100TH BG ALLIED GROUND CREW IN OCCUPIED EUROPE
by Michael Moores LeBlanc
Anyone reading the E&E reports of 100 BG airmen will benefit from a brief guide in order to understand and better appreciate the background of the evasion of these boys.
The Comete evacuation line helped so many 100 BG air crew, it would be appropriate to place evaders with in the context of Comete's history and present a brief resume of the Comete line helpers they all would most likely have come into contact with.
Because of the geographic realities of the air war over NW Europe in WWII Belgium became a focus and main hub of evasion line activity.
The reason for this is that the flight paths of the allied air armadas took them over the airspace of either Holland or Belgium to reach the major cities of western and central Germany and in particular, the importance of the industrial basin of the Ruhr required these countries be traveled over. It is estimated that something in the order of 8,000 aircraft of all nations fell over Holland alone.
These air penetrations resulted in many casualties due to the heavy concentration of German air defences on the coast and especially ‘Happy Valley’ as the concentration of industry, bordering on both Holland and Belgium was called.
Since both Holland and Belgium proved to be very ‘Ally’ friendly, it was natural that the vast majority of evaders originated in these two countries.
Due to the absence of appropriate targets prior to the build up for D-Day, France was the focus of relatively few losses compared with Holland and Belgium. None-the-less, it provided a share of evaders before D-Day, with most airmen coming down in the coastal areas, following raids on the ports and submarine pens that were the shallow targets of American raids in late 1942 and early 1943 when fighter escort simply wasn’t available to support deeper daylight raids into Germany.
However, the real air war began in earnest in the spring of 1943 when the British, finally recovering from the 'Battle of the Atlantic', and benefiting from increased production and a flood of air crew arriving from the 'British colonies' began attacks on the industrial Ruhr with raids comprised of 700 or more aircraft at a time. This coincided with increased activity from the 8th USAAF which, with growing strength and escorts of P-38s P-47s, flexed its muscles and began shifting its attacks from the coastal areas of France and Germany and well into Germany itself.
WWII Evasion line work, by its very nature, required co-operation with and trust in many people who hardly knew each other. This made it the most dangerous kind of resistance activity in WWII. It is said that two 'Helpers’ died for every allied airman who was successfully evacuated - this does not count those who were arrested and sent to concentration camps but survived to come home broken in body and in spirit.
The casualty rate was as high as that of bomber crew during the very worst period of the war. In other words, hardly anyone managed to get through a 'tour' without becoming a casualty. No 'Helper' could expect to operate, and history was to prove it, for more than six months. Many, very many did not last even half that long. The Comete Line was the Phoenix of the escape line organizations. It endured many betrayals and mass arrests, yet it rose again with new leaders and new members and carried on assisting allied airmen when and wherever they could. In its many re-incarnations it operated from mid 1941 till the Belgian liberation period in early September 1944.
Before going on any further, it is well worth noting the striking demographics of the people who worked on evasion lines in what was to all intents and purposes a front line in the war. By the spring of 1943, most young Dutch, Belgian and French males were under strict German control. Plans were already afoot in Berlin to have all non-essential workers from these countries sent to Germany to work as forced labourers in industries that had been stripped of young Germans being conscripted and sent to Russia – but the spring of 1944, German would cordon off areas in large cities and towns and any young man who could not prove he had an essential occupation was shipped off to Germany without further ceremony. Many young males went underground and stayed in hiding or joined Maquis groups in the forests waiting for D-Day. A male worker in a reserved occupation had to account for all of his time - a 12 hour day was not unusual, and any absences from work were immediately reported to authorities. As a consequence of the scarcity of young active males with free time, young women took their place and acted as guides and couriers in the resistance.
