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.