Saturday, June 27, 2009

Andrée de Jongh and the Comet Line

A life well lived. A woman who acted positively in the midst of brutality and a world gone mad

In the wake of the events going on in Iran over the last week or two, where the forces of repression gradually seem to be gaining the upper hand, I find myself pondering the question of the efficacy of nonviolence once again, as well as the problem of human evil. Not only am I talking about the macro-problem of evil in the world, but the micro-problem as well. I won’t get into details here, but our family has felt the hand of evil recently in a more personal and direct way. When it affects your own children, if focuses your attention like nothing else.

What is it that really overcomes hatred? What is it that really defeats evil? Are the power of love and nonviolence enough? The Gospels would clearly indicate that they are, yet it seems as if the empirical evidence suggests that in struggles between good and evil (in so far as one side can be labeled objectively as “good” and the other ‘evil”), sometimes one side, namely evil, really does need to lose and to lose decisively. The reluctance to confront this fact in the wake of the horror of World War II seems to provide an explanation for the persistent and intractable nature of some of the conflicts we see in the postmodern era. After having stared into the abyss of total war, holocaust, and nuclear annihilation, it has typically been an era of halfway measures in the aftermath. I heard a guest on the Speaking of Faith program recently saying that world powers have often had to decide throughout history whether to be loved or to be feared, and that the United States in the post-World War II period has tried to be both loved and feared, thus failing in both respects.

In any case, if love and nonviolence cannot overcome hatred and evil, it may surely be offensive to our ears and our Christian sensibilities, but what may be even more offensive is to accept that love and nonviolence don’t work and to try to co-opt and water-down the Gospels in order to support that contention. If we hold to the view that “some people just need killin’,” doesn’t it make a mockery of Christianity if we try to wed that belief to it?

Be that as it may…

I’ve been reading a couple of books lately about the air war over Europe in World War II. One of them, which I’ve barely started , is a stern critique of the campaigns carried out by the allied forces called Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan by A. C. Grayling. The other, which is more balanced, and laudatory without falling into hagiography, is called Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany by Donald L. Miller. The former takes the war planners to task for their deliberate bombing campaigns against civilian targets, such as the firebombings of Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo in particular, while the latter takes into account that these were the inevitable and regrettable consequences of the forces and dynamics at work in that war. It certainly needs to be recognized that from a very early point in the war, any semblance of abiding by the Just War Criteria had been effectively jettisoned by both sides, as the war became increasingly brutal and desperate.

The US Eighth Army Air Force was stationed at bases in East Anglia from 1942 onwards, and they carried out a “strategic bombing” campaign over France and Germany with their B17 Flying Fortresses and B24 Liberators by day while the British bombed by night. Much is written about the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz in 1940, as well as the onslaught on London from V1 and V2 rockets later on, but less is made of the fact that the British RAF carried out a city-busting “area bombing” campaign against the cities of Nazi Germany for almost the full duration of the war under the direction of Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris. Harris was aggressive and unapologetic about this. One night, while speeding in his Bentley from London to his headquarters in High Wycombe, he was stopped by a policeman who admonished him, saying “You might have killed someone, sir.” Harris roared, “Young man, I kill thousands of people every night!”

Arthur "Bomber" Harris with members of an RAF crew

It’s not that Harris was a psychopath. Overestimating the effectiveness of air power as many generals still do today, he sincerely thought he could bring Germany to its knees without a ground invasion. The Bomber Command thought they could bring the Reich to the point of collapse by destroying the morale of the population. It was an early if not misguided attempt at “Shock and Awe.”

The American air commanders, by contrast, thought they had the ability, with the highly-touted but ultimately over-rated Norden Bombsight, to do “pickle barrel” precision bombing, but the technology really wasn’t there yet, and the heavy overcast weather to be found almost as a constant over northern Europe made it difficult to accomplish in any case. They did try, in their campaigns to take out German U-boat pens, ball-bearing factories, aircraft assembly plants, oil fields, and synthetic-fuel storage facilities to focus on “strategic” targets, but in the face of ferocious resistance from anti-aircraft flak and Luftwaffe fighters, the accuracy was questionable.

Civilian casualties were certainly heavy, but the bomber crews took terrific losses themselves too. Not only did the generals over-estimate the effectiveness of strategic bombing, but they also overestimated the ability of the Fortresses to defend themselves over Germany without fighter escorts. The attrition rate that was inflicted upon the most highly intelligent and best-trained servicemen America had to offer was severe. About 26,000 airmen from the Eighth Air Force perished in the skies over Europe, half of the fatalities suffered by the US Army Air Force as a whole. Another 28,000 wound up as POWs. Donald Miller wrote:
Along with German And American submarine crews and the Luftwaffe pilots they met in combat, American and British bomber boys had the most dangerous jobs in the war. In October 1943, fewer than one out of four Eighth Air Force crew members could expect to complete his tour of duty: twenty-five combat missions. The statistics were discomforting. Two-thirds of the men could expect to die in combat or be captured by the enemy. And 17 percent would either be wounded seriously, suffer a disabling mental breakdown, or die in a violent air accident over English soil. Only 14 percent of fliers (who) arrived in England in May 1943 made it to their twenty-fifth mission. By the end of the war, the Eight Air Force would have more fatal casualties – 26,000 – than the entire United States Marine Corps. Seventy-seven percent of the Americans who flew against the Reich before D-Day would wind up as casualties.
In 1943, the Mighty Eighth was losing the air war over Europe, and it looked like strategic daylight bombing was a failure. It wasn’t until the introduction of the P51-Mustang that the tide began to really turn. The Mustang, the best fighter plane of the war, was the first to have the range to accompany the bombers all the way into the German heartland, and that made all the difference.

