So Close to Freedom
A World War II Story of Peril and Betrayal in the Pyrenees
Jean-Luc E. Cartron
University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2019, 256 pages
Book Review published on: October 11, 2019
World War II spanned the earth’s seven continents and left between seventy and eighty-five million people dead in its wake; the vastness of the struggle went well beyond the front lines, reaching into every corner of society, moving people to action, and requiring a sacrifice from all. In occupied Europe, the resistance movement characterized by the actions of the brave citizens who harassed the occupiers paved the way for the much-anticipated Allied invasion. Further, those civilians, also called “helpers,” operated the escape-line organizations that funneled Allied servicemen trapped behind enemy lines through the rugged Pyrenees mountain range and across the Spanish border to freedom.
In So Close to Freedom, Jean-Luc Cartron sets out to accomplish two goals. The first is to solve the mystery of who betrayed passeur Jean-Louis Bazerque and the thirty-five fugitives he was guiding. The group were just a mile short of the Spanish border when they were cut down by German soldiers in late April 1944. The second goal is to provide a fresh analysis of the covert escape networks and the people who organized them, from describing the methods of passing fugitives between safe houses to what led to the collapse of many of the networks and the capture of the organizers and fugitives.
Cartron, a research professor and grandson of a prominent member of the World War II French resistance, makes a good argument for the first. He greatly achieves the second by corroborating existing research with newly discovered primary sources and weaving the results into a compelling narrative that keeps the reader engaged and thirsting for more. Moreover, this book lends itself to further study with its illustrations, maps, several detailed appendices, and an expanded section of footnotes.
Attempting to prove a treasonous act at the time of its occurrence is challenging. It becomes an almost impossible task with the passage of seventy years, with practically all involved now deceased and the memories of them faded. But the author undauntedly dissects the final leg of the perilous journey of the ill-fated Bazerque group like an investigate reporter. He breaks down several survivors’ accounts of the failed mountain passage almost by the hour. He runs down every clue revealed in each version and builds a profile of every suspect, examining their allegiances to either a free France or to the Nazis, and he scrutinizes the accusations levied against them by their fellow countrymen in the wave of épuration légale (legal purge) that followed the liberation of France as well as in the testimonies contained in letters and court documents. Cartron, by deduction, makes a compelling but inconclusive case for the guilty conspirator, yet, absolves others who were wrongly accused over the years.
Even though So Close to Freedom stops short of convicting a betrayer, it fills a void of knowledge regarding the complex escape-and-evasion networks throughout Western Europe, especially in southern France from 1940 to D-Day. Cartron masterfully threads the failed escape attempt throughout the entire book, pausing in each chapter to dive deep into many relevant subjects such as the evolution of escape networks, in-depth profiles of helpers and escapers alike, how money motivated passeurs to take on evermore dangerous missions, challenges to myths that surrounded the helpers, and the harsh consequences of falling into the hands of the Gestapo—or worse, a concentration camp.
It is hard not to stand in awe of these men who mentally and physical pushed themselves to the limits of human endurance to resist, escape, and evade the enemy at all costs, and who were willing to suffer the consequences if they failed. So Close to Freedom sheds a new light on an area of World War II that is challenged by limited documentation and historical resources. More so, this books goes beyond the interest of historians. Service members who want to add to their knowledge of survival, evasion, resistance, and escape will find this an essential addition exemplifying the need for a cool head, nerves of steel, and a little luck.
Book Review written by: Ronald T. Staver, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas