I’ve always enjoyed calling myself a footsteps biographer. But the phrase took on new meaning for me this summer as I climbed three peaks in three days, crossed the Pyrenees from France to Spain, followed a route that in the midst of World War II acted as a critical but dangerous lifeline for hundreds of Jewish refugees, French resistance fighters and downed Allied airmen desperately trying to escape Hitler’s clutches with the help of guides known as passers-by.
I’ve never climbed a mountain in my life, but I’ve been gripped by an irrational desire to try to understand what it must feel like to run for your life. Mostly thwarted by Covid-19, it has taken half a decade to pull it off. I wish I could say I spent the intervening years getting fitter, but the reverse is the case: I got older. I’m now the wrong side of 70. But still I felt the call of the mountains so my son, 15 year old grandson, daughter and her friend, all fitter and more experienced than me, agreed to come with me .
This is the latest in a series where writers are guided by a remarkable past traveler. Next time: across Tuscany in search of Michelangelo
We planned an adventure in the footsteps of Anne-Marie Walters, code name Colette, a beautiful 21-year-old half-French, half-English woman who worked as a courier for Churchill’s secret army, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). . Helpfully, she wrote a fascinating account of her wartime activities, Moondrop to Gascony (Moho Books), right after the war when her experiences were still fresh. Her final chapter – devoted to her trek to neutral Spain, during which she successfully delivered three downed pilots and a Dutch resistance fighter, as well as vital documents sewn into her shoulder pads – is filled with vivid descriptions of bridges crossed, streams encountered and shepherd’s huts where they gratefully rested.
This made it easy, thanks to our knowledgeable local guide and largely unaltered scenery, to follow her route and understand some of the challenges she faced – though not the anxious, hungry nights she must have endured. In stark contrast, we allowed ourselves lavish meals every night and carried freshly baked baguettes in our backpacks for picnic lunches.
I first heard about Walters when I was writing a book about women in wartime Paris. Born in Geneva to a British diplomat father and French mother, she moved to England with her family at the outbreak of World War II and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. In 1943 she was recruited as an SOE agent and trained at the Loch Morar base, Scotland, before being parachuted into France in early 1944.
I was immediately intrigued: why wasn’t she as well known as other SOE heroines like Violette Szabo or Odette Churchill? Her commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel George Starr, 20 years Walters’ senior, made no secret of the fact that although she, unlike him, was fluent in French, he did not like having women in his group, especially so an attractive one. Shortly after D-Day, he told her to help with the dishes and other “woman’s” chores.
Later, when she reported him for grave misconduct – accusing him of witnessing the torture of French collaborators and German prisoners of war – her womanhood was used against her in response. According to Maurice Buckmaster, head of the SOE’s French section, Walters was an unreliable witness because she suffered from the delusional idea that every man she encountered fell in love with her and she held a grudge against Starr for disobeying.
The evening before we started, over a delicious four-course dinner at the Château de Beauregard, a hotel that was once the Gestapo headquarters in St. Girons, our guide explained the route he had devised. Every day we would climb a peak of about 6,000 feet, he told us. I downed another glass of burgundy and wished I had trained harder.
We started walking, as Walters did in 1944, on the Col des Ares, on a warm August morning with just a hint of possible drizzle. Keep a steady pace, the guide said, trying to encourage – don’t stop. But luckily we stopped regularly for water and snacks.
Ah, this will be fine, I thought, 10 minutes into the walk. We were on shady paths of rubble, which looked deceptively soft at first, the wide oak trees keeping us relatively cool despite the hot sun. But it wasn’t long before I got short of breath and my arms started to hurt from leaning on my canes.
We had to climb 1,000 vertical meters by lunchtime if we wanted to get to Boutx in time for dinner and a night in a mountain inn. This wasn’t going to be easy at all, but I reminded myself that since Anne-Marie wore rubber shoes that were at least two sizes two-larges and a narrow tweed skirt that she repeatedly put up to take larger steps, I could hardly complain. She had been promised more appropriate clothing but it never materialized and as she had worn shorts for cycling just a few weeks earlier and had been told she was wearing inappropriate clothing she decided to do it.
