Andrée “Dédée” de Jongh and the Comet Line

by Emily Caldwell, 390th Memorial Museum Data and Collections Manager, in honor of Women’s History Month (photo credit, above, Wikipedia)

Andrée “Dédée” de Jongh may have been petite, but she was a force to be reckoned with. At the tender age of twenty-five, the Belgian woman organized the Comet Line. The Comet Line, an entirely independent Allied escape route, was run by hundreds of Belgian volunteers organized in Brussels.

Ordinary citizens were pretty much the only hope for Allied fliers that, for one reason or another, had to crash land or parachute to the ground. If they had any hope of returning to their base, these brave men had to rely on everyday citizens to help them return. Penalties for aiding a downed Allied man were stiff. Men were punished by death at the hands of a firing squad. Women were sent to concentration camps, which was most certainly a death sentence as well. But these citizens, knowing the risk, chose to still help Allied forces.

How They Moved the Airmen

The Comet Line stretched for 1200 miles, from Brussels to Gibraltar, through France and Spain. France, at the time, was Nazi occupied. Spain was officially neutral, but fascist. Secret police in both countries were known to be ruthless, and dangerous for anyone aiding the Allies. Escaping airmen were hidden in safe houses around Brussels. From there, they were secreted to Paris by train, a central collection point. From Paris, the men were sent in small groups to a farmhouse at the foothills of the Pyrenees. This was an arduous journey, beginning with a train ride, followed by bicycle, and finally trekking on foot to a safe farmhouse. Once at the farmhouse, escapees were given a hearty meal and some strong coffee. With their bellies full, they were then faced with a tough climb through the Pyrenees, led by Basque smugglers recruited by Dédée. Once the climbers reached San Sebastian, in Northern Spain, they were handed over to Michael Creswell, a British diplomat. Mr. Creswell sent the escapees by car to Gibraltar. Once in Gibraltar, the men were sent by either sea or air to England.

Dédée provided the men with false passports and identity cards. She also bought them civilian clothing and black-market food. Dédée’s friend, Ann Brusselmans advised American men to look “less American”, by teaching them to hold their cigarettes by the burned end with a forefinger and thumb, and reminding them not to jingle loose change in their pockets or chew gum. Mrs. Brusselmans sewed the dog tags of American airmen into the cuffs of their pants, while also providing them with berets, long jackets, and European shoes, so they would be able to blend in with the day to day citizens of the towns in which they were staying.

Dédée began the Comet Line with two people assisting her, and no financial help.

To finance the Comet Line, Dédée had to sell her small collection of jewelry. This allowed her to personally escort over one hundred airmen through France, over the Pyrenees during thirty-two separate journeys. British intelligence offered to assist her line, an offer that after careful consideration, she refused. In Dédée’s mind, the line needed to be completely independent of agencies, and only manned by people that she knew intimately, and trusted completely. She had no desire to have the Comet Line taken over by agents who might be working with groups interested in sabotage, or double agents who would turn the escaped men in. She made sure the owners of her safe houses were able to interrogate potential Allied men, so they could not be infiltrated by the Gestapo. Gestapo men would often pose as downed fliers, but they were unable to pass the interrogations encouraged by Dédée. The men that were ferreted out by this method were taken by the Belgian underground army for “long walks in the woods”.

Dédée’s Fate

In January of 1943, Dédée was arrested with several escaping airmen. It looked to be the end of the Comet Line, but Dédée’s father stepped up in her absence. Dédée was interrogated twenty-one separate times, but she refused to give up the people that were aiding her on the Comet Line. She ended up in Ravensbrük, a concentration camp. Tragically, Dédée’s father was betrayed, and he was executed. Another Belgian gentleman named Jean-François Nothomb, or “Franco”, then emerged as leader. Franco was run-down and in failing health, but with the help of a British trained Belgian agent he was able to help approximately 700 more escapees navigate the Comet Line. Two days before D-Day, the Comet Line closed down.

Dédée survived interrogations and her stint in Ravensbrük. She was freed in 1945. Following the war she went to work in a leper colony in the Belgian Congo. After helping so many escaped Allied airmen, and dedicating her life to helping lepers, first in Belgium, then in Africa, Andree “Dédée” de Johng passed away October 13, 2007 at the age of 90 in Brussels. A downed airmen summed Dédée’s remarkable character, “Andree de Jongh was one of those rare beings who felt the misery of the world and would not let it rest.” (Miller, 2006)

Miller, D. L. (2006). Airman Down! In D. L. Miller, Masters of the Air (pp. 99-102). New York: Simon & Schuster.

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