This riveting story recounts how Charbonnier tried to guide a large group of fugitives—most of them downed Allied airmen, along with a French priest, two doctors, a Belgian Olympic skater, and others—to freedom across the Pyrenees. Tragically, they were discovered by German mountain troopers just shy of the Spanish border. Jean-Luc E. Cartron offers the first detailed account of what happened, showing how Charbonnier operated, his ties with “the Françoise” (previously “Pat O’Leary”) escape-line organization, and how the group was betrayed and by whom. So Close to Freedom sheds light not only on the complex and precarious work of escape lines but also on the concrete, nerve-racking experiences of the airmen and those helping them. It shows the desperation of all those seeking passage to Spain, the myriad dangers they faced, and the lengths they would go to in order to survive.
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About the Author
Jean-Luc E. Cartron is an adjunct research assistant professor of biology at the University of New Mexico. He is the editor or coauthor of several books, including a biography of his grandfather, a prominent member of the Resistance in western France during World War II.
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A Perilous Hide-and-Seek
On February 6, 1944, Belgian Roger Bureau made it as far as the mountain pass known as the Portet d'Aspet with a group of fugitives led by passeurs Palo Treillet ("Pierre") and Henri Marrot ("Mireille"). After twenty hours of arduous climbing in heavy snowfall, the exhausted men rested for two hours inside a mountain cabin on the other side of the Portet d'Aspet. With two more mountain passes to cross before reaching Caneján in Spain, they set out again, but not for long. Unbeknownst to Pierre and Mireille, the group had been spotted two days earlier, before they had even started on their climb from Arbas in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Just beyond the cabin, six German mountain troopers lay in ambush, armed with rifles and accompanied by dogs. Pierre had gone ahead of the party to scout. He saw the ears of one of the dogs jutting out from above a rock. He turned and signaled to the rest of the party to run. The Germans opened fire and two bullets flew by Pierre as the passeur ran for cover. Led by Mireille, Roger Bureau and several other climbers ran as far as they could up a wooded slope and, catching their breaths, hid in bushes. Still too exhausted from their climb, the rest of the men simply returned inside the cabin and soon found themselves surrounded. Mireille went back in search of the other passeur. Circling around a hill, he attempted to lead the mountain troopers away. He was captured, however, and the Germans immediately seized his papers and a stash of Spanish money he carried. Meanwhile, Pierre stumbled upon the tracks left by the men in Roger Bureau's group and followed them up that same slope. He found the group still huddled under the cover of bushes. Together, they fled to safety, back toward the foothills on the French side of the Pyrenees.
Roger Bureau followed passeur Pierre to Saint-Girons, at the confluence of the Salat and Lez rivers, and from then on to Cazères, about forty miles southwest of Toulouse. By then, only seven men besides Roger Bureau and Pierre remained of the original climbing party — Dutchman Chris van Oosterzee, RAF FSG George L. Watts, Australian PO John Geoffrey McLaughlin, and four U.S. airmen: TSG Nicholas Mandell, SGT Norman Elkin, 2LT Campbell C. Brigman Jr, and SGT Walter R. Snyder. Two other Dutchmen had also managed to slip away from the Germans, Sam Timmers Verhoeven and Gijs den Besten, but instead of turning back with the others, the two men had decided to remain on the mountain and look for some other passage to Spain. In Cazères, Pierre's group stayed in a temporarily unoccupied home, where they were soon reunited with Mireille, the second passeur. Mireille had escaped his captors while still at the Portet d'Aspet, before a bus came up the road to the mountain pass to collect all the prisoners. He had faked a sudden illness, and after one soldier had left to retrieve a stretcher, Mireille had punched the other German who guarded him, sending him tumbling down a slope. The Portet d'Aspet was now too dangerous, Mireille told them, as the Germans were bound to keep a close watch on it.
