Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The First Journey

In July 1941 Andrée and Arnold took a party of 10 Belgians and an Englishwoman, Miss Richards who feared internment by the Germans, down the route Arnold had travelled a month before. Once they reached the small town of La Corbie near Amiens, on the banks of the River Somme, which formed a line known as Zone Interdite or Prohibited Zone, they had to find a way of crossing the Somme, without being detected, as it was regularly patrolled by the enemy. Most of the men and Miss Richards couldn’t swim and therefore, the innertube of a large tyre was used with Andrée having to make several return trips pushing them across before they could rest and sleep in the farmhouse of a women named Nenette in the village of Hamelet on the opposite side of the Somme. ‘Next time’, Andrée thought, ‘we will need the use of a boat.’ The following morning the party made their way to Paris and then by the overnight train to Biarritz and the home of Madame Elvire DeGreef. A Basque guide was then employed to guide them over the Pyrenees, and to the Spanish side of the boarder, where they were left to make their own way to San Sebastian. The journey had been a success, or so it was thought until Andrée and Arnold returned to Anglet and learnt that their party had been arrested in Spain and taken back to the boarder and handed over to the Germans. ‘Next time’, Andrée said, ‘evaders must be taken direct to the British Consulate in Bilbao.’

How the Comète Line Came About

When King Leopold of Belgium was forced to capitulate, Andrée De Jongh was a young 24 year old girl living with her parents and sister in the Schaerbeck district of Brussels.

She had trained as a nurse but at the time was working as a commercial artist for the Sofina Company of Brussels. Baron Jacques Donny was director of the same company and had learnt of the escaping British soldiers plight and was helping to finance their shelter in safe houses in and around the Brussels area. Incensed at the defeat of her country Andrée volunteered to help nurse theses escaping British evaders. This worked fine for a while but as grateful as the men were, what they really wanted was to get home to Britain, be reunited with their families and help defend there country from the massing German forces that threatened to invade Britain at anytime, these were joined by many Belgian men who wished to continue the battle against the Germans by adding their ranks to those of the British.

Working as a film technician for the same company, Arnold Deppe was also involved in caring for the British evaders and had once lived in the Bayonne area of France. Together these three set about the task of seeing if it might be possible to get the evaders home by sending them south to neutral Spain, as any cross-Channel escape was out of the question due to masses of German troops stationed along the coast and an exclusion zone the Germans had imposed for its length.

A contact of Deppe gave him the address of a Madame Elvire DeGreef a Belgian from the Brussels suburb of Etterbeek who was living with her family in the small town of Anglet between Biarritz and Bayonne. Deppe’s contact thought that she might be willing to help in an attempt to get the British men home.

Arnold Deppe then made the journey south and after taking to Madame Elvire DeGreef returned to Brussels knowing that there was a will amongst the people he had met to construct an evasion line that would stretch from the Belgian capital, through France and over the Pyrenees to Spain and the Comète Line was born.

Monday, April 10, 2006

War Begins

World War Two in Europe began on the 3rd September 1939 when Britain and France declared war on Germany after Hitler refused to abort his invasion of Poland. Only several days before the Führer had guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark and Swiss. A few months before on the 22nd February 1939 in fact, the British government authorized the creation of a British Expeditionary Army (BEF) that were to be sent to France in the event of war with Nazi Germany. On the outbreak of the Second World War, the BEF took up defensive positions along the Franco-Belgian frontier.
On the 10th May 1940 the Germans unleashed a series of devastating attacks against neutral Holland and Belgium. Airborne units supported by the Luftwaffe seized key positions in the Netherlands. Unable to match the force and ingenuity of the invaders, the Dutch army capitulated on the 15th May. Although the Belgian army fought for a further three weeks against overwhelming odds, at midnight on the 27th May, King Leopold of Belgium had to admit defeat and surrendered his country too. On the same day the British Admiralty gave the go-ahead to begin Operation "Dynamo" which lasted until the 4th June, the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk, where 338,226 British, French, and other allied troops were rescued and brought back to Britain. The operation was a great success but did force the British to leave almost 40,000 troops, some defending the main body and some too badly wounded to be evacuated behind. Eight to ten thousand of these men, some still fighting, had no option but to surrender to the Germans and then started a forced match of almost 20 miles a day, back towards Prisoner of War camps back in Germany. For some war-weary troops the war was over, but for others the thought of being held in a PoW camp for who knows how long lead them to try and escape. Some of these succeeded and were sheltered by Flemish patriots.

For a much more in-depth information on this subject, I recommend you visit


Secret Army

In 1977, BBC Television screened a brand new drama series called ‘Secret Army’. Created by Gerald Glaister it attracted great critical acclaim and with its regular cast of Bernard Hepton, Cliford Rose, Jan Frances, Angela Richards and Natalie Chantrens (who I’ve always had a thing for!) proved a great success with the viewing public. Although it only ran to three series, this wartime drama had a profound affect on me.

