Comete Alternative Passages
This is a copy of the report posted on the Réseau Comète website and repeated here, with the authors' permission, to make the point that the Belgian Comete organisation used more than one route across the Pyrenees. Click here to read the original report, complete with photographs.
By Geoff Warren, Cheryl Padgham and Philippe Connart
Acknowledgements: Family Aguerre, Bruce Bolinger, Jean-Marie Dambier, Jean Elhorga, Scott Goodall, Andoni Itturioz, Miren Juaristi, Michael Moores LeBlanc, Keith Morley, Christiane Saldias, Iurre Telleria, Sue and Alec Willcox, Victor Davies and of course all the other 'Larressore Lads'.
In September 2008, Cheryl Padgham joined the annual walk organized to follow the route of the Basque guide Florentino Goikoetxea. Her father, Victor Davies, was a Comet evader (231) who crossed into Spain in late 1943. After a while, she realized that the route did not reflect her father's experience, MI9 paperwork and his recollections.
Cheryl knew that Geoff Warren, nephew of the tail gunner George Warren of her father's crew, was also interested in finding out what happened. They made contact with Philippe Connart of the Comet Kinship committee, who was busy with researching the evasion details of all Comet-assisted aviators. From information gathered from the National Archives in London, the reports of the Belgian Secret Services in Brussels, and the US archives in Washington, many forgotten details were revealed that are totally absent from the usual publications on the subject.
This is the result of those searches and their final tour of the terrain, where nearly half of all the Comet-assisted aviators were passed into Spain. The routes are described as precisely as possible at this stage of our research. Cheryl wanted to know more about her dad's journey and we wanted to ensure that Larressore and Souraïde routes, and the people who worked to make them successful, are remembered and given their place in Comet, and the Escape and Evasion History of WW2.
The route from Urrugne to Oiartzun via the crossing of the Bidassoa River was the only one used by Comet in 1941 and 1942. This trek is familiar to regulars of the annual walk organized by Les Amis de Comet each September.
To lighten the traffic on this route, called the Saint-Jean-de-Luz passage, MI9 asked Andrée De Jongh (Dédée) to look for an alternative. She took the train to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and discussed the idea with Pierre Elhorga. He went to Bidarray in order to recruit Martin Orhatégaray, who reconnoitred a route via Itxassou with Dédée in December 1942. Pierre Elhorga became the pivotal character in all these passages. Until then, Elhorga had mainly been helping Andrée De Jongh with ration stamps.
After the arrest of Andrée De Jongh at Urrugne on 15 January 1943, during the 34th crossing, Jean-François Nothomb (Franco) became the international guide to Spain for Comet's Sector South. Crossing number 35 was made alone with Florentino on 24 January, to warn Michael Creswell (Timothy, Monday) at the British Embassy in Madrid of the arrests on the 15th. Nothomb was back in France on the 30 January, returning by automobile via Bilbao and Burgos.
After a reconnaissance passage by Jean-François Nothomb, apparently with Jean Elizondo, on 6 February 1943 (the 36th crossing of Comet, without evaders), the Bidarray route was used only once with guide Martin Orhatégaray. Once back from the crossing, Nothomb learned about the February 6th arrest of Jean Greindl (Némo) and about ten others in Brussels.
On 12 February 1943, Nothomb was back from Brussels with Jean's brother, Albert Greindl, Albert Johnson and two American evaders (met in Paris) from the same crew: John Spence and Sidney Devers, as well as the Canadian James Chaster taken from Brussels. Florentino Goikoetxea may have been under surveillance after the arrests at Urrugne, so Nothomb and Johnson set off on the 37th crossing by the new Bidarray route on 14 February 1943.
Nothomb mentions that Michael Creswell had put him in touch with a Basque Capuchin father in a monastery, the "Convento de Lecároz" near Elizondo in Spain, whose name he could not remember. This monk was known to help people and had agreed to receive evaders from time to time. Arriving in Elizondo, Nothomb phoned a contact (Bernardo Aracama). The taxi that came to fetch them was intercepted by the carabiñeros, and Nothomb with the three airmen were imprisoned at Pamplona. Johnson and Greindl, visited the Capuchin and then took the train to San Sebastian to warn the British vice-consul, who negotiated their release after ten days imprisonment. On 25 February, the six men were driven to Madrid and received by Michael Creswell. On 4 March, the four evaders took the train for La Linea and then a bus to Gibraltar.
After the arrests at Elizondo, Jean-François Nothomb abandoned the Bidarray route and asked Pierre Elhorga to find him another alternative passage.
From July 1943 onwards, the evaders set off from the Restaurant Larre in Sutar, then either through the Saint-Jean-de-Luz passage or through one of the two newer eastern Comet routes.
The first of these to be employed, known as the Larressore route, used four guides from Espelette: Pierre Etchégoyen, Pierre and Baptiste Aguerre and Jean Elizondo. The four guides had been in hiding since the institution of compulsory work service (STO) and were wanted by the police. Indeed, Baptiste has been arrested in June 1943 and imprisoned in the Villa Chagrin jail in Bayonne, at the Fort du Hâ in Bordeaux and at the camp of Mérignac, but escaped before his deportation.
