THE COMET LINE
Born Henriette Hanotte in Sepeaux in Northern France, the family moved to the Belgian village of Rumes in the Hainaut region. It was right on the French border.
Her parents owned a hotel and restaurant right next to the railway station, just a few yards from the border post.
Her father was Clovis, a former First World War soldier and President of the Loyal Veteran’s Association. Her mother Lauret (always known as Georgette) was half French.
Henriette’s job in the family was to look after the family’s animals in their attached farm , helped by her younger brother.
Her parents also ran the customs agency.
Georgette wanted her children to have a French education so Henriette and her brother went to school in the nearby French village of Bachy. This meant her crossing the border twice a day, so she got to know the border guards really well.
When the Germans invaded France and Belgium in 1941, Clovis immediately began working with MI6.
Shortly afterwards, two British soldiers came to their hotel. They had got separated from their units on the BEF rush to get to Dunkirk.
The family agreed to help them, disguised them as coal merchants and Henriette took them off into France.
Soon afterwards, a British MI19 officer came to the hotel and over coffee, persuaded her parents to ‘lend’ Henriette to the war effort. She was 20 at the time but was not asked herself.
Henriette was happy to help and joined the Comet Line, ran by women, which got Allied airmen out of France and Belgium. She was given the codename ‘Monique’. It was a name she kept for the rest of her life.
It is estimated the family helped 140 Allied airmen. They would stay at the family hotel for two days. Sometimes there were so many airmen coming and going, Monique commented they were, “bursting at the seams.”
Georgette would feed the airmen, give them German and French newspapers to carry with them and taught them the rudiments of the French language.
Her cousins would forge new documents for them. She would remove any vestige of English from them, not only their papers but the labels on their clothes. She would cycle around the neighbourhood at night, preparing their escape (and risking her life).
Then Monique would escort them away. Her father’s best friend was a border guard, so they tried to make sure he was on duty when they departed.
Also, Monique’s boyfriend, Jules Thome, was a policeman and occasional border guard so he too would let them through.
And if they were not on duty, Monique knew all the hidden country paths through hedgerows and across fields.
Monique would accompany the airmen to Lille or Paris and then see them on the way to the next stage of the Comet Line, down through occupied France into Spain. Once they had gone, she never knew if they made it safely back to Britain.
It was easy to buy train tickets in Belgium, but much harder in the heavily guarded French stations. She would buy her ticket separately and hope and trust the airmen had learned enough of the language to buy them successfully.
She would usually pretend one of the airmen was her boyfriend.
Once they had a close escape. A Nazi officer came into the compartment where Monique was with two airmen. Seeing the German newspaper, the officer asked if he could borrow the paper and then started small talk with the men. Monique began flirting with the officer to distract him from chatting to the two men. They got away with it.
One day in 1944, she went to the Comet Line safe house to see the curtains drawn. This was the signal something was amiss. In fact, the Comet Line had been betrayed and there were mass arrests. She later learned the Germans went to arrest her at the train station – but the train had been delayed by three hours. They had gone by the time she arrived.
Her English handler told her she had to get out immediately and go to England. She was to take the very route she had sent the airmen on – through France, over the Pyrenees, into Franco’s Nazi-supporting Spain and then to Gibraltar and then England. She travelled with Michelene Dumon, another Comet Line comrade.
They made it successfully to England. Monique was immediately trained to be a secret agent. She was trained in firearms and parachuting. The aim was to drop her into the Ardennes in December 1944 to assist with the offensive (and the German counter offensive). But she broke her wrist and her departure was delayed.
By the time she had recovered, the war was over. She celebrated VE Day in London and then returned to Belgium.
She immediately married her boyfriend Jean. They had two children, Bernadette and Bernard.
Monique worked in a hotel owned by another Comet Line comrade.
She was awarded an MBE by the British and the Medal of Freedom by the USA, as well as French and Belgian honours.
The family moved to the town of Nivelles, Belgium in 1997.
In 2015, a ‘Monique Hanotte Hiking Trail’ was opened in the Pyranees, following the route which she escaped over the mountains.
In 2018 the village of Bachy put a statue of her up in the village centre. The statue showed her rescuing American Airman Charles Carson.
Carson’s daughter Margaret gave a speech at the unveiling. “My father represents all the men who came here whose planes were shot down, and who were helped by many people here.”
The first question Monique asked Margaret about her father was, “Did he get back safely.” He did!
And she was thrilled that so many families of the men she had saved were there, finally enabling her to find out what had happened to them.
Finally, both Bachy and Nivelles gave her ‘citizenship’ and freedom of the town, both awarded on International Women’s Day.
RIP – Rescuing Imperilled Pilots