|Part of Resistance during World War II|
Andrée de Jongh, head of the Comet Line, receiving the George Medal in 1946
The Comet Line (French: Réseau Comète) (1941–1944) was a Resistance organization in occupied Belgium and France in the Second World War. The Comet Line helped Allied soldiers and airmen shot down over occupied Belgium evade capture by Germans and return to Great Britain. The Comet Line began in Brussels where the airmen were fed, clothed, given false identity papers, and hidden in attics, cellars, and people's homes. A network of volunteers then escorted them south through occupied France into neutral Spain and home via British-controlled Gibraltar. The motto of the Comet Line was "Pugna Quin Percutias", which means "fight without arms", as the organization did not undertake armed or violent resistance to the German occupation.
The Comet Line was the largest of several escape networks in occupied Europe. In three years, the Comet Line helped 776 people, mostly British and American airmen, escape to Spain or evade capture in Belgium and France. An estimated 3,000 civilians, mostly Belgians and French, assisted the Comet Line. They are usually called "helpers." Seven hundred helpers were arrested by the Germans and 290 were executed or died in prison or concentration camps. The Comet Line received financial assistance from MI9, a British intelligence agency, but maintained its operational independence.
For the allies, the rescue of downed airmen by the Comet and other escape lines had a practical as well as a humanitarian objective. Training new and replacement of air crews was expensive and time-consuming. Rescuing airmen downed in occupied Europe and returning them to duty was a priority.
Andrée de Jongh ("Dédée"), a 24-year-old Belgian woman, was the first leader of the Comet Line. She was imprisoned by the Germans in 1943, but survived the war. Subsequent leaders were also imprisoned, executed, or killed in the course of their work exfiltrating airmen to Spain. Young women, including teenagers, played important roles in the Comet Line. Sixty-five to 70 percent of Comet Line helpers were women.
In 1941, an increasing number of British and allied aircraft were being shot down in Nazi-occupied Europe. Most downed airmen were killed or taken prisoner, but some evaded capture and were sheltered by allied sympathizers and an emerging resistance movement to German rule. In Belgium, Andrée de Jongh aged 24 (known as Dédée), Arnold Deppé aged 32, and Baron Jacques Donny aged 47 (Treasurer), created what became known as the Comet Line ("Reseau Comete") to help allied airmen escape and return to the United Kingdom. All three founders worked for the Société Financière de Transport et d'Entreprises Industrielles’ (SOFINA). In June 1941, Deppé journeyed from Belgium to southwestern France where he had once lived to look for the means to smuggle allied soldiers, downed airmen, and other people vulnerable to capture by the Germans out of Belgium. Deppé made contact with the de Greef family in Anglet, near the Spanish border, and arranged for their help in getting people across the border. Elvire De Greef became a stalwart of the Comet Line, known as "Tante Go." ("Auntie Go").
In July 1941, De Jongh and Deppé, assisted by the de Greefs, attempted their first crossing of the Spanish border with 10 Belgian men and a Belgian secret agent named Frederique Dupuich. After they successfully crossed the border, de Jongh and Deppé left their charges to fend for themselves and returned to Belgium. The Belgians were arrested by Spanish police and three Belgian soldiers among them were turned over to the Germans in France. The others were jailed briefly and fined. From this experience, de Jongh and Deppé realized that in future exfiltrations they must accompany their charges secretly all the way to the British Consulate in Bilbao and obtain British assistance.
In August, Deppé and de Jongh escorted another group of people, de Jongh taking a longer, more rural, and safer route with three men, including Private James Cromar of the Gordon Highlanders, 51st (Highland) Division, and Deppé taking a shorter, more dangerous route with six men. An informer betrayed Deppé and he and his group were arrested by the Germans. Deppé was imprisoned for the remainder of the war. De Jongh arrived safely at the de Greef's house and crossed into Spain with a Basque smuggler as a guide. De Jongh and her three charges, including a British airman, arrived safely at the British Consulate in Bilbao. She persuaded the British government to pay the Comet Line's expenses for transporting allied soldiers and airmen from Belgium to Spain, but declined all other assistance and guidance offered by the British. MI9 (British Military Intelligence Section 9), under the control of the ex-infantry Major Norman Crockatt and Lieutenant James Langley, who had been repatriated after losing his left arm in the rearguard at Dunkirk in 1940, approved financial assistance for the Comet Line.
