COMETE REUNION PAYS BASQUE   9 - 14 September 2004

Assembling at the Restaurant Vaubin in St Jean de Luz, a pretty French fishing port close to the Spanish border, on our first humidly hot night, it was obvious that our numbers were far greater than anyone had expected. Extra seats were found at the pavement tables as more and more arrived until a spectacularly violent thunderstorm and torrential rain forced us to creep closer together. At first we seemed such a disparate bunch of strangers, of all ages and from many parts of the world, all gathered together to remember the downed allied airmen and the heroic helpers of the legendary Comete Line who led them to freedom over the Pyrenees during World War Two. Many of us had family connections and had heard in different ways about this the 5th annual commemorative walk across the Pyrenees organised by the WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society (ELMS). This year, possibly due to the extra interest it being the 60th anniversary of D Day, the reunion was to be the biggest ever. Strangers at first, but linked by a common interest, four days later we were to part having made firm and lasting friendships with rash promises to return the following year, to try to recapture an unforgettably emotional experience.
I was there because my late father, Wing Commander Walter Wallington, DFC, had been shot down whilst piloting a Mosquito on a mission over Belgium 61 years ago. He baled out at 200 ft, which at the time was considered a world record for the lowest surviving jump. He was rescued by local farmers and was then passed on to Comete, a clandestine organisation dedicated to helping allied personnel evade Europe and return to fight again in England .With me were my two brothers, Jim and Eric, and two newly discovered members of the family. Unknown to us until recently, my father had been married before he met our mother, and he had one dearly loved son, Ronald, a boy of just 15 at the time of his evasion. Sadly father and son lost contact and never saw each other again after 1947. Our half brother, Ronald, died in 1997, but his three daughters, Sandra, Maxine and Susan, whom we did not know existed, managed to make contact at the end of 2003. They were hungry for information about their grandfather, a legendary figure during their childhood, about whom they had great pride but only sketchy knowledge. When we told them about our intention to retrace the Comete route, Susan was keen to join us with her son Peter, who is serving in the Royal Navy. Thus we were representing 4 generations that weekend, as we strove to find out as much as we could about Comete, and at the same time get to know each other after more than half a lifetime apart.
My father had told us briefly about his evasion, but had never really elaborated on the details, although I was even given the second name of Gilberte after an enigmatic Belgian Countess who had sheltered him on his route. Like so many of his generation, the war was something they wished to put behind them. It was only when I met his son's family that I realised how little we all really knew about his life before I was born. Now 30 years after his death I needed to find out so much more.
I had read the history of Comete and researched his route as far as I could for many, at times, frustrating months before we arrived. I'd even established a number of close contacts I'd encountered on my internet quests for information, who were also there. I had come with the expectations of getting closer to my father's memory by walking in his footsteps over the treacherous mountain paths, seeing the places for myself, and meeting some of the legendary people who had risked all to help save his life. Yet what I experienced was so much richer, and the people I met were most extraordinarily humble yet courageous. They restored my faith in the nobility of the human spirit, despite dreadful adversity.
Our first full day was taken up by official wreath laying ceremonies at the town hall at Anglet, a few miles away, and at the home of the de Greef family, who had sheltered so many airmen, including my father, as they gathered in preparation for the mountain crossing. The French who are so very polished and enthusiastic about these ceremonies had provided full pomp and ceremony, many standard bearers, a traditional Basque choir, meaningful speeches, and the invitation to a mayoral reception where the traditional "vin d'honneur" contained such strong ingredients that within half an hour the gathering had become very loud and cheery. There I met Lily "Michou" Dumont, who at great risk to herself, had collected my father from his hiding place with a farmer in Flanders, and had taken him to Brussels where she sheltered him in her apartment for several days and got him false papers. At the time she was petite and elfin and dressed as a child. This disguise fooled everyone including my father. When I showed her a picture of my father she remembered him instantly. "Oh yes. He was so small, "she said, "and he was wearing such a big hat".

