|Courtesy of Rostislav Botev via Wikipedia|
During WWII, thousands of citizens in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and the Basque region of Spain hid Allied soldiers and delivered them along various escape routes to British consulate officials stationed in Spain. From there, the men flew back to England so they could continue their fight to free Europe from the grip of the Nazis.
The Comet Line was established by the Belgians in August of 1941 and continued to operate until the end of 1944. The line ran from Brussels, through France, and across the Pyrenees to northern Spain (red line on map below). How did this line start, and who was behind its formation?
|Courtesy of the National Museum of the US Air Force|
After Belgium surrendered to the Germans in 1940, Mademoiselle Andrée De Jongh, known as Dédée, cared for wounded British soldiers in Brussels. By 1941, she decided to find a way to help the many soldiers and airmen hidden in Brussels to escape back to England. Many were survivors from Dunkirk who hadn't been caught by the Germans.
Dédée and her father, known as "Paul," formed an escape line from Brussels to St. Jean de Luz in southwest France. In August of 1941, Dédée escorted a Scottish soldier and two Belgians who wanted to fight for the Allies to the British Consulate in Bilbao, Spain. At first the Consul didn't believe that the twenty-five-year-old young woman had crossed the Pyrenees on foot, but she convinced him otherwise. She offered to bring more soldiers but asked for financial support to feed and house them on the long trip from Brussels to Bilbao and to pay the Basque guides who would lead them over the mountains. The Consul petitioned the British Foreign Office to support Dédée's plan, and the Comet Line was born.
Meanwhile, back in Brussels, Dédée's father Paul began plans for collecting the Allied servicemen and young Belgians scattered across the country. He sought aid from likeminded friends - some gave money and others offered to house soldiers.
Early on, one of Dédée's guides and the servicemen he was escorting were arrested at the train station in Lille, France, and the Germans learned of Dédée's participation in the escape line. The Gestapo visited the De Jongh home and questioned Dédée's family at length on her whereabouts. After the Gestapo left without answers, Paul sent word through a trusted messenger that Dédée must not return to Belgium but run the line from France. He took over the Brussels operation.
|The De Jongh Home in Schaerbeek, Brussels|
Courtesy of Lumixbx via Wikipedia
Paul escorted the servicemen to the Brussels train station and handed them off to Charlie and Elvire Morelle, a brother-sister team, who guided them into France. Dédée met up with them just across the border and traveled with the men on a series of trains to Paris and then immediately on the overnight express to Bayonne in the far south of France.
The southern end of the Comet Line was run by the De Greef family. They had fled Belgium when the Germans invaded and then settled in an empty villa in the village of Anglet above the bay of St Jean de Luz, close to the Spanish border. Once recruited, the whole family worked tirelessly for the line. Elvire De Greef, known as "Tante Go," established a black-market enterprise, which provided good food for the escaping soldiers and their guides before making the arduous crossing of the Pyrenees. Tante Go bribed the Germans with her goods, and her black-market activities provided a good cover for her resistance efforts with the Comet Line.
|An Allied soldier's fake identity card|
Courtesy of the National Museum of the US Air Force
Tante Go's husband, L'Oncle, obtained a job as interpreter at the German headquarters in Anglet. This gave him "access to special passes and certificats de domicil required for visitors to the forbidden zone established by the Germans along the Atlantic coast." L'Oncle was also responsible for billeting German troops in the area, which gave him access to other headquarters of German units. He stole official stamps and blank identity documents and forms in small enough quantities that the theft went unnoticed. These items were then sent to the branches of the escape line in Brussels and Paris.
Tante Go recruited helpers in Bayonne, Anglet, Biarritz, and St Jean de Luz and located those who were willing to provide safe houses for the parties before their crossing into Spain. She and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Janine, regularly bicycled to these locations. Tante Go also hired Basque guides to take the groups over the Pyrenees.
In the coming months, I will share many exciting stories as well as tragic events that took place on the Comet Line.
Little Cyclone by Airey Neave. Biteback Publishing Ltd, 2013, 2016.
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