Tuesday, 11 September 2012

194. The best of company in the Pays Basque

Bar Basque
11th September 2012. Down to earth again this morning after a memorable Comète Commemorative weekend in the Pays Basque. Every year at this time there is a gathering here - to celebrate and commemorate in equal measure those who were involved with Comète, the famous WW2 escape line. Many of us met up on Thursday evening at the Bar Basque at St Jean de Luz.. To my mind this is by far the most pleasant and stylish bar in St Jean, ideally situated in Boulevard Thiers for watching the evening to-ing and fro-ing. To all our delight, the Duffee family appeared and tables were dragged together and the evening had all the makings.. I could have stayed there much longer and followed the few quiet sangrias with a few noisy ones!

We had all been expecting another veteran (in name only) to make an appearance but Andrée Dumont - better known as "Nadine" - had taken a tumble in the week leading up to the weekend and so with great regret she had to cancel. Needless to say, all our best wishes go to her for a speedy recovery. Et joyeux anniversaire!!
We were honoured to have George and Janet Duffee with us again - a truly remarkable and devoted couple who'd travelled with their family all the way from West Wales down to the Pays Basque. George is described in many places as a veteran but he and Janet are anything but! He was shot down while returning from his first bombing raid in his Halifax bomber (left) in June '43 and after an eventful saga he finally found his way down to the Pays Basque, courtesy of "Franco" and Comète. He and a small party of other evaders were led over the Pyrenees via the St Jean de Luz route (below right) by the legendary Basque guide Florentino Goicoechea on a night march in the rain that lasted 14 hours. He can laugh about it now! (I think) Here's George's file from the Comète Line site. On his return to Britain, he went back to operational flying and went on to fly 39 more operational sorties. He was honoured with the award of a well-deserved DFC. After the war, he flew some 236 sorties during the Berlin Airlift after which he became a civil airline pilot for British Airways where he had a distinguished career. A charismatic gentleman with a permanent twinkle in his eye, he exudes the indefatigable spirit that saw him through all that life could throw at him. George and Janet inspire respect and great affection from all who meet them and may I be allowed to add here on this special day for them - happy wedding anniversary.. 66 years!

The pattern for the long weekend has been set for some years now - Friday is reserved for honouring the memory of those who fell or did not return from deportation. Wreaths are laid at war memorials and cemeteries at St Jean de Luz, Ciboure, Bayonne and Anglet, followed by civic receptions at St Jean de Luz and Anglet.

The group then splits into two parties - one composed of walkers who, over the weekend, retrace the actual paths taken by the wartime guides and the escaping airmen over the mountains and into Spain and a second group of those who wish to follow by coach over the Saturday and Sunday. The "traditional" route used by the walkers is shown on the right here. (click to enlarge). 

The Comète organisation was shaken to its foundations by a wave of arrests in Brussels as a result of the Abwehr's successful penetration in late 1942 and this was followed by arrests at a Comète safe house - Bidegain Berri farm (left) - at Urrugne in the Pays Basque in January 1943 where Andrée de Jongh  - the founder of Comète - was among those arrested. This was a major blow to the organisation and one which might have proved to be fatal.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us .." 
"A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens

However, as the saying has it, "Cometh the hour, cometh the man.."

"Larressore" route
Comète's new leader Jean-François Nothomb (aka "Franco") pioneered a number of new inland routes to avoid the increased surveillance on the coast and it was one of these - known as the "Larressore" route - that we were to walk over as a group this year for the first time. In brief, it starts from Marthe Mendiara's Auberge Larre, a Comète safe house at Anglet quartier Sutar, where she offered a safe haven to over 150 airmen before they continued on their way on bicycles. The route is marked in purple on the map (right). Again, click to enlarge. A major debt of thanks is owed to Dominique Aguerre for all the work he and his relatives did in re-tracing what was essentially a completely undocumented route - made all the more difficult by the passage of almost 70 years. 