Other than financial assistance, De Jongh was adamant in retaining the independence of the Comet Line from the British and the Belgian government in exile in Great Britain. She said that the Belgian and British attempts to control the Comet Line "were given by people who were not aware of the situation, and did not understand the spirit that drove the team, nor the...situation under which the work was being done." Langley of MI9 commented that the Comet Line's "intransigence and failure to make use of some of the help we offered them...nearly drove me frantic." Until 1943, the Comet Line denied the offer of the British to supply it with radios and radio operators to facilitate vetting of downed Allied airmen and communication. The rationale was that resistance groups were often broken up by the Germans because a radio had been captured. De Jongh declined to communicate via radio, but rather used couriers to deliver and receive messages to and from British diplomats in Spain. It was not until June 1943, after numerous arrests and a growing backlog of airmen to be exfiltrated, that the Comet Line gave its reluctant permission for a M19 agent, Jacques Legrelle ("Jerome"), to work in Paris with them. Legrelle proved to be compatible with the overworked leadership of the Comet Line.
The arrest of Arnold Deppé in August 1941 introduced a note of caution into the Comet Line. Andrée de Jongh decided that Belgium was unsafe for her and moved to Paris. Initially, her father, Frederic (code name "Paul"), the headmaster of a primary school, took over the operation in Belgium. His job was to rescue downed airmen, install them in safe houses, provide them with false identity documents, European clothing, training in European mannerisms, and an escort who would accompany the flyers to Paris, or all the way to Spain. Andrée de Jongh was the most frequent escort, She escorted one group of three airmen in October 1941, another group of three in November, and two groups totaling 11 men in December 1941. That level of activity continued in 1942. MI9 officer Airey Neave described Andrée de Jongh as "one of our greatest agents". In total, de Jongh made 24 round trips across the Pyrenees, escorting 118 airmen. Other persons who frequently escorted downed airmen across the border included Alfred Edward Johnson ("B"), an English handyman living with the de Greefs.
The Comet line used Basques, often smugglers accustomed to crossing the French/Spanish border surreptitiously, to guide airmen across the dangerous border which was guarded by French and Spanish police and German soldiers. The favorite guide was Florentino Goikoetxea who was a wanted man by the French and the Spanish police. The German police, both military and security, intensified efforts to shut down the escape organizations exfiltrating downed airmen as allied bombing of Europe and Germany increased.
The Comet Line had three nerve centers: Brussels, Paris, and southwestern France. With the Germans closing in on the Comet Line in Belgium, Dédée's father, Frederick ("Paul"), fled to Paris on April 30, 1942 to join his daughter. He took over management of the Paris center. Three leaders of the Comet Line in Belgium were arrested six days after his flight. Picking up the pieces, the Comet Line leader in Belgium then became Jean Greindl ("Nemo"), 36 years old, the director of a charity called the "Swedish Canteen." Nemo organized a system for collecting the ever-increasing number of downed airmen throughout Belgium and preparing them for exfiltration. Escorts under Nemo's direction accompanied airmen from Brussels to Paris. Nemo's principal escort to Paris for airmen until her arrest in the summer of 1942 was Andrée Dumon ("Nadine"), 19 years old. "Nadine" survived the war in German concentration camps and described her experiences in her book Je Ne Vous Ai Pas Oubliés.
When airmen arrived in Paris, the de Jonghs took over, providing them with safe houses and false documents and with an escort, usually Andrée de Jongh, who took them to southwestern France by train. In Bayonne or Saint-Jean-de-Luz the airmen were met, usually by Elvire de Greef or her teenage daughter, Janine. From there, the airmen, a Basque guide, and their escort would journey over the Pyrenees to Spain, initially by bicycle and then on foot. In San Sebastián, Spain an automobile from the British consulate would meet the airmen and drive them to Madrid and onward to Gibraltar where they would be flown back to Great Britain. While the airmen proceeded onward, de Jongh (or after her arrest, another escort) met in San Sebastián with British diplomat Michael Creswell, ("Monday"), who gave her money for the Comet Line's expenses and messages to take back to France.
In spring 1944, with the allied invasion of France looming, the Comet Line, in consultation with MI9, decided to phase out exfiltrations and instead gather downed airmen into forest camps where they could await the arrival of allied armies. American Virginia d'Albert-Lake and her French husband Philippe assisted in gathering airmen in the Fréteval forest in Operation Marathon. The final exfiltrations were mostly Comet Line members escaping last-minute German purges. Elvire De Greef and her two children crossed the border into Spain on June 6, 1944. The final operation of the Comet Line was on September 28, 1944 when De Greef, back in liberated France, accompanied four allied airmen on a flight from Biarritz to England.
