My friend and co-author Orrin Woodward and I are at work on many exciting projects. One lingering work is the yet-to-be-completed RASCAL book, dedicated to rebels with a cause. For the next couple days on this blog, I will be featuring interesting RASCALS we have come across in our research. These may or may not make the final cut of the book edition, so stay tuned!
(And if you're not sure exactly what a RASCAL is, you'll have to wait for the book.)
André de Jongh
During World War II, Britain's valiant airmen were magnificent in their stand against the fierce German Luftwaffe. German bombers would cross the English channel intent on attacking civilian population centers and would be met with the plucky, hard-working, outlandishly brave pilots of the Royal Air Force (RAF).
As the fighting continued day after day it became increasingly difficult to find enough British airmen to keep in the sky. Many pilots flew for hours on end, coming back to land only long enough to refuel before taking off to fight again. Thousands of pilots were shot down over northwestern Europe, and it wasn't long before clandestine operations sprang into place to smuggle them back to England to fight again. Most of these 'escape lines' forming in Holland, Belgium, and France were established under the professional guidance of trained agents.
One of the most successful lines, however, was established and run by mere concerned citizens, the majority of them young and idealistic, dedicated to keeping the RAF fully stocked with pilots. This line would grow to become one of the most successful of all, accounting for over one fourth of the 2,900 airmen returned to Great Britain through escape lines between September 1939 and June 1944. Even more surprising, perhaps, was its driving force; a twenty-four year old woman named Andre de Jongh.
Jongh was raised in Belgium and familiar with the heroics of Edith Cavell, a woman executed in World War I for helping soldiers escape the Germans. Jongh had promised herself that if war ever came to her country, she would follow the example of Cavell. In May of 1940 Jongh got her chance when the German armies marched into Belgium. At first Jongh did what she could by volunteering in an army hospital. It was here she noticed the strict observations of the German secret police. As more and more British soldiers came into the hospital, Jongh felt the increasing pull to do something about it. Without funds, experience, formal training, or permission of any kind, Jongh designed an escape route intent on outfoxing the Gestapo, what W. E. Armstrong called "the most efficient and cruelly repressive secret police in Europe." It would necessitate the involvement of hundreds of clandestine volunteers risking their lives to transport escapees across three national borders, all the way south through Europe, across the Pyrenees, and finally to Gibraltar. From there the airmen would be returned by ship to Britain to fight again.
Jongh began smuggling escapees along her route, enlisting the support of the British consulate in Bilbao, upon whom she left a very favorable impression. Jongh demanded autonomy and permitted no interference in her operations, negotiated shrewdly, and soon received funding and contacts for support. Journey after arduous journey proved successful, and soon, Jongh was in trouble. The Brussels Gestapo had detected her involvement and slated her for arrest. Her father got word to her during one of her escape runs that she could not return to Belgium. He calmly took over in her place as she continued to run the line remotely.
Airmen safely delivered back to Britain soon began singing the praises of the youthful and vigorous André de Jongh. They were in near disbelief that such a fragile and warm-hearted figure should be so brave in the face of mortal risk. The legend of André de Jongh grew and grew. Accordingly, the Gestapo predictably increased their efforts to find her and eliminate her escape line, which now was being called The Comet Line by the British secret service, after the behavior of comets in the sky to disappear and reappear again without warning. They arrested and tortured over one hundred of the line's volunteers; but nobody cracked under pressure, and Jongh was still safely at large. Then, during her thirty-third passage, Jongh was finally arrested. Moved from prison to prison, the attempts of her own Comet line to rescue her all failed. Finally, she was moved to concentration camps. Throughout this time she was brutally interrogated twenty-one times, revealing nothing more than the fact that she was the master behind the Comet Line; a fact doubted by the Gestapo.
Incredibly, the Comet Line lived on. Inspired by Jongh's example and empowered by her organization, new volunteers seemed always ready to step into gaps created by arrests and murders. Young person after young person was on hand to assume the responsibility of leadership at each of the key steps along the escape line. "We felt we couldn't let her down," said Elvire de Greef, another young woman, "Dedee [De Jongh] was not simply the founder of Comet, she was Comet."
Although Jongh's father and hundreds of others were arrested and/or shot, eventually the Allied armies liberated Europe and André de Jongh herself was freed. One pilot said, "André de Jongh was one of those rare beings who felt the misery of the world and would not let it rest." There could be no better description of a true Rascal!