Mountain Rescue – Frank McNally on a great Irish escape in wartime Europe

A daring journey in the Pyrenees

In the Pyrenees this coming June, a group of hikers will retrace part of an Irishman’s extraordinary wartime escape from the Nazis.

The man’s name was Tom McGrath. And in the bleak mid-winter of 1942, he left the French border town of Saint-Jean-De-Luz on the last leg of a tortuous journey that had begun nine months earlier in Stalag XXA, near Warsaw.

A Basque shepherd led him up one of the old smuggling routes to the mountain frontier pass of Ibardin, where neutral Spain lay before them.

McGrath then continued alone down to the village of Bera, where he was promptly interned for a period before being transferred first to the British territory of Gibraltar and eventually to the freedom of his native Co Waterford.


The escape earned him medals from the British army, into which he had been conscripted in 1939. But because he never returned to wartime service, he never received the honours in his own lifetime.

They were eventually presented posthumously in 2018, at the British Embassy in Dublin. The recipient was his son Tom Jnr, who will be part of the commemorative hike.

Remarkable in itself, McGrath Snr’s story but becomes even more son when combined with the way McGrath Jnr first found out about it, starting only five years ago: a combination which has since spawned a book.

The younger man grew up in Waterford City, where his parents ran the Lido café. But like many veterans, Tom Snr didn’t talk much about the war. Then both parents died while their son was a teenager, leaving him unaware of that and other parts of his back-story.

He went on to marry a Spanish student he first met in Ireland, and to live, study, and teach in Spain, gradually losing links with Waterford. But a few years ago, when introducing his Spanish children to the Irish part of their heritage, he discovered new relatives in London, one of whom had written an account of McGrath Snr’s wartime adventures, entitled “The Escape”.

Reading this, Tom Jnr, “nearly fell off the chair”. Regaining his composure, he then embarked on his own extensive researches, in Britain’s National Archives and elsewhere, determined to learn the full story.

Tom Snr had grown up in Portlaw, Co Waterford, but left with his young wife in 1937 for a job in England. When the war broke out, he was conscripted and sent to France to defend the Maginot Line as part of the British Expeditionary Force.

But of course the Germans didn’t attack there, as expected. They came through the Ardennes Forest instead, leaving McGrath’s regiment cut off from the rest of the BEF and the famous retreat via Dunkirk.

Pinned down at Saint-Valery by Rommel, they were taken prisoner and marched for weeks through northern France, Belgium, and Holland, for dispersal to various camps. In McGrath’s case, the camp was near what is now Torun, northwest of the Polish capital.

It was from there that, one day in March 1942, he escaped from a working group, via a toilet. Putting on the civilian clothes he had gathered by various means, he reached a local wood, hiding in a hole until nightfall.

A local resident later secreted him in an attic for several nights; another brought him to Torun; a third accompanied him on the hazardous journey to Berlin, through multiple checks of his false papers.

During a summer lying low in Berlin, he then acquired the identity of a French lookalike and in August continued his escape through Holland to Paris.

There, yet another Pole brought him to an underground apartment, where he hid until winter. Finally, in December, he made his trip to the Spanish frontier, where the Basque guide did the rest.

The Pyrenean hike this June, therefore, recreates only a small segment of the great escape. But the event is only part of a greater cause in that corner of Europe too.

Hence the group hosting it, Basque Pyrenees Freedom Trails, a not-for-profit voluntary body, led by an Irish (and Waterford) man Joe Linehan.

This commemorates the various wartime escape routes through the mountains, as well as the guides and safe-house hosts who risked their lives to get people out. Each year, the BPFT organises a hike along a different trail. This year’s is the route McGrath took in 1942.

As one of the participants, McGrath Jnr will read extracts from his recent book: Unspoken. A Father’s Wartime Escape. A Son’s Family Discovered. Which, as the title suggests, is about a lot more than the war. Alas for anyone who hasn’t reserved a place yet, including me, the June hike is already oversubscribed.