Young people, especially young women, working for the Comet Line often dressed, behaved, and carried false identity cards that described them as students and stated their age as several years younger than they actually were. The theory was that younger people were less likely to be regarded with suspicion by the Germans. For example, one of Andrée de Jongh's false identity cards gave her the name "Denise Lacroix" and listed her birthdate as 7 July 1924, almost eight years younger than she actually was.
A typical exfiltration
Andrée de Jongh to downed airmen.
The story of an exfiltration of one Canadian airman illustrates the complexity and the large number of people involved in the operation of the Comet Line. The Comet Line carried out 101 exfiltrations during World War II, most of them similar to the following, each of them utilizing many different helpers and guides.
On December 9, 1942, Sergeant Sydney Smith was a crew member of a Vickers Wellington bomber shot down near Sergines, France. He evaded capture and a farmer, Emile Cochin, gave him a place to stay for the night and contacted an English-speaking woman, Madeleine de Brunel de Serbonnes. She took Smith to her home where he stayed until December 14. A dentist named Mr. Bolusset, provided civilian clothing that fit Smith. Smith was transported to Paris by train by Catherine Janot, a law student and daughter of de Serbonnes. A medical doctor, Jean de Larebeyrette, preceded them on an earlier train to Paris to ensure no German checkpoints were along the route as Smith had no French identification papers.
In Paris, Smith was housed in the Serbonnes family apartment. On December 15, Catherine Janot asked a Canadian medical student named Bernard Courtenay-Mayers for help and he referred her to a Jesuit priest named Michel Riquet. Riquet told Janot that she would be visited by people who would help Smith escape to Spain. That evening Comet Line members Robert Ayle and Andrée de Jongh came by the Serbonnes apartment to meet Smith and verify his bona fides as an allied airman. On December 16, de Jongh took Smith to a photographer to get photos to have identification papers forged for him.
On December 20, Smith left Paris by train with de Jongh, Janine De Greef, and two Belgians fleeing the Germans. Arriving in Bayonne, they ate at a restaurant known to the Comet Line. From there they continued (probably by bicycle) to the village of Urrugne, near the Spanish border and the country home of Francia Usandizanga, a Basque helper of the Comet Line. Usandizanga sent 17-year-old Janine de Greef away because of the danger from Germans. The next day, December 23, Smith, two other airmen, de Jongh, and a Basque guide, Florentino Goikoetxea, walked across the Pyrenees to San Sebastián, Spain.
In San Sebastián, Smith and the other airmen stayed at the house of Federico Armendariz. The airmen were picked up by a British diplomatic automobile and driven to Madrid, then continued on to Gibraltar where on January 21 they boarded a ship, arriving in Scotland on January 26.
Although the exfiltration of Smith went smoothly without complications many of those mentioned above who helped him would later be punished. Robert Ayle was executed by the Germans, Usandizanga died in a German concentration camp, Goikoetxea was shot and wounded by German soldiers, de Jongh and Riquet were imprisoned in German concentration camps, and Janot fled France.
Arrests and betrayals
In November 1942 the escape lines became more dangerous when southern France was occupied by the Germans and the whole of France came under direct Nazi rule. In November also the Abwehr (German military intelligence) dealt a heavy blow to the Comet Line. The Maréchal family hid airmen in their home in Brussels and the house became a meeting place for members of the line. Two men persuaded a Comet Line helper they were American airmen and were taken to the Maréchal home. The men were actually Germans and the Abwehr raided the home, arrested the Maréchals, including 18-year old Elsie, and many other helpers of the Comet Line. The information gained by the Germans enabled them to disrupt the Comet Line in Belgium. One hundred people in Brussels were arrested. Among those arrests, on 1 December 1942, the treasurer Baron Jacques Donny, having been betrayed, was arrested at his home at night and later sentenced to death on 10 October 1943 and executed by shooting in Stuttgart on 24 February 1944. He was known by the early evaders as "Father Christmas" as he brought them parcels of newly made clothes to wear.
The next blow was when Andrée de Jongh was arrested January 15, 1943 in Urrugne, the closest French town to the Spanish border. She was probably betrayed by a farm worker. Although interrogated many times by the Gestapo and German military intelligence, the Nazis didn't believe that this young, slight woman was anything more than a minor helper of airmen. Dédée, as she was universally called, would spend the rest of World War II in German prisons and concentration camps, but she survived.
