Le Chemin de la Liberté; the freedom route from France to Spain over the Pyrenees during the Second World War

There has been a recent television series in the UK (Channel 4) covering the escape routes from Nazi territories during the Second World War. There were a number of escape routes through France, one of the most successful of these being the Pat O’Leary Line via Toulouse and then our local town, Saint Girons.

This route was known as the Chemin De Liberté and I have written before about this freedom trail across the Pyrenees but it is always worth a revisit to ensure that we remember what so many people went through during the occupation. It seems especially pertinent to remember right now when we seem to be in the process of trying to destroy the peace and unity we have enjoyed since the creation of Europe.

This high mountain route from the Ariège into Spain was carefully chosen as it avoided all official checkpoints. Between 1940 & 1944, there were 33,000 successful escapes along the entire length of the Pyrenean chain and 782 escaped over the mountain peaks of the Ariège, including many allied soldiers and Jewish escapees.

One of the most famous English escapees was the World War resistance fighter Nancy Wake who worked for the Special Operations Executive and was forced to flee from the Gestapo in 1943 along Le Chemin de la Liberté. Many who undertook the journey had no food, completely unsuitable clothing and had to survive terrible weather conditions and heavy snow along the route. Most would never have survived without the help and bravery of the local Ariègeois who provided them with shelter and food and guided them over the mountains to safety.

By the beginning of 1943 German surveillance had increased often due to the betrayal by Frenchmen who worked for the feared Vichy-run paramilitary force “La Milice” and there were many ambushes along the trails. Despite this increased surveillance, the St Girons-Esterri escape route via Mont Valier remained operational until the end of the war.

There is an excellent museum in Saint Girons that commemorates the trail and each year, a guide leads a group along the trail to remember those who made it and those who did not. For more information: https://www.chemindelaliberte.fr/page-accueil/the-freedom-trail?showall=1&limitstart

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