From there we were whisked by coach to a meal at a private club where there followed further speeches of thanks and recognition for two special persons who were to receive the honorary black Basque berets. One was for Franco, a leading member of Comete, who had travelled from Rome for the event, and the other one was for Paul Broué, one of the original guides, who at 83 was still athletic enough to lead us all over the mountains during the following two days.
The next day we assembled at the cemetery at Ciboure, to sign the visitors' book, and lay wreaths on the graves of Florentino the most famous of all the Basque guides, and Kattalin, the widow who had sheltered so many airmen in her home nearby. Following a hearty breakfast in a café opposite we finally set off on the trail, starting strangely enough in the winding streets of a housing estate. We had to remember that 60 years ago most of these buildings did not exist. For the walkers there was relief in finally getting on our way, yet within an hour we had reached Urrugne, a small town that had strong Basque loyalties, and had paid dearly in the lives of its sons during all the conflicts of the last century. The war memorial in the small square bore the names of all the fallen, often two or three members of the same family. Memories were still powerfully strong there as at midday we stopped for yet another wreath laying ceremony and speeches. This time there was an added poignancy because it was September 11th. The words of the speech in which we were reminded that the sacrifice of so many lives by the population of Urrugne had been in vain were uncompromising about the futility of war and the need for peace, being as important today as ever before. The world in 2004 is still full of turmoil and hate. For those of us who understood French it was a sombre moment. Then we were revived with welcome refreshments of fruit and soft drinks, before we re-commenced our route. Bizarrely we walked for just half a mile before being led into a barn on an industrial estate, and offered a substantial lunch of cold meats, cheese and bread, and of course the by now obligatory cider and wine. For the unwary such generous helpings of alcohol could have proved a handicap for the march ahead, but most of us sensed this and stayed with soft drinks, leaving the more heady stuff for the veterans who were following our route by coach. We were then told we were starting the walk proper, and it was time for anyone who could not complete to get on the coach, as there would be no way back. We set off finally with enthusiasm only to find after a short while that we were at yet another stop. This time it was the farmhouse belonging to brave Francia, who sheltered the airmen in the last safe house of their journey as they waited for nightfall before crossing the mountains. She was betrayed, along with Dedee de Jongh, Comete's leader, and died in a concentration camp. That day Stan Hope, one of the 3 airmen who was also arrested with her by the Gestapo, had made the journey back to commemorate and remember. The house itself had been modernised and appeared anonymous, bearing no witness to the dramatic events that had taken place there so many years before. Yet again we heard speeches extolling the bravery of those who had given their lives in the cause of freedom.

Then finally we were told there would be no more stopping and in the words of Roger Stanton, our leader, we were in for some "serious scrambling". This proved to be an understatement, as we soon started ascending narrow overgrown paths at an almost vertical incline. It was very humid, the temperature was in the 30s, and the pace was fast. Breathless, we climbed and climbed, and every time it looked as though we may have reached a small plateau, we turned the corner and faced an even steeper incline, and then we climbed again. Most of us had expected a reasonably demanding walk, but nothing like this! We all started thinking about the airmen who had been led up these secret ancient smugglers' routes, so narrow and treacherous that straying just a few inches off the track could have meant a fall down several hundred feet. Yet they had had to do it all in the cold and dark, without our modern climbing boots, energy drinks and protective clothing. They were weak from many weeks hiding in the countryside with little food, many had been injured, and they were terrified of being captured by the Gestapo, which could have meant imprisonment, torture and often execution. We found it amazing that they had achieved it. On reading personal accounts of these journeys, many of them stated at the time they were tempted to give up. I could understand why. Yet at the moments of desperation, the strength and encouragement of the guides helped them through. Florentino was so strong that he would often carry a collapsed or wounded man on his shoulders to help him to the end. After several hours of climbing ever upwards, we gazed down at the welcome prospect of the descent, only to find this was even harder, on feet and legs unaccustomed to a steep decline. We trudged carefully down, helping each other over the slippery rocks, with one or two falls, but thankfully no serious injuries. As we neared the infamous river Bidassoa, we began to feel our spirits lift, not realising we had a final treacherous scramble 12 feet down a sheer rocky gully. Suddenly we were at the river crossing, and on the other side was the welcome sight of the veterans who had bussed ahead of us and were cheering us across. For the evaders this was one of the most dangerous parts of the trip as the Spanish Guardia patrolled the road on the river bank day and night. The evaders had to hide in the bushes and wait for the few brief moments when the patrol had passed so they could wade across the fast flowing waters, that at times could reach 2 metres in depth, as quickly as possible. Tragically on Christmas Eve in 1943, an evader and a Belgian Comete Line Member, the Comte Antoine D'URSEL, were drowned. Their bodies were later recovered by the Gestapo, but to this day no one knows where they were buried. Wreaths were thrown into the river to remember them and a prayer was said by our accompanying chaplain.
Then with a sense of exhausted relief we joined in the welcoming barbecue of sardines and cider that the Spanish helpers had prepared for us. The coach taking us back to our hotels that night was very quiet, as we were all too exhausted to speak, and wondered what would be in store for us the next day. We were told it would be equally as arduous, but as we would be starting early we would feel stronger. For the original evaders, however, there would have been no chance to stop. They had to continue through the night for another 4 or 5 hours until they reached the safety of the farm at Sarobe, well inside the Spanish border.