On February 6, 1943, the Comet Line leader in Belgium, Jean Greindl ("Nemo"), was arrested in Brussels. While in a German military prison he was killed in an allied bomb strike. With these losses, the Comet Line did not exfiltrate anyone during February 1943, but in March normal operations began again with Jean-François Northomb (code name "Franco") replacing Andrée de Jongh as the principle escort to Spain of airmen. In June 1943, the Comet Line again nearly collapsed. An infiltrator led the Germans to arrest major leaders of the Line in both Paris and Brussels. Among those arrested were Dédèe's father, Frederic ("Paul"), who was arrested in Paris on June 7, 1943 and executed on March 28, 1944. From the ashes of Comet merged three new leaders. A British agent, Jacques Legrell ("Jerome"), took charge in Paris and Antonie d'Ursel ("Jacques Cartier") reconstituted the Brussels center. Michelle Dumon ("Michou" or "Lily"), 22 years old and a sister of previously arrested Nadine, was a bold and experienced helper.
None of the three new leaders of the Comet Line in mid-1943 survived for long. On December 24, 1943, d'Ursel ("Jacques Cartier") drowned in the Bidasoa River which was the border of France and Spain. Legrelle was arrested by the Gestapo in an apartment in Paris on January 17, 1944 and Northomb was arrested in the same apartment on January 18. Both were tortured but would survive the war. With the invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944 approaching, the need for a functioning Comet Line to rescue increasing numbers of downed airmen was crucial. In March 1944, the British diplomat, Creswell met with Elvire de Greef (Tante Go), Michelle Dumon, and Marcel Roger ("Max") in Madrid to plan for the role of a re-constituted Comet Line. Roger took on the job of escorting downed flyers from Paris to southwestern France. Dumon would work with him and in Paris. The de Greef family continued to facilitate border crossings. MI9 sent in an operative named Jean de Blommaert ("Thomas Rutland") to run the center in Paris. An American woman, Virginia d'Albert-Lake and her French husband, Philippe, worked with the Comet Line until she was arrested by Germans in June 1944. She was sent to a concentration camp, but survived the war.
A young Belgian man, Jacques Desoubrie, working for the Germans infiltrated the Comet Line and was responsible for many of the arrests of its members. Michelle Dumon exposed him as a German agent in May 1944. Given the number of people involved in the Comet Line and its inability to vet effectively their volunteers and downed airmen to determine their bona fides, the Line was vulnerable to infiltration by German agents.
Hundreds of members of the Comet line were betrayed and arrested by the Geheime Feldpolizei and the Abwehr; after weeks of interrogation and torture at places such as Fresnes Prison in Paris, they were executed or labelled Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog or NN) prisoners. NN prisoners were deported to German prisons and many later to concentration camps such as Ravensbrück concentration camp for women. Men were sent to Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, Buchenwald concentration camp, and Flossenbürg concentration camp. Prisoners sent to these camps included Andrée de Jongh, Elsie Maréchal (Belgian Resistance), Andrée Dumon, sister of Michelle Dumon, and Virginia d'Albert-Lake (American).
The authors of the official history of MI9 cite 2,373 British and Commonwealth servicemen and 2,700 Americans exfiltrated to Great Britain by escape lines, including Comet, during the Second World War. The Royal Air Forces Escaping Society estimated that a total of 14,000 helpers worked with the many escape and evasion lines by 1945. The Comet Line inspired the 1970s BBC television series, Secret Army (1977–79). A window in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Brussels celebrates the Comet Line and the allied airmen downed in Belgium.
A typical Comet Line route was from Brussels or Lille to Paris and then via Tours, Bordeaux, Bayonne, over the Pyrenees to San Sebastián in Spain. From there evaders travelled to Bilbao, Madrid and Gibraltar. There were three other main routes, used by other lines. The Pat Line route (after founder Albert Guérisse (code name: Pat O'Leary) ran from Paris to Toulouse via Limoges and then over the Pyrenees via Esterri d'Aneu to Barcelona. Another Pat Line route ran from Paris to Dijon, Lyons, Avignon to Marseille, then Nîmes, Perpignan and Barcelona, from where they were transported to Gibraltar. A third route from Paris (the Shelburne Line) ran to Rennes and then St Brieuc in Brittany, where airmen were taken by clandestine boat to Dartmouth.