So it was that on Friday morning we gathered by the War Memorial at St Jean de Luz where George Duffee laid a wreath on behalf of ELMS (right) - a UK-based society. Marie-Christine (left), the grand daughter of Kattalin Aguirre, also laid flowers as did Brigitte d'Oultremont, president of Comète Kinship in Belgium. Afterwards we were warmly received at the nearby Town Hall of St Jean de Luz with a welcoming speech to which Mr Jean Dassié replied, as President of "Les Amis du Réseau Comète". This was followed by vin d'honneur kindly offered by the Town Hall. After lunch, we reconvened up at the St Léon cemetery at Bayonne to honour the memory of Mr Dassié's parents, both of whom were active in Comète and who were both deported to Germany (to Buchenwald and Ravensbruck respectively) along with their 16 year old daughter Lucienne ("Lulu") in the wake of the earlier arrests at Bidegain Berri farm. Mr Dassié's father died in May 1945, the day he was returned to Paris while his mother died in 1948 as a result of her treatment in the camps. Thankfully, Lulu survived and was able to be present for this weekend.

George & Janet Duffee outside the "Villa Voisin"
No visit to the Pays Basque for a Comète weekend would be complete without visiting the legendary "Villa Voisin" - the headquarters and nerve centre of Comète South in the Pays Basque. Situated in a narrow lane in Anglet, this small villa that now looks so innocent was home to the de Greefs, a Belgian family who fled the German blitzkreig in the Low Countries in 1940. Fernand and especially Elvire de Greef ("Tante Go") were to prove to be more than a match for the hardened professionals of the Abwehr, the Feldgendarmerie and all the grisly apparatus of the Gestapo using no more than their wits and quick thinking. Andrée de Jongh would warn prospective helpers of Comète that, if they joined, they could expect no more than 6 months of operating before being arrested. The de Greefs ran Comète South from start to finish and remained free throughout - apart from once when Tante Go was briefly arrested along with "B" Johnson..

We now moved to the War Memorial at Anglet where wreathes were laid in a colourful and poignant ceremony attended by many French veterans complete with their standards. In addition, our own Comète standard was carried this year by John Clinch, and the British Legion standard for the south west France branch was represented by their standard bearer (ex Royal Marines!). Representatives of the local civil and military authorities were also present. A most moving ceremony especially when a Basque choir sang the Partisans Song.
We then moved across to the Town hall where Mr Espilondo, the mayor of Anglet, warmly welcomed us. One of our committee members spoke movingly of Jules Mendiburu who was present and who, as a very young man, had helped Comète during the war. Mr Dassié spoke for all of us with his warm words of thanks and again, this was followed by a vin d'honneur.    

All too soon the official part of the day was over and we left to return to St Jean de Luz. For those of you who are unfamiliar with St Jean de Luz, here's a short video that lets you know what you've missed (turn the volume up!):

We were headed for the Sardinerie, situated no more than 5 metres from the waters edge, where the sardines come straight off the boats and into the kitchen. Fortunately, tables had been reserved for us. By now, my Cold Beer low level warning light was showing steady red and the first one hit every spot on the way down.. The place was full and bustling with the sound of people enjoying themselves. A great evening among friends and it's a pity that we must wait for another year to renew our friendship. 

Saturday morning saw us waiting in the car park of the school at Sutar where Pierre Elhorga had lived. A retired customs official, his knowledge of clandestine cross border activities (we'd call it smuggling!) was put to good use in signing up passeurs to help the cause. An influx of walkers from across the border swelled our numbers to somewhere in the region of the mid forties.   

Here are Miren and Iurre (outside the former auberge "Larre"), a couple of irrepressible and talented Basque girls from "the other side" who are two of the leading lights behind Moztu Films. They recently made the film "The Last Passage" that documents the events that led up to the fateful arrests at Bidegain Berri farm. It's well worth seeing.

The new route winds its way along the banks of the Nive before taking to a maze of unmarked tracks and little-used lanes and, it has to be said,  some unavoidable stretches of tarmac that eventually led us to the Pont du Diable, just outside the very Basque village of Larressore.
Rest stop at Pont du Diable

Sauveur Aguirre
Here we were met by Sauveur Aguirre, (right) the son of Baptiste, the wartime passeur. I was pleased to see that he didn't have his axe with him this time! (See Post # 192) The evaders would abandon their bicycles here to be recovered by Mattin Garat, a baker from nearby Larressore. From here on in, they would continue on foot all the way to Spain and freedom.

We had a short break at the Pont du Diable - just long enough to force an energy bar and some dried fruit down - before we continued on up a trail previously known only to the contrebandiers (smugglers) up to a disused farm building known as Mandochineko Borda (below).

