The Comet Line: Saint Juan de Luz to Oiartzun

In 1943 six Allied airmen shot down over Occupied Europe evaded capture with the help of the World War II escape route known as the Comet Line (Le Reseau Comète). They were James Allison, George Baker and George Duffee of the RAF, and Canadians Edward Bridge, Arthur Bowlby and Elmer Dungey of the RCAF. The Comet Line was an escape route which escorted Allied airmen down over the Pyrenees into Spain and the airmen had been taken to “Philo Baita”, home of Katalina Aguirre, at No. 58 (now 20) Rue du Docteur Mice in Ciboure; a French seaside village in the German-occupied Basque Pyrenees. (See map)

Comet Line walk and views from the Carlist towers en route

On 28 September 1943 the airmen were hiding in the loft of Katalina’s home, preparing themselves to escape with the Comet line over the Pyrenees, the final French barrier on their long journey to freedom.  (See map). The pilots had arrived in different groups, some by train to St Jean de Luz (where they avoided security checks at the station exit by leaving through a workman’s door to the toilet). Others had cycled, leaving their bicycles at an agreed spot near St Jean de Luz station. Their Comet Line guide, Jean-Francois Nothomb (called “Franco”), had then led them across the busy road bridge over La Nivelle river to Ciboure and Katalina’s house. Franco befriended the German guard on the bridge who never realized that Allied airmen were amongst the crowd of people crossing to Ciboure.

Comet Line trail and views of Saint Juan de Luz and Urrugne

Views of Urrugne and Saint Juan de Luz on the Comet Line escape route

Ciboure: a centre of resistance

From the loft window in Katalina’s house in Ciboure the airmen could see the sea and the German coastal defences. This was the southern end of Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall”. There were many German soldiers along the shoreline and it was not safe for so many men to be sheltering in the house.

It was therefore planned to ecape over the Pyrenees that night with the Basque mountain guide Florentino Goikoetxea who would call as soon as it was dark. The men spent most of the day resting to store energy for the night’s walk.

Florentino worked during the day from the Hotel Eskualduna which Katalina owned, near St Jean de Luz station. At dusk he left the hotel and walked back across the bridge to Ciboure, passing the gaily-coloured boats in the harbour before reaching Katalina’s house on a steep hill near the quayside. He brought with him several pairs of “espadrilles”, canvas shoes that would make little noise whilst they were walking. He asked the men to empty their pockets of any French money that they might have, for if they were caught in Spain they could be legally charged with currency smuggling and it could be difficult for the British Consul to get them out of prison.

Heading towards the French / Spanish border

On one occasion they had to crouch behind a rough wall bordering the road when they heard the sound of jackboots approaching. Then, avoiding the main road to Hendaye, they followed a dirt road which narrowed into a cart track climbing the verdant foothills of the Basque Pyrenees.

Comet Line trail and views of Saint Juan de Luz and Urrugne

Climbing to the French / Spanish border over the Col de Poiriers

They passed through the hamlet of Urrugne and headed southwards towards an area of farmhouses at the foot of the mountain Xoldokogaina, part of the Basque Pyrenean mountain range which forms the border between France and Spain. En route they slipped passed the door of “Bidegain Berri”, the safe house used by the Comet line until it was raided by the Gestapo earlier that year. Bidegain Berri was owned by Frantxia Usandizanga, a widow with 3 young children under the age of 9. On the morning of 15th January 1943, Andrée de Jongh (alias “Dédée”), the 26-year-old leader of the Comet Line, was about to embark upon here 33rd crossing into Spain when there was an ominous knock on the door. The Gestapo had been tipped off and she was arrested at Bidegain Berri together with 3 airmen.  They had held up there just a little too long, waiting another day for a change in the weather before they attempted the crossing of Xoldokogaina and the Bidasoa river beyond.