This new route became very successful with 83 British, Commonwealth and American airmen and 6 Belgian and French agents passed along the Larressore route in 21 cross-border passages between 21 September 1943 and 9 January 1944.
In October Marcel Roger (Max) joined Nothomb and they worked together: 10 to 15 airmen crossed every week in late 1943. Some evader groups may have cycled by road to the rendezvous point with the Basque guides but later Pierre Elhorga prepared the route along the towpath following the River Nive, via Villefranque and Ustaritz, which is today a cycle path. The evaders left Marthe Mendiara's Restaurant Larre along a path leading to the River Nive, 500 metres away. This path has since disappeared after the construction of a water purifying plant and an industrial area at this location. The Comet guides were mainly Jean-François Nothomb and Marcel Roger, with Miss Denise Houget. Elvire De Greef (Tante Go) and her daughter Jeannine also accompanying the groups on several occasions.
Near Herauritz, the evaders left the banks of the River Nive and took a road under cover of woods that brought them to the territory of Larressore while avoiding inhabited areas. The bikes were abandoned and taken away by the local baker, Martin Garat. The guides then led their charges to a barn on the communal border between the villages of Larressore and Espelette: the Mandochineko borda (the barn of farm Mandochinea). The barn today is in ruins and overgrown with brambles and wild vegetation. Within sight of this barn, but located within Espelette territory, is the Lapitza farm belonging to the Aguerre family and where the guide Baptiste Aguerre farmed after the end of the war.
At nightfall, the Basque guides led the airmen and agents towards the Pyrenees and the Franco-Spanish frontier. The guides brought the evaders to Spain after a walk of approximately six hours. They skirted the village of Espelette, followed the Latsa valley and climbed up to its source near the Gaineko borda, between the peaks of Mondarrain and Atxulegi. From this pass, they walked down the valley of Larreko erreka (brook of Larre) until near the stone border marker (Mugari) #74. They then went upstream along the Haizagerriko erreka (brook of Haizagerri) and crossed the brook to reach the first safe house, Jauriko borda, 200 metres inside Spain. There the evaders were handed over to the Spanish family Mihura and rested a few hours.
The first nine groups were advised to surrender to the Guardia Civile who took the evaders to Urdax and then Irun before they were handed over to the British authorities. A few were arrested nearer to Elizondo. The next twelve groups were led further south in the daytime, around the peaks of Gorramakil and Gorramendi to another Navarre farm: Mortaleneko borda, located not far from the gap of Ispéguy in Erratzu. From there, they reached San Sebastian by various means, some taking another two or three additional days to reach their destination.
The Larressore route was rapidly congested but Pierre Elhorga knew other guides with knowledge of the mountains. One was Juanito Bidegain, a Spanish political refugee and cultivator at the Seme Enea farm in Bassussarry, on the road to Cambo. In March 1943, Bernard Maïsterrena had already passed some twenty young Frenchmen and two Belgians for Juanito Bidegain to take across. Bidegain had in turn passed them on to Jean-Baptiste Méhas of Souraïde the same day for onward passage.
On 12 December 1943, the new team began a series of 11 crossings of the Spanish border that delivered a total of 41 men to the British authorities in Guipúzcoa. Initially, Nothomb delivered the aviators to Bidegain but after his arrest in January 44, Pierre Elhorga became responsible for bringing them to the same venue, in a quarry in Bassussarry. Bidegain guided them on foot to the Mendigaraya farm, north-west of Souraïde, where Michel Echeveste lived with his parents. Bidegain is the only person who knew the location of Etcheveste's hideout, where he escaped the German controls. His brother, Joseph Marie, was in hiding around Aïnhoa but also helped him.
They initially passed the evaders into Spain to Venta Mikelen Borda, a few metres into Spain, just across the brook called Lapitxuri and not far away from the border post of Dancharia at Landibar; Michel Echeveste was then advised to hand them over to the manager of Apetxen borda (today Venta du Carrelage but formerly called Lorietxe), Joseph Bergara. The Bergaras owned the Quito borda (the barn of the Gipsy) officially called Olazur etxeberria. This barn is some 500 metres from Apetxen borda and is now enlarged and inhabited. From there, they were guided further into Spain.
BAPTISTE AGUERRE was born at the Borrun Tehelmea farm at Espelette in September 1917. He married Marie-Louise Etchegaray (born at Espelette in 1921) and was a cultivator at the house Latpitza at Espelette after the war. He was a conscript in 1938.
He was busy with the crossing of Frenchmen from relatives in Bayonne (about ten) with Pierre and Michel Etcheverry. Arrested on 2 June 1943, he escaped before his deportation to Germany. He was then contacted by Pierre Etchégoyen and became a guide of Pierre Elhorga for Jean-François Nothomb in the team of Pierre Etchégoyen, with brother Pierre and Jean Elizondo. His report identifies the destination in Spain: Jauriko borda.
