BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page was last updated in February 2012We've left it here for reference.More information

30 August 2014
Accessibility help
Text only
WW2 - People's War

BBC Homepage
BBC History
WW2 People's War Homepage Archive List Timeline About This Site Print this page 

Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!


My War in Two Armies: Part 5 of 10 - Escape over the Pyreneesicon for Recommended story

by Maurice Vila

Contributed by 
Maurice Vila
People in story: 
Maurice Vila
Location of story: 
Unoccupied France
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
17 December 2005

Two days later, 13th October, I received my papers from Toulouse. I went to the American Consulate and was able to present them with the information they needed concerning my dual nationality. I still had to complete some formalities and have passport photographs taken, but the next day I received my British Emergency Certificate.

Dr Poupault, who was busy contacting friends of his in the south of France, arrived in Marseilles the next day. He met me at the hotel I was staying at and gave me the latest news. Neither he nor the others in Pau had had any success; they were working on a plan which they believed would be effective. As all rail and road entries into Spain were well-guarded, the idea was to hire the services of a reliable guide to take us across the Pyrenees at some remote place. This method would however be a costly business and we were all short of money.

Poupault had arranged to meet a Frenchman in Marseilles who, he said, was working for the British Intelligence. He did not tell me his name but took me with him and introduced me. I was able to talk to this man and he said that with my British Emergency Certificate I could take a chance of getting into Spain. Should I get questioned by the Spanish police and arrested, I should produce my certificate and the probabilities were that I should have to serve a sentence of about one month in an internment camp for crossing the frontier illegally. After that the British Consulate in Spain would be notified and would help me on my journey home. Poupault left Marseilles the same evening for Nîmes where he had yet another friend to see.

I left Marseilles the next day, 16th October, for Toulouse, where I visited Mr Henry and family once again. I left the same day and arrived at Pau in the evening. I went to the hotel and found Blanchard. Cartier was also there having recently returned from his visit to his brother at Carcassonne. There were also five other members present, two of whom had returned to Pau from Paris with the news that the chief of our organisation had been arrested by the police for reasons they were unable to give to us. As a result there had been some changes in the original organisation which we had known in Paris. No explanation was given for the disappearance of Max Belleville and the fake address at Pau where we were to meet him.

Poupault arrived back in Pau the next day: we were all eagerly waiting to know the outcome his meetings with the contacts he had visited. He gave us a summary of what we he was able to find out and told us that he had decided to put in effect a scheme which he had considered stood a reasonably good chance of success. This involved him getting across into Spain at the small frontier town of Canfranc on the Spanish side, with a view to negotiating transport, for as many as possible, with some Swiss lorry drivers who made regular trips transporting food from Portugal as far as Canfranc. The goods were then taken by rail from Canfranc to Switzerland in transit through France. The lorries then returned to Portugal presumably empty and Poupault was hoping to persuade some of the drivers to take one or two passengers, disguised as co-drivers, through Spain to Portugal.

Everyone agreed that this sounded a very good idea and immediately the morale of the party improved. I decided not to wait any longer and Poupault agreed to take me with him as far as Canfranc from where I would proceed on my own either to Barcelona or Madrid, whichever destination would turn out to be the easier to reach, and then to the British Consulate which I knew existed in both cities. I felt that I did not want to risk the frustration of another failure and certainly had no intention of returning to occupied France. Furthermore my small reserves of money were exhausted and so were my ration cards, although Poupault later managed to obtain further supplies on the black market. Once across the border into Spain my chances were certainly more favourable than would have been for the others and they agreed that I should not hesitate to make the attempt.

The next couple of days in Pau were spent in preparing for our journey. I bought sufficient sandwiches, biscuits and fruit to last me two days when in Spain. Since I had no clothing coupons I could not obtain any extra clothes, but I did buy a mackintosh which I thought would be better than nothing on a cold night in the Pyrenees. Once again, I despatched all my French papers to Mr Henry at Toulouse and only kept my French identity card, my British National Identity Registration Card (which I had brought over with me from England in 1940) and the British Emergency Certificate I got in Marseilles; also some letters from home and a few photos. Finally, I wrote letters to Mother, Oncle Pierre and Tortochaux.

The 19th October 1941 was the day on which Poupault and I left Pau for Spain. We packed our provisions, spare shirt and socks in our small bags. I also carried my mackintosh and wore a beret. To get across the frontier into Spain, Poupault had made some arrangements with two drivers of electric locomotives of the French Railways who were willing to get us into Spain inside the engine which was to haul the passenger train on the day. The route to be taken was over the more westerly of the two rail crossings of the Pyrennees.

Poupault and I said goodbye to our friends who came to the station to see us off. We had already bought our tickets from Pau to Bedous, a station close to the frontier, and the last in France. The train, which was fairly full, left Pau at 5.30pm and by the time we would have to leave our coach to get into the engine it would be dusk.

When we were on our way, Poupault told me that he had arranged to meet another engine driver at Oloron-Ste-Marie (a couple of stops before Bedous) who was to hand him some Spanish pesetas in exchange for francs. Unfortunately the engine driver, who met him as arranged, had been unable to obtain the money and it was useless for Poupault to continue his journey in the circumstances. He had to make a quick decision while the train was still waiting at the station; he said he would have to return to Pau until such time as he could get the pesetas. He advised me however to continue as planned and that I should, with some luck, be able to exchange a small amount of French money when I got to Canfranc.

I quickly said goodbye to Poupault, thanking him for all he had done for me and before parting he gave me 300 francs which brought my total up to about 600 francs. I was sorry to leave Poupault to whom I owed so much.

It was getting dark when the train pulled in to Bedous, there were by now only a few people left on the train, and no one in my compartment. I got out of the coach on the opposite side from the platform and walked along the track until I reached the locomotive. After making sure that no one was about I climbed in, but to my surprise found no driver. I waited inside and after a while the driver climbed in from the platform side. He also was surprised to see me there as he had been waiting for me to appear on the platform. I had evidently been too cautious.

The train left Bedous soon after and I thanked the driver for the help he was giving me. He said that he was not in the habit of getting people into Spain this way and that I was in fact the first to make the run in his engine. I knew that he did not expect any money in return for the risk he was taking but I asked him to accept 200 francs.

Darkness had fallen and the train was slowly winding its way through the mountainous country, in and out of tunnels. As we approached the next station, Canfranc, the terminus in Spain, the driver removed his blue jacket and told me to put it on. He told me that the Spanish frontier guards sometimes inspected the cabin and that I would look less conspicuous in his jacket. They would think I was just another driver. I gave the driver my French identity card and asked him to be good enough to hand it to Poupault on his return to Pau. I was careful not to have any French documents on me in case I was searched in Spain, as this would have ended in my being escorted back to France, or taken to a French consulate with the same result.

The train finally emerged from a long tunnel and we were in Spain. A few minutes later we drew into Canfranc station: it was 9pm.

© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.

Archive List

This story has been placed in the following categories.

Books Category
icon for Story with photoStory with photo

Most of the content on this site is created by our users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here. For any other comments, please Contact Us.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy