The Bulletin

The Newsweekly of the Capital of Europe October 19 2000

In World War Two hundreds of Allied aircrew shot down over Belgium were saved by the heroism of a group of young volunteers - led by the 24 year old daughter of a Brussels schoolmaster. Andree de Jongh, known as Dedee tells Shirin Wheeler the story of the Comet Line

Under a full moon in the autumn of 1942, Sgt Bob Frost and the four other crew members of his Wellington bomber were on their way back from Essen in Germany They had dropped a 1,800 kilo bomb on the Krupp arms factory, but had been hit by anti-aircraft fire. Over Belgium, the plane started to drop. At 16,000 feet, air­gunner Frost donned his parachute and bailed out.

"I came through a cloud, it was cold and wet. I was actually livid. Only a week to go, two more missions before my tour of thirty was over. Then the ground came up and hit me."

Frost landed in a field just outside the village of Kapellen in Flemish Brabant. He was 19 years old, and alone in Ger­man-occupied Belgium. But within six weeks, thanks to the efforts of an escape network known as the Comet Line, he was back home and on leave in London.

Now, 58 years later, Frost is returning to Belgium to meet some of the men and women who risked their lives to rescue Allied airmen like him. This weekend in Brussels and Namur, 20 former RAF air­crew will join their old friends from the Comet Line. They will hold a special Mass to remember those of their rescuers who were executed or died in German concentration camps and prisons.

The Comet Line was one of the two rescue networks set up in Belgium to spirit away aircrew who'd been shot down, and soldiers left behind after Dunkirk. (The other was the Pat Line, run by "Pat O'Leary" - Medecin-Capitaine Albert ­Marie Guerisse - which saved 600 fliers before being betrayed to the Gestapo in early 1942.) In the three years it oper­ated from 1941 to 1944, the Comet Line saved an estimated 800 Allied airmen and soldiers from capture. They were smuggled from Belgium through France and across the Pyrenees into neutral Spain and out via Gibraltar.

It was funded by British military intel­ligence (MI9) in London. But it depended on the courage and help of people in the countryside and on the Resistance families in the cities who hid and fed the foreigners until they could be moved. In doing so, they risked arrest, torture and death. Helping fliers to evade capture was a capital offence, and hun­dreds paid with their lives.

When Frost came down in Kapellen, he had the fortune to come across the Vangilbergen family's farmhouse.

"I saw a house, and hoping an old lady would answer, I knocked at the door. My guardian angel was working overtime. Actually it was a strapping young fellow who spoke in Flemish. I answered in schoolboy German and he slammed the door in my face. Eventually, I managed to persuade him to let me in.

The Vangilbergens were the first peo­ple Frost met in occupied Belgium - the first in a long line of citizens who risked everything to help a young stranger in trouble.

"That morning the family left me in the house and went off to the village fete. I remember watching the bicycle race from my window in the attic."

They contacted members of the Comet Line. It wasn't hard because the escape line had agents all over Belgium looking for stranded Allied airmen.

Frost was taken to Brussels where he stayed first with a stockbroker at the Brussels Bourse and then in Laeken with a with a widower running his own Resistance group from a house in Avenue des Pagodes.

Issued with a suit, shoes and false identity papers, he became Robert Simonis, a Belgian seaman who spoke a little German. "Simonis" lived in Bordeaux but had been in Brussels to visit his sick mother. That gave him an excuse to be travelling south. Via a network of around 1,000 people operating in Belgium and France, the Comet Line rolled into action as it would for hundreds of other soldiers and airmen.

Comet had been the brainchild of a 24 year old woman, Andree de Jongh. She is still living in Brussels in a small flat near the Place Meiser. Physically frail now, she's lost none of the passion that earned her the niclmame "Petit Cyclone".
Dedee (pictured with her father)
helped rescue many Allied airmen

After the war, she was made a Countess by the King. In Britain she was awarded the George Cross. Her voice quivers with emotion when she recalls how, in May 1940, her schoolmaster father told her Belgium had surrendered to German occupation after just 18 days.

They were in the family house in Avenue Emile Verhaeren. "I'd never seen my father cry before - never. He said listen Belgium isn't fighting anymore its given up. I was in despair and furious, enraged at the same time. I said to my father, 'you are wrong to cry. You'll see what we'll do to them. You'll see, they are going to lose this war. They've started it, but they'll lose it. Don't worry." But I really didn't have any idea how we would win.

It soon became clear. De Jongh set up a chain of safe houses in Brussels and along the route to the Spanish border Then she travelled to Spain with a party of rescued fliers to find support for her project.

The British, initially suspecting a Gestapo trap, soon realised the value of what the young woman (codenamed "Postman", but known to her London MI9 desk officer Airey Neave as Dedee) was offering to do for them.

In 1941 an intelligence officer from the British Embassy in Bilbao agreed to reim­burse her travel costs if she could bring back Allied airmen shot down over Belgium and northern France, escorting them over the Pyrenees . The Comet Line had been born. There was no shortage of volunteers from both friends and family (including de Jongh's parents, aunt and older sister).

Frost remembers the first time he met de Jongh in a Brussels flat back in 1942."it was her eyes, they were absolutely burning and there was an air of supreme confidence about her."

For the 19-year-old air gunner, she and her other women comrades in the Comet Line inspired adoration "I fell in love with them totally - absolutely.We had complete trust in them. By the same token, they put their trust in us."

