André “Dédée” de Jongh, a beautiful Belgian nurse who helped hundreds of Allied airmen flee the Nazis during World War II, died on Oct. 13. Cause of death was not released. She was 90.
Born in Schaerbeek, Belgium, De Jongh was the youngest daughter of a Brussels schoolteacher. She trained as a nurse, but made a living as a commercial artist while volunteering for the Belgian Red Cross.
When the German army invaded Belgium in 1940, the 24-year-old decided to fight back. After much planning, she and her father began setting up a chain of safe houses from Brussels to the Spanish border to secretly harbor Allied forces from the German troops.
Although the British initially suspected a Gestapo trap, De Jongh convinced an intelligence officer from the British Embassy in Bilbao of her sincere wish to help. He agreed to reimburse her travel costs if she could successfully rescue Allied pilots, radio operators and navigators downed in Belgium. She did so, and in 1940, the Comet Line was born. De Jongh was given the code name “Postman,” though most members of the Resistance called her “Dédée.”
The Comet Line, a 1,000-mile trek through Belgium and occupied France, across the Pyrenees into Spain’s Basque country and out via the British colony of Gibraltar, allowed American and British aviators to escape German imprisonment. The route required the assistance of hundreds of Resistance supporters, all of whom risked arrest, torture and death for participating in the scheme. At the time, helping downed fliers escape was considered a capital offense. Organizers would recover fallen airmen, procure civilian clothing and fake identity papers, give medical aid to the wounded and provide both food and shelter to the men as they were led to safety.
De Jongh was escorting a soldier over the Pyrenees in January 1943 when a German collaborator betrayed her. The Germans interrogated her 20 times, but they refused to believe that this pretty, petite woman was the ringleader behind the Comet Line. At the time of her arrest, De Jongh had personally led 116 men, including more than 80 downed airman, over the mountains to safety. During its three years in operation, the Comet Line saved more than 700 pilots and soldiers.
For her participation, De Jongh spent nearly three years in prisons and concentration camps. When Allied armies liberated her from Ravensbruck, she was shaven, undernourished and gravely ill. Other participants in the Comet Line were not as fortunate; they were executed or died in the camps. De Jongh’s own father, Frédéric, faced a firing squad in 1944 for his participation.
After the war ended, De Jongh regained her health and returning to nursing. She spent several years working at a leper colony in the Belgian Congo, then became a matron at a hospital in Ethiopia.
In 1946, De Jongh received the George Medal, the highest civilian award for bravery available in Britain to a foreigner. For choosing “one of the most perilous assignments of the war,” she also received the Medal of Freedom With Golden Palm, America’s highest award presented to foreigners. The French named her a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur and the Belgians appointed her a Chevalier of the Order of Leopold and honored her with the Croix de Guerre With Palm. In 1985, King Baudouin elevated her to a countess.
De Jongh’s exploits during World War II were chronicled in numerous books, including “Little Cyclone” by Airey Neave (1954), “Silent Heroes: Downed Airmen and the French Underground” by Sherri Greene Ottis (2001) and “The Freedom Line: The Brave Men and Women Who Rescued Allied Airmen From the Nazis During World War II” by Peter Eisner (2004).
what an extraordinarily wonderful woman …
Wow, what a role model…to do extraordinary things and behave in an ordinary manner. Too bad everyone else wants to be like Britney and Paris.
A life well-lived.