Once we reached the first summit, the Pic du Gar, and the trail opened up to blue skies, rugged gorges and dramatic green valleys between forested peaks, I understood another reason to embark on this adventure. I never could have appreciated the dramatic views of the Lannemezan plateau and the Garonne plain if I hadn’t worked to get there. They were so beautiful that they brought Walters to tears as she ‘looked one last time at the France I knew, peaceful with its flowing rivers and green hills. . . How hard it seemed to have waited so long for the end, shared so many disappointments and had to leave so close to the end,” she poignantly wrote.
After that, our first descent was relatively easy. Exhausted, we were grateful not only for our basic youth hostel style accommodation with shared showers, but also for the unexpectedly spectacular dinner – large slate trays of local fish, shoulder of lamb and duck confit with chips and a wide range of craft beers for which the region is renowned . Our spirits recovered, even the pitiful mattresses felt wonderful.
Walters and her group, hoping the journey would be completed in two days and not expecting her guides to get lost, which they did twice, took very little food with them, only tins of beef and bread. Knowing that there was a German garrison in Boutx, they had to slow their descent, arrive at night, cross the road in silence, then find a place to sleep on rocky, damp ground before setting out at dawn.
The second day, from Boutx to Melles, was longer and heavier, my legs stiffer, so my relief when we found a shepherd’s hut, one Walters would have loved to be in, was intense. She said she’d scribbled her name on the walls, no doubt worn by time, and had had a short sleep. When she awoke she complained that “every bone in my body seemed to ache and my legs were wobbly”. Me too, I wanted to scream as my jelly-like legs barely enabled me to trudge into Melles, on ancient paths steeped in history, desperate for a drink. Walters’ group was again forced to approach in silence at 10 p.m., creeping, crouching, and scrambling through dense blackberry bushes.
“The branches flew over my face,” she wrote. “Within a short time I felt blood running down my bare legs where the scratches ached with a sharp burning pain.” She bit her bottom lip to keep from crying and, after a second night outside, woke up at dawn to head for the Spanish border. Even though we had enjoyed a comfortable bed at a townhouse hotel, the Auberge du Crabère, with freshly baked croissants before our final push at 9am, this was still the toughest day, with a five-hour morning climb until we reached the tree line reached with a ridge above and Spain beyond.
When we got to the border, marked only by stone blocks, modern and ancient, and a herd of cattle, each of us felt emotional. We crossed the grassy land border on foot with no other people in sight. With Spain and the village of Canejan all but visible in the distance, Walters bade her guides farewell as they began their journey home.
But even the descent was a challenge on day three, with endless high fern fields making for an unpleasant descent before we could enjoy the sight of the Garonne fluttering in the blazing sun for both Walters and us. Finally we walked across the flat valley to a Spanish town, Les, and found a bar to celebrate.
We were lucky with the weather: three days of sunshine, even though a menacing fog crept through the valley every afternoon, a reminder that our heavy backpacks and raincoats were there for a reason, as the area is known for its sudden temperature swings. My shoulders ached from carrying everything I needed for three days, but I don’t think I could have done with anything less.
After Spain, Walters went to Algiers and finally home in late 1944. She later became an editor and literary agent, lived in the US, Spain and France, where she died in 1998 at the age of 75. However, her military career ended abruptly. , shortly after her return from Algiers. She had been in a dispute with Starr, the origins of which are not clear, but one of his complaints about her was that she wore “high Parisian fashions”, violating his principle of being unobtrusive, that she did not follow discipline and a loose had morals. . Another report noted that since she was physically attractive and unafraid to use her attraction to men, she had a disturbing effect on every group she was a part of.
The SOE has been regarded in recent historical studies as a pioneer in employing women in dangerous wartime roles, but Walters is now being studied in academic circles as one who may have suffered from the time she spent before Starr and his network of clandestine SOE agents worked because of her gender. What I have learned from following in her footsteps is that no matter what else is put to the test of her, there is no doubt about her courage and she must be remembered.
Anne Sebba is the author of ‘Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson UK)
Anne Sebba traveled with Pyrenees Mountain Adventure (pyreneesmountainadventure.com), which can organize tours on several trans-Pyrenean escape routes collectively known as the Freedom Trail. Including guiding, accommodation and taxi transfers from Toulouse airport, the trip will cost approximately €800 per person, based on a group of five traveling together. Also see chemindelaliberte.fr
Discover our latest stories first – follow @ftweekend on Twitter