The group left Cazères on the morning of February 15. They returned to Toulouse, where less than two weeks earlier the Dutch-Paris escape network had brought them on the train from Paris. They spent the night in a room belonging to one of Mireille's friends, and the next day, Dutch-Paris operative Salomon Chait (aka Edmond Moreau) came to see them. There are few known details of his visit, but the Dutchman told the group they were leaving that same day back toward the Pyrenees. Other than Roger Bureau, who then remained in Toulouse, most or all of the others took a train to Montréjeau on the afternoon of the sixteenth. The stationmaster in Montréjeau had ties with a local maquis, and he arranged for the transfer of the group to the foothills. It was passeur Jean-Louis Bazerque ("Charbonnier"), described by McLaughlin as an "elderly guide," and "Frisco," a tall, blonde, and tough-looking member of the maquis, who came to collect them. Accompanied by an escort of maquis fighters armed with Sten guns, they all drove to a shepherd's hut at an elevation of about three thousand feet. Here the evaders had to bide their time for several weeks, as heavy snow in the mountains prevented any new attempt to reach Spain. Second Lieutenant Brigman's foot became infected during that time. He was taken to a suburb of Saint-Gaudens to see a French doctor trusted by the maquis. When he returned with a healed foot, the number of men waiting for passage across the Pyrenees had increased considerably. With armed guides from the maquis led by Charbonnier, thirty-eight evaders left Ardon in the Valley of Barousse and for three days climbed in a wide arc around Bagnères-de-Luchon, regional headquarters of the Zollgrenzschutz (ZGS), the German Customs frontier police. On March 19, having made only two stops along the way, Van Oosterzee, Mandell, Elkin, Brigman, Snyder, McLaughlin, and Watts all reached Bossòst in the Aran Valley of Catalonia, Spain.
Less than ten days later, another group of fugitives crossed the border with Spain and it, too, arrived in the Aran Valley. As many as twelve Dutchmen were in this second group, among them Vic Lemmens, Han Langeler, and Sam Timmers Verhoeven. After their capture at the Portet d'Aspet in February, Lemmens and Langeler had been detained in Saint-Michel's prison in Toulouse but later escaped by jumping out of a truck during a prisoner transport. Along with Gijs den Besten, Sam Timmers Verhoeven had fled the Portet d'Aspet, but without a compass and unable to read the stars, the two men had become lost. Exhausted, they found a hut nearly buried in snow where they intended to rest. Inside, however, it was so cold that they could not sleep. The men put their frozen shoes back on and started out again. In the hope that they had arrived in Spain, they went down into a valley and reached the tiny village of Autrech, south of the Portet d'Aspet but still well shy of the border. A farmer's family took them in and gave them food. Den Besten suffered from severe frostbite on his feet. His condition only got worse, and in the end local Frenchmen transported him in a horse cart to the hospital of Saint-Girons to receive medical help. After staying two more weeks in Autrech, Sam Timmers returned to Toulouse by bus and then by train. He found the restaurant Chez Emile he remembered from his previous stay in the city, and by chance, there he was reunited with his two friends Lemmens and Langeler, who, having just escaped, were enjoying a quiet meal.
With other Dutchmen, Timmers, Lemmens, and Langeler had a long layover, during which they stayed in a house on the outskirts of Toulouse, playing chess and bridge to break the monotony of their days. In the early afternoon of March 25, they boarded a train at Toulouse's railroad station, Matabiau, and traveled in the direction of Tarbes. At 5:30 that afternoon, the train pulled up in the small station of Saint-Laurent / Saint-Paul west of Saint-Gaudens. The train doors opened and out stepped this large group of evaders, mostly American, and the twelve Dutch. The group walked to an unoccupied building to eat. All the fugitives were then transported onboard two cars up a mountain road while receiving the protection of fifteen armed maquis members who had joined them. Starting on foot from a lumber mill, they followed a stream up toward a mountain pass. After spending the night in the hay inside a hut, they continued on toward the south throughout the day of March 26. The weather was on their side as they crossed a glacier and climbed a steep mountain, at times trudging through waist-deep snow. They changed guides, hiked parallel to a "very slanted mountain," and during the middle of the night arrived at a storage shed below Superbagnères, west of Luchon. On the twenty-seventh the climbing party continued to bypass the town of Luchon. After crossing a rack railway and a road flanked by a stream, the climbers approached the last mountain separating them from Spain. Here they encountered difficulties as the American airmen in the group could no longer follow. LT René Van der Stock, a Belgian officer who had spent three years in a POW camp, was also having problems breathing. Inch by inch the fugitives climbed, and once they had to retrace their steps after getting lost. According to Sam Timmers, matters even threatened to get out of hand when some in the group rebelled against having to help their weaker companions. Pierre Crampé, one of the two guides, pointed his rifle at one of the Americans who refused to keep climbing. "We can't leave you behind," the guide told him, "you either get going or I have to kill you." In total the ascent lasted seven and a half hours. Stopping every twenty minutes to rest, the party reached the mountain pass marking the border with Spain shortly before dawn. To their left the climbers could see the flickering lights of Luchon, to their right the shadows of the Spanish Pyrenees. As the guides turned around to head home, the fugitives shook hands with them gratefully, then went down the mountain yelling in glee. As they reached the bottom of the Aran Valley in Spain, they fell asleep on a grass field in the sun.
