News story

Female forces personnel face the 'Freedom Trail' in honour of WWII veteran

In 1943 the most decorated woman of the Second World War made her escape from the Gestapo through the Pyrenees. Now female Armed Forces personnel will follow in her footsteps on a very special remembrance expedition.

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The brainchild of former Olympic gymnast, Suzanne Dando, the expedition from France to Spain will cover ‘Le Chemin de la Libertie’ - or Freedom Trail - that Nancy Wake completed during the Second World War in just 47 gruelling hours. Today’s team expect to get to the end of the trail in four days.

During the Second World War, between the years of 1940 and 1944, more than 33,000 civilians and 6,000 allied servicemen were forced to tackle the peaks of the Pyrenees in an effort to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe and regain their liberty via neutral Spain.

As a Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent and resistance fighter Nancy helped thousands of servicemen escape across the Pyrenees to freedom.

The route to be taken by this latest expedition is the most inaccessible route across the Pyrenees, with snow and boulder fields to cross. Covering 50 miles (80km), with steep climbs up to 2,600 metres, the team will be well protected with 21st century kit.

In 1943, Nancy and her fellow escapees had no such luxuries. Wearing nothing but ordinary clothes they moved in silence among the enemy patrols, replacing their boots with espadrilles.

They walked through blizzards with no opportunity for sleep and just snow to eat for hydration.

Raising funds for the Royal British Legion, Suzanne Dando has chosen current serving female Armed Forces personnel for her team, as she is motivated by the contribution women make on operations.

She said:

There is great depth of character and strength in a team of forces women.

One of them is Group Captain Deb Barber from Air Command, RAF High Wycombe.

The first female Group Captain in the air traffic control branch, Group Captain Barber said:

The women of the SOE have been a great inspiration in my career. That it coincides with the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain made it something I had to do.

The expedition is about keeping going when the going gets tough, you don’t give up. I know I will be putting myself back in time to 1943. I’m sure it will be tiring for us but we won’t be moving at two am with dogs chasing us!

Group Captain Barber plans to carry with her an extract from Nancy Wake’s autobiography to get through the tough moments:

One of the American airmen with Nancy cried out that they must halt, he could go no further. Nancy slapped him across the face, and he went on - she effectively saved his life,” she explained.

Former RAF pilot Jo Salter, the first female to fly fighter jets in the RAF, will be climbing alongside Group Captain Barber:

I am very proud to be doing this as a part of a tri-Service team,” Jo said, “but I am daunted by the fact that I have to keep up with Olympic athletes! I think it will be an emotional experience, following in the footsteps of someone like Nancy.

Group Captain Barber described Nancy’s legacy of ‘absolute selfless commitment’ as being at the core of all personnel serving on operations.

She cites team mate, Royal Navy doctor Kate Nesbitt, as a great example:

When I was out in Afghanistan I was totally inspired by the work people were doing, especially the medics like Katie. The personal qualities shown in World War II and the Battle of Britain, the things that drove Nancy, are in colleagues overseas today in spades.

Published 19 August 2010