WWII Pyrenees escape route retraced by Sussex pensioner

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Media captionMr Hodgson, from Robertsbridge in East Sussex, inherited her diary and letters and became fascinated by her secret life.

A pensioner from East Sussex has retraced his great aunt's footsteps by trekking a World War II escape route across the Pyrenees, in her memory.

Jeremy Hodgson discovered after her death that his great aunt Bessie was a wartime spy and part of an elite force known as Churchill's secret army.

In November 1943, with three RAF flight crew, she completed the five-day, 56-mile crossing to escape German capture.

Mr Hodgson, from Robertsbridge, made the same crossing in July 2012.

'Incredible exploit'

Elizabeth "Bessie" Hodgson's family had no idea that she was an agent in the Special Operations Executive (SEO), while working at the British consulate in Switzerland.

Image caption Jeremy Hodgson decided to follow in his great aunt Bessie's footsteps

After her death, Mr Hodgson inherited her diary and letters and became fascinated by her secret life.

He said: "We knew she was doing something fairly serious on the other side of the Channel, but we had no idea until reading it, what in fact she did do.

"It's a story of an amazing woman who didn't have an emotional life that we know of, but who used her energies in other ways - in the service of her country."

During the war, she was asked to go abroad to recruit people to commit acts of sabotage in Germany. "She used to meet her contacts walking around with suitcases of explosives," said Mr Hodgson.

In 1943, under the threat of being discovered, she had to flee Switzerland and then cross the Pyrenees, between France and Spain.

"It was only fairly recently I read it a bit more deeply and realised what an incredible exploit it was for her - to do it in November, in winter, at night, in brogues and stockings," said Mr Hodgson.

"She didn't have the right kit because she'd come over the wire into France from Switzerland and with her city clothes on.

"They did it at night to avoid German patrols. They had very little food and she had quite severe frost bite when she got back and she had to go into a hospital.

"Goodness me, she was a tough old lady - she was 68," he said.

'Well done Bessie'

Mr Hodgson decided to follow in her footsteps. "I thought well it would be a rather good thing to do in her memory, as a tribute to what she did."

During the crossing, Mr Hodgson found it extremely tough at times.

"When we got up into the proper mountains it was really quite hard. On day three we had two 3,000 metre climbs consecutively that's 10,000 feet, twice. At one stage I was running on empty.

"Ours, I found, was the hardest thing I have ever done - but it doesn't bear comparison to what she had to do," he said.

In her memoirs, Bessie Hodgson wrote of how she had to hold onto the person in front because it was so dark they could not see where they were going.

When they heard German patrols they had to hide and stay silent until the patrols had gone away.

The escapees had to sleep on hard wet ground, go through rivers up to waist deep, getting soaking wet with no chance of drying out for five or six days.

"They were driven on by the need to get there because if they got caught they were going to be shot," said Mr Hodgson.

Jeremy Hodgson's journey, although very different to his great aunt's, was a great achievement for him.

"At the very end, when I got to the top which was the Spanish/French border I just turned round and looked down the mountain I just thought: 'well done Bessie, well done' - something very special."

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