Next morning saw us up before dawn without even time for breakfast and marching off to join the coach which would relay us to the point where we had finished the night before. The giddying ascent started immediately and our calf muscles aching from the day before were soon searing with pain. Again we climbed and climbed in single file, with some paths so steep that we were looking for any handhold just to stop sliding down. Just when it seemed that we were at the very end of endurance we stopped on a grassy knoll. Looking about us in every direction we could see nothing but other mountain peaks, equally majestic, encircled with swirling mists. Their sides were lush and verdant, buzzards soared, the air smelt of spruce, wild mint and mountain thyme, and the view was giddying with no sign of humanity . It felt as if earth had touched the heavens in that one magical spot. I'm sure those like myself who had never done any real climbing must have felt all the effort worthwhile just for those few moments.

We were offered a packet of biscuits by a couple who spoke only Euskera, the language of the Basques, and we ate them gratefully, sharing those magical moments in a companionable silence. We could have stayed there for ages, drinking in the view, but Roger soon had us moving on again as we had deadlines to meet.

The next few hours passed in more painful ascents, crossing a busy road that of course had not been there originally, and then, at last, a gradual descent through the woods towards Sarobe farm. We arrived at about midday to find a farmhouse untouched by the years. It was not hard to imagine the relief the aircrew must have felt as they staggered through the door into the warmth and shelter of a large kitchen where a table would have been laid with food and warm drinks for them, and bowls of salt water would be provided to soak their bleeding and blistered feet. Then they would be shown to a hay loft where they were given blankets and allowed finally to sleep. The farm is still owned by the same family, and their welcome was sincere and touching. Refreshments of their own home made cider and bread and nuts were provided on a long trestle table outside, as we wearily awaited the coach with the veterans, who had been delayed.

Yet again we weren't allowed to stay long, and soon found ourselves marching off for the final few hours on a flat concrete road in full sun. For many of us this seemed the hardest part for our feet. Trudging on, we encouraged each other to keep going and eventually we entered the town of Erenterria, incongruously again finishing the walk through modern housing estates. Suddenly we were in the old part of the town, and there was confusion as to our final destination. This year as there were so many of us two restaurants had been booked. One for the French, and one for the rest of us. We staggered in and sat down amongst the ever encouraging veterans who had arrived ahead of us. At that point most of us were too exhausted to say much, but gradually revived by food, wine, and some strong Spanish coffee and brandy we all felt a euphoria to realise that we had actually completed our challenge. After the meal we all crowded into the French party's restaurant where traditional wartime songs of French, Spanish and British origin were sung, and of course there were a few more speeches. Wearily we finally climbed back into our coaches and returned to St Jean de Luz, our minds and bodies reeling.

The next day those who could stay on gathered at the Town Hall at St Jean de Luz to a welcome by the local mayor's representative, and a chance to sign the visitors' book. This was followed predictably by another "vin d'honneur" and a chance to talk to some of the original helpers before they left for home.

I was honoured to talk to "Franco" the code name for Jean-Francois Nothomb. Following Dedee de Jongh's arrest he was Comete's leader. He is now 85 and he said he had not been back to St Jean de Luz for 13 years. He had helped my father cycle the gruelling 25 miles from Dax railway station to Anglet. He told me he did not remember him because he had helped so many others. He himself had crossed the Pyrenees with escapers about 45 times. Later he was betrayed and arrested. He was condemned to death, but saved by the war's end. Always deeply religious, he believed in forgiveness even for the traitors who had been responsible for the death of so many of the Comete helpers. After the war his beliefs led him to becoming a Roman Catholic priest for many years until he left the priesthood to marry his Italian wife. Quiet and reflective over the whole weekend, his thoughts were so obviously with friends and events of his dramatic past.

I also met Nadine Dumont. She had been one of the Brussels helpers who had aided so many aircrew until she was arrested with her parents in August 1942. She spent the war in concentration camps under dreadful conditions and was lucky to survive. Her sister Lily,(Michou) however, had continued the fight and helped my father on his way. Although in her 80s, Nadine is still lithe, vibrant, and as spirited a young woman. She told me that the friendships she makes at these events sustained her through all her sad memories of those friends and family who did not survive. How proud I was to have met her.

As we left from Biarritz airport the next day we discussed our personal highlights of the trip. We all agreed that meeting the veterans and helpers, each of whom had a unique tale to tell, was humbling. We also agreed that crossing the Pyrenees, which Roger and the ELMS committee described as a "walk in the park" ( they regularly do far more arduous routes), was breathtaking. Personally I was able to get close to the memory of my father, touching for myself the people and places he had encountered, and by sharing a very special time with newly found relations, heal the losses and pain of the past.

I also managed to fill in a lot of the gaps in retracing the exact route my father took and getting the names of those who had helped him. One mystery still remains, however. Despite asking many of those at the heart of Comete, no one could help me with the identity of my namesake, the mysterious Belgian Countess Gilberte. She has been with me in name for all my life so I shall continue patiently with my search for her .But that will be another story….

Anna Moreland,
Poole, Dorset
October 2004

Photographs by Keith Secker.

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