In episode 4 of WWII’s Great Escapes, Monty crosses the Pyrenees mountains, following one of the most challenging and famous escape lines out of France. It was called the Pat O’Leary Line, and was hugely effective in helping thousands of POWs and refugees escape the Nazis.
However, the Pat Line was just one of many escape networks that existed throughout Europe. When he found himself stranded behind enemy lines in Belgium, RAF gunner Bob Frost took a risk by knocking on a farm house door in search of help. Luckily, he was put in touch with the Belgian resistance and invited to join the Comet Line.
The Little Cyclone
The Comet Line was founded and run by 24 year old Andree de Jongh, code named Dédée. When Hitler’s armies invaded Belgium in 1940, Dédée volunteered with the Belgium Red Cross, nursing wounded British soldiers. Following D-Day, she organised safe houses to hide those Allied soldiers who had been left behind, and began to look for ways to get them home. Working with a small group of friends, Dédée set up a route from Belgium to Spain, where their charges could make it to Gibraltar, and home to fight again. Dédée’s father dubbed her the ‘Little Cyclone’, because she was so determined to make things happen.
When Bob Frost crash landed, it was the Comet Line that supplied him new clothes, a new identity, and guided him to safety. From Belgium, the local resistance took Bob to Paris, a key staging point for any escapee. He was given a false identity card, taken to a church, and told to wait until he saw someone leaving with a newspaper under their arm and to follow them.
Invitation to the join the line was essential to protect its secrecy, and from the church Bob was led to a small flat where he lived for a week, hosted by a local couple, to await the next set of instructions. During this time, Bob was taken out and about in Paris by his hosts, right under the noses of the Germans. He recalls, “I would go and walk about with Robert and Germaine in Paris quite cheerfully. Just behave normally, be careful what you’re doing, maintain a very low presence… why they never discovered it I’m damned if I know”.
“It’s there to be done”
From Paris, the majority of the journey to South West France was made by train. After being officially invited to join the Comet Line in Paris, Bob made the trip with five others. When they reached Bayonne, in the foot hills of the mid-Pyrenees, the group was taken to a farmhouse where Bob first met Dédée. Aware of the terrible danger she, and everyone else who worked on the line, was in, Bob asked her; ‘Why do you do it?” She said; “It’s there to be done.”
Guided by a local Basque smuggler, known as Florentino, Bob’s group, including Dédée, crossed the mountains. The mid-Pyrenees offer the lowest crossing points into Spain and milder conditions than those further south. However, the crossing was still fraught with danger – from the weather, the mountains, and border guards. The knowledge of locals like Florentino was essential.
Eventually seeing the lights and the relative safety of Spain, the group made it past the border guards and headed for Santander, where they were put in a car to Madrid and the British Embassy. The shoes Bob had been given back at the farmhouse in Belgium were sent home, a secret message to their owner that Bob had made it to safety. Dédée personally accompanied groups like Bob’s on this journey 30 times.
Countess de Jongh
The effectiveness of the Comet Line (so called because of the speed at which it operated) led the Nazis to try ever harder to destroy it. Dozens of the line’s helpers were arrested, interrogated and incarcerated or executed for their work. Dédée herself was caught in 1943. Despite these setbacks, the line continued to operate and by the end of the war had been used by an estimated 800 stranded and shot-down Allied servicemen.
In 1945, Dédée returned home after two years in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, and in 1946 went to Buckingham Palace to receive the St George Medal. For her work Dédée also received the American Medal of Freedom, was appointed a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by the French, and a Chevalier of the Order of Leopold by the Belgians, and 1985 was made a countess by King Baudouin of Belgium.
In 2000 Dédée recalled: “When war was declared I knew what needed to be done. There was no hesitation. We could not stop what we had to do although we knew the cost. Even if it was at the expense of our lives, we had to fight until the last breath.”
You can find out more about Dédée and the Comet Line in the book ‘Little Cyclone‘.