Andre de Jongh: Organiser of the Comet line

Andre de Jongh, wartime resistance organiser: born Brussels 30 November 1916; died Brussels 13 October 2007
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The Independent Online

Andre de Jongh set up and organised the wartime "Comet" escape line, by which some 800 stranded and shot-down Allied servicemen were spirited out of Nazi-occupied Europe. Most of those carried along the line were airmen. It was important to have them back, as trained aircrew were a scarce asset, while it boosted the morale of those fighting in the skies above Europe to know that, if they found themselves suddenly on the ground and on the run, there were men and women around who would help them. For those working on the line, however, it was a dangerous business. Dozens were arrested during the course of the Second World War. Many were executed. De Jongh herself was caught in 1943 and endured two years in a concentration camp.

A schoolmaster's daughter, Andre de Jongh was born in Schaerbeek, a suburb of Brussels, in 1916. When Hitler's armies swept into Belgium in May 1940 she was working as a commercial artist in Malmdy. Trained in first aid and anxious to help, she returned at once to her parents' home and went to work as a nurse among wounded British soldiers. Soon enough, as France and the Low Countries fell to the Germans and the British Army was forced from the Continent, she began, on her own initiative, to organise safe houses to hide downed aircrew and soldiers who had found themselves left behind. It was not long before she started to look for ways of getting them home.

From safe houses in and around Brussels, disguised and by different routes, evaders were taken through France to St Jean de Luz, near Biarritz, close to the Spanish border. From there they were taken on foot through the Pyrenees and over to neutral Spain where they were then handed to British officials. Those helping her as trusted couriers and organisers were often close friends and even members of her own family. Her father, Frdric, did much of the work in Brussels. Her aunt, Elvire de Greef, housed groups bound for the border at her home in the foothills of the Pyrenees and arranged mountain guides to take them across. De Jongh herself accompanied parties into Spain on 16 occasions.

The men whom Comet carried to safety would remember Andre de Jongh with lasting gratitude, fondness and admiration. They knew her only as "Dde", an affectionate name given in Belgium to girls called Andre, and found her courage, confidence and dedication to her task most impressive. Striking, too, was her youth: when her work on the line began, she was barely 24. "Her movements were quick and definite as were her thoughts and repartee," remembered one escaping airman, who had taken stock of "this quite remarkable girl" while they sat together in a first-class compartment on the train south from Paris. "She seemed to be always smiling and brimful of enthusiasm." Another wrote: "She was the force, the power and the inspiration that brought us from Belgium to Spain."

The success of the Comet line, however, compelled the Germans to try ever harder to destroy it. A single traitor is thought to have been responsible for more than 50 arrests. And in January 1943, poised to begin another trek into Spain, Andre de Jongh was arrested with three evaders when the Germans surrounded and raided a Pyrenees farmhouse. She was interrogated 20 times and then sent to Ravensbrck.

Others rounded up in subsequent months included Andre's father, who was betrayed and arrested at a Paris railway station in June 1943. The following March, after brutal interrogation and months of imprisonment, he was shot. But despite these heavy blows, Comet survived and continued to operate until the eve of the Allied invasion of Europe. The last men to be passed along were two RAF sergeants who reached Spain in early June 1944.

In all, of the Comet line helpers who fell into German hands, 23 were executed, while another 133 died in concentration camps or as a result or their incarceration. Seriously ill, but accompanied by her sister, Suzanne, who had worked on Comet until her own arrest in 1942, Andre de Jongh returned home from Ravensbrck in the summer of 1945.

For her wartime work and achievements, de Jongh received the George Medal from the British, the American Medal of Freedom and the Belgian Croix de Guerre with palm. She was also created Chevaliers of the French Lgion d'honneur and the Belgian Order of Leopold. In 1985 she was made a Belgian countess.

After the war, de Jongh, who never married, continued to devote herself to caring for others. Inspired by the story of Father Damien, a Belgian priest who had worked in the South Seas with leprosy sufferers and died of the disease, she spent years as a nurse in leprosy hospitals in the Belgian Congo and Ethiopia. She returned to Brussels only when her sight and health began to fail.

In later life she was willing and able to give generous help to historians studying wartime escape lines and, after moving to a nursing home, continued to welcome visitors. They included, last July, a party of RAF personnel retracing the Comet line route. She herself was the subject of a 1954 biography, Little Cyclone, by Airey Neave, who had worked during the war for MI9, Britain's escape and evasion specialists, and had helped co-ordinate support for Comet. The title of the book was the nickname her father had given her as a child.

Roderick Bailey