The Comet Line was a World War Two escape line that assisted mainly allied aircrew who had survived the loss of their aircraft and avoided capture by the occupying German forces. The majority of these evaders came from aircraft which had crashed in Belgium, France, the Netherlands or Luxembourg.
The Beginning. After the defeat of France in June 1940 thousands of British prisoners of war from the 51st Highland Division were marched north, through France and Belgium, on their way to prison camps in eastern Germany. Many escaped and hid on farms in the Flemish countryside. From there they were taken to Brussels where groups of friends, who were the first roots of the famous Comet Line, hid them and tried to arrange their safe passage home.
In the summer of 1941 a twenty-four year old Belgian woman Andrée De Jongh whose father, Frédéric De Jongh, was involved in hiding the escaped soldiers, organised an escape route using trains from Brussels through Paris to the Franco-Spanish border in South West France. With the assistance of Arnold Deppé, who had contacts in South-Western France, the first evaders down the line were eleven Belgians hoping to reach England and continue the war. Most of these were arrested in Spain and returned to France. In August Andreé De Jongh guided an escaped British soldier James Cromar and two Belgians down the line and reached the British consulate in Bilbao Spain safely. Arnold Deppé who left Brussels at the same time with another group of Belgians was not so lucky as he and his group were arrested en-route.
In October another group were on there way, two Scottish soldiers from the 51st Highland Division were taken from Brussels by Elvire De Greef, who was the lines organiser in the French Basque region. They met up with Andreé De Jongh in Valenciennes and she guided them across the Pyrenees with the help of a Basque smuggler to reach San Sebastian on the 16th October 1941. With the help of the British consul the two soldiers reached the British embassy in Madrid and were then taken on to Gibraltar where they embarked on the Polish liner "Batory" arriving on the Clyde early in January 1942.
Memorial at Mont Valerien Paris.
The Escape Line.
By the summer of 1941 the Royal Air Force, in retaliation for the bombing of British cities from September 1940, had started its bombing campaign on Germany and many of the routes the bombers took to reach the industrial cities took them over Belgium where they encountered the anti-aircraft guns and fighter aircraft of the occupiers. In November 1941 Andrée De Jongh took her first RAF evaders of crashed aircraft, John Ives, Michel Kowalski and Stefan Tomicki from Brussels over the border into France through Paris to the Atlantic coastal town of St Jean de Luz, where, guided by Basque smugglers, they crossed the Pyrenees mountains at night making for the relative safety of "neutral" Spain.
Assisted by many others on the route, Andrée De Jongh continued her journeys travelling nearly every month, sometimes twice a month through 1942 guiding many RAF and now that the USA had joined the war, also USAAF evading airmen to freedom. The line suffered many arrests over this time, almost from the beginning Andreé was unable to return to Brussels as her name had been made known to the Germans, for every arrest new helpers were recruited.
The arrests in the mountains.
In January 1943 Andrée De Jongh led three RAF evaders up into the foothills of the Pyrenees to a farmhouse which was the final stop before the night crossing of the Pyrenees and into Spain. The weather was too bad for the group to cross that night and so their Basque guide Florentino decided to postpone the trip until the following night. Early the next morning the farmhouse was raided by the German army probably acting on a tip off and Andrée, Frantxia Usandizaga the safe-house keeper, her farm hand Juan Manuel Larburu and the three RAF airmen were all arrested and taken to prison in Bayonne.
Despite this disaster the work of the line continued, new routes, further east in the Pyrenees, were found and the allied airmen continued to be taken across the mountains to freedom. After D-Day and the Allied invasion of France in June 1944 made it impossible to continue and the evading aircrew were instead hidden in the forests of Northern France and the Belgian Ardennes until the liberating forces could reach them.
The Nazis now had many escape line helpers imprisoned, many like Andrée De Jongh were held for some time Fresnes prison in Paris or for those arrested in Belgium Saint-Gilles prison in Brussels. As these became full prisoners were moved into German prisons, in Essen, Lubeck and other cities and as these filled further east, to Silesia and Jauer, Schweinditz, Gross Strellitz and many other prisons. Then in 1944 the prisoners were moved into the Nazi concentration camps, the women mainly to Ravensbruck, north of Berlin, then as Germany collapsed they were moved on to Mauthausen near Linz in Austria. Left starving and in the open in the quarry those that survived were rescued by the Swiss Red Cross in April 1945.
The fate of some of the men prisoners was sometimes more direct, Andrée De Jongh's father Frederic was, in March 1944, put before a firing squad at Mont Valerian outside Paris along with other helpers of the escape line. In Brussels, on the 20th October 1943, a group of helpers were executed by firing squad at the Tir National, the same place where British nurse Edith Cavell was executed in 1915.