One of the realities of Occupied Europe that’s hard to appreciate from our current perspective is how hard it was to come by information. I’m not talking about reliable news, which was censored. You had to engage in the criminal activity of listening to the BBC or reading the clandestine press for that. I mean the sort of daily information that we take for granted today.

If you’re going on a trip today you simply go on the internet from the comfort of your home to purchase your airline ticket and print out your boarding pass. You can study the train timetables, chose your train and buy your ticket from anywhere in the world that has internet access. You can go on Google maps, put in the address you’ll be leaving from and the address you’ll be going to and choose the best way to get there for the day and time you’ll be traveling by foot, car or public transportation. You can even get photographs of your route.

It was considerably more challenging even twenty years ago when I first started doing research in Europe. You needed to obtain the paper timetables and then stand in line to buy the tickets. You had to get out a paper map and figure out the route for yourself. You had to telephone a hotel to make a reservation or go through a travel agent.

Seventy years ago, during the war, it was even harder. You still needed the paper timetables, but they weren’t easy to come by and there was a good chance that the war had changed the schedules. It had certainly thrown up some barriers that weren’t there before, such as the demarcation line in France. And, by order of the Occupying authority, maps were not for sale. Of course a prewar map would still be essentially correct, if you happened to have one. But people didn’t travel that much in the 1930’s, so your average Dutch household didn’t have a map of the Franco-Spanish or Franco-Swiss border, certainly not one detailed enough to include the kind of footpaths that appeal to fugitives.

Naturally, you could make inquires at the information counter at the train station. If you happened to speak the language and didn’t mind drawing attention to yourself as a traveler who didn’t know where he or she was going. And even if you did ask what time the Paris to Toulouse train left, the clerk at the counter wasn’t likely to tell you the most important piece of information, which was that the Germans didn’t control identity documents on that train on Tuesdays and Fridays. If you knew that, you’d obviously delay your trip until Tuesday or Friday.

Somehow or other the Dutch-Paris couriers who escorted Allied aviators and Engelandvaarders from Paris to Toulouse did know that useful little fact and planned their trips accordingly. They had probably learned it from a railway worker. Possibly from the same railwaymen who told them never to take a passenger train into Bordeaux, but to get out at the stop before Bordeaux, walk into town to the rail yards for the goods trains and take the 12:03 am freight train out of the city. Of course you wouldn’t want to do that in all cities because in some places the freight yards were also the marshaling yards for the deportation trains.

Information, then, wasn’t publically accessible as it is today. You had to ask the conductor or bus driver directly or know someone who knew something and was willing to share it. Rumors, chance comments, quiet conversations made all the difference. You certainly couldn’t sit at home and expect the world to come to you.