Remembering Belgium's "secret army"

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Today, Americans will gather at the massive World War II monument on the National Mall to pay tribute to the more than 16 million Americans who helped end the Nazi nightmare in Europe.

Meanwhile, in Belgium, one of the bitterest battlefields of that war, Brigitte d’Oultremont wishes there were a memorial for her father, Georges, commemorating his many daring escapades fighting the Germans. If there were one, John Clinch would surely stop by often, coming from England to honor his Belgian grandmother, who disappeared without a trace at Auschwitz. On special days, with luck, you would find a spry Nadine Dumon as a guest of honor, recounting her arrests, interrogations and survival at three Nazi concentration camps — all before she turned 21.

But for these veterans, there are no granite walls, majestic statues or national days set aside to honor their sacrifices as volunteers in Belgium’s “secret army.” Not yet.

Thousands of Allied troops were saved by fearless volunteers working in the European countries occupied by or fighting Germany. If caught, these helpers suffered the same fate as combat soldiers (summary executions by gunfire) or Holocaust victims (gassed, beaten or worked to death).

Despite a modest cadre of websites and books by relatives, admirers, beneficiaries and historians, many of the volunteers’ stories and even their identities remain secret. In post-war Belgium, most were just grateful their country was free again and simply slipped back into whatever lives they could put together, without looking for any recognition.

But their children and grandchildren, many of whom never even got to hear the stories first hand, are now saying these veterans deserve more.

D’Oultremont is determined to reinvigorate a society of descendants and admirers of The Comet Line, one of the most successful escape routes of the war. It helped an estimated 800 allied servicemen evade the Germans as they traveled from occupied Belgium and France to neutral Spain, where they sailed back to the United Kingdom from British-controlled Gibraltar.

World War II researcher Eduoard Reniere believes that more than 400 escapees who passed through Comet were American.

D’Oultremont took over leadership of the group Comet Kinship in 2005, and has made it her mission to “make a serious list of all the people who have helped, all the names I can find, even if I don’t have a lot of information about them, so they can be recognized.”

Since the war the downed aviators have gotten most of the attention, she said, because tales of their escapes are “more fun, more imaginative” than the more mundane tasks of the helpers. But three veterans of Britain’s Royal Air Force, attending the Comet group’s annual reunion in October, made clear where they think credit is due.

“We can never say ‘thank you’ enough,” said British tailgunner Bob Frost, choking up. Frost was shot down over France in 1942, hidden by Comet and safely returned to Britain. “I have to thank Comet not only for my life but for the life that has been led ever since,” he said.

Frail of stature but strong of voice, navigator Gordon Mellor added, “Many of them gave their lives so now, in some small way, in the rest of our lives which they helped save, we should maintain contact and express our gratitude. Truly, many of us would not have made the whole trip back home from wherever we were shot down without their assistance.”

“They are our number-one concern,” chimed in pilot Bob Barckley, “because without them quite a lot of us would be dead … and I’m afraid quite a lot of them are dead because of us.”

Frost was guided through the Pyrenees by Georges D’Oultremont after bailing out in Belgium. Later, D’Oultremont himself was forced to escape with the Gestapo on his trail.

So Brigitte D’Oultremont is one of the lucky members of the Kinship. Her father lived to tell about his risky journeys as a guide, his escape to Britain and then his repeated returns to Belgium during which he helped expand the rescue network. After these adventures, Georges went on to marry and have a family, but it’s clear from Brigitte that he had loved his work in the secret army. She laughs, “He had a great life!”

Many others were not as lucky. A list of some 200 Comet members who are known to have died for their efforts during the war, taken from a book by Cecile Jouan, makes for grim reading.

“Renee Beauvais/died in Ravensbruck (concentration camp for women)/age 32 … Gaston Bidoul/shot in Brussels at the Tir National (shooting range)/age 61 … Antoine d'Ursel/drowned crossing the Bidassoa river/age 47… William Reynolds/executed in Brandenburg/age 53.”

