Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Freedom Trail 2012

Early July 2012 found myself completing the Freedom Trail for the 3rd time. The Freedom Trail is a four day walk that retraces a WWII escape route, used by those escaping Nazi oppression, from France into Spain across the Pyrenees mountains.

On the French Spanish border looking into Spain and 'freedom'.

In 2010 I was solo and the following year I helped a group complete the Trail as their D of E Gold expedition. This year I helped  with the walk that is organised every July to commemorate the escapers, evaders and helpers or 'passeurs' who made the journey during the dark days of the Nazi occupation of France. At various points along the route, including the site of a crashed RAF Halifax bomber,  there are memorials where wreaths are laid and speeches made . There were over 100 participants this year - more than in previous years in part boosted by the publicity from a BBC Radio 4 programme in 2011. Those taking part included a group raising money for the Royal British Legion and a group of soldiers representing NATO. By chance there was also the father of an ex pupil of mine from my days as a teacher in Kent!

The group I  looked after included walkers from Britain, Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands. One of the only groups to finish the walk as a single unit and singing! A great bunch!

The Four Nations Team

The route between St Girons in France and Esterri in Spain is a test of strength, stamina and character.  Several cols have to be crossed above 2400m with snow still remaining from the winter. In all  50 miles are covered over the four days in awe inspiring scenery.

Looking down on the Refuge des Estagnous

Not all the walkers made it to Spain this year with several dropping out with injuries. There is always next year!

An injured knee for this walker made it too painful to continue

 During WWII the route was taken by Jews fleeing from their German oppressors, by many R.A.F. and American airmen who had either crash-landed or parachuted to safety after being shot down over Nazi-occupied Europe but also by hundreds of Frenchman escaping forced labour in Germany the dreaded STO - Servive du Travail Obligatoire.

Nazi propaganda about the STO. 'The bad days are over. Dad earns money in Germany.'

The helpers or 'passeurs' were local men who knew the mountain paths and tracks by heart and were crucial to helping people escape. Many paid with their lives - caught and shot immediatley. This was sometimes due to betrayal by fellow countrymen who passed on information to La Milice - the feared and hated Vichy-run paramilitary force. More than 100 helpers or 'passeurs', like 19 year old Paul Barreu, were arrested and shot.

The memorial to Paul Barreu

The Freedom Trail escape route remained operational for the duration of the war in part due to it running through such difficult terrain - it was very difficult to police.

I thoroughly enjoyed helping out with the Commemorative Freedom Trail in 2012 which was well organised by Scott Goodall and Paul Debons. Thanks to them, all the helpers and of course all the walkers.

Have you been inspired by what you have read and seen? Are you ready for the challenge? Pyrenees Mountain Adventures can help you organise your Freedom Trail Escape. See the website for more information