Qualifications for being a safe-house keeper of airmen were unique. A young family with innocent children who might talk or boast to the wrong person were not favoured. Instead, couples with no children or the elderly were the best candidates and we sought for. Thus we find a very real war being fought with the utmost bravery and willingness to sacrifice, by an underground army staffed in large part by young women and middle-aged or elderly folks. Sadly, the middle-aged and the elderly were those who were least likely survive the rigors of arrest and internment under the horrific conditions common throughout the Nazi detention camps. Some of the young are still with us but the others have gone on to the ages, unrecognized, perhaps even by their ‘boys’, the fellows they helped who may never have known their real identities nor ever have learned of their fates. Virtue is its own reward.
What follows is a much abbreviated 'potted' history that barely hints at the drama and achievements of the organization ... one of the most marvellous stories of WWII resistance. This resume hardly touches on the many names of its almost forgotten members who gave so much of themselves. They did this without the protection of the Geneva Convention that sheltered airmen from ‘war crimes’. Airmen who evaded risked only capture and inconvenient time in a German prisoner of war camp, which followed the letter if not the spirit of international law. 'Arrested Helpers' were sent on to the horrors of the concentration and extermination camps from where only about 18% returned.
The Comete Line was founded by 'Dedee' de Jong, together with her friend Arnold Deppe in mid 1941. Thanks to the international contacts Arnold had, they were able to plan a route, complimented by helpers, from Brussels, that took them over the guarded frontier, on through to Paris and by train down to Anglet in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the south west corner of France, Here, DeDee made arrangement with a smuggler to get her evaders over the mountains into Spain. In the area of Anglet, soldiers and airmen were first sheltered by 'Tante Go' Elvire De Greef, the great survivor, before being led over the mountains. Over time, ‘Tante Go’ would create an efficient network of shelter/guide helpers in the south that for the most part survived the war without detection or arrest. With one exceptional affair, the arrest of Dedee, it was the only sector in the Comete line that escaped repeated assaults by German Security Services.
This early team was partially broken up on their second convoy towards Spain when Arnold was betrayed by a Belgian contact* in Brussels and intercepted together with the party he was leading from Brussels, Belgium. 'Dedee', who had taken a different route, at the last minute, escaped arrest but was 'burned' and could not return to Brussels where she was now being searched for by the Gestapo. Instead, she moved to Paris and established Comete headquarter there. She became the airmen's guide from Paris to Anglet, from where she very often convoyed airmen together with her stalwart guide Florentino Goicoechea, over the Pyrenees and into Spain.
*Prosper de Zitter, a man who was just then only beginning to learn his trade of professional deception and betrayal so could not be blamed for not being more efficient and capturing Dedee as well. De Zitter went on to become the most successful and notorious of Belgian traitor and would dog the edges of Comete till the end of the war. He was personally responsible for the capture of at least 450 evaders (a testament to the unrecorded evasion activity of many Belgians) and numberless Belgians. At his post-war trail before his execution, the prosecution was allowed the unprecedented privilege of sitting in court while the charges against him were being read. The list was that long,
Meanwhile, Dedee’s father, Frederic de Jong, took over her former role of assembling evaders in Brussels. He ensured they were delivered to the new Comete group organized in Paris by 'Dedee'. Matters continued in this way until the spring of 1942, when he too was ‘burned’ when the Dumon family was arrested and had to flee to Paris to avoid arrest at home. He was replaced by a series other brave Belgians who collected airmen and sent them to Paris. In Paris, where Frederic was known as 'Mr Paul Moreau', he, together with a new partner 'Baby' Robert Ayle, took over sheltering operations as well as the collection of airmen who were found in France. This freed 'Dedee' to focus on guiding airmen south and dealing with Allied authorities in Spain who received airmen and financed the line now that it was producing evaders in significant numbers on a regular basis.
After moving 86 airmen and soldiers, not to mention a number of agents and important civilians safely into Spain, the end came for 'Dedee' on the 15th of January 1943, when she was betrayed by a former Basque helper. She was arrested together with three British airmen and two of her helpers at a mountain farm in the Pyrenees. Her father, who was already well known to the Germans and was then in danger himself, was to have been evacuated to Spain with this convoy, but he was not with the group when they were arrested. His behaviour, subsequent to this event, speaks for the spirit and dedication of all of the members of the resistance.
