Too often, studying history serves to remind us of the brutality and prejudices of humankind. So it comes as a great relief to stumble across a historical figure who inspires nothing but respect and admiration. In keeping with the wartime resistance theme of my last blog article, I will endeavour to capture the essence of one such individual: Dédée de Jongh, founder of the Belgian-based Comet escape line which enabled hundreds of Allied soldiers to escape occupied Europe between 1940 and 1944.
Andrée de Jongh, known as almost universally as Dédée, grew up in a suburb of Brussels, fascinated from an early age by the First World War nurse Edith Cavell, who had helped two hundred British soldiers to escape occupied Belgium before being shot in 1915. Determined to help the war effort, Dédée, who had medical training, gave up her job as a commercial artist in May 1940 to enlist as a nurse. It was while working at a hospital in Bruges that she became aware of the many British soldiers, those left behind after Dunkirk, being sheltered by brave Belgian families. Along with one such resistor, Arnold Deppe, Dédée began planning how to get these stranded soldiers home. Hoping to escort them to safety down through France and into neutral Spain, they established contacts far to the south-west, on the French side of the Pyrenees.
Dédée was just 24 when she and Deppe escorted their first party of escapees on the first leg of their journey south on a summer night in 1941: an Englishwoman, Miss Richards, and 10 Belgians wanted by the Gestapo. When the party reached the River Somme, it transpired that Miss Richards and 6 of the Belgians were unable to swim, so Dédée made 7 two-way trips across the river, swimming with only her legs and pushing the fugitives on a rubber tyre. Her extraordinary physical stamina would continue to amaze the men she led to freedom over the following years. When most of the Belgians were arrested by Spanish police, Deppe and Dédée agreed to escort their charges the entire way to Spain, and to enlist British help in getting them home.
On August 17th 1941, Dédée de Jongh marched into the British consulate in Bilbao, explained the nature of her operations, and asked for funding. The British diplomat she met was sceptical that such a young, delicate-looking woman could have crossed the Pyrenees on foot, let alone escorted soldiers through two occupied countries to get there. But after several weeks, MI9 agreed to supply her with cash to pay her mountain guides, enabling the network to expand. When Dédée returned to Brussels, she was greeted with the news that Arnold Deppe had been arrested at the train station in Lille. She was now the sole leader of the operation that would become the Comet line.
One of the many remarkable aspects of Comet was that it remained largely a network of families and friends. Its escape routes were peopled with hundreds of remarkable individuals: the de Greef family, which provided black market supplies and false papers for escapees on the last leg of their journey into the Pyrenees; 19-year-old Nadine Dumont, a Comet escort who survived a ten-week interrogation, prison and two concentration camps; Florentino, the Basque smuggler with a fondness for whisky who became the network’s principal guide through the mountains; Baron Jean Greindl, code-named ‘Nemo’, who directed the Brussels operations for a year before being killed, ironically, by an American bomb; and Dédée’s own father, Frédéric de Jongh, who was betrayed, arrested at a Paris train station and killed by firing squad in 1944. Of the thousand people who worked in some capacity for the Comet Line during the war, roughly 155 were killed and many others incarcerated.
Codenamed ‘Postman’, Dédée herself personally escorted 118 ‘parcels’ across the Spanish border over 33 trips. Known as ‘the Little Cyclone’ for her relentless energy, she raised the morale and inspired the lasting respect of the fugitives and airmen she accompanied. But the Comet Line faced greater difficulties after the military occupation of Vichy France in November 1942. And the problem with such an extensive and intricately linked organisation was that it took just one traitor, or a single captured guide or escapee, to expose the identities of dozens of key members. In the hungry days of 1943, when the Belgians and French began to feel they would never be liberated by their allies, the Comet line suffered a string of arrests and deportations. Dédée de Jongh was awaiting the end of a downpour with a party of fugitives at the final French safe-house, a farm in the lower slopes of the Pyrenees, when German military police lorries appeared outside. She was interrogated multiple times, but her youth and delicate appearance may have spared her life – like the British consulate, the German officers did not believe she could be in charge of such a complex operation. She was deported to Fresnes prison and then to Ravensbrück and Mathausen concentration camps.
However, the Comet line survived despite the closing net of the Abwehr. New figures stepped in to fill the gaps left by the captured leaders, including Belgian SOE agent Count le Grelle, who survived less than three months as director of the line’s northern section before his arrest. Dédée’s outstanding resilience enabled her to endure the concentration camps until Mathausen was liberated in April 1945. She went on to fulfil her childhood dream of nursing lepers in Cameroon, Senegal, Ethiopia and the Congo, dying at the age of 90 in 2007. After the war, she was awarded the George Medal, the Belgian Croix de Guerre/Oorlogskruis and the US Medal of Freedom, and was made a Chevalier in both the Order of Leopold and the Legion d’honneur. Countless wartime resistors have been recognised for their bravery, but it is Dédée de Jongh’s initiative, her determination to set up an entire organisation in order to help her allies and punish her occupiers, and her willingness to personally make the dangerous and harrowing journeys across the Pyrenees that set her apart. For me, as for many others, she is one of history’s greatest role models.