This Saturday morning, 16 July, the cyclists of the Tour de France will be pedaling past a lieu de mémoire (memory site) of Dutch-Paris: the Col de Portet d’Aspet.    This 1,069 m pass is part of the St. Gaudens stage of the race.  Sixty-seven years ago it was a stopping place on the route that Engelandvaarders and Allied airmen took as they walked over the Pyrenees to join the Allied armies.

It wasn’t an easy walk either, with inadequate footgear, only the food in your pockets and the Gestapo and German border guards on your heels.  Things could go wrong, as they did on the cold morning of 6 February 1944.

There are, of course, various versions of the story; I’ll tell you what happened from the perspective of a 23 year-old American retail clerk who had been shot down over the Netherlands on his first mission as a B-17 radio operator.

Our aviator left Paris for Toulouse with 10 other airmen and three girls working for Dutch-Paris on 4 February.  The next afternoon they took the train from Toulouse to Cazères.  From there eight of them took a taxi and the rest took a bus to a village 10 or 15 miles further into the hills.  They later learned that so many men with bags getting out of a taxi was noticed in the village and duly noted in the mayor’s regular report on strangers.  According to our American the mayor was a good guy and didn’t expect the Germans to read his reports.  But they did, and they sent a message to the border patrol.  At dark the Americans  got back into the taxi and rode to the foot of the mountains.  There they met some Dutchmen and an Australian they’d known in Paris.

At 22:00 on 5 February 1944, the group of 24 Dutch Engelandvaarders and Allied airmen started along the trail with two guides.  It started to snow on the second mountain, adding to the three feet of snow already there.  At daybreak on 6 February they stopped in what our aviator called a deserted farmhouse for breakfast and a rest.  About two hours later they left the hut – guides first then aviators, then Dutchmen –  but the sun was low and in their eyes so they couldn’t see the German or his dog.  When the lead guide started waving his hat, half the men apparently thought it meant to go back into the building.  The others scattered up the hillside, making as many trails as possible in the snow.  The Germans opened fire.

From behind a bush on the mountainside, our aviator saw 10 Germans on skiis surround the hut and put the 14 men inside it into a bus, which told him that the Germans had been expecting the round-up.   Eight of those were Dutchmen between the ages of 19 and 32.   Two of them later escaped in Toulouse and made it over the Pyrenees and on to London.  But the other six were deported to the concentration camps.  None of them survived.

Our American spent the next week hiding in a hut belonging to the guide’s fiancee’s father, then returned to Toulouse and was put into another Dutch-Paris convoy of Americans and Dutchmen.  Heavy snowfall delayed their crossing the Spanish border until 19 March.

If you’re ever at the Col de Portet d’Aspet and not running a race or running for your life, you can visit part of the mountain hut where the Germans surrounded the escapees, now the historic site known as the “Cabane des évadés, Site classé, Février 1944,” and remember the men who almost made it to freedom.