One of the most successful World War II rescue operations was created by a 23 year-old woman named Andrée de Jongh.
De Jongh was born in 1916 in German-occupied Belgium and was raised in the shadow of what was then called the Great War. Long before she reached adulthood, De Jongh’s schoolmaster father made certain his daughter was well-versed in Belgium’s wartime history, both its villains and its heroes. Topping the list of the latter were two women executed in Brussels by the Germans: Belgian spy Gabrielle Petit and British nurse Edith Cavell.
De Jongh’s admiration for Cavell was so great that after becoming a commercial artist, she also trained as a first aid worker. And when the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940, De Jongh became motivated to emulate Cavell in an additional way: resistance work, specifically the rescue of Allied servicemen.
During the First World War, Cavell had facilitated the escape of Allied servicemen from German-occupied Belgium and France by hiding them in her Brussels clinic, then arranging their escape across the guarded border between Belgium and the neutral Netherlands. De Jongh had a more difficult task: Belgium was now surrounded on all sides by German-occupied territory. She decided to commence an enormously ambitious project: a 1,200-mile long escape line which would move trapped servicemen from Belgium through occupied France, by way of safe houses along the route, and then across the Pyrenees Mountain range into neutral Spain.
Although the operation’s trial run ended in failure, De Jongh refused to quit. Instead, she decided to ask for British assistance. But when she appeared at the British consulate in Balboa, Spain, with three rescued Allied servicemen, the official didn’t believe De Jongh, a petite, youthful, neatly-dressed young woman, was a resister who had just traversed the wintery Pyrenees peaks. Rather, he suspected her of being a German spy. But De Jongh eventually won him over before also gaining the support of MI9, the wartime intelligence organization tasked with rescuing stranded British servicemen.
While there were many Belgians involved in De Jongh’s operation – termed the Comet Line for its unusual swiftness — De Jongh made 32 round trips on the line, personally guiding 118 servicemen to freedom. But on January 15, 1943, during her 33rd trip, De Jongh was betrayed into the hands of the Germans. She admitted responsibility for the entire operation but because of her youthful appearance they didn’t believe her. However, because she wouldn’t betray anyone else, they sent her to the Ravensbruck concentration camp.
The Comet Line continued to run in De Jongh’s absence, ultimately rescuing approximately 700 Allied airmen. De Jongh managed to survive Ravensbruck and received multiple postwar awards from Belgium, France, Great Britain, and the United States. After regaining her health, she became a nurse and worked in various leper colonies in the Belgian Congo and Ethiopia. When her eyesight began to fail, she returned to Brussels where she died in 2007 at the age of 90.
In De Jongh’s Washington Post obituary, Peter Eisner, WP editor and biographer of the Comet Line, claimed De Jongh’s rescue operation 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 De Jongh’s work, Eisner stated, “went beyond the individuals she was saving. 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.”
Written for Sheroes of History by Kathryn Attwood, author of several great books including Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. @Kate_Attwood
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De Jongh is one of the women featured in Kathyrn Attwood’s young adult collective biography, Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. The stories of De Jongh’s First World War inspirations, Edith Cavell and Gabrielle Petit, can be found in her second YA collective biography, Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Spies, Soldiers, and Medics.
Peter’s Eisner’s Comet Line biography is called The Freedom Line: The Brave Men and Women Who Rescued Allied Airmen from the Nazis During World War II.