16/07/2024
Norwich, GB 15 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

JANINE DE GREEF, aged 95

THE LAST MEMBER OF THE COMET LINE

Born in Brussels, Belgium, she was the daughter of Elvire Berlemont, a journalist with the newspaper ‘L’Independence Belge’, and Fernand de Greef, a successful businessman. Her father had a gift for languages. She had an older brother named Freddie, who was an aspiring artist.

In May 1940, Nazi Germany invaded Belgium, so the family fled the country, joining a convoy of journalists fleeing into France. They took Grandma with them. The family settled in Anglet, just outside the southwestern city of Bayonne, close to the Pyrenees.

Her father got a job working at Anglet Town Hall as an interpreter, whilst her mother was actively involved in the black market – initially to ensure her family had enough to eat, but then spreading out to help refugees and other people suffering hardship. The children went to the local school.

Meanwhile, back in Belgium, there were many British servicemen who were trapped by the invasion. They were desperate to find a way back to Britain, but in the meantime needed food and shelter. Any Belgian who helped the servicemen were subject to extremely harsh reprisals by the Nazis.

Andree de Jongh decided to set up a network to help these servicemen escape. Andree was a 24-year-old countess who had trained as a nurse in Brussels (having been inspired by the Edith Cavell story in the First World War). She believed the best route to safety was over the Belgian border, travelling the length of France and then over the Pyrenees into supposedly neutral Spain (ruled by Fascist ally General Franco). From there it would be onto British-controlled Gibraltar.

But it was not a short route and Andree (nicknamed ‘Dedee’) realised she would need allies throughout the escape route (which was called the Comet Escape line).

De Jongh heard the de Greef family were supporters of the resistance so sent one of her operatives to Bayonne to enlist their support.

This man discovered he knew Elvire from her days in Brussels and was delighted to discover she was already involved in smuggling people into Spain and foodstuffs into France. Elvire was also involved in blackmailing  German soldiers and guards. The de Greef family were more than willing to join the Comet Escape Line.

The British were initially reluctant to work with the Comet Line. They wanted to take control, but Andree refused to let them. Instead, an Englishman, Albert Johnson, who lived in Anglet and was friendly with Elvire, organised the Spanish pickups.

Elvire took charge of the South-West France Comet network. She quickly built up a system of various routes into the Pyrenees, handing over servicemen to British agents once in Spain. Her nickname was ‘Tante Go’ (Auntie Go).

And the whole family worked for the Comet network. Fernand used his position at the Town Hall to gather intelligence (his fluent German helped with this) and steal documents. Freddie was the forger and Janine became Comet’s youngest courier, aged just 16.

Being a courier was an extremely dangerous job. It involved taking messages and carrying goods whilst avoiding German patrols. Young women were regularly used because it was believed they were often out of their homes or sent on jobs from their work and consequently would not arouse suspicion. It was believed if they were caught, they were more likely to be able to sweet talk their way out of trouble.

Janine’s job was to pick up Allied servicemen in Paris and escort them down to Bayonne. She would then take them, usually by bike, into the Pyrenees where they could be handed over, to be taken on the next stage of the journey home.

Before they set off, Janine would teach the Englishmen phrases in French and German and encouraged them to smile – she believed people were less suspicious of people who smiled. Looking so young, she would pretend to be the airman’s daughter.

Her first mission was on the 15th of October 1941, when she picked up two airmen in Paris and took them down, by train, to the south of France. She got by with her linguistic ability and schoolgirl looks and recorded the whole escapade in her diary.

She worked as part of a team of young women and became an accomplished guide. More than once she had to teach an escapee how to ride a bicycle.

The job got increasingly dangerous after the USA joined the war, as more aircraftmen were shot down – and she felt the Americans were less subtle in their disguise – more likely to give themselves away.

Janine was a big part the success of Comet. One person she helped escape was Sergeant Bob Frost, an RAF gunner who was in a Washington bomber going to attack the city of Essen, when he was shot down over Belgium. He parachuted into a field and was hidden by a farmer, who contacted the resistance. Janine was sent to collect Bob and an American airman.

On the train journey south, the American forgot himself, sprung up and offered his seat to a French girl. Everybody in the carriage went silent. Janine instantly created a diversion by pretending to faint – and the American was forgotten.

Janine guided them from Paris to St-Jean-de-Luz and Bob said, “She was a real heroine, that girl!”

The Germans became increasingly desperate to shut the Comet Line down. They regularly infiltrated their ranks, and many hundreds of agents and members of the resistance were captured, along with the escaping aviators.

In January 1943, Andree de Jongh was captured by the Gestapo close to the Spanish border, after being betrayed by a local farm worker. She was interrogated 21 times and sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp – but not executed as the Gestapo refused to believe that such a small, slight woman could be the organiser and brains behind such a complex organisation as Comet.

The Comet Line continued without Andree. Elvire took a lot of the responsibility. She too was arrested in June 1944.

However, Elvire was able to convince the Gestapo that she was just a common-or-garden smuggler and had nothing to do with the Resistance and was released.

Sensing the danger, the next two people smuggled over the Pyrenees were Janine and Freddie. Ironically this was the 6th of June 1944, which was also D-Day – the beginning of the end of occupied Europe. They made their way to England without their parents.

Janine’s war ended at the age of 19. She had made 30 successful trips from Paris to the Pyrenees.

Every single day of her war was recorded in her diary, written in a mixture of French, English and shorthand.

Janine on a horse (courtesy The Times)

During the course of the war, the Comet Line smuggled 287 servicemen and 76 civilians to safety. This was almost 50% of all Allied airmen who had been shot down and who escaped back to Britain. But 250 Belgian members of the organisation paid for this with their lives.

After the war, Janine and Freddie rejoined their parents in Brussels. Janine went on to work as a commercial attache in the British Embassy.

She often visited Britain and met up with those men she had helped.

Janine received many awards, not just from Belgium and France but from the UK and the USA. She remained extremely active in associations related to escaping airmen and more specifically the Comet Line.

Freddie died in 1969.

Elvire died in 1991 and Janine moved into her mother’s city centre flat. There she kept an extensive collection of war memorabilia, including all the records of the Comet Line – the “Little Black Books.”

But the ‘Little Black Books’ were stolen in a robbery and the memorabilia was destroyed in a fire in her flat.

Andree de Jongh, who had survived the war, died in 2007.

Bob Frost, the British airman she had helped, made contact with Janine again and met up with her. He was forever grateful to her for his rescue.

Janine died in a care home in Brussels. There were no family members left as neither Freddie nor herself had ever married. She was also the last survivor of the Comet Escape Line.

The citation on her British King’s Medal for Courage in The Cause of Freedom, reads, “In all her work for the Allied cause, Mademoiselle Janine de Greef proved herself to be a most courageous, loyal and patriotic helper.”

RIP – Resistance In Pyrenees

A tribute to Janine in Anglet (courtesy Sud Ouest)

 

 

 

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