Secret War | Andrée 'Dédée' de Jongh
It was a great privilege to travel to Belgium and France recently with Guide Lecturer, Guy Walters, to recce our upcoming ‘Secret Army’ tour. As a journey, it has some fantastic elements – combining the urban centres of Brussels and Paris with a few days in the stunning Pyrenees in and around St Jean de Luz. The stories of Second World War Escape Lines (networks set up to help Allied aircrew escape from Occupied Europe) are well known to us through the BBC series, “Secret Army” and “ ‘Allo ‘Allo”, but as the recce unfolded, I realised that there was one extraordinary central character underpinning the whole venture – Dédée de Jongh.
Andrée (Dédée) de Jongh was the founder and driving force behind the ‘Comet Line’, the most well known of the Allied escape lines. Trained as a nurse, she was just 24 when she started helping Allied servicemen escape, personally escorting three evaders across the Pyrenees in 1941, and turning up with them at the British Consulate in Bilbao where she asked for assistance in developing her network.
Over the course of the war, the Comet Line helped some 400 Allied servicemen to escape the Nazis; Dédée crossed the Pyrenees herself no less that 30 times and personally escorted 118 evaders to safety, including 80 aircrew. An element of the escape line was a swim across the River Somme and, one night, she swam backwards and forwards eleven times, shepherding Allied evaders who were weak swimmers to the far bank.
Those who escaped with her paid testimony to her courage and her ability to inspire those on the edge of exhaustion to keep going. Bob Frost, a bomber crew member, said in an interview: “It was her eyes, they were absolutely burning and there was an air of supreme confidence about her.”
Dédée worked in an environment where there was a constant fear of betrayal. Many hundreds of her colleagues were captured by the Gestapo and either executed immediately, or deported to Concentration camps, where they died subsequently. De Jongh warned new recruits to the Comet Line that they had a life-expectancy of no more than six months. Her own father, Frédéric, was arrested and shot in June 1943.
Dédée’s luck ran out on 15 January, 1943. She was betrayed and captured at a farmhouse in Urrugne, close to the Pyrenees. Showing typical braveness, and after undergoing 20 interrogations, she tried to shoulder the whole blame for setting up and running the Comet Line to deflect attention from others. In the event, the authorities refused to believe that this young woman could be wholly responsible and she was deported to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. Here, she was able to blend into the background and avoid further interrogation.
One feels rather inadequate learning about this remarkable woman, a sense compounded by the life choices she made after the war was over. Rather than take a well-earned back seat, Dédée de Jongh spent the majority of her working life working in leper hospitals in the Congo and Ethiopia. Asked why by novelist Graham Greene in a chance meeting, she replied: “Because from the age of fifteen I wanted to cure lepers.”
Dédee de Jongh was born on November 30, 1916 and died on October 13, 2007. For her wartime heroism, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the Americans, the George Medal by the British, an honorary commission in the Belgian army and was created a countess by the King of the Belgians.
The ‘Secret Army’ tour departs on 2 October 2017 with Guide Lecturer Guy Walters and Tour Manager Michael Ivey. For more details, click here.