Notable members of the Line
- Andrée de Jongh (also known as Dédée and Postman), Line co-creator and leader. Arrested 15 January 1943. Survived several Nazi concentration camps. Awarded the George Medal
- Kattalin Aguirre, a Basque widow who, along with her teen-age daughter, Josephine, assisted flyers in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, near the border with Spain.
- Elisabeth Barbier, worked as a member of the Comet Line in Paris in 1942 before working with Val Williams (Oaktree line) and then starting the Reseau Vaneau. Arrested in 1943 and sent to Ravensbrück until liberated in 1945.
- Virginia d'Albert-Lake, American citizen who lived in Paris and sheltered airmen in her home. Arrested in June 1944 and survived imprisonment in Ravensbrück.
- Monique de Bissy, arrested in March 1944, freed in September 1944.
- Jean de Blommaert, headed Operation Marathon in 1944.
- Baron Jacques Donny (known as Father Christmas), Line Treasurer. Arrested 1 December 1942 at night in his home. Sentenced 10 October 1943. Executed 29 February 1944.
- Frédéric de Jongh (also known as Paul), Dédée's father. Arrested 7 June 1943 and executed 28 March 1944.
- Elvire De Greef (also known as Tante Go, "Auntie" Go), leader in southwestern France. Avoided arrest and survived. Awarded the George Medal. Her husband, Fernand, and children Frederick and Janine assisted her.
- Michelle Dumon (also known as Micheline, Michou, and Lily), sister of Andrée Dumon. Versatile, "odd job" helper; evaded arrest despite long service; awarded the George Medal
- Rosine Thérier Witton (also known as Rolande), operated a safe house in Arras and served as a guide on the Arras-Paris section of the line (March–July 1943) and the Paris-Bordeaux section of the line (July 1943-January 1944). Arrested January 1944 and sent to Ravensbrück and then Flossenburg; liberated May 1945.
- Antoine d'Ursel (also known as Jacques Cartier), succeeded Greindl as leader in Brussels. Died of drowning crossing Franco-Spanish border 24 December 1943.
- Florentino Goikoetxea, Basque smuggler and a guide for many airmen across the Pyrenees from occupied France to neutral Spain. Awarded George Medal.
- Jean Greindl (also known as Nemo), head of line in Brussels. Arrested 6 February 1943. Killed in an Allied bombardment on 7 September 1943.
- Henriette Hanotte (also known as Monique), "Walked 140 airmen to freedom." Awarded MBE.
- Jacques Legrelle (also known as Jerome), organised and operated line in the Paris area, linked the Belgium part of line to south of France. Was captured, tortured, sent to concentration camps and survived. Awarded the George Medal.
- Elsie Maréchal, British-born, she and her family were captured by the Germans in November 1942. Survived the war, as did her daughter Elsie, in concentration camps
- Jean-François Nothomb (also known as Franco), succeeded Andrée de Jongh as leader in France. Arrested 18 January 1944. Survived several Nazi concentration camps. Awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
- Amanda Stassart (Diane). Captured in 1944. Liberated in 1945.
In popular literature
- The story of Comet Line is told in The Little Cyclone written by Airey Neave, who while working for MI9 was responsible for overseeing and helping this line.
- The Freedom Line by Peter Eisner tells the story of Robert Grimes, a 20–year–old American B–17 pilot whose plane was shot down over Belgium on 20 October 1943. Wounded, disoriented and scared, he was rescued by operatives of the Comet Line and escorted to Spain.
- Return Journey by Major ASB Arkwright includes a first-hand account of three British officers who were escorted to freedom by the line after escaping from a POW camp.
- In the book Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, Donald L. Miller describes the zealously maintained Comet Line line by young men and women.
- Riding the Comet is a stage drama by Mark Violi. The play focuses on a rural French family helping two American GIs return safely to London shortly after the D-Day invasion. This play premiered at Actors' NET of Bucks County, Pennsylvania in September 2011.
Other accounts appear in the books Saturday at MI9 also by Airey Neave, Home Run by John Nichol & Tony Rennel, MI9 – Escape & Evasion by James Langley & M. R. D. Foot, and Silent Heroes: Downed Airmen and the French Underground by Sherri Greene Ottis.
- The Nightingale (2015), by Kristin Hannah, a fictional French Resistance fighter named Isabelle Rossignol uses a passage through the Pyrenees much like the Comet Line
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