The series dealt with the trials and tribulations of a wartime Belgian evasion line called ‘Lifeline’. They had set themselves the task of fighting the forces of the Third Reich by sheltering and nursing Allied airmen who had been shot down over Belgium. They then guided these men across occupied Europe to the Spanish boarder and freedom, from where they could be returned to Britain and continue the fight against the enemy. Although some of you might not remember Secret Army, you may remember the comedy ‘Allo Allo’ which followed a few years later, and although the writers deny it, bore so many similarities that it must have been loosely based on the series Secret Army. If you haven’t seen Secret Army, I would recommend you check-out the UKTV Drama television listings since it seems to be re-run on a regular basis now, of buy, as I have the box set DVD available from DD Video which contains all three series along with viewing notes and a couple of documentaries on the subject. Although nearly 30 years old now, I feel this drama was so well acted, written, directed and produced that it has not dated or lost any of its appeal.

My Youth

When it first screened I was only 10 years old, and in my youth, travelling on long overland train journeys across Europe with my parents on holiday, I would often wonder if the barns of the farms I was passing or the lofts of the houses on the outskirts of Paris had ever hidden aircrews from downed Halifax bombers and what it must have been like to live under the tyranny of Hitler’s rule, with swastika flags hanging from every official building and living in fear that the next knock at the door might be from a Gestapo Officer. I never forgot the series, and when I next saw it a couple of years ago on UKTV Drama it was not only a thoroughly good watch second time around, but it also started me wondering if there had ever been a real Secret Army, and if so, how it had come about, how it was able to exist under the watchful eye of the German’s, and how successful it had been. The Internet is a wonderful thing, and within a few minutes I had found a website and forum devoted to the BBC Drama Secret Army. It gave details of filming locations, characters, plots and storylines. Posting a simple question, I asked if anyone knew of websites dealing with the real secret army on which the series had been based. In response I was directed to John Clinch’s website and after reading the first couple of pages I was hooked.

The Real Secret Army

The stories I was reading here, were real history, and the courage and steely determination of the people I was now learning about surpassed anything I had seen in Secret Army. The organisation dramatised on television and called ‘Lifeline’ I learnt was based on a real evasion line, and the character played by Jan Frances called Lisa Colbert (codename Yvette) was in reality a 24 year old Belgian girl Andrée de Jongh (codename Dedee) who despite her youth created the most successful evasion line of them all, but in reality it wasn’t called ‘Lifeline’, it was named ‘Comète’. Over the course of the war this organisation rescued and returned over 800 Allied servicemen back into the safe hands of the British. To do this Andrée de Jongh and a close band of friends and patriots constructed a route from Brussels to San Sabastian in northern Spain. Using safe houses, trains, and a boat they escorted Allied flyers from right under the noses of the Nazi Officers (who knew of there existence and had been charged by Himmler himself to stop and destroy this and other evasion lines) across Belgium, France and the Pyrenees.

But, how was it that I had never leant about this or any other similar organisation in history lessons at school. Where were the memorials built to honour the many Belgian and French patriots who had risked all, and in many cases sacrificed their lives in order to save Allied personnel? It seems the bigger battles such as the D-Day landings, the Battle of Britain and Operation Market Garden take precedence in our collective memory and our acts of remembrance, to these gallant, heroic patriots who fought by resisting the forces of Hitler in the own secretive way. But to my mind these people who fought the enemy without guns, Generals and thousands of troops deserve at least as much thanks as those we remember each November on Remembrance Sunday.

Lest We Forget

I’m no military historian, and I have no wish to become one, I’m just a regular railway worker from York. I have no relatives that were rescued by the line and the only connection I have with the RAF is that my father was a member during his National Services days, but for their courage and the inspiration they have given I would like in my own way to build a memorial to these brave men and women of the Cométe and other evasion lines who helped to free Europe from Hitler’s rule. An act that has meant that I have been able to live and travel across a war free Western Europe, to think, say and do as I like for my entire life.

As the years pass by the number of remaining members of Comète or those who were helped by the line is bound to diminish, but I think it would be a crime if their stories and the spirit of the line were to be lost too. I intend therefore, over the next few months, to follow the route taken by the Comète guides and their rescued aircrews across Europe to see what challenges they might have faced. I intend to visit and photograph the locations and safe houses they would have known as they travelled south. But most of all I want to meet and talk to some of the members of Comète and those that they helped and then record my findings here, as my own small tributeto the men and women of Comète, and for others who may wish to research the Line’s history in the future.

I know it’s not much but, I would then like this blog to serve as my own virtual memorial and would like to dedicate it to all the members of Comète Line and to the courage they showed during Europe’s darkest days.