The Comet line (French: Réseau Comète) was a resistance group in Belgium and France that helped Allied soldiers and airmen return to Britain during the Second World War. The line started in Brussels where the men were fed, clothed and given false identity papers, before being hidden in attics or cellars. A network of people then guided them south through occupied France into neutral Spain and home via British-controlled Gibraltar.
A typical route was from Brussels or Lille to Paris and then via Tours, Bordeaux, Bayonne, over the Pyrenees to San Sebastián in Spain. From there evaders travelled to Bilbao, Madrid and Gibraltar. There were three other main routes. The Pat line (after founder Albert Guérisse (code name: Pat O'Leary) ran from Paris to Toulouse via Limoges and then over the Pyrenees via Esterri d'Aneu to Barcelona. Another Pat line ran from Paris to Dijon, Lyons, Avignon to Marseille, then Nîmes, Perpignan and Barcelona, from where they were transported to Gibraltar. The third route from Paris (the Shelburne Line) ran to Rennes and then St Brieuc in Brittany, where men were shipped to Dartmouth.
Creation and exploits
The Comet line was created by a young Belgian woman who joined the Belgian Resistance. Andrée de Jongh (nickname "Dédée") was 24 in 1940 and lived in Brussels. She was the younger daughter of Frédéric de Jongh, a headmaster, and Alice Decarpentrie. A heroine of Dédée's in her youth had been Edith Cavell, a British nurse who was shot in 1915 in the Tir National in Schaerbeek for helping troops escape from occupied Belgium to neutral Netherlands.
In August 1941 Andrée de Jongh appeared in the British consulate in Bilbao with a British soldier (James Cromar from Aberdeen) and two Belgian volunteers (Merchiers and Sterckmans), having travelled by train from Paris to Bayonne and then on foot over the Pyrenees through the Basque Country. She requested British support for her escape network (later named 'Comet line'), which was granted by MI9 (British Military Intelligence Section 9), under the control of the ex-infantry Major Norman Crockatt and Lieutenant James Langley, who had been repatriated after losing his left arm in the rearguard at Dunkirk in 1940.
Working with MI9 de Jongh helped 400 Allied soldiers escape from Belgium through occupied France to Spain and Gibraltar. Neave described her as "one of our greatest agents". Later Neave organised gunboats from Dartmouth to run agents and supplies across the Channel to the French resistance in Brittany and return with escaped POWs and evaders. Comet Line members and their families took great risks. De Jongh escorted 118 airmen over the Pyrenees herself.
After November 1942 the escape lines became more dangerous, when southern France was occupied by the Germans and the whole of France came under direct Nazi rule. Many members of the Comet line were betrayed; hundreds were arrested by the Geheime Feldpolizei and the Abwehr; after weeks of interrogation and torture at places such as Fresnes Prison in Paris, they were executed or labelled Nacht und Nebel (NN) prisoners. NN prisoners were deported to German prisons and many later to concentration camps such as Ravensbrück concentration camp for women, Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, Buchenwald concentration camp, Flossenbürg concentration camp. Prisoners sent to these camps included Andrée de Jongh, Elsie Maréchal (Belgian Resistance), Nadine Dumon (Belgian Resistance), Mary Lindell (Comtesse de Milleville) and Virginia d'Albert-Lake (American).
The authors of the official history of MI9 cite 2,373 British and Commonwealth servicemen and 2,700 Americans taken to Britain by such escape lines during the Second World War. The Royal Air Forces Escaping Society estimated that there were 14,000 helpers by 1945. Comet line inspired the 1970s BBC television series, Secret Army (1977–79).
Notable members of the Line
- Andrée de Jongh, (a.k.a. Dédée) Line creator and chief. Arrested 15 January 1943. Survived several Nazi concentration camps. Awarded the George Medal
- Frédéric de Jongh, (a.k.a. Paul). Dédée's father. Arrested 7 June 1943. Executed 28 March 1944.
- Monique de Bissy, Arrested in March 1944, freed in September 1944.
- Baron Jean Greindl, (a.k.a. Nemo). Head of line in Brussels. Arrested 6 February 1943. Killed 7 September 1943.
- Elvire de Greef, (a.k.a. Tante Go). Organiser in South France. Escaped arrest and survived. Awarded the George Medal
- Jean-François Nothomb, (a.k.a. Franco). Succeeded Dedee in France. Arrested 18 January 1944. Survived several Nazi concentration camps. Awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
- Comte Jacques Legrelle (a.k.a. Jerome), organised and operated line in the Paris area, linked the Belgium part of line to South of France. Was captured, tortured, sent to concentration camps and survived. Awarded the George Medal.
- Comte Antoine d’Ursel (a.k.a. Jacques Cartier). Succeeded Nemo in Brussels. Died crossing Franco-Spanish border 24 December 1943.
- Micheline Dumon (a.k.a. Michou), Operated line in 1944. Escaped arrest and awarded the George Medal.
- Elisabeth Barbier worked as a key member of the Comet line in Paris in 1942 before working with Val Williams (Oaktree line) and then starting the Reseau Vaneau. Arrested in 1943 and sent to Ravensbrück until liberated in 1945.
"The Freedom Line" by Peter Eisner traces the thrilling and true story of Robert Grimes, a 20–year–old American B–17 pilot whose plane was shot down over Belgium on 20 October 1943. Wounded, disoriented and scared, he was rescued by operatives of the Comet Line, a group of tenacious young women and men from Belgium, France and Spain who joined forces to rescue the Allied aircrews and take them to safety.
Other accounts appear in the books Saturday at MI9 also by Airey Neave, Home Run by John Nichol & Tony Rennel, MI9 – Escape & Evasion by James Langley & M. R. D. Foot, and Silent Heroes: Downed Airmen and the French Underground by Sherri Greene Ottis.
Return Journey by Major ASB Arkwright includes a first hand account of three British Officers who were brought to freedom by the line after escaping from a POW camp.
Riding the Comet is a stage drama by Mark Violi. The play focuses on a rural French family helping two American GIs return safely to London shortly after the D-Day invasion. This play premiered at Actors' NET of Bucks County, Pennsylvania in September 2011.
In the novel The Nightingale (2015), written by Kristin Hannah, a fictional French resistance fighter named Isabelle Rossignol uses a passage through the Pyrenees much like the Comet Line to take American, British and Canadian airmen into Spain.
- Belgian Resistance
- Dutch Resistance
- French Resistance
- KLB Club
- Secret Army (TV series)
- Shelburne Escape Line
- Underground Railroad
- The Nightingale (2015 Novel)
- Comete, the escape network (2015 Exhibition)
- Roy Allen
- Monique de Bissy
- Jacques Desoubrie
- Albert Guérisse (organised the "Pat Line" escape network)
- Andrée de Jongh
- Phil Lamason
- Home Run – Escape from Nazi Europe 2007. John Nichol and Tony Rennell. (Penguin Books)
- (English) Marc Terrance (1999). Concentration Camps: Guide to World War II Sites. Universal Publishers. ISBN 1-58112-839-8.
- Home Run – Escape from Nazi Europe – 2007 p. 470 – John Nichol and Tony Rennell – (Penguin books)
- The Shelburne Escape Line: Secret Rescues of Allied Aviators by the French Underground, the British Royal Navy and London's MI-9
-  2004. Peter Eisner. (William Morrow)
- Silent Heroes: Downed Airmen and the French Underground 2001. Sherri Greene Ottis. (The University Press of Kentucky)
- Violi, Mark. "Riding the Comet".