Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
As I’ve mentioned before, there has been a fair amount of speculation about how the Germans found the convoy at the Col du Portet d’Aspet on the night of 5/6 February 1944. Theories have ranged from betrayal to the practical fact that 28 men make a lot of tracks in new fallen snow.
But maybe the question we should be asking is how half the convoy managed to escape. After all, the Germans had every advantage. They were a German border patrol, not fugitives. They were armed. They had the element of surprise and were hidden outside the hut. They even had buses waiting to take their captives to prison.
So how was it that fourteen exhausted, hungry and ill-equipped men managed to run up the mountainside in the snow without being captured? How did two Dutchmen manage to find their own way along the road until they found a family willing to take them in?
We cannot answer the question without the German documents. But we do know from the reports of the survivors that they watched the German soldiers round up the men who were caught in the hut and put them on the waiting buses.
It could not have been that difficult to see the dozen or so men running up the hill because the sun was up. Furthermore, the Germans had positioned themselves so that the sun was behind them but in the eyes of the men coming out of the hut. So the men running up the hill behind the hut would have been in plain sight of the Germans. Even if they were not, they must have made tracks in the snow.
So it seems that the officer in charge decided to concentrate on rounding up the men in the hut and to let the others run away. It’s unlikely that he would have done so if he had enough men to both round up those who ran off and those trapped in the hut. It’s possible that he thought that he would be able to find them after he got the easy captures onto the buses but that the guide who escaped whisked away the others before the patrol returned.
This suggests that the Germans came across the convoy’s tracks during a routine patrol and took the expected action. That means that the ambush resulted from happenstance rather than betrayal. Maybe the patrol found the tracks, got into position and radioed for the buses.
If, on the other hand, the convoy was betrayed, as some argued, then the Germans did not know how many men were involved or they would have sent more men to capture them. That suggests an unwitting or incomplete betrayal.
Of course it’s possible that the Germans knew how many men there were but underestimated their determination to flee or were unable to get reinforcements there in time.
As I said, we cannot answer any of these questions without the missing German documents. But we can learn as much from speculating on why the Germans failed to capture half the convoy at the Col du Portet d’Aspet as we can by speculating on how they succeeded in capturing the other half of the men.