PIERRE AGUERRE was born at the Borrun Tehelmea farm at Espelette in February 1916. He married Marie Eyherabide (born at Larressore in 1921) and was a workman at the Uhart & Ilharreborda & Laronde Tanneries on Marines Avenue, Sabaltz Lane in Bayonne after the war. He was a conscript in 1939.
He was busy with the crossing of Frenchmen from relatives in Bayonne (about ten) with Pierre and Michel Etcheverry. He escaped being arrested. He was then contacted by Pierre Etchégoyen in August 1943, and became a guide of Pierre Elhorga for Jean Francois Nothomb with his brother Baptiste, Pierre Etchégoyen and Jean Elizondo. His report identifies the family Mihura in Spain.
JUANITO BIDEGAIN was a Spanish political refugee and a cultivator at the Seme Enea farm in Bassussarry, on the road to Cambo. He lived with his mother Raimunda Elizagoyen and his two brothers Leon and Martin. He was born in Vera de Bidassoa in Spain in February 1900. Jean and Jeanne Elhorga, the son and daughter of Pierre, were warned to seek refuge with him if they ever saw Germans at the school in Sutar.
Bidegain guided the aviators from Bassussary to Souraïde and handed them over to Michel Echeveste, somewhere around the Mendigaraya farm.
MICHEL ECHEVESTE was born in Sare in June 1914. He performed his military service. In 1942, he guided individual Frenchmen. He became a guide for Juanito Bidegain for 41 aviators from 12 December 1943 to 4 June 1944. He and his brother Joseph Marie used their farm, Mendigaraya, as a relay for the aviators. They first brought them to Mikelen borda in Landibar. On instructions from Juanito Bidegain, they later brought the aviators to the Apetxen borda, from where they were guided further south. His parents Joseph and Marie Miquelestorena lived at the farm Mendigaraya in Souraïde.
PIERRE ELHORGA was born at Espelette in September 1897. He was 100% invalided after WWI. A retired customs officer of Cambo-les-Bains, he lived at the Sutar school in Anglet, where his wife Marie Bentaberry, born at Ispoure in 1902, was the head schoolteacher. He met Fernand De Greef in 1940 at the city hall, and the De Greef family in early 1941 at a reception of the mayor, Mr Dommain.
Elhorga was recruited into Comet by Andrée De Jongh, initially to help with the feeding of the evaders and subsequently to find and recruit guides for three new eastern routes. He put her in touch with Mr Elizondo, of Sare. He also guided Charles Morelle to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port from Mauléon-Licharre and the demarcation line at Saint-Jean-le-Vieux before the latter was arrested on 6 May 1942.
Elhorga was a member of the group that conceived an escape plan for Andrée De Jongh from the Villa Chagrin prison in Bayonne, with Jean-François Nothomb, Rémy Larre and Jean Dassié at Marthe Mendiara's Restaurant Larre.
JEAN ELIZONDO was born in Espelette in April 1920. He was an independent merchant of cattle at the Espondatea house in Espelette and married Marie Arocena (born in September 1919) after the war. Pierre Elhorga introduced him to Andrée De Jongh in late 1942 for the new passage of Biddaray. He became a guide for Nothomb for the 89 aviators and agents passed through Larressore from 22 September 1943 to 9 January 1944. Pierre Etchegoyen recruited him with the Aguerres.
He later participated into the action of Battalion Vernet-Vidal under Captain Martinez from 1st May to 22 August 1944. He is the son of François and Eulalie Arotzasoua, living in Hisparren, quarter Urcuruy.
PIERRE ETCHEGOYEN was the husband of Jeanne Ithurry (born in 1922 at Itxassou). He was born in Espelette in 1921 and was an independent animal merchant at the Chodieteya house in Espelette. Exempt from military service in 1941, he was transferred to the reserves. His parents were Hippolyte, born in 1888 at Ustaritz, and Marguerite Elhorga, born in 1888 at Espelette.
He had previously passed some Tunisians for business in France, received from Elizondo Senior. Elhorga (his uncle) recruited him as a guide for Jean-Francois Nothomb at the end of August 1943. They met in the woods of Larressore, and then made contact with the Aguerres and Jean Elizondo to start the Larressore route.
His report declares getting the "parcels" in the woods near Larressore, brought to the home of Garat by Nothomb (who determined the price), Marcel Roger, Elvire De Greef or Denise Houget. The evaders were then brought to Mandochineko borda and passed to the first house in Spain, Jauriko borda. Etchegoyen paid Pierre and Baptist Aguerre and the farm in Spain for the food and transport up to Erratzu at Mortaleneko borda.
JEANNE MARTHE MENDIARA-VILLENAVE was born in November 1905 at Saint-Martin de Gugane. Marthe Villenave is the wife of Felix Antonio Mendiara, born in San Sebastian in November 1903, who was a PoW in Germany. Her Restaurant Larre in Sutar was used to plan the escape of Andrée De Jongh from the Villa Chagrin prison in Bayonne. From July 1943 onwards, all Comet airmen were accommodated in the bedrooms above the Restaurant Larre, on the road to Cambo and near Sutar school (Pierre Elhorga replaced her for two nights). Elvire De Greef records 175 airmen, accommodated at Restaurant Larre, some staying as long as five days.