For all of the focus on strategic targets, there were times when the US Air Force went after factory worker populations in cities as well. Miller describes the moral qualms that some airmen felt.
There was some grumbling about target selection. “It was a Sunday, and many crewmen had deep reservations about bombing anywhere near churches,” recalled Lt. Robert Sabel, a pilot with the 390th Bomb Group. Capt Ellis Scripture, an navigator who would be flying in the 95th Bomb Group’s lead Fortress, The Zootsuiters, later described his reaction. “I’d been raised in a strict Protestant home. My parents were God-oriented people… I was shocked to learn that we were to bomb civilians as our primary target for the first time in the war. Ellis Scripture went to his group commander after the briefing and told him he didn’t want to fly that day. Col. John Gerhart exploded: “Look Captain, this is war, spelled W-A-R. We’re in an all-out fight; the Germans have been killing innocent people all over Europe for years. We’re here to beat the hell out of them… and we’re going to do it… Now – I’m leading this mission and you’re my navigator… If you don’t fly, I’ll have to court-martial you. Any questions?

Scripture said “no sir” and headed for the flight line. “I made up my mind there and then that war isn’t a gentleman’s duel,” he said later. “I never again had any doubts about the strategy of our leaders. They had tough decisions to make – and they made them.”
I’ve heard people claim that the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had racial overtones to it – that atomic weapons never would have been used on Germany. I don’t think that’s true. Ira C. Eaker, one of the Eighth Air Force’s commanders, claimed that if the atomic bomb had been available in 1942, and he had had authorization to use it, he would have dropped it on Germany with no reservations. There was a hard cold Realpolitik and Machiavellan dynamic at work. As historian, WWI vet and social critic Paul Fussell pointed out in The Boy’s Crusade, the allies deliberately bombed even captive French cities and town near Pas de Calais before the Normandy invasion, in order to help deceive the Germans as to where the D-Day landings would actually take place.
Sometimes cruel methods had to be used to strengthen the impression that the convenient Pas de Calais would be the target of the invasion. To move troops and reserves quickly to this fancied battlefield, Hitler would have to use railways, and to strengthen the idea that it was these railways that were dangerous to the allied plans, lots of bombs were dropped on French railways, railways stations, and, alas, railway towns, where many French civilians were killed. Even the Germans found it hard to believe that their enemies would kill so many civilians in order to maintain a deception. To make the deception further credible, the allies dropped more bombs and killed more French citizens around the Pas de Calais area than in Normandy. This was certainly unfortunate and cruel, but the whole war, Allied as well as German, was unfortunate and cruel, even if this aspect seems often forgotten.
These civilian casualties inflicted in the process of liberation certainly caused friction between French/Belgian/Dutch civilians and the allied forces to be sure, but on the whole, these captive populations were willing to endure and forgive almost anything to get out from under the boot of the Nazis.

Which finally brings me to the subject of Andrée de Jongh and the Comet Line. I first read about her in Miller’s book. I can’t believe I’d never heard of her before…

She was a commercial artist living in Malmedy, Belgium when the Germans invaded in 1940. She herself was born during World War I, and had been trained as a nurse, having been inspired by the story of Edith Cavell, a nurse who had been shot during World War I for helping British troops to escape.

During the Nazi occupation of Belgium, Andrée, her father, and a close friend set up an independent escape route for downed allied fliers called the Comet Line, which stretched for 1200 miles from Brussels, through occupied France, over the Pyrenees, through fascist Spain, to Gibraltar. Airmen on the run were fed and hidden is safe houses near Brussels, transported by train to Paris, organized into small groups, and escorted by foot or by bicycle to the Pyrenees. From there, Basque smugglers took them over the mountains and to the British embassy in San Sebastian, where they were finally driven to Gibraltar. Miller tells of how Andrée and her compatriots would prepare parcels for the allied airmen with false identity cards and civilian clothing, and give them instructions on how to fit in and appear less American, advising them not to chew gum, not to jingle loose change in their pockets, and to grip their cigarettes between their fingertips and thumb at the burning end, European style.