Devastated by the capture of his daughter, and well aware of the even greater danger now present, ‘Paul’ refused to leave France. He took over leadership of the Comete Line basing himself once again in Paris. He continued in this work until the 7th of June when he and 'Baby' were betrayed by 'Jean Mason' Jacques Desourbri, a trusted member of the line, but also a secret member of the SD. Desoubri had managed to penetrate the and proved himself by moving 15 airmen from Brussels to Paris. The Germans allowed these 16 to get away but felt the cost was worth the price. Mass arrests (in the order of 250 persons) followed in Paris and Belgium. While Comete was brought to its knees by this shock, it wasn't knocked out. Others soon came forward to replace the lost members and the line re-organized itself and became even bigger and more successful.
Shortly after the arrest of Frederic, a Belgian by the name of 'Jerome' Jacques Legrille, sent by Britain's MI-9 (the evasion line HQ service) arrived in Paris. His mission was to exert MI-9’s leadership over the line. ‘Jerome’ met with 'Franco' Francois Nothomb, a young Belgian who had previously been one of guides from Paris to the south of France. Following the disaster in Paris and Belgium, 'Tante Go', the senior surviving Comete member, named ‘Franco’ to become successor to the leadership. An agreement was reached between them to keep Comete an independent Belgian affair and limit MI-9 influence to matters of money. 'Franco, would remain Comete’s leader, helped by 'Tante Go' and he would take care of matters between Paris and Spain while 'Jerome' would re-organize the Paris sector and re-establish contacts with Brussels where 'Jean Serment' Yvon Michiels became the leader of Belgian operations.
The first 100 BG Comete Line evader, E&E 116 (Comet number 139) Lt A.L. Robertson, appeared on the scene just after the arrested of Frederic, when he and his crew failed to return from a mission to LeBourget, an airfield near Paris, on the 10th of June 1943. He was evacuated to Spain on the 22nd of September 1943 together with another American, Lt Maher of the 303 BG, and two members of the RAF. It is worth noting that evaders were almost always moved over the Pyrenees in groups of four.
Thus, the Comete Line entered its ‘neo-classic’ period, its most successful time. Between the end of June 1943 and January 17 1944, it was all but destroyed once again by Jacques Desoubri. In its six month of activity it safely moved over 155 allied airmen to Spain, with only a small handful being lost along the way.
How was it done? Generally, it began with village priests, teachers and doctors. These people were the trusted educated class of the country side that the humble rural farmer, the person who usually found airmen in the first place, would go to for help and advice if he wasn't already a member of an organized resistance group with evasion line contacts. In turn, these worthy men would already have been contacted by the Comete lines collections services such as Group EVA in Brussels. The EVA group, a collection service, became a primary supplier of Comete airmen in Belgium. A variety of similar organizations existed in western and coastal France. The main 'French' areas supplying airmen to the Comete Line were centered in: Lille, Amiens, Baupaume, Arras, Beauvais, and Rouen.
The passage quoted below is a reference I found in a book written by an author whose name and book title I did not record before lending the book to someone else. Like many books passed along in this way it has not found its way home. It is possibly taken from Art Horning’s excellent account of his own evasion, In the Footsteps of a Flying Boot.