Far from prying eyes, Mandochineko Borda lies deep in the verdant Basque countryside, and it is exceptionally well hidden. It was still covered in brambles and creepers as it always has been and it remains just as it was all those years ago - with its floor of beaten earth with no heating, electricity or water. Here, the airmen would lie up and try to rest for as long as it took for the Comète planners to decide on a suitable night for the mountain crossing.
Mandochineko Borda

The business end of a makhila!
Sauveur showed us his ancient but still very effective makhila which had been handed down to him by his father (and his father before him).

The sun had climbed high in the sky by now and the temperature must have been more than 30C - with humidity to match. The midday heat lay very heavily on us here and the air was thick with dust raised by our feet. People sought out any shade they could find and shirts were wet with sweat. As we continued our way, Sauveur led us past his fields of piment d'Espelette which flourish here.   
One of several vultures that were keeping their beady eyes on some of us!

Soon we entered the piment-festooned picture postcard village of Espelette where a méchoui and a cold beer (or 2) awaited us.. (click on the image below)

We all found our way to the Accoceberry building where we were to eat. After a quick splash of cold water and a clean T-shirt I was ready!
The tiredness was quickly forgotten as we sat down among friends.. while wine appeared and disappeared as if by magic and quantities of lamb in all its forms arrived..! Guitars, harmonicas and tin whistles were brought out and the singing began.. Basques love to sing and they all seem to have been born with the ability to sing in harmony:   

After the méchoui we left to go to the War Memorial near the church at Espelette to lay a wreath honouring those of Espelette who did not return. We then walked the short distance to a function room where Gracy Florence, Madame le Maire of Espelette (below), spoke very poignantly and movingly of Espelette's involvement in the Comète story. Merci Madame. This was followed by a vin d'honneur that the village had very kindly offered us.
Gracy Florence, Madame le Maire d'Espelette
The next day saw us taking the bus with the non-walkers - partly for logistical reasons and partly due to your correspondent's knees. Having walked over the mountain route a couple of times in practice in the last few weeks, I didn't feel too bad about it!

Watching the walkers arrive at the finish:

Protection Civile volunteers
All weekend, we'd been accompanied by volunteers from Protection Civile who were there to provide medical and other security. A big thank you to you both! Here they are at the end of the trail having a well-deserved cold beer.

One by one the walkers arrived and took their seats in the dining room that had been made available for us at "Esteben Borda" (below), which lies either 10 metres over the border in Spain or 10 metres inside the border and still in France (depending if you're buying or selling!☺). Waitresses brought out steaming tureens full of beans and platters of lamb.. Wine disappeared yet again and was just as quickly replenished.

The safe house on the Spanish side was called Jauriko Borda and here it is seen through a mid-afternoon heat haze:
Jauriko Borda

Our lunch stop - Esteben Borda
John from Dublin was coaxed to his feet to give his word-perfect rendition of the Peña Baiona to a very appreciative and impressed audience - apart from a lone supporter of Biarritz Olympique! (There's always one isn't there!)

Each year, an honorary boïna or Txapela* is awarded to the person who has made a significant contribution to Comète and this year it was awarded - to his great surprise - to none other than the very deserving John Clinch! (the Duffees are seated under the Comète standard) I wish I could have caught on film the expression of total surprise as I said his name! Well done John!
  * a boïna is an outsize Basque beret.

Suddenly, the weekend was all over and goodbyes for another year were said in the car park. We drove home feeling the warmth from all the people we'd met. The warmth lingers on as I write this and look at the photographs. Thank you to all those who came and who made it so memorable.

I had several people come up to me and tell me that they thought this new route was tougher than the more traditional route - especially the second day. If you missed it this year for whatever reason, the pattern for future annual Comète commemorations in the Pays Basque will be that the routes will alternate between the new "Larressore" route and the usual St Jean de Luz one - so the next time we do the "Larressore" route will be in 2014, with perhaps with one or two tweaks. Thanks to all of you again for making this last weekend so special.

A couple of very aptly-named Mark Knopfler tracks here for you - and coincidentally, both were filmed in the Basque country too. The first is called "The long road":
The second is called "Going home":
Finally, remind yourself of the charm of St Jean de Luz here:

Haste ye back! 


Lesley said...

Very interesting. It's so good to see that memories are being handed down to the next and next generation.

Pipérade said...

These weekends are very special.. In a world where many are cynical about values such as service before self, integrity, steadfastness, courage and loyalty it's truly refreshing to meet those who have lived through dark days sustained only by values such as these.