Talking about the Comet Line resistance with Madeleine Larretche from Urrugne

Maialen Larretche shows us photos of her family

The resistance in Urrugne

That very morning, 13-year-old, Maialen Larretche and her mother, Joesphe, had been returning to farmhouse in Urrugne from San Juan de Luz, where they been to sell the milk, and crossed Frantxia, Dédée and the pilots marching at gun point along the road in the opposite direction. They were neighbours, and Maialen’s mother often brought messages to Frantxia from the resistance network in San Juan de Luz. It is an image that Maialen recalls vividly to this day. When the Gestapo had gone, Maialen´s sister went back to pick up Frantxia´s children before Frantxia´s sister took them away to live with her. The children were never to see their mother again.

Even so, despite all they had seen, Maialen´s parents, and their 10 children, decided to continue the resistance work and now offered their farmhouse, Jatxou Baita, just 200 metres from Bidegain Berri, as the next safe house in Urrugne.  They were to continue this work until the end of the war.

It was at Jatxou Baita where Allison stayed on the evening of the 28th September 1943.

Florentino, Franco and the airmen arrived at Jatxou Baita after walking 2hrs from Ciboure. They were given a bowl of warm milk and rested while Florentino and Franco checked the location of the border patrols. Only when they were satisfied that the way was clear was the order given to prepare to leave for the mountains. About an hour before midnight the guides led the men silently in single file, heading along a lane between two banks and alongside a stream which helped muffle the sounds of their footsteps, past another, former, safe house “Tomasena” in a wooded dell just before the long climb onto the ridge tops of Xoldokogaina (486m).They then climbed upwards, along narrow paths, known only to a few local shepherds and smugglers, such as Florentino, who had made their living crossing the borders at night. This work is known as ´Gaulan´ - (nightwork) – in Basque. The men struggled upwards. Sometimes they held hands, helping each other up the steep slopes. Little was said as they struggled up the mountainside in their sodden espadrilles, treading in the footsteps of the man in front, not knowing what was on either side, except the all-embracing darkness. Eventually the drizzle ceased, the clouds rolled away and, as they climbed the flanks of Xolodokogaina, they could discern the glittering lights of Irun and Hondarribbia on the western bank of the Bidasoa river.  It was their first sighting of Spain and it spelt freedom.

The different WWII escape routes of the Basque Pyrenees

However, from the summit of Xoldokogaina, the dramatic silhouette of Aiako Harria in the night sky rose up high to the west. This imposing, jagged mountain range also formed part of their route that night and the next safe house, Sarobe, in Oiartzun, still lay some 16km ahead of them on the other side.

There were both German and Spanish patrols in the mountains and it was common knowledge that anyone caught by the Spanish guards, even on the Spanish side of the frontier, would be handed back to the German guards. As the men descended to the Col des Poiriers they had to take special care not to be seen by patrols which often operated in that area. This involved the men sometimes having to slide down the slopes on their bottoms and hide between the bracken to avoid being sighted by the patrols from below.

Comet Line trail and views of Aiako Harria

Views of the granite tors of Aiako Harria on the Comet line escape route

From the Col des Poiriers the “classical” escape route descended 3km into oak woods and the steep gulley made by the Lanzette Erreka stream, crossing the Bidasoa near the disused railway station of San Miguel. However this crossing was treacherous in high water and on the 23rd December later that year two men, the American pilot James Burch and a Belgian Comet leader Count Antoine de Ursel, were drowned trying to cross the Bidasoa. Their bodies were swept downstream and washed up on the French bank of the river near the village of Biriatu where they were found by the German patrols and laid out on the church steps as a warning. But that night, in a show of solidarity, the Basque villagers stole out from their houses and covered the bodies with flowers. The bodies were removed and were never to be seen again.

