The Chemin de la Liberti is a unique hiking and climbing route in France. It commemorates one of several secret escape routes over the central Pyreni into northern Spain during the Second World War. The path to safety was taken not only by hundreds of French people fleeing from their German oppressors, but also 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.
GORP presents Maggie MacDonald's account of the history of the route and its official opening as a commemorative trail. She also describes the annual memorial walk that takes place every July. MacDonald is a native of England who moved to France seven years ago, where she operates a bed and breakfast in Arihge.
This spring I was asked if I would place a poppy wreath on a new monument erected at the Col de la Cor, on the route of the Chemin de la Liberti, in memory of the guides who were killed helping allied airmen, young Frenchmen, and others to escape into neutral Spain during the second world war. There would be two wreaths, donated by the British Legion, one on behalf of the British Army and the other on behalf of the RAF. This ceremony was to take place on the April 19, 1998.
In the spring of 1994 it was decided to open up an old escape route which started at St. Girons and ended in Spain at Esterri d'Aneu. Gordon, my late husband, was asked by the organizers if he would contact the Air Ministry in England, as many British airmen escaped on this route, to find out if they were interested. At that time they were inundated with similar requests as it was approaching the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, so he was passed on to the RAF Escaping Society in London. They were particularly interested because they were arranging to send teams of cyclists to cycle around various parts of Europe that had been occupied by the Germans in order to rediscover the many escape routes used.
One group was going to Toulouse and Gordon persuaded them to come down to St-Girons. The mayor and other dignitaries arranged a welcoming reception here. We had already arranged to be away on holiday and couldn't attend, but our friend Scott Goodall, who has lived in Arihge for 15 years, volunteered to go in our place. He has probably regretted it ever since. He is now totally involved, spending much of his time coordinating between the French and British who want to participate in the Chemin de la Liberti walk.
This first meeting in 1994 was such a success that now groups of Army and RAF personnel, both men and women, come for the annual walk in July. Also some British come who, for various reasons have a special interest -- maybe a relative had escaped using that route or maybe they are looking for adventure and want to take up the challenge. There are, of course, many Frenchmen involved too. Last year nearly 200 walkers participated. This event takes place on the second weekend in July. The British do the full walk starting at St. Girons and taking 4 days. The French, because many are working, start early Saturday morning further along the route and they all meet up at the refuge Saturday night, ready for the final day's walk on the Sunday into Spain.
On the Chemin de la Liberti, high in the mountains, a Halifax bomber crashed at the end of the war. All eight crew members were killed but the wreckage, surprisingly, still remains. For the first commemorative walk in 1995 we managed to locate the sister of the pilot, now farming in Somerset, England, the only relative of the crew we could find. She came with her daughter and stayed with us. The French organised a short memorial service at the crash site and very kindly arranged a light aircraft to fly the pilot's sister and niece over the Chemin de la Liberti and to circle over the walkers during the service. Some Frenchmen also very courageously carried up to the site a heavy marble plaque bearing the names of all the crew members, where it remains.
This walk requires strong boots, strong legs and a head for heights. Few of the wartime escapees had suitable boots or warm clothes or even adequate provisions and often made the trek in winter to avoid German patrols. Yet nearly 2,000 escaped by this particular route. The guides, if caught, were tortured and shot, sometimes their families too, so they were very brave people many remain indebted to them.
Special thanks to www.ariege.com for contributing this article.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication