The young Belgian countess who shepherded shot-down airmen to safety under German occupation in the Second World War was well known to the Gestapo, but never caught.
They were sure she was an underground leader’s lover; they nearly had her after they found her abandoned bicycle; but she dyed her blonde hair dark and eluded them, after two and a half years of clandestine resistance to the Nazi jackboot that was crushing her country.
José de la Barre d’Erquelinnes kept her secret papers rolled inside a silver cross that unscrewed; a map too large for that she concealed all the way to Paris in her knickers. Working two days a week as a driver for the Red Cross Motor Corps, she could show her ausweis (pass) to break curfew; her other “cover” was her job as organiser of a canteen for the poor in the Brussels suburb of Anderlecht, where she helped serve meagre midday meals of cabbage, sausage and potato, feeding more than 200,000 in one five-month period during 1941.
She first passed on details of enemy materiel to a friend at Christmas 1940, after Italian airmen billeted at her family chateau of Jurbise, near Mons, bragged about their new Cant 1007 aircraft, stationed a few miles away at Chièvres airfield. The friend was in the Resistance, and thereafter an agent, “K1”, of its aviation section would visit with requests. She became part of “Service Zero”, headed by the Brussels lawyer Charles Woeste, whom she would meet almost weekly after taking over K1’s role herself.
The underground’s radio operators would transmit to London her intelligence about aircraft, troops, munitions supplies, trick “dummy” airfields, and the location of searchlights and anti-aircraft guns – and later launch-sites for German V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets.
By the end of 1940, José had driven Red Cross lorries and ambulances hundreds of miles through Belgium and France, often with her co-driver, her friend Princess Antoinette de Ligne. The two high-born women once salvaged their broken-down ambulance using purloined curtain-cord as tow-rope, and stole a car to pull it, by the end of the day also catching a hare for supper.
José escorted her first British airman, who had been downed over Namur, 10 miles on foot to a safe house where she handed him to the “Comet” escape line. To reach the house they pretended to be a couple deep in conversation as they passed the German guard at a bridge over the river Meuse. She took another British pilot by train to the town of Dinant, where he would start the next stage of his journey to safety. They arrived at a villa where the all-clear signal was an upturned table in the garden – though the Gestapo had been there the day before, the owner told her.
The underground used a “letterbox” arrangement to communicate: “Can you supply me with some vegetables?” she would ask a shopkeeper, and despite the answer “No”, would receive a matchbox with vital orders inside.
One of seven siblings, she had five brothers, and they would assist her. One, Alain, helped her collect charred German secret papers, on the pretext of destroying wasps’ nests, in the shrubbery of one of her family’s chateaux, Vlamertinghe, where panicking officers had thrown them on a bonfire on hearing of the British and Canadian Dieppe Raid of August 1942, some 150 miles down the coast. The raid failed, with great loss of life, but, José noted, of its effect: “We had seen the master race with its guard down.”
Yet by October 1942 Service Zero had been betrayed – the traitor was never found – and many of its members arrested. Woeste himself was soon picked up. José went into hiding, darkened her hair, and at a last meeting, fleetingly in the street, with her parents – whom she had not told of her underground work – arranged the call signal that would be broadcast over the BBC to tell them she had reached Britain safely: “Louise has seen her aunt”.
The family had already endured exile, having fled to England during the First World War. José had been born in Kent. Her education, at the Convent of the Assumption in Mons, and a finishing school in Haywards Heath, Sussex, had extirpated any Belgian accent from her French, useful for a refugee seeking anonymity on a journey crossing the whole of France.
The small party of underground fugitives José was with set off for Paris with gold coins baked into bread rolls and a $100 note flattened on the bottom of her make-up box. Her journey was to take three months, the party later separating. From Foix in the south of France she and one companion reached the tiny state of Andorra. There a village priest called on a local “madame” of a brothel to persuade some smugglers to agree to be the refugees’ mountain guides to get them into Spain across the Pyrenees.
Their next guides, two republican Spanish outlaws, threatened to shoot them for their money, but thought better of it after José pleaded with them. Contact was made with the British Consul at Barcelona, and, travelling via Madrid on to Lisbon in Portugal, she flew to Britain.
She became a 2nd Lieutenant in the Belgian Army and was attached to the US Delta Base at Marseilles to assist with Displaced Persons. The French and Belgian governments honoured her, and she was awarded the US Bronze Star.
By 1946, she would be married: she met her husband, Charles Villiers, MC, after a friend in London telephoned asking her to look after him because he had fallen ill while staying in the Brussels Hotel Metropole. The couple were wed in the chapel at Jurbise, then for a honeymoon traversed Africa in an old Chevrolet delivery van. José gave birth to the first of their two daughters soon after they arrived back in London.
Villiers, a widower with one son, had served in the Grenadier Guards and SOE. An asset management company managing director, he was knighted in 1975 and became chairman of British Steel from 1976-1980. During the industrial strife of that era the steelworkers nicknamed José “Lady Lifeline”, having heard of her war record, and while they booed Villiers, they cheered his wife, who in her small car would smuggle him past pickets and in through office buildings’ side-doors.
Countess Marie-José de la Barre d’Erquelinnes, secret agent: born Kent 30 April 1916; married 1946 Charles English Hyde Villiers (died 1992; two daughters, one stepson); died Ascot, Berkshire 1 February 2015.