The Freedom Trail
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After the German offensive in May 1940 and the division of France into two parts - an occupied zone in the North and a free zone in the South - many civilians and military servicemen fleeing from a world of persecution, imprisonment and death now unleashed by the Nazi brutality, sought refuge where they could in the free southern zone which remained a symbol of hope.
Among the military personnel were escaped prisoners of war, recently enlisted men, army cadets and shot-down airmen, all driven by the same desire to rejoin the Allied forces and continue the fight. Among the escaping civilians were victims of discrimination of all kinds, foreigners, Jews, resistants and anyone who had been denounced for one reason or another.
Their common denominator was the vital need to get away from the unbearable oppression in France and reach Spain by crossing the Pyrenees. At the beginning of this exodus, all those who were captured by Spanish frontier guards were unfortunately returned to France, interned by the Vichy regime and subsequently handed over to the German authorities. Later, although General Franco was an ally of Hitler and imprisoned all new invaders in extremely bad conditions for periods of between two to six months (depending on age, nationality and status), he later freed his captives under various economic conditions arranged in secret with the opposing Allied powers. During the early years of the war the occupying forces had left control of the free zone to the government of Vichy, which meant that for a certain time many routes were made more accessible by the variety of people who were willing to lead evaders across the Pyrenees. These guides included shepherds, professional smugglers, forestry workers, hunters of isards (the Pyrenean chamois) and frontier farming families.
But from the 11th of November 1942, the date on which the Germans occupied the free zone following the Allied invasion of North Africa on the 8th of November, the Nazi noose tightened and surveillance increased dramatically. Frontier guards, mainly Austrians, were posted along the whole length of the mountain chain and enemy patrols intensfied. A forbidden zone twenty kilometres deep was also set up along the Pyrenees into which access was only allowed with a special pass.
From then on it became vital to develop more structured, more efficient and certainly more secret ways of reaching safety in Spain. The result was the founding of many well-organised escape lines run by British, Belgian, Dutch, Polish and French groups whose aim was to pass not only men but also important military information and documents.
To make matters worse, early in February 1943, after the introduction of the STO (Service du Travail Obligatoire, or obligatory forced labour order) under which all young men were to be deported to work in Germany, a flood of draft evaders decided to either join one of the increasing Maquis resistance groups or flee across the mountains to neutral Spain. Faced with such an abrupt exodus of its prospective manpower force, the Nazi crackdown was swift and harsh. Arrests multiplied, escape networks were infiltrated and broken up, passeurs and guides relentlessly hunted down - so much so that of 2,000 known guides more than half were executed immediately or died later in German concentration camps. But in spite of these many setbacks 33,000 men, women and children escaped successfully along the entire length of the Pyrenees and realised their dream of freedom.