Seventy three years ago today six Allied aviators, four Engelandvaarders and a French guide walked north out of the foothills of the Pyrenees, going the opposite direction that they had walked into the mountains on their way to Spain and freedom just two days earlier. Why were these men returning to occupied territory?

On the evening of 5 February 26 Allied aviators and Engelandvaarders gathered in a field by a mountain hamlet. Dutch-Paris had brought them all to Toulouse and entrusted them to two local Frenchmen who had taken convoys to Spain before. Some of the fugitives had arrived in Toulouse the morning before and spent the previous night in a half-built house in a village in the foothills. Some of them had taken the night train from Paris on the 4th and arrived in Toulouse that very morning before taking another train into the foothills.

Their real problem, however, was not travel weariness but the weather. A blizzard blew up as they began walking up the mountain, slowing them down and forcing them to take the longer but less hazardous path around the mountain. They fell far behind schedule.

None of these men were dressed for mountain trekking in good weather let alone a blizzard. They were wearing either ties and jackets, perhaps with a waistcoat, and worn out wartime city shoes or clothes meant to disguise them as local laborers. The lucky ones had been issued a wool beret, which would at least have kept the snow out of their hair. Most of them had fairly sturdy shoes because the Dutch-Paris helpers in Paris had connections with cobblers, but none of them had the kind of boots that we would consider necessary for the task. They also didn’t have much food or drink with them. Of course they dressed that way to avoid suspicion and blend in with the locals on the trains. After all, what would any German officer assume if he saw a young man get off the train from Paris dressed for a mountain hiking expedition?

As a result of being exhausted, cold and hungry, the convoy took shelter the next morning in a shepherd’s hut not all that far from the Spanish border at the Col du Portet d’Aspet. By the time they left the hut, the sun was already shining on the fresh snow and German border guards were waiting for them to come out.

About half the men escaped up the mountain, including the 11 who returned to a French village. Two other Dutchmen got separated from the guides but avoided arrest. The rest were captured. The aviators were sent to POW camps. The Engelandvaarders were treated as political or racial prisoners. Two of them actually jumped out of a truck taking them to a deportation train in Toulouse a couple weeks later and made their way back to Dutch-Paris contacts. They made it to Spain. Their colleagues did not survive the war.

The survivors were walking back into occupied territory in order to regroup and try again. Most of them reached Spain in March.