Andrée de Jongh; Belgian Helped Airmen Avoid Nazis
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Andrée de Jongh, 90, a Belgian resistance fighter who established the most successful escape route in Europe for downed Allied airmen during World War II -- a 1,000-mile trek across occupied France, over the Pyrenees into Spain and down to the British colony of Gibraltar -- died Oct. 13 in Brussels. No cause of death was reported.
Ms. de Jongh, known as "Dédée" and the "Petit Cyclone," began her resistance work in May 1940 after the Nazi advance into Brussels. At the time, she was a 24-year-old commercial artist and Belgian Red Cross volunteer.
The British authorities, whom she sought out for logistical and financial support, and Germans, who eventually sent her to concentration camps, found her an improbable heroine despite her determined bearing.
At first, neither side believed her when she described herself as the ringleader of a daunting escape route dubbed the "Comet Line."
The idea began after the British retreat at Dunkirk in 1940. German patrols were increasingly monitoring the English Channel, and Ms. de Jongh helped bring the remaining Englishmen overland, through France and into neutral Spain. This evolved into a plan to try to rescue the thousands of American and British aviators who would get shot down over Europe.
With the help of her father in Paris, she created a route of safe houses through France. At the Spanish border, she arranged for Basque guides to ferry the Allied airmen over the goat trails used by smugglers in the Pyrenees.
The Germans made attempts to capture Ms. de Jongh, but she managed to stay free for 18 months -- until Jan. 15, 1943, when a farmhand in the French-Basque village of Urrugne sold her out, along with the three aviators she was helping escape.
The Comet Line was credited with rescuing more than 700 airmen, of which Ms. de Jongh was said to have led 118 to safety. It continued operating through the Normandy invasion of June 1944, by which time hundreds of Comet Line operatives had been captured and sent to concentrations camps or executed.
Peter Eisner, whose book "The Freedom Line" (2004) examined the escape network's pivotal figures, said the Comet Line was the "greatest of escape lines in Europe in numbers of rescues as well as the most sophisticated, longest operating and most successful."
"The value of what she was doing went beyond the individuals she was saving," said Eisner, a former Washington Post editor. "She gave hope to aircrews in England before they took off that there was this angel of mercy working in occupied territory that had a complete system working to find them. It was a great psychological boost."
Ms. de Jongh was born Nov. 30, 1916, in Schaerbeek, in German-occupied Belgium during World War I. She trained as a nurse but found work as a commercial artist before her father, a schoolteacher, deepened her involvement in the resistance.
To procure funding for the Comet Line, she traveled in August 1941 with two British army privates in tow to the British consulate in Bilbao, in the northern Basque region of Spain. The British vice consul was skeptical of her offer to help more fliers.