This is just one tale of a small party of Allied airmen escaping of the Pyrenees into neutral Spain. It is taken directly from my book ‘Just A Forgotten Hero’ which will be published soon.
There were, of course, many encounters with the local border guards. On the 19th of July 1942, which was the very next trip over the mountains after our William’s escape Manuel Iturrioz and Tomás Anabitarte were guiding a party, with Donato Errazti going ahead to check that the trail was safe. The Comète Line leader was Andrée De Jongh, the evaders were Marian Henryk Zawodny, Bernard “Bunny” Evans, both of whom we have already met with John Henry Watson and Joseph A Bruneau Angers, 2nd pilot and rear gunner respectively in the same Vickers Wellington which had been shot down by flak on the night of June 16/17th 1942 during a mission over Essen.
Before they had reached the river they were confronted by two gendarmes, who shouted out at them to halt. Evans immediately jumped behind a bush and hid, Zawodny, who was the last in the line, bolted back the way they had come and the rest of the party scattered. Except for John Watson.
He had either tackled, or been caught by, one of the Gendarmes and was scuffling with him when a shot was fired, possibly accidentally. From Watson’s somewhat colourful language the policemen soon realised that he was English (he was actually Canadian) and instantly the whole situation changed. The gendarmes became very friendly! The three talked for a while about what to do next and then they made their way to the Police Station at Béhobie, taking great care to avoid a German patrol that they almost bumped into on the way.
At the Gendarmerie the two policemen convinced the officer in charge of the station to shelter Watson, and he spent a fairly comfortable night in a cell. Later the next day one of the Comète Line helpers, Maritxu Anatol, probably sent by Tante Go, visited the police station on some pretext and reported back that Watson had not been arrested, but was being well looked after and was not locked up. That evening the policemen produced a large detailed map. They showed Watson how to get to a crossing point close by where he would be able to swim the Bidassoa, and how to avoid the areas patrolled by both the German and Spanish border guards. He managed to cross the river undetected, but at some point after that he must have taken a wrong turn and was picked up by the Carabiñeros.
While several evaders were helped by friendly gendarmes in both France and Belgium, in Spain the outlook was much more bleak. Although a neutral country Spain was much more closely aligned with Germans, the German forces had helped the Spanish fascists win the recent civil war. Many members of the Spanish Police, at all levels, were actively collaborating with the Gestapo which had agents in almost all of the police stations in the border regions. In Basque country this often put the Carabiñeros at odds with many of the local population and relations were both strained and tense.
If they had followed the Geneva Convention Watson should have been questioned, and if his story that he was an escaping prisoner of war held up, then he should have been turned over to the British Embassy without delay. All evaders were ‘encouraged’ by the escape and evasion training and the Escape lines to have a story ready that they had been, at some stage, captured by the German or French authorities and either escaped or been released, this would be sufficient for them to be considered as escaping POWs and not evaders. Even modest embroidery of an ID check, or railway ticket check that resulted in a brief detention should have been sufficient. Evaders could be interned for the duration, while escaping Prisoners of War should have been turned over to the care of their embassy and repatriated to their home land.
Watson’s story follows a slightly different track. This was not at all unusual for allied personnel caught in Spain. He was interrogated, roughly and at some length, by a man in civilian clothes. Who, and what his title was, is not known but many similar interviews were known to have been conducted by Gestapo officers, often posing as something less sinister.
On the 29th of August he was transferred to the notorious Miranda de Ebro concentration camp. Conditions, and particularly the food, there were appalling. He was not released to the care of the embassy until September 30th, and finally arrived back in Britain on October 15th.
The rest of the party retried the trip on the 20th, without Watson of course, and crossed successfully to Oyarzun. They were picked up from there by car and after spending a few days in Madrid they crossed into Gibraltar in an ambulance.