It appears that Jim Allison took an alternative river crossing from that of San Miguel. The original intention was to continue climbing from Col des Poiriers on a path known to the Basque guide Iturrioz and head southwards, downstream, before crossing the border and descending to the suspension footbridge at the Endara electric facility, however some reports indicate that they took another route known to the Basque guide, Anibitarte. This alternative route started the ‘classical’ descent along the Lanzetta Erreka but then branched off heading upstream towards the Endara suspension footbridge. This shortened “Anibtarte” route took two hours more than the “Classical” San Miguel route,  instead of four hours more using the “ Iturrioz” route, and may have reduced the danger of encountering the German border patrols. However, it is not always easy to know the exact routes taken through these mountains as the guides were constantly changing the tracks they used in order to outwit the German patrols, and that while the pilots themselves were often able to recall the more striking features of the safe houses, rivers, bridges, barns etc. the labyrinth of animal tracks through the woods on a dark night would have seemed virtually indistinguishable to all but the Basque smugglers and shepherds whose livelihoods depended on them. It was after midnight when the evaders descended from Col des Poiriers alongside the Lanzette Erreka, and then, they are thought to have taken the “Anabitarte” route through thick ferns and woods, passing a small farm and crossing the Lizarlan Erreka (stream). Florentino then halted the men under the trees at the edge of a large gorge and told them that they were now in Spain. (They had crossed the border which leaves the line of the Bidasoa and heads east towards Mount Mendele).

The Bidasoa River crossing on the Comet Line - Pyrenean Experience

Crossing points on the Bidasoa River near Endarlatsa

Avoiding the guards on the Bidasoa river

At about four in the morning they descended the gorge, moving silently down to the road before standing in the darkness to watch and listen. Below them the water crashed and roared, splashing up along the rock sides. At first there was nothing to see. Then a bright white searchlight flashed across the white-tipped river and shone on the rickety suspension bridge. A light showed from a Spanish guard post between them and the bridge. They waited, watching the guard post and the searchlights criss-crossing the river. There was no movement on the other side of the gorge. They could hear a creaking sound, like a boat line stretched by rising seas. Then Florentino led them silently past the guard house, from where they heard snoring, to the start of the footbridge.

The footbridge was a sagging sling with rope sides and a wooden-slat floor, through which the rushing white river could be seen in strips. Several of the slats were missing. The bridge blew from side to side in the wind and made a whining, creaking sound. Florentino told the men they each had 60 seconds to cross – that was the amount of time between the searchlights. At two minute intervals each man crept silently across, very slowly so as not to start the bridge swaying. The noise of the electric plant and the river helped the evaders. At the other side they dropped to their knees and crawled beneath the window of the electric plant, then scrambled up the slope and into the darkness of the railway tunnel to await the others.

Once they had all gathered together they walked in the darkness through the three railway tunnels alongside the Bidasoa, heading back downstream. Although the mountainside here appears too steep to climb there are reports that mention a steep ascent between the rocks to avoid the guard posts along the railway track. However, today, these paths – or animal tracks - are covered in undergrowth and difficult to find.

Arriving in Spain - but the danger was not over

It appears that Allison and his companions continued along the 2km railway track until they saw the illuminated road bridge and customs post at Endarlatsa. The guards standing on the bridge under the lights would have had difficulty seeing the men creeping in the dark on the rail track and would have been looking in the other direction. A short distance before the road bridge was a Spanish guard house close to the rail track. Each airman in turn ran silently past the guardhouse to wait in the undergrowth for the others, but the Canadian Bowlby lost his espadrilles in the process and cut his feet very badly on the wooden railway sleepers.

Comet Line crossing point of the Bidasoa at Endara - Pyrenean Experience

The site of the old suspencion bridge across the Bidasoa at Endarla

They now had a steep climb up the ravine towards Pagogana (480 metres). At one point they seemed to be climbing almost vertically and only managed to keep going by clutching small bushes that cut their hands and scratched their legs and faces. They then walked for an hour along the woody ridgetops towards Elurretxea at the base of the formidable Aiko Harria before having a short rest. In every direction all they could see were steep mountains and ravines. About eight kilometres after leaving Endarlatsa the going became easier as the route plunged down through thick woods, descending along old mining and smuggling tracks towards the hamlet of Ergoien on the outskirts of Oiartzun.

