveiled by 'Nadine' to commemorate the 70th anniversary.

After Sarobe farm, we travelled to the Petritegi Cidrerie at Astigarraga (highly recommended!). I took the Greaves family into the cider warehouse where they tried filling their glasses from a jet of cider from one of these massive barrels that each contain 15,000 litres. We then sat at long heavy wooden tables and a tsunami of food soon followed - a spicy chorizo sausage, a cod omelette (delicious!), then more cod and then a côte de boeuf between two.. Bottles of Rioja appeared (and disappeared!) as if by magic.  

Towards the end of the meal, over the hubbub of conversation, I heard the odd few lines of song from somewhere and then suddenly a Basque choir launched into glorious song:

They captured the hearts of all with their songs, sung with an obvious passion and enjoyment. All too soon it was time to go and it was over for another year.

What is Andrée de Jongh's legacy to us? Surely, it can only be that her timeless values of leadership by example, courage and self-sacrifice can inspire people of different nationalities to transcend their differences and to unite in common cause. RIP Dédée.


Anonymous said...

As this year I could only participate in some celebrations of the COMET LINE, I am very pleased to read and see your comments, photos and videos.
Congratulations and here you have a new follower to your blog, which I found wonderful!

Pipérade said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it Ines.. For my part, I felt honoured to take part in the commemoration of the Comète Line. They were the bravest of the brave.