One of the most successful World War II rescue operations was initiated by a 23 year-old woman named Andrée de Jongh.
Andrée was born in 1916 in German-occupied
raised in the shadow of the Great War. Long before she reached adulthood, De Jongh’s
father, a schoolmaster, made certain his daughter was well-versed in Belgium ’s wartime
history, its villains and its heroes. Topping the list of the latter were two
women executed in Belgium
by the Germans: Belgian spy Gabrielle Petit and British nurse Edith Cavell. Brussels
Gabrielle Petit commemorative statue
Andrée’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 and occupied
in the spring of 1940, Andrée became motivated to emulate Cavell in an
additional way: resistance work, specifically the rescue of Allied servicemen. Belgium
French propaganda poster depicting Cavell's execution.
During the First World War, Cavell had facilitated the escape of Allied servicemen from German-occupied
and France by hiding them in
her Brussels clinic, then arranging their escape
across the guarded border between Belgium
and the neutral .
Andrée had a more difficult task: Netherlands was now surrounded on all
sides by German-occupied territory. She, along with her father and several others, decided to commence an enormously
ambitious project: a 1,200 mile escape line that would take 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. Belgium
Although the operation’s trial run ended in failure, Andrée refused to quit. Instead, she decided to ask for British assistance. But when she appeared at the British consulate in
with three rescued Allied servicemen, the official didn’t believe that this
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 Andrée 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 Andrée’s operation – eventually termed the Comet Line for its unusual swiftness -- Andrée made 32 round trips on the line, personally guiding 118 servicemen to freedom. But on January 15, 1943, during her 33rd trip, Andrée 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.
Photo taken shortly before her arrest.
The Comet Line continued to run in Andrée’s absence, ultimately rescuing approximately 700 Allied airmen. Andrée managed to survive the war and received multiple awards from
France, Great Britain, and the . After
regaining her health, she became a nurse and worked in various leper colonies
in the Belgian Congo and United States .
When her eyesight began to fail, she returned to Ethiopia where she died in 2007 at the age of
Novelist Kristin Hannah claims she was inspired to write her recent best seller, The Nightingale, after encountering Andrée’s story. Read the interview here.
Andrée is one of the women featured in my young adult collective biography (geared for readers 12 years and up), Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.
The stories of Andrée's First World War inspirations, Edith Cavell and Gabrielle Petit, can be found in my 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 WomenWho Rescued Allied Airmen from the Nazis During World War II.
Airey Neave, an agent of MI9, wrote a biography on Andrée called Little Cyclone: The Girl WhoStarted the Comet Line.
Finally, the book SilentHeroes: Downed Airmen and the French Underground, by Sherri Greene Otis, contains a lengthy, detailed section on the Comet Line.