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History/war
Cruel Crossing
Edward Stourton (Doubleday, £20 *£16)

When the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940, a young Belgian nurse, Andrée de Jongh, decided that the best response was to help British servicemen escape from occupied Europe. With the aid of extraordinary friends and members of her family, ‘Dédée’ established the Comet Line, which was to help 289 Allied servicemen reach neutral Spain.

The route, followed by Edward Stourton at the beginning of his book, involved a gruelling four-day scramble across the high Pyrenees, but it was as much the logistics and danger of moving wanted men through France that preoccupied the passeurs. Across the border, the attitude of the Spanish authorities was, at best, uncertain and even the British ambassador, Sir Samuel Hoare, initially wanted nothing to do with the escapees and M19 agents.

The passage across the Pyrenees was to be used not only by escaping airmen. As the occupation tightened, and notably after the invasion of North Africa led to the outright German occupation of Vichy France in November 1942, other persecuted groups tried to join the exodus. What began as a Radio 4 series on the people who walk the Chemin de la Liberté today expands, in this book, into a moving account of the ways men, women and children sometimes managed, and often failed, to make the crossing to freedom. It is about the people who helped them-and others who ignobly sought to thwart them. In Mr Stourton’s hands, the Pyrenees become a grim amphitheatre for heroism and betrayal, collusion and rebellion.

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This is a very shocking book. In the aftermath of Franco’s victory in Spain, tens of thousands of Spanish republicans, civilians and soldiers chose a bitter exile in France; by the summer of 1939, the largest refugee movement in modern memory had brought half a million men, women and children into southern France, where they were often abominably treated.

The French, wary of provoking Franco, opened a string of concentration camps, which were later judged to be worse than similar camps in Germany. As the war progressed, they were used to house not only Spaniards, but foreign Jews. The Vichy government agreed to rafles, or round-ups, of particular Jews in the summer of 1942. They were seized in co-ordinated police operations, and sent east to the death camps, making Vichy France the only part of Europe to feed the Holocaust without a previous German occupation. Against the many tales of blind heroism, Mr Stourton documents the terrible collusion of the French authorities, which received no serious challenge until they began to deport young French men.

The author weaves accounts of his own encounters with some of the heroes and victims of this corner of Europe with stories of incredible bravery and savagery. The machinery of oppression and the agents of inhumanity are always at the heels of the book’s protagonists, many of whom were to suffer torture and death. Mr Stourton patiently explains the reasons behind people’s behaviour, but he also quotes chilling denunciations levelled by survivors at those who created and colluded in the Nazi mission.

At the end, he returns to the Chemin de la Liberté, the arduous trek from St Girons to Spain which is re-enacted by walkers determined to preserve the memory of a small but significant episode. The mountains are, as he says, ‘a kind of vortex’, which drew to themselves many disparate and extraordinary stories.

Cruel Crossing recaptures much of the adventure and the fun, as well as the horror and the bitterness, as it brilliantly conjures up the voices of the past.

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