(The night-time crossing of the Basque Pyrenees from Ciboure to Ergoien had covered about 28 km and taken 14 hours. The men had successfully avoided being shot or arrested by the German Gestapo, the Vichy French Milice, and the Spanish Guardia Civil who – although in a so-called “neutral” country - co-operated with the Germans).It was already getting light when the exhausted men, half-walking and half-stumbling, came down the rough mountain path and stood under some trees overlooking the farming homestead called “Sarobe” and the valley leading down to Oiarzun below.

Sarobe was run by two brothers and two sisters, and a young nephew called Paco who had come to live with them to help them with the farm work. A coded knock at the door would announce that Florentino and his “parcels” (the code word for the airmen) had arrived. The guide patted Paco on the head. “Do you remember what we told you ? ” Florentino asked in Euskera, the Basque language. “Yes, Florentino” Paco answered proudly, “I will not say a word”. Although there was an inherit culture of silence among the Basque mountain farmers which sprung from a culture of smuggling and clandestine activity, Paco still remembers Dédée passing him a ten-peseta coin for his silence underneath the ash tree in the garden.

Talking to Paco at the Comet safe house of Sarobe

Paco in the kitchen of Sarobe with Georgina and guests, Lauri, Mike and Marianne

The safe house of Sarobe and in sight of freedom

The Iriarte family, who have owned Sarobe for generations, provided a safe house for Allied airmen crossing the Basque Pyrenees. But they were still surprised to see these airmen as they never knew when the next group would arrive. They welcomed the men quickly into the stone-arched foyer of the home where all sorts of traditional farm implements hung from the rough-hewn wooden beams, and ushered them into the kitchen.

Here Paco’s aunt set up pans with warm salt water so the men could soak their blistered feet while Paco helped Florentino remove the thorns from his feet and hands. Bowlby, the Canadian who had badly cut his feet on the railway sleepers at Endarlatsa, assured everyone it had been worth it.

A much-appreciated breakfast was then laid out before them on a long table. Paco came into the kitchen and watched the airmen, smiling and awestruck as they ate and drank ravenously, faces buried in their food. The men had not seen such abundance since leaving England. There were eggs, sheep cheese, warm milk and the occasional txisora ( a local variety of sausage) dosed down with wine or home-made cider. For Florentino there was sometimes even cognac, a drink smuggled in from France, and for which Florentino was famed to indulge in a little too often!

Paco’s uncles and aunts spoke in the Basque language to Florentino and the atmosphere slowly relaxed. Later in the day Florentino said farewell to the Iriartes and headed back across the mountains and the Bidasoa to prepare for the arrival of more ´parcels’ from the north, delivered to him in Saint Juan de Luz by the Comet Line.

After the meal the family led the men to the stairway between the farmhouse entrance and the kitchen which led to an open second floor, a hayloft, where dry straw was laid out with blankets for the men to rest a while. Through the window the airmen could see a bull at the back of the building, several grazing sheep, rolling cornfields and scattered white hamlets up and down the valley.

Franco told the men to rest, but they were always edgy. The Iriartes had mentioned strangers calling at Sarobe who could have been working under cover for the Guardia Civil. Paco remembers that once a stranger appeared at the house with files in his hand, a strange occurrence in those days and the airmen, sheltering in the attic, had jumped from the loft window onto the balcony and then down into the cornfield, fearing arrest.

Eventually they realised that it had been a false alarm and the caller turned out to be a man from the village selling insurance.

Sarobe safe house on the Comet Line and views from the terrace

Views from the balcony of the Comet safe house of Sarobe near Oiartzun

While the men slept uneasily, Franco walked with Dungey and Baker down the hill to another safe house and bar owned by the Arbide Garayar family who gave the men a ride in a wagon to a meeting point where a driver from the British Consulate was waiting.

At his meeting with the Consul it was obvious that Franco was exhausted from his work on the Comet Line. The Consul persuaded him to take a break and attend a conference with officers of the British Intelligence Service in Gibraltar. Franco was then driven down to Gibraltar where he was smuggled across the border hiding in the boot of the Embassy car.

San Sebastian and home to members of the Comet Line resistance movement - Pyrenean Experience

San Sebastian and seat of MI9

San Sebastian and MI9

At about midnight on 27/28 September Bowlby, Allison, Duffee and Bridge were also driven to the British Consulate in San Sebastian. Collecting Dungey and Baker, they continued on through the night to Madrid. This proved to be a dangerous part of their long journey as the Spanish driver lolled sleepily over the steering wheel and it was only by the men’s constant prodding and unmelodious singing that they managed to keep the driver’s eyes from closing. As it was the car narrowly missed several trees and quite a few cows in the road. After suffering three punctures on the poor roads, they arrived at the British Embassy in Madrid after a twelve-hour journey.

Bowlby stayed at the Embassy in Madrid for a week to allow his feet to heal before going to Gibraltar on 6 October. But Allison, Dungey and Baker were keen to press on and after barely two hours rest were driven to a safe house in Seville on the River Guadalquiver where they stayed for four days. A plan was made for the airmen to be smuggled aboard a Norwegian ship, the “Sneland 1”, bound for Gibraltar. They were to pose as drunken members of the crew, meeting a seaman from the ship in a disreputable bar near the docks on 3 October. Judging by the man’s bright eyes and unsteady voice he seemed to have carried the pose to extremes. Following his example the airmen imitated his roll and sang lusty sea-shanties as they passed along the seaside past the Spanish dock police and up the gangplank onto the ship.

The next five days were spent battened down in the hold of the ship. The Sneland 1 was a collier and they spent the best part of a week living in and on a heap of coal which did nothing for their appearance. Food was provided by the crew from time to time and included plenty of bananas. Before being allowed to leave port the ship was subject to a thorough search but the airmen escaped detection. The ship’s course was set southwards and in a day they had sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and could see “The Rock” and knew that at last they were safe. After dropping anchor in Gibraltar harbour they were taken ashore and driven to the airport. In their tattered clothes and with their manly growth of beards they approached the Wing Commander in charge of flying and explained their position to him and their desire to get back to England. He considered them to be the dirtiest evaders ever to have set foot on the Rock, but arranged uniforms and toilet articles, and seats on the aircraft leaving for England the following night.

Possibly because of the injuries to his feet Bowlby was flown home first on 10/11 October. The next night 11/12 October found Allison, Dungey, Bridge and Duffee seated in the darkened fuselage of a Dakota over the Bay of Biscay flying northwards to England, landing at RAF Lyneham in west London the next morning. Baker was the last of the six to leave, on 23/24 November, possibly due to his having been ill.

After a short spell of leave they were asked to tour RAF stations to talk to aircrews about escape and evasion and to assure them that if they had the misfortune to be shot down there were many courageous members of the Resistance within Occupied Europe waiting to help them. Subsequently the airmen returned to their old Squadrons and completed further operations, always remembering with gratitude those brave and wonderful people whose help had enabled them to return and continue the fight.

Franco, Florentino and Dédée lived to see the end of the war and, after surviving two years in the concentration camps of Ravensbruck and Mauthausen, Dédée went to work helping lepers in the Congo. Frantxoa was never to return to see her children again. It is perhaps worthy of note that on capture by the Gestapo, the resistance were almost always dealt out a crueler fate that the pilots themselves.

Text written and edited by George Fuller, family friend of Jim Allison, and Georgina Howard. Most exhaustive reference book on the Comet Line crossing of the Pyrenees is Camino a la Libertad by Juan Carlos Jimenez e Aberasturi .

We give talks on  the Comet Line and can usually arrange visits to the strategic crossing places on the Spanish / French border on our Total Basque Mountain Experience Walking Holidays.

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Articles on the culture, languages, traditions and values of the Basque Pyrenees as well as stories taken from over two decades of our own, personal Pyrenean Experience.

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