The Germans had shut down the route through the Portet d'Aspet in February 1944. By the end of March 1944, they were already closing in on Charbonnier's route through the mountains near Luchon, and the Spaniards seemed to be actively helping them, as indicated by the American, British, and British Commonwealth airmen who were arrested by the Guardia Civil upon their arrival in Bossòst on March 19. Second Lieutenant Brigman's debriefing report shows that on that day, all of the airmen were interrogated by the Spaniards but on the whole were treated well, then put up at a hotel for the night. The following day, March 20, they boarded a bus to Viella, and having arrived in that town were interrogated again. On March 21 they reportedly walked thirty miles to catch a bus to Sort, where they again spent the night in a hotel. Next they traveled south to Lleida, and here they were questioned more roughly by the Guardia Civil, which accused them of being Russian communists. The men spent two weeks in a hotel in Lleida before the Spanish Air Force transferred them to Alhama de Aragón, along the road between Zaragoza and Madrid. A representative of the American Military Attaché came to see them in Alhama. After two weeks, the American airmen were finally released from Spanish custody, and the American Military Attaché took them to Madrid and from there on to Gibraltar, where they arrived on April 24. Two days later they left by air to the UK.
The interrogations conducted by the Guardia Civil aimed at discovering the route followed by the airmen to reach Spain, as reported by RAAF PO John G. McLaughlin:
After our arrest we were interrogated by the frontier police at Bossòst. They asked our route, but we said we did not know it. They tried to get out of me particularly how we knew we had crossed the frontier, but I said I did not know and had asked a de Gaullist [sic] on the other side where the frontier was. I was also asked political questions, such as "Who started the last war and this war?" and what I was fighting for. In reply to the latter question I said I was in the war for adventure, which seemed to satisfy them. At Viella a Czech who spoke Spanish and myself — I speak some French — acted as interpreters at the interrogation of two Americans (Finney and Carson). The Americans were asked about helpers, and we gave camouflaged answers. I was asked here to show our route on the map, but refused. The Spaniards had a wall map on which was marked a route corresponding pretty closely to ours. In answer to questions about places through which we had passed, I said we had been near Luchon, but the Spaniards did not know on which side of that town we had passed. We had circled Luchon, but had not stopped there, and Luchon was not a center of the organization which got us through.
According to SGT Norman Elkin, it was the two Czechs in the party who had drawn the route marked on the Spaniards' map. But Elkin was also critical of McLaughlin, stating that in Viella the Australian had not just told the Spanish police about Luchon being the last French town along their route. McLaughlin had insisted on going along with SSG Kenneth Carson and SSG Robert Finney, whose turn it was to be interrogated. "I want no welts raised on my back," the Australian had told some of the American airmen, "I want to see my parents." For his part, SGT Walter R. Snyder had seen with his own eyes the Czechs draw a detailed map of the last mountain pass before Spain for an individual in civilian clothes in Bossòst. By the time Staff Sergeant Finney reached the UK in May 1944, he had learned of the capture of the group that followed their route a month later, and he himself drew a connection with the information volunteered to the Spaniards by members of his own party.
The hotels in the border towns in the Aran Valley, Bossòst and Viella, were by all appearances dens of German spies. Sometime around the first day of April, members of the two parties of evaders that had just reached the valley met up in Lleida. 2LT Victor Ferrari of the first party seems to have had contacts with a "very tall blonde" Dutchman — presumably Han Langeler — who arrived with the second group. The Dutchman had managed twice to break out of a labor camp in Germany, and he was one of the men who had been caught in the round-up in February but had escaped from the Germans later, after being incarcerated in Saint-Michel's prison in Toulouse. When he finally reached the hotel in Viella, Langeler recognized one of the guests in the hotel as the German officer in charge of the soldiers at the Portet d'Aspet. The German was wearing civilian clothes and was fraternizing with the evaders, using an English-speaking girl as his interpreter. The tall, blonde Dutchman had revealed to the Americans who the German really was.
