So Close to Freedom: A World War II Story of Peril and Betrayal in the Pyrenees
"More adventure comes packed on certain pages in So Close to Freedom than in other entire books."
Roger Staton, in the foreword, writes of the Army POW Escaping Club (APOWEC) and the RAF Escaping Society (RAFEs), "members of both organizations had tremendous personal stories." Their story includes the "selfless exploits" of the people who helped them (now remembered by the World War II Escape Lines Memorial Society).
Jean-Luc E. Cartron, the author, writes of men and women in occupied Nazi Europe "from all walks of life: the rich and the poor, farmers, lawyers, nurses and doctors, teachers, train drivers, priests, police and criminals, even Boy Scouts and girl guides." They helped the allied military from the dark beginnings of the war to victory. If caught, "in most cases," it meant "a death sentence for men and a concentration camp for women, but not before harsh interrogation."
The helpers had the difficult task of making life in a safe house "appear normal to the locals and not attract attention." They did so despite that "life on mainland Europe was particularly hard." Whole families would be punished by the Germans if found helping the Allies.
"Escapers and evaders from all branches of the services knew their options were bleak if captured in civilian clothes." The author draws a distinction between the escapers who left "secure enemy custody," and as such might receive some consideration and respect by the enemy, as opposed to an evader who "utilizes the close link between evasion tactics and survival techniques."
In just the first few pages, the author tells an engrossing tale of a large group of fugitives who, on February 6, 1944, had only "two more mountain passes" in France to cross to reach safety in Spain. Betrayed and ambushed, most of these men and their guides became prisoners.
The book centers, however, on another 35 mixed nationals who, under the ill-fated Belgian Roger Bureau, suffered a similar fate in April 1944. Much of the book concerns the subsequent history of the Pyrenees escapes and the men captured that April.
So Close to Freedom also tells much the whole complicated story of the escape routes and the often brutal conditions of the Pyrenees Mountains to a hostile Spain. It also becomes a history of "two important escape organizations—Dutch-Paris and Francoise" in Toulouse in early 1944.
Cartron tries "to strike a balance between easy readability and detail" despite "the large and complex cast of characters." The author often fails for his subject is so complicated and his space so limited.
To appreciate this epic, the reader must read So Close to Freedom slowly and carefully. It includes glossaries and relevant appendices. So Close to Freedom is also well annotated and illustrated.
More adventure comes packed on certain pages in So Close to Freedom than in other entire books. The "cast ranges from American, British, and British Commonwealth escapers and evaders" to Belgians, Czechs, Dutch, French, and Jewish fugitives, as well as the whole spectrum of helpers.
The escape routes had many paths, figuratively and literally, as did the helpers, escapers, and evaders. Commonality exists only in the uniqueness of their individual experiences. The book does not include the German, Spanish, and Vichy side of this conflict.