The Comet Line, which closed down two days before D-Day, aided approximately 700 downed airmen get back to Britain. The Gestapo infiltrated the Comet Line several times but was never able to break it. Andrée’s father Frédéric was captured and executed, and she herself was captured and sent to the Mauthausen and Ravensbrück concentration camps, but they were never able to break her or force her to give anyone up. She survived the camps and the war and said in an interview in 2000, "When war was declared I knew what needed to be done. There was no hesitation. We could not stop what we had to do although we knew the cost. Even if it was at the expense of our lives, we had to fight until the last breath."

She passed away in 2007. The following details are from this obituary in The Independent.
A schoolmaster's daughter, Andrée de Jongh was born in Schaerbeek, a suburb of Brussels, in 1916. When Hitler's armies swept into Belgium in May 1940 she was working as a commercial artist in Malmedy. Trained in first aid and anxious to help, she returned at once to her parents' home and went to work as a nurse among wounded British soldiers. Soon enough, as France and the Low Countries fell to the Germans and the British Army was forced from the Continent, she began, on her own initiative, to organise safe houses to hide downed aircrew and soldiers who had found themselves left behind. It was not long before she started to look for ways of getting them home.

From safe houses in and around Brussels, disguised and by different routes, evaders were taken through France to St Jean de Luz, near Biarritz, close to the Spanish border. From there they were taken on foot through the Pyrenees and over to neutral Spain where they were then handed to British officials. Those helping her as trusted couriers and organisers were often close friends and even members of her own family. Her father, Frédéric, did much of the work in Brussels. Her aunt, Elvire de Greef, housed groups bound for the border at her home in the foothills of the Pyrenees and arranged mountain guides to take them across. De Jongh herself accompanied parties into Spain on 16 occasions.

The men whom Comet carried to safety would remember Andrée de Jongh with lasting gratitude, fondness and admiration. They knew her only as "Dédée", an affectionate name given in Belgium to girls called Andrée, and found her courage, confidence and dedication to her task most impressive. Striking, too, was her youth: when her work on the line began, she was barely 24. "Her movements were quick and definite as were her thoughts and repartee," remembered one escaping airman, who had taken stock of "this quite remarkable girl" while they sat together in a first-class compartment on the train south from Paris. "She seemed to be always smiling and brimful of enthusiasm." Another wrote: "She was the force, the power and the inspiration that brought us from Belgium to Spain."

The success of the Comet line, however, compelled the Germans to try ever harder to destroy it. A single traitor is thought to have been responsible for more than 50 arrests. And in January 1943, poised to begin another trek into Spain, Andrée de Jongh was arrested with three evaders when the Germans surrounded and raided a Pyrenees farmhouse. She was interrogated 20 times and then sent to Ravensbruck.
Others rounded up in subsequent months included Andrée's father, who was betrayed and arrested at a Paris railway station in June 1943. The following March, after brutal interrogation and months of imprisonment, he was shot. But despite these heavy blows, Comet survived and continued to operate until the eve of the Allied invasion of Europe. The last men to be passed along were two RAF sergeants who reached Spain in early June 1944.

In all, of the Comet line helpers who fell into German hands, 23 were executed, while another 133 died in concentration camps or as a result or their incarceration. Seriously ill, but accompanied by her sister, Suzanne, who had worked on Comet until her own arrest in 1942, Andrée de Jongh returned home from Ravensbruck in the summer of 1945.

For her wartime work and achievements, de Jongh received the George Medal from the British, the American Medal of Freedom and the Belgian Croix de Guerre with palm. She was also created Chevaliers of the French Legion d'honneur and the Belgian Order of Leopold. In 1985 she was made a Belgian countess.

After the war, de Jongh, who never married, continued to devote herself to caring for others. Inspired by the story of Father Damien, a Belgian priest who had worked in the South Seas with leprosy sufferers and died of the disease, she spent years as a nurse in leprosy hospitals in the Belgian Congo and Ethiopia. She returned to Brussels only when her sight and health began to fail.

In later life she was willing and able to give generous help to historians studying wartime escape lines and, after moving to a nursing home, continued to welcome visitors. They included, last July, a party of RAF personnel retracing the Comet line route. She herself was the subject of a 1954 biography, Little Cyclone, by Airey Neave, who had worked during the war for MI9, Britain's escape and evasion specialists, and had helped co-ordinate support for Comet. The title of the book was the nickname her father had given her as a child.
I don't have any French, but for anyone who does, here is some video of her late in her life.


ripley14 said...

The story of DeJongh's heroism and the energy and conviction of her persona are inspiring.
In a dark age of war and evil, her determination and dedication to goodness, hope and courage are a testament to the resilience of the human spirit - hers!
Becoming acquainted with her life and work is uplifting and humbling to me.

ripley14 said...

De Jongh's story is an inspiration. Her persona is one of hope, energy, and optimism in the face of devastating death and evil. Her life and work testifies to the eternal resilience in the human spirit - hers! Her courage and strength are light houses in a dark age of war.
I am both humbled and uplifted by her story and life.

Jeff said...

Thanks, Rip, for the visit and the comment. I feel the same way.