Remarkable Belgian Andrée de Jongh played a pivotal role in organizing the Comet Line – a clandestine network that defied the Nazi occupation and rescued numerous Allied soldiers and airmen stranded behind enemy lines.
Andrée de Jongh was born on November 30, 1916 in Schaerbeek, Belgium, then under German occupation during the First World War. One of her heroines in her youth was Edith Cavell, a British nurse shot in 1915 for assisting soldiers to escape from occupied Belgium to the neutral Netherlands. Andrée trained as a nurse (like Cavell), and was 23 when the Germans invaded and occupied Belgium again in the Second World War.
In May 1940, Andrée became a Red Cross volunteer, ministering to Allied troops. She organized a series of safe houses throughout Brussels for these soldiers, while also procuring civilian clothes and false ID papers for them. She found herself drawn to the resistance movement. Her passion for justice and her indomitable spirit led her to conceive the idea of an escape route for downed Allied pilots and soldiers, a network that would become known as the Comet Line.
The Comet Line
Established in 1941, the Comet Line was a clandestine organization dedicated to rescuing and aiding Allied servicemen trapped in German-occupied Belgium and France. Andrée, also known by her code name “Dédée,” was the driving force behind its creation and success. What set the Comet Line apart was its innovative approach. Andrée, with her exceptional linguistic abilities, recruited a diverse network of volunteers from all walks of life, including nuns, students, and ordinary citizens, to assist in the daring rescues.
One of the distinctive features of the Comet Line was its avoidance of traditional safe houses. Instead, Andrée and her collaborators relied on unconventional hiding spots, such as farms, convents, and even private homes, making it more challenging for the Gestapo to track down and dismantle the network. This adaptability and creativity were key to the Comet Line’s ability to operate successfully for several years.
A life full of danger
Her level of commitment to this work was astounding. Andrée would receive airmen from Brussels, care for them in safe houses, escort them by railroad to Bayonne or nearby cities near the Spanish border, and trek with them across the Pyrenees to Spain. Andrée would then return to Belgium and repeat the process. It is thought that she successfully escorted around 118 downed airmen across the border into Spain in 1941 and 1942, in up to 24 round trips. Each one of them would have been extremely dangerous.
Andrée’s leadership style was characterized by a rare combination of resilience and compassion. Despite the constant threat of betrayal and the harsh consequences of discovery, she remained resolute in her commitment to the cause. The risks she took were not just theoretical; she experienced the brutality of the Nazi regime firsthand when she was arrested by the Gestapo.
Arrest and imprisonment
In January 1943, Andrée led three British airmen south by train from Paris to the Pyrenees. However, on 15 January 1943, Andrée, the three airmen and a local Basque woman were arrested in a “safe” house by ten German soldiers. They had been betrayed, probably by a local farm worker.
Andrée was sent first to Fresnes prison in Paris and eventually to Ravensbrück concentration camp and Mauthausen. She was interrogated 19 times by the Abwehr and twice by the Gestapo. Even in captivity, Andrée displayed exceptional strength of character. She endured interrogation and torture without revealing crucial details about the network, demonstrating her unwavering loyalty to the cause and the people she sought to save. Although she admitted being the leader of the Comet Line, the Germans did not believe that this slight, young woman was more than a minor resistance helper. Their underestimation of her probably saved her from execution.
Although she survived in the concentration camps, she had become seriously ill and undernourished by the time she was released by the advancing Allies in April 1945.
After the war, Andrée’s efforts were recognized and celebrated. She was awarded the British George Medal, the U.S. Medal of Freedom, and the Belgian Croix de Guerre for her exceptional bravery and contribution to the Allied cause. The Comet Line’s impact extended beyond the war; it became a symbol of resistance and solidarity, embodying the courage of ordinary people in the face of extraordinary adversity. Here is an old newsreel of her receiving the George Medal.
Later life and death
After the war, Andrée continued her life with a sense of purpose. She married fellow resistance member Florentino Iñiguez and moved to the Congo, where she dedicated herself to humanitarian work by working amongst people affected by leprosy. She also worked in Cameroon, Ethiopia and Senegal before ill health brought her back to Belgium.
In 1985, she was made a Countess in the Belgian nobility by King Baudouin. The Countess de Jongh died on 13 October 2007, aged 90. After a funeral service at the La Cambre Abbey, Ixelles, Brussels, she was interred in the crypt of her parents at Schaerbeek Cemetery.
A few years ago I read an excellent novel by Kristin Hannah called The Nightingale. It tells the story of two sisters in France during World War II and their struggle to survive and resist the German occupation of France. I didn’t realize at the time that it was inspired by Andrée de Jongh. I can most definitely recommend it.
In 2017 Michael Kenneth Smith wrote The Postwoman, a book covering the actual life of Andrée De Jongh. I am currently reading it – so far it’s excellent!