Spain might have declared itself nonbelligerent early on during the war, and even neutral in early February 1944, but it never ceased helping the Germans gather intelligence. Not only did the Spanish government collaborate with the Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsführers – SS (SD), the intelligence branch of the SS, the Gestapo maintained a permanent presence in Spain and effectively had an office in Barcelona. Belgian LT René Van der Stock crossed the Spanish border at the end of March 1944 with Sam Timmers and Han Langeler, and later received false ID papers and other help from the British consulate in Barcelona. He decided to make for the Portuguese border but was arrested on the train between Barcelona and Madrid. Van der Stock remained in the custody of the Spanish Dirección General de Seguridad (DGS) for five weeks, from April 8 through May 14. "In Madrid I was interrogated by members of the German Gestapo in uniform," he wrote afterward. "During my arrest, I had told them that I purchased my ID papers in France. [The Gestapo agents] laughed, 'You should have turned to the British for your papers. They would have issued them to you for nothing. We know them, they always use the same ones!'" The Germans evidently were well informed, at least on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees.CHAPTER 2
For King and Country
Nearly four years had passed since Roger Bureau had last seen his Scottish-born wife Helen and their three sons. In the early days of May 1940, with German forces massed on the Belgian border and poised to attack, he had been recalled to his artillery unit. Bureau had bid his family goodbye, giving his eldest son Peter his watch and telling him, "You are the man of the family now." The family had made contingency plans should Belgium be overrun by Germany. And when it happened, Helen fled across the country's border with France, her three sons in tow. They intended at first to reach Brittany, but instead found themselves traveling to Calais on a train. By the time they arrived, Calais was already under direct threat from the rapidly advancing German armies. Helen and her children spent a harrowing night in the cellar of a boarding house, listening to bombs exploding over their heads as German planes pounded the city. Feeling desperate, Helen left the boarding house before daybreak, in search of the British consulate. There, she heard that a British warship was to leave the harbor at dawn. She rushed back to the boarding house and woke up her sons. All four of them then hurried to the harbor. As luck would have it, the warship had not yet left. They were allowed to climb onboard and safely made their way to England.
Belgium's armies were defeated in just eighteen days, and on the twenty-eighth of May the king of Belgium, Leopold III, surrendered unconditionally to Hitler's Germany. More than two hundred thousand captured Belgian soldiers were taken to Germany as prisoners of war. An "exemplary" noncommissioned officer during the Battle of Belgium, Roger Bureau avoided being captured, and by then he must have known — or at least been reasonably confident — that his wife and children had reached safety on the other side of the English Channel. Perhaps he was tempted to follow them, but from all appearances he felt it his duty to remain in Belgium. He joined the Belgian Resistance and took part in the work of "escape lines," helping downed Allied airmen hide from the Nazis and return to England. After the war, Roger Bureau's sons would learn of their father's "motorcycling around the country collecting British airmen as pillion passengers, to take them to the sea routes home."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "So Close to Freedom"
Copyright © 2019 Jean-Luc E. Cartron.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Foreword by Roger Stanton
List of Abbreviations
1. A Perilous Hide-and-Seek
2. For King and Country
3. The Route Past Luchon
4. On the Run
5. Too Many
6. April Attempt
7. Hero or Villain?
8. Aftermath of a Betrayal
9. Maddy De Deken
10. The Woodcutter
11. Escapes and Hardships
12. The Road Blockade
13. Separate Fates
Appendix 1: Allied Evaders, Escapers, Resistance Fighters, and Engelandvaarders Who Attempted to Cross the Pyrenees into Spain, April 19–22, 1944
Appendix 2: The Escape Line Organizations
Appendix 3: Known Prisoners Who Escaped from the Train Bound for Neuengamme, June 5, 1944
Appendix 4: The Arrest and Deportation of Jacqueline Houry
Appendix 5: Evaders Helped by “Françoise” Organization in 1944 in Toulouse and Surrounding Area
Timeline of Key Events, 1944