" …Over most of lowland Holland and Belgium and many parts of northern and western France, what almost amounted to a new and dangerous sport emerged in 1943-44: parachute watching. It was not exactly a spectator sport, for spectators were likely to be turned into players, at imminent risk to their lives. Whenever a giant thumming in the sky by day revealed that a large American bomber force was passing by, thousands of people would go out doors to watch. The hardiest among them took bicycles, and perhaps a spare garment or two (if they had them: there was a fearful shortage of clothing and shoes), in the bicycle basket or over the shoulder or simply wore them. If parachutes were seen, bicycles would hurry towards their presumed point of impact in the hope that the parachutists were American and could be spirited out of sight or at least out of flying gear before the Germans arrived … and at night too, members of the patriotic resistance in each and every town and hamlet watched the night sky for the flaming trails that would reveal the death of a Bomber Command bomber. Cautious, in deadly fear of the Nazi curfew, they walked patrols in the hope of recovering a downed airman ..."
The Collector Lines:
Three men were prominent in the affairs of EVA in Brussels are often found, if not recognized, in the E&E reports of 100 BG airmen. They were Alphonse Escrenier, Charles Host and Gaston Matthys. They collected airmen, identified and had them photographed for false papers, found shelter and food for them, and when the time was right passed them on, via 'Mme Anne' Anne Brusselmans, to the incredible 'Lilly-Michou' Dumon, one of the most amazing of evasion line personalities.
Michou, who worked closely with 'Rio' Eli Miroir and a group of resistant members belonging to the MNB/Belgian National Movement . Michou had organized, in effect, not only her own 'collection service extending up to he Dutch border, but also an evacuation line to Paris that mirrored a line to that city organized by 'Jean Serment'.
Through other collection points, 'Jean Serment' recovered additional airmen. 'Jean Serment' guides within the country and to the frontier area included: 'Marc' Jose Grimar, 'Le Plombier' Emile Roiseux, 'Le Patassier' C. Arnould and 'Little Ben' Raymond Itterbeek.
In the event, a number of 100 BG Comete evaders went through the hands of Michou's group. Those identified to date include: E&E 120 Lt Roy Claytor, E&E 256 S/Sgt Leon MacDonald, E&E 257 S/Sgt Gorge Geneikis, E&E 280 S/Sgt Harold Pope, E&E 314 T/St John Burgin, E&E 313 Lt Reg Nutting, E&E 283 Lt John Justice, E&E Lt Carl Spicer,
The reason for the difference in the two streams feeding airmen to Paris lay in the background of both individuals. 'Michou' came from a family that had worked with Comete from the earliest days. Her sister, Nadine Dumon, was one of the early Comete Belgian guides until mid-August of 1942 when she, her mother Francoise and her father Eugene, were arrested. Michou was a student nurse at the time and was left undisturbed. This family was affiliated with an intelligence service, known as LUC-MARC. It was a political rival to that to the ZERO organization, an intelligence service to which 'Jean Serment belonged. While the two services were jealous of each other, 'Jean Deltour' Jules Dricot, an adjutant to 'Jean Serment' in Brussels and the acting manager for Comete in Brussels, smoothed out their differences and ensure all worked smoothly.
Two Liege area collection services fed 100 BG airmen to the 'Jean Serment' organization. One was led by Charles Kremer together with Baron Marcel de Ruyter. The other was an organization led by Joseph Drion, who, so fluid was the nature of the resistance, also had connections to the Kremer organization. Both groups had connections to Michou and fed her, as well as other evacuation routes, airmen.
A third evacuation line, known as 'Felix' existed at the time which gave help to members of the 100 BG. This was a creation of MI-9 and was centered in Liege and in Brussels where it had EVA connections. 'Felix' Charles Gueulette, an agent parachuted in late July of ’43, was able to organize a system that evacuated airmen as far as Paris, but for for various reasons it had troubles in the south. As a result, its airmen found themselves stranded in that city. Some of these men were then re-directed to Comete Paris and then evacuated by them. Other Felix airmen managed to have themselves evacuated by boat out of Brittany on the FanFan Line or were directed to the Possum Line for evacuation by Lysanders.
Identified 100 BG airmen helped by Felix include: E&E 384 S/Sgt Charles Bailey, E&E 385 S/Sgt William Quinn. Both boys were ultimately evacuated by the Burgundy Line after possible Comete cross-over connections in Paris.
