Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
If your father or grandfather crossed the Pyrenees illegally during the war, could you recreate his route? You could probably figure out the general path from the documents, but unless he himself made the effort to figure out where he’d been in the dark and wrote it down, you are unlikely to be able to determine exactly where he walked.
The documents will provide the broadest outlines of a route. Many men reported the names of the last French train station they went through and the first Spanish village they arrived at. The documents will also reveal which passeur took the man over the mountains. Dutch-Paris hired three regular passeurs plus a few others when the first three were busy. The passeurs relied on networks of local men and women to assist their convoys during the two to three day trek, so they tended to stay within the neighborhood of their networks. They even repeated a trail if the previous convoy had traveled along it safely. So you have a good chance of figuring out the broad outlines of the route.
Very few documents, however, give much detail. Most American, Australian, Canadian or New Zealand airmen really did not know where they were. Navigators who had a professional habit of paying attention to their routes and men who made their living outdoors, such as farmers, tended to give the most detailed reports. They may even have given estimated heights for some hills or distances across water meadows. Engelandvaarders were more likely to have noticed or asked for the names of the villages and hamlets they passed through because, as Europeans, they could read the landscape better than the others. But as they stumbled up and down steep inclines through the cold and the pitch black, many Engelandvaarders really didn’t care where they were as long as they got to Spain without the Germans capturing them.
What if one of the men in the convoy was an especially good reporter of the landscape and route and described the number of hills and the direction they traveled across valleys? Say you took that report and the names of the villages and hamlets they walked through and went yourself to the Pyrenees. Would you be able to reconstruct the route? Possibly, although you’ll face another problem.
The natural and human landscape of the Pyrenees has changed since the war. For example, in the 1940s a dense network of trains connected what were then more thriving communities. But the trains are gone. The tracks were taken up years ago, and some of the rail lines were converted into roads for automobiles. So you may be looking for a train station in a place that no longer has any train service or even any overgrown train tracks. Similarly, there are a lot more trees in the region than there were during the war. What was a meadow then might be a woods now. Also, many of the well-worn paths used by shepherds, smugglers and fugitives in the 1940s are overgrown and the shepherd’s huts where the convoys rested are abandoned to the elements.
So, reconstructing a Dutch-Paris evader’s footsteps over the Pyrenees would be a challenge. But retracing a very similar escape route over the Pyrenees is not all that hard. At least two memorial societies take hikers over wartime trails every summer. The route that is closest to the region where Dutch-Paris operated is known as the Chemin de la Liberté (Freedom Trail). There is a good museum about it in St-Girons, called the Maison de la Chemin de la Liberté. The organizers know a great deal about what went on in the area during the war, see www.chemindelaliberte.fr. The British Escape Line Memorial Society website, www.ww2escapelines.co.uk also lists a number of memorial treks over the Pyrenees and Alps. Any of these treks would get you as close as you are likely to get to the experience of Engelandvaarders and evaders, minus the dark, the winter weather, the bad shoes and the German troops on your heels, of course.