A 24-year-old Belgian woman created the largest escape line for downed airmen in WWII
Once the German blitzkrieg began, the skies over Western Europe immediately became as contested as the ground below. And just like on the turf below, things did not go well for the Allies at first. Allied planes were dropping like flies and the pilots who survived being shot down were suddenly trapped in occupied territory.
Luckily for those airmen in the early years of the war, a young Belgian woman was looking out for them and anyone else who needed an escape from occupied territory. Andrée de Jongh moved to the Belgian capital of Brussels as it was taken over by Germany – and she already had her work cut out for her.
De Jongh knew a little something about brave resistance in the face of German occupation. She was born in a city that was occupied by the Germans during World War I. She grew up with the stories of resistance from that war, particularly the story of Edith Cavell, a nurse that was executed for aiding friendly forces escape to the Netherlands.
Inspired by Cavell, de Jongh also became a nurse and moved to Brussels in 1940. While working for the Red Cross, she discovered an untold number of British soldiers who had escaped captivity during the blitzkrieg and some who had escaped from Dunkirk. They were hiding in safehouses throughout the area.
As a nurse, she was able to move freely from house to house, and was eventually able to become a hub for the spokes of houses that were hiding Allied troops from the German occupiers. She was also able to set up new safe houses and trusted housekeepers to move them across the country. Eventually, she managed to secure civilian clothes and false papers to aid them.
De Jongh partnered with two co-conspirators, Henri de Bliqui and Arnold Deppè, to help move them to (ostensibly) neutral Spain so they could then escape to Britain. The group, calling themselves DDD, were ready to move airmen and soldiers by July 1941. The first group moved did not fare well.
For starters, Henri de Bliqui was betrayed by a Belgian collaborator earlier in 1941 and was soon executed, highlighting how dangerous their mission would be. Deppè and de Jongh moved 10 Belgians and an English woman (actually a Belgian spy) to the Spanish border, figuring their mission was complete. It wasn’t: they were all arrested by the Spanish and handed over to the Nazis.
Upon learning about the arrests, de Jongh began to work with the British consulate in Bilbao, Spain to take charge of the escapees once they reached Spain’s border with France. Her next mission brought a British soldier and two Belgians from Belgium by train to Bayonne, France, and then to the Pyrenees on foot.
All she asked for from the British was to ensure the safety of her charges once they arrived in Spain and to pay for the expenses for moving them. This cost roughly $2,000 per escapee (in today’s dollars). She accepted no further payments. This setup was the foundation of what would become known as the Comet Line, World War II’s largest escape route for downed airmen and other escapees.
The Comet Line was more than 500 miles long, running from occupied Belgium, into France, and then onto Spain via rail and the Pyrenees Mountains. Although Deppé was arrested in August 1941, de Jongh would personally escort the airmen to Spain until her own arrest in 1943. In all, it’s estimated she rescued around 120 down personnel.
De Jongh was imprisoned for the rest of the war, and managed to escape execution because the Germans would not believe the small woman could lead such a network. In her absence, the Comet Line continued shuttling airmen to safety, helping more than 700 before France was liberated in 1944.