It was Dedee herself, accompanied by a Basque guide, who escorted Frost and four others to safety over the Pyrenees. She carried a rucksack filled with civilian clothes for the airmen.
Keeping hope alive: Comet line
members pose at a 1943 meeting.
(JAC Note: This picture is actually
of an RAF man in hiding, Fred
Heathfield, and members of
the Louvain resistance.)

It was an arduous eight hour trek in silence through the night. The airmen, who were known by members of the line as "the children", often found the journey hard. De Jongh laughs and recalls how sometimes she had to cajole them to carry on. "When one of the men sat down saying he wasift going any further, I'd try to make him feel ashamed. 1 understood they hadift moved for weeks or months hiding in houses in Brussels and Paris. It was difficult. But I was a lit­tle shocked they weren't trying harder. We couldift just leave them, either. They would have been found by the Germans and put the whole line in jeopardy. And you know, when you've told someone they can trust you, you say to yourself 'I have to get them across. I can't fail."

Frost remembers the gruelling walk, stumbling in the dark and wondering how much longer they could go on. Dedee's stamina was clearly extraordinary. Before her arrest, she did the walk many times and personally led 118 men over the mountains, 80 of them Allied airmen.

When they got into Spain, the men rested at a safe house but de iongh car- ried on and phoned her contact at the British Embassy to send the diplomatic car. She would hand over her precious charges on the road to Madrid.

"I have really awful memories of that. All those men, they were our children, it's true. We were so attached to them. In fact we still are. As soon as we spot­ted the car, there was no time to say goodbye. They ran. We had spent three days together - we couldn't even say goodbye. My heart would melt, but at the same time I was so happy."

The members of the Comet Line paid a terrible price. Betrayals and infiltration led to hundreds of arrests and deaths. Dedee was caught when bad weather delayed crossing the Pyrenees in January 1943 and, under interrogation, one of the RAF fliers identified both his helpers and the Line's safe houses to the Gestapo. For months, it seemed that the Comet Line had been shattered. But it was re-established by Baron Jean Greindl (codenamed Nemo). For all the betray­als, the arrests and executions, there was always someone willing to take over.

When Frost and his fellow airmen come over to Belgium at the weekend, they'll be visiting the Namur citadel where many people were executed by firing squads.
De Jongh says she always warned anyone volunteering for the Comet Line to expect to be shot or captured within six months. But that didn't put off 17-year­old Andree Dumon.

Codenamed Nadine, she began by delivering messages for the line and carrying copies of La Libre Belgique, which had been banned and gone under­ground. She graduated to smuggling the airmen to Paris or Valenciennes by train. It is extraordinary to imagine this teenager at the French border calmly dealing with German officers as they examined the airmen's forged papers. But she is remembered for her perfect "sang froid" and her permanent smile.
A grandmother today, she has kept that smile. Dumon is still living in the family home in Uccle where, at the age of 20, she and her parents were arrested after an informant betrayed them to the Gestapo.

"I can still hear my grandfather shouting 'German police!' I'll never forget it. We were all still in bed, it was seven in the morning. My father told me to try and escape, so I got onto the roof. Then I saw that the Germans had surrounded the house - their revolvers were pointed at me and I knew they would shoot. So I gave myself up," she says in a surprisingly youthful voice.

Both Dumon and de Jongh spent nearly three years in prisons and concentration camps. When Germany surrendered in 1945, they emerged from Mauthausen gravely ill and undernourished. But many of their comrades from the Comet Line did not survive the camps, Dumon's father among them. She was sent to Ravensbruck. "You go through those huge doors. I can only say it was like entering the gates of hell. It's hard to talk about," she says. "But they didn't break my spirit. I am glad to say I never waxed the SS guards'shoes for an extra bowl of soup, though I was certainly hungry."

Butter wouldn't melt:Andree Dumon (left) and her
sister Michou did much of their resistance work by bike

Some might have wondered if all the suffering was worth it - but the British told them the Comet Line was making a huge difference. Not just because it was getting the pilots, radio operators and navigators home, but because men believed that if they were shot down, they would be rescued and would find friends in occupied Belgium. That was a huge boost to morale.

Dumon is quite clear about what kept her going. "It was for freedom, against the occupier. We did everything we could against the occupier. I got one airman through who, after he got back, went on another mission and bombed two U boats, German submarines. He was decorated for that as well."

There is hardly a day that passes that Frost doesn't reflect on the sacrifices members of the Comet Line made for him and his fellow airmen. He knows things could have been very different if someone else had opened the door in the village of Kapellen. Instead, the Comet Line delivered the teenage airman back to his mother in Clerkenwell, not much more than a month after he'd been reported missing.

"I have nothing but the utmost respect for the people who worked in the Comet Line," he says. "They knew the price if they were caught. It was heroism beyond anything I can tell you. When we got' home we could go out, show off our air­force wings and lead a normal life. These people could not. They had to remain quiet, carrying on with things and hoping there wasn't going to be a knock on the door."

After the war, Frost and Dumon ­became close friends. She is now the torchbearer for the memory of the Comet Line. She has also organised this weekend's reunion of airmen and Comet Line members in Brussels.
Freedom fighter: today.Andree Dumon
is a grandmother living in Uccle.

She thinks both sides still have a need to meet, perhaps' to express a mutual gratitude. "The air­men feel they can't thank us enough. We say if it wasn't for the English we might be German now."

Next year, they'll celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Comet Line. "Our own children don't seem that interested," Andree Dumon says, "but then we didn't really speak about it to them. Maybe it was too painful. You know, my father died - I would so much have liked to have known him as an adult. Now I think we have to tell our story because younger people really should know - for the sake of those who died."

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