I’ve always liked the notion of calling myself a footsteps biographer. But the phrase took on new meaning for me this summer when I climbed three summits in three days, crossing the Pyrenees from France into Spain, following a route which, in the midst of the second world war, acted as a critical but dangerous lifeline for hundreds of Jewish refugees, French resisters and downed Allied airmen desperately trying to escape Hitler’s clutches with the help of guides known as passeurs.
I’ve never climbed a mountain in my life but I have been gripped by an irrational desire to try to understand what it must feel like to flee for your life. Thwarted mostly by Covid-19, it has taken half a decade to make it happen. I wish I could say I spent the intervening years getting fitter, but the reverse is the case: I got older. I am 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 girlfriend, all fitter and more experienced than I, agreed to come with me.
We planned an adventure following closely in the footsteps of Anne-Marie Walters, codenamed Colette, a pretty 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 an enthralling account of her wartime activities, Moondrop to Gascony (Moho Books), immediately after the war while her experiences were still fresh. Her final chapter — devoted to her trek into neutral Spain successfully delivering three downed pilots and a Dutch resistance fighter as well as vital documents sewn into her shoulder pads — is full of vivid descriptions about bridges crossed, streams encountered and shepherds’ huts where they gratefully rested.
This made it easy, thanks to our knowledgeable local guide and a largely unchanged landscape, to retrace her route and understand some of the challenges she faced — though not the fearful, hungry nights she must have experienced. In complete contrast, we allowed ourselves generous suppers every night and carried freshly made baguettes in our rucksacks for picnic lunches.
I first heard about Walters while writing a book about women in wartime Paris. Born in Geneva to a British diplomat father and French mother, she moved with her family to England at the outbreak of the second world war and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. In 1943 she was recruited as an SOE agent and trained at its base at Loch Morar, Scotland, before being parachuted into France at the start of 1944.
I was immediately intrigued: why wasn’t she as well known as other SOE heroines such as Violette Szabo or Odette Churchill? Her commanding officer, Lt Col George Starr, 20 years older than Walters, made no secret of the fact that, even though she, unlike him, was a fluent French speaker, he did not like having women in his group, especially such an attractive one. Shortly after D-Day he told her she should help with washing up and other chores “proper to women”.
Later, when she reported him for serious misconduct — accusing him of witnessing the torture of French collaborators and German POWs — her femininity was used against her in response. According to Maurice Buckmaster, head of the SOE French section, Walters was an unreliable witness because she suffered from the deluded idea that every man she came across fell in love with her and she bore a grudge against Starr because he did not comply.
The night before we started, over an indulgent four-course dinner at the Château de Beauregard, a hotel that was once a Gestapo headquarters in St Girons, our guide explained the route he had devised. Each day we would tackle a peak of approximately 1,800 metres, he told us. I swallowed another glass of burgundy and wished I had trained harder.
We started walking, as Walters did in 1944, at the Col des Ares, on a warm August morning with just a hint of possible drizzle. Maintain a steady pace, said the guide, trying to be encouraging — don’t keep stopping. But thankfully, we did stop regularly for water and snacks.
Ah, this’ll be fine I thought, 10 minutes into the hike. We were on shaded paths of scree, which looked deceptively gentle at first, the broad oak trees keeping us relatively cool in spite of the hot sun. But it wasn’t long before I was short of breath and my arms began to ache from leaning on to my hiking poles.
We needed to tackle 1,000 metres of ascent by lunchtime if we were going to make it to Boutx in time for dinner and a night in a mountain auberge. This wasn’t going to be easy at all but I reminded myself that, since Anne-Marie was wearing rubber shoes at least two sizes two large and a narrow tweed skirt that she repeatedly hitched up in order to take bigger steps, I could hardly complain. She had been promised more suitable attire but it never materialised and, since only a few weeks previously she had worn shorts for cycling and been told off for wearing inappropriate clothing, she decided to make do.
Once we hit the first summit, the Pic du Gar, and the path opened to blue skies, rugged gorges and dramatic green valleys between forested peaks, I understood another reason for undertaking this adventure. I could never have appreciated the dramatic views of the Lannemezan plateau and the Garonne plain had I not worked to get there. They were so beautiful they reduced Walters to tears as she “looked a 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, to have shared in so many disappointments and to have to leave so near their conclusion,” she wrote poignantly.
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 confit of duck with chips, and a vast array of artisanal beers for which the region is renowned. Our spirits restored, even the ropey 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, just tins of bully beef and bread. Also, knowing there was a German garrison in Boutx, they had to slow down their descent, arrive at night, cross the road in silence and then find a place to sleep on rocky, damp ground before making a dawn getaway.
The second day, from Boutx to Melles, was longer and harder, my legs stiffer, so my relief when we found a shepherd’s hut, one that Walters too had been happy to stop at, was intense. She said she scribbled her name on the walls, doubtless worn away by time, and had a brief sleep. When she woke, she complained that “every bone in my body seemed to ache and my legs wobbled”. Me too, I wanted to shout as my jellylike legs only just allowed me to trudge into Melles, on ancient paths layered with history, desperate for a drink. Walters’ group again had to approach in silence at 10pm, crawling, stooping and scrambling their way through dense blackberry bushes.
“The branches swept across my face,” she wrote. “Within a short time I felt blood running down my bare legs where the scratches hurt with a sharp burning pain.” She bit her lower lip to prevent herself from crying and, after a second night outside, woke at dawn to make for the Spanish border. Even though we had enjoyed a comfortable bed in a townhouse hotel, the Auberge du Crabère, with freshly baked croissants before starting our final push at 9am, this was still the toughest day, with a five-hour morning climb until we reached the tree line with a ridge above and Spain beyond.
As we came 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 humans in sight. With Spain and the village of Canejan just about visible in the distance, Walters said goodbye to her guides, who had to start their journey home.
But even the downhill was challenging on day three, with endless tall bracken fields making for an unpleasant descent before we could thrill to the sight of the Garonne, which flittered in the brilliant sun for Walters as for us. We finally walked along the flat valley floor into a Spanish town, Les, and found a bar in which to celebrate.
We had been lucky with the weather: three days of sunshine, even though a threatening mist crept up the valley every afternoon, a reminder that our weighty packs and waterproofs were there for a reason, as the area is known for its sudden temperature changes. My shoulders ached from carrying all I needed for three days, but I don’t think I could have managed with less.
After Spain, Walters went to Algiers and then eventually home at the end of 1944. She later became an editor and literary agent, living in the US, Spain and France, where she died in 1998 aged 75. However, her military career ended abruptly, shortly after her return from Algiers. She had had a dispute with Starr, the origins of which are not clear, but among his complaints about her was that she wore “high Paris fashion”, thus violating his principle of being inconspicuous, that she failed to follow discipline and had loose morals. Another report commented that, as she was physically attractive and not afraid to use her attractions towards men, she had a disturbing effect on any group she was a part of.
The SOE in recent historical studies has been considered a trailblazer for employing women in dangerous roles in wartime, yet Walters is now being studied in academic circles as one who may have suffered throughout the time she worked for Starr and his network of clandestine SOE agents because of her gender. What I learnt by walking in her footsteps is that, whatever else about her might be challenged, her courage is not in doubt and deserves commemorating.
Anne Sebba is the author of ‘Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson UK)