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Two-way traffic: Spaniards flee civil war over the Pyrenees. Later the French would escape the Nazis using the same crossings 

If you are heading for the French Pyrenees region this summer (and there are few more beautiful places in which to take a holiday), you would be better off leaving your Michelin Guide at home and taking Edward Stourton's fascinating book instead. You will learn a great deal about the dark secrets of a neglected corner of France and about a neglected area of Second World War research: the story of the escape routes across the Pyrenees taken by thousands fleeing the German occupation of France. 

If their story is known at all in Britain and America, it is because an estimated 1,500 Allied soldiers and airmen were among their number, but as Stourton points out, a far greater number of French people made the perilous journey over the rugged border mountain range. Estimates range between 30,000 and 100,000, among them many Jews who would otherwise have ended up in the death camps.

In the months before the war, the flow had been in the opposite direction, consisting of Republican refugees from General Franco's victorious nationalists in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. They received a shabby welcome from the French authorities, who built concentration camps for them which soon came in handy for the Vichy government when it started rounding up Jews. Stourton tells some moving stories of Jews, some of them small children, who managed to escape the Vichy (and subsequent German) net and made it across the Pyrenees to safety in Spain and beyond. 

There is a distinct darkening of tone as the war progresses and the Germans take over complete control of France. In the early years of the war, British soldiers trapped by the German advance and airmen shot down over Belgium and France made their way south, and if they made it to Vichy France often appear to have led a relaxed lifestyle while they waited for the opportunity to cross into Spain. Stourton pays just tribute to the many brave Belgian men and women who organised escape lines for Allied servicemen through France to the Pyrenees and often paid for their courage with their lives.

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Paul Williams
December 17th, 2015
12:12 PM
If anyone is trying to find out more about the person who broke their ankle and was shot, his name is GRUMBACH with an M.

Paul Williams
December 10th, 2015
12:12 PM
Even better than reading first hand accounts of crossing the Pyrenees (Millar, Lord Carrington, Janes, Dormer) is to actaully come and walk in the evaders footsteps along the actual paths they followed. I lead treks along old World War 2 escape routes from France into Spain.

Duncan Boar
November 9th, 2015
7:11 PM
Better than the journalists view are the numerous books written by the people who trod these routes for real. Airey Neive to name but one. But there are hundreds of accounts when you start to research the subject.

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