So Close to Freedom: A World War II Story of Peril and Betrayal in the Pyrenees
Many organizations contributed to the Allied cause during World War II by funneling hundreds of downed airmen, escaped POWs, Engelandvaarders, and Resistance fighters out of occupied Europe and allowing them to rejoin the fight against Nazi Germany. The work of escape lines was carried out by civilian volunteers, or helpers who looked after evaders and guided them from one safe house to the next, each time risking their own lives. Many of the escape lines followed routes through France to the foothills of the Pyrenees. Here, the evaders were handed over to passeurs, or people smugglers, responsible for guiding them over the Pyrenees and across the border with neutral Spain. In France, Toulouse was an important nexus of escape lines working together, Dutch-Paris, Francoise, and the unnamed network operated by Gabriel Nahas and passeur Jean-Louis Bazerque ( Charbonnier ). As evader numbers stagnated, Charbonnier recruited more passeurs and opened up more routes over the central Pyrenees. As the number of evaders in each group reached new highs, risk of accident or detection by the Grenzpolizei grew. Charbonnier did not survive the war and his accomplishments have largely gone unrecognized. His one failed attempt, when 29 evaders in a group of 35 were captured near Luchon on April 21-22, 1944, has only been told in bits and pieces and only through the lens of a few American and British airmen who believed that one of the passeurs had betrayed the group. Drawing on government and private archives in the United States, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, Jean-Luc Cartron gives the first detailed account of what happened. The author reveals the heretofore unknown identities of some of the evaders in the party, among them a Belgian Olympian, a French priest and leader of the French Resistance, and the son of Mary Lindell, who was much celebrated in the UK after the war. Using multiple testimonies and legal proceedings, Cartron reveals how Charbonnier operated and how the group was betrayed and by whom.