The following is not completely inclusive of Comete’s ways and means, but generally speaking, two airmen at a time were led by two different guides from Brussels to the frontier area of Belgium and France. The three main town on the Belgian-French border where they would usually spend part if not all of the night were before crossing over into France by various routes were:
1). Erquennes-Bavay. Led by Francois Boulard.
2). Rumes-Bachy. Led by the 'Monique' Hanotte family
3). Hertain-Campin. Led by Lt Maurice Desson.
There were other frontier passages being used but the ones mentioned above were the main crossing points.
Frontier to Paris Guides
Here at different homes or farms, they would meet the guides who would take them to Paris: 'Amand' Dianne Stassart or 'Jeanne'Odile de Vasselot or 'Monique' Henriette Hanotte. These guides were headed by 'Jean-Jacques' Albert Mattens, a young and badly wounded war veteran who, aside from being a guide himself, dealt with liaison between Brussels and Paris.
The following morning the airmen would be make their way to Lille, where they would get on a Paris bound train aided and abetted along the way by cafe waiters & railway workers recruited by Comete. Arriving in Paris they were met by 'Jerome' aka 'Cashbox', the man with gold teeth, who would then turn the airmen over to one of the three heads of safe-house systems in Paris.
'Mme Francoise' or 'Cramponne' or Hautfoin' Germaine Bajpai. Aged almost 50 but looked like she was in her 30's. Mattens said of her, that "she had the beauty of the devil and the spirit to match". All airmen who met her remember her stunning good looks. She had been married five times. Her husband was the brother of the Indian ambassador to Washington.
'Rosa' or 'The Little Lady in black' Francoise Ominus. A tiny lady who always carried a shopping bag.
'Henri' or 'Crampon' the medical student with the family who had a psychiactric clinic.
These three safe house organizers would take the airmen to one of the safe houses in their system. Here, the airmen would spend anything from a few days to as much as two weeks during times of trouble, before new travelling papers, photos, clothing for the Pyrenees prepared, and a place could be found in a convoy to the south by train.
Switch-overs in Paris
In times of difficulty, such as immediately after the arrest of the de Jong group or later in the fall of 1943 when Comete was overloaded with evaders, a number of airmen were given over to the Burgundy Line led by the indomitable Georges Broussine. Nine airmen are known to have been handed over to Edgar Poitier for evacuation by Lysander on the Possum Line while others were given over to the 'Jean-Pierre' Line.
The train trip to the south of France
From Paris, pairs of airmen were escorted by two guides* as far as Bordeaux where a change in trains was made. Here the airmen were met by new guides who took them by train as far as Dax. From Dax, the parties would then mount bicycles and ride to the area of Bayonne where they would be met by guides working for Tante Go's organization. The airmen would then be sheltered in the area of St Jean de Luz or Cibourne or Anglet.
*Guides to the south included: 'The big woman' Rolande Whitton, 'The tiny little woman' Marcelle Drouard, 'Franco' Francois Nothomb, 'Max' Michel Rogers and 'Daniel Mouton' Albert Ancia.
While waiting in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the airmen were prepared for their imminent mountain crossing.
Crossing the Pyrenees
The crossing of the Pyrenees involved a journey of two to three or four days for men who in many cases were not in good physical condition after weeks of inactivity while in hiding. Its difficulty depended on the season of the year but even in good weather conditions, the necessity of travel by night made this a difficult expedition and great dangers could be encountered in crossing the Bidassoa river, the border between France and Spain, which was not only cover by German and Spanish patrols but offered further hazards if the river was in flood. On a night crossing on 22-23 December, 1943, a leading member of Comete Belgium 'Jacques Cartier' Count Antoine d'Ursel and Lt James Burch of the 385th BG drowned after being swept away by the current.