Among them are some of the line’s leaders. Frederic de Jongh, executed in March 1944, was the father of the Comet Line’s founder, Andree “Dedee” de Jongh. At just 24, Dedee organized the network of safe houses, guides and routes that would become Comet, working with her father, her friends and confidantes and making 118 trips with troops herself. Dedee and her father were arrested in 1943 and sent to concentration camps; only Dedee would make it back alive.

As the founder of the escape line, Dedee de Jongh received the U.S. Medal of Freedom, the British “George Medal,” and recognition by the French Legion of Honor along with several Belgian honors. She continued in public service after the war, caring for lepers, and died in Brussels in 2007. A plaque honoring her contributions was placed on her family home in 2008.

Nadine Dumon’s story is similar to de Jongh’s. She, too, was arrested along with her parents. Her father died in a concentration camp.

John Clinch’s grandmother Marceline Deloge met a similar fate. Two of Deloge’s three daughters — the third, Clinch’s mother, was living in the U.K. with his father — convinced their mother to hide Scottish troops in the family home. The sisters were later arrested and sent to prison and their mother met the same fate when she asked the Germans about them.

There are no records of Deloge’s fate after her arrival at Auschwitz. Clinch said the loss of his grandmother caused huge rifts in his family for years, as his mother believed her sisters had unfairly and unnecessarily involved their mother in dangerous exploits. Clinch says he’s not angry with his aunts.

“What happened to her was out of all proportion to what she did,” he said, “a terrible fate in a terrible place.” He has been attending the Comet Line reunions for about 10 years. “I never knew her so this was as close to her and to Belgium as I can get,” Clinch said.

Clinch has spent an enormous amount of time and effort maintaining his own website with information about the Comet Line.

Mary Burns Surdy came to Belgium for the first time for this year’s Comet reunion after years of exchanging emails and information with Eduoard Reniere. Her father, Joseph Burns, a gunner with the 401st Bombardment Group made it to the Spanish border with Comet assistance but was arrested there and accused of spying due to the false papers he was carrying. Burns endured beatings, interrogations and forced marches between German camps before being liberated by British troops at the end of the war.

Surdy and her family were able to meet her father’s helpers, including Belgian Frans Storms, in what she called a “very emotional weekend” and she says she is “in awe of what they have done.”

“I am very grateful and unbelievably humbled,” Surdy said, especially with “these
90-year-old women and what they did — how they fought!”

One of those intrepid souls, 85-year-old Janine De Greef, was just 17 when she ferried airmen including Bob Frost from Belgium to France under the noses of the Nazis. Her parents were also extraordinarily active and daring and became Comet legends. De Greef just shrugs when asked how she managed to have such presence of mind at such a young age.

“You had to live — and not worry,” she said, because seeming nervous would be a tip-off.

Frost tells a story about De Greef’s steely nerves. One disguised airman traveling in his group on the train was American and when an older lady got on, the American jumped up and offered his seat — in English. Frost said he looked in fear at their guide. De Greef, he said, didn’t bat an eyelash.

There’s evidence the younger generation is tuning in to such tales of heroism. Last week the Belgian Royal Military Academy held an event for its students focusing on the World War II resistance and Dedee de Jongh. Going beyond topics covered by their military history books, 22-year-old cadet Arnaud Wouters chose the subject for his class after becoming inspired by de Jongh’s bravery. Nadine Dumon was the keynote speaker.

Is this a strange subject for students of the military? After all, Comet’s motto is “Pugna Quin Percutias” or “Fight Without Blows.” Not at all, Wouters said.

“There are certain values in the things they have survived,” he said, “values that we should carry within ourselves also. It could make us a better leader; we could possibly make better decisions.”

Asked by the students if she would change anything about her life if she could do it over again, the 88-year-old Dumon said, cheerfully, “no.”

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct references to Bob Frost and Bob Barckley, as well as the spelling of Janine De Greef's name.