Today We Remember: Andrée de Jongh
Andrée was a Belgian Red Cross nurse who founded and organised the Comet Escape Line – an escape route out of Occupied Europe for hundreds of Allied airmen
In 1941 a British bomber was shot down over France. Crash landing in a Belgian airfield, the crewmen, led by Sergeant Jack Newton, torched the aircraft and escaped the German patrol sent to capture them. Taken in by the local Resistance, they were transferred to the Underground and ensconced in a safe house where they were met by a young woman.
“My name is Andrée,” she said. “But I would like you to call me by my code name, which is Dédée, which means little mother. From here on I will be your little mother, and you will be my little children. It will be my job to get my children to Spain and freedom.”*
Andrée de Jongh was born in German occupied Brussels in the middle of World War One, the year after British nurse Edith Cavell was executed. Cavell had been shot by the Germans for helping some 200 Allied soldiers to escape from Belgium to the neutral Netherlands, and her story greatly impressed the young Dédée as she grew up.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Dédée was 24 years old and working as a commercial artist in Malmedy, southeast Belgium, while training as a nurse. Eager to play her part, she returned to Brussels in order to nurse full-time. While nursing Allied servicemen and installing them in safe houses, she developed a network under her own initiative to emulate her hero Cavell and create an escape route out of occupied Europe.
Enlisting the help of her father and several others: Dédée linked with the Resistance and established a 1,200 mile escape line that would take trapped servicemen from Belgium through occupied France, across the Pyrenees Mountain range and into neutral Spain.
In August 1941, Dédée took the airmen along the route she had created out of Belgium through occupied France, by way of safe houses along the route, and over the Pyrenees into Spain, where she made her way to the British Consulate in Bilbao, where she approached the Vice-consul for support. Incredulous that this petite, slight young woman had been able to lead these men on such a dangerous and demanding journey, on foot, via a smugglers route through the mountains, he answered that he would have to refer her plan to the Embassy in Madrid.
Weeks later, Dédée reappeared at the consulate in Bilbao with another group of RAF airmen. Convinced she was to be taken seriously, she was introduced to MI9 representatives and British funding for the line was approved, although Dédée insisted it would remain under Belgian control.
Working with MI9, the organisation helped over 400 people escape along the Comet Line and back to Britain, Dédée herself escorting 118 over 30 trips. The organisation numbered over a thousand at its height and its work was extremely complex – covering the entire process from recovering fallen airmen, procuring correct clothing and fake identity papers and providing transport medical aid, food and shelter along the way, all the while under the risk of detection. As Dédée warned any new recruits, they should expect to be dead or captured within six months.
As the Comet Line became more successful, German efforts to disrupt it ramped up. Hundreds of members were rounded up and in January 1943 Dédée herself was captured while escorting a soldier through the Pyrenees, betrayed by a German collaborator. Interrogated under torture, to save the others in her group she admitted to being the leader of the organisation. The Gestapo refused to believe that a young woman could run such an extensive and successful movement, but sent her to Mathausen and subsequently Ravensbruck concentration camp. The line continued to run, but many of its members were caught, tortured and executed. Dédée’s own father Frédéric 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.
For two years Dédée survived appalling camp conditions, nursing others despite becoming gravely ill and undernourished herself. By the time she was released by Allied troops in April 1945, 23 members of the Comet Line had been executed, while another 133 had died in concentration camps or as a result or their incarceration.
A year later, having recovered her health, Dédée travelled to Buckingham Palace where she was awarded the George Medal – the highest civilian award for bravery available to a foreigner. She was fêted at events held by the RAF and reunited with many of the men she had led to safety. The Americans awarded her the Medal of Freedom and the French appointed her a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.
Her courage was also recognised in her own country – Belgium appointed her a Chevalier of the Order of Leopold and awarded her the Croix de Guerre with palm. In 1985 she was created a countess by King Baudouin.
After the war, Dédée continued to dedicate her life to helping others. She spent many years working as a sister in a leper colony in the Congo, before taking a position as Matron of a hospital in Ethiopia. In 1985 she was created a countess by King Baudouin, and when her health and eyesight began to fail her, she returned to Brussels, where she regularly received visitors, historians and military personnel, sharing her story with them.
“When war was declared I knew what needed to be done. There was no hesitation. We could not stop what we had to do although we knew the cost. Even if it was at the expense of our lives, we had to fight until the last breath.”Andrée de Jongh, 2000
Countess Andrée de Jongh died in Brussels in 2007 at the age of 90, a few days before the memorial service and reunion held annually in Brussels for the survivors and relatives of those who served with the Comet Line.
*Evader: The Epic Story of the First British Airman to be Rescued by the Comete Escape Line in World War II by Derek Shuff