(It is to be noted that every September, there is a gathering of the Comete Line association in St Jean-de-Luz. Aside from a wealth of social activities, groups of hikers – sons & daughters and grandchildren of Comete Line airmen and helpers and those who follow the history, retrace the route of evasion over the beautiful Pyrenees countryside into Spain. It is a fantastic experience with the very best of company.
After a successful crossing, airmen eventually arrived in San Sebastien, Spain where they were met by British consular officials (MI-9 agents in disguise) or if they had been unfortunate and intercepted and arrested by Spanish police they were transported to Miranda prison were most spent a few weeks or a month before arrangements could be made for their release. By the winter of 43-44 Spain, realizing Germany was going to lose the war, had become much friendlier towards the allies and in exchange for oil and products like cotton for their textile industry was willing to exchange the prisoner they had on hand.
Airmen were driven to Madrid where they stayed for a few days at the British Embassy. From Madrid, they were drive to Gibraltar, although for reasons still not determined, a few were sent to the east coast of Spain, and then smuggled aboard ships carrying oranges that took them to Gibraltar.
On 'The Rock', airmen were interviewed by MI-9s Don Darling or one of his assistant. Darling's autobiography book, 'Secret Sunday' offers very interesting details about his work, the airmen he met and the helpers MI-9 had intelligence about. He describes a great but un-named and thus unknown evasion line worker, one I would love to identify some day and get a picture of. She was a stripper, who would visit evaders and put on private shows to liven up there otherwise dull stay in Paris and then give them her business card, I believe a picture of herself in the raw – something that must one day become one of the ultimates in E&E collectors prizes – remember this is the prudish 1943-44 era and not the jaded 2000 plus.
From Gibraltar, the evaders were either shipped or flown back to England where they were debriefed by MIS-X (US evasion HQ) or MI-9 (British evasion HQ) and assigned their E&E or SPG numbers.
Following their return to Britain, Americans were almost always sent back to USA. The famous fighter-pilot, Chuck Yeager who went on to break the sound barrier, was shot down on 5 March of '44. He reached Spain in late March of 1944 and became E&E 660. Chuck was the first airman to challenge this policy about returning to combat and was successful in achieving this status. In contrast, British policy towards evaders was different. After a suitable period of rest and reposting to training squadrons, a large number of British evaders returned to air operations. In many cases, the war graves of Europe are their resting place today.
The question has often been asked: Was all the pain, suffering and death sustained by evasion line workers worth it? Could the deaths of two helpers for every evader be justified? The answer, in Clauswitzian terms of ‘economy of force’, is, undoubtedly, no! The losses could not possibly justify the results of the gains in military terms. In a three year period, ‘Classic’ Comete recorded evacuating a total of 288 airmen. This was the equivalent to the manpower in the crews of 28 B-17s. In itself, the numbers were negligible in the greater scheme of things.
However, this does not address the question of spirit of a nation and the depths to which spirit can run as well as its importance in inspiring succeeding generations if the story is not lost. Just as the Belgian dismissed the deaths of numerous civilians killed by overshooting in allied bombing raids, saying it was worth the cost if Germany was defeated, they say the cost of evasion was worth the effort to them. Defeated by overwhelming forces on the battlefield, subdued and kept in servitude by an arrogant occupier, helping airmen was one way they could show they were still in the fight and knew whose side they were on. Lines of smoke by day and night time skies showing trails of flame headed to earth and reminded them that their friends were still in the fight and making sacrifices for them. A deep sense of personal honor and a desire to show gratitude mixed with frustration and sustained by hate of the occupier motivated many to want to come forward if the opportunity to help presented itself irregardless of the dangers involved. Not everyone had the privilege of this opportunity.
During the course of an interview I once one had with a ‘helper’ I had learned about through research and who I had come to admire, I expressed surprise that she was not more well known or celebrated among her own community. She replied. " … In my mind, what I did was not exceptional. It was simply expected and so, we did not talk about it after the war …"