ANDRÉE DE JONGH 1916 -
Petite Cyclone - WWII Resistance heroine and carer for victims of leprosy
Andrée de Jongh, the daughter of a headmaster, was born in Schaerbeek, Belgium, in 1916. Although trained as a nurse she was working as a commercial artist in Malmédy when, i n spite of the existence of the Treaty of Non Aggression, German troops invaded Belgium on 10 th May 1940. The Belgian Army tried valiantly to defend their country, but by 28th May, Belgium capitulated to the superior strength of the German Army.
Andrée, then 24 years old, became a Red Cross volunteer, driving ambulances for a hospital in Bruges where many of the wounded English airmen and soldiers were cared for. She realised that unless they were helped to escape they would probably be sent to prisoner of war camps. But she also knew that whoever sheltered or helped them would risk the death penalty. With the help of a friend who gave her the address of a Belgian friend living in a small village near the Spanish frontier, she managed to get in touch with the British Consul at Bilbao, who promised to help “The Boys” to escape once they were over the Spanish border.
She moved to Brussels where, with the help of her father, Frédéric de Jongh, she established the escape network for returning fighting men, particularly shot down airmen, to Britain. The route (known as the Comet Line) went from Brussels, through France to the Pyrenees, then Bilbao before arriving at the British consulate in Madrid, to return to the UK via Gibraltar.
The men were then sent to England where they rejoined the Air Force and continued fighting. They also boosted the morale of the other airmen, showing that there was always a chance to survive.
Throughout the war French and Belgian men and women rose to the occasion to replace other helpers who were arrested, and no one will ever know the exact numbers of Resistance Helpers who provided false documents and food, who sheltered, hid, and guided those young men who fell out of the sky. More than 750 men were saved by Comète - 118 by Andrée herself - but almost as many Resistance workers were shot, beheaded or assassinated, or died from the terrible conditions prevailing in the camps.
In June 1943, Frederic de Jongh was arrested at Gare du Nord by the Gestapo and was later executed. Andrée remained free until she was captured in January, 1944. She was sent first to a French camp, then to Ravensburck Concentration Camp, but managed to survive until the camps were liberated in April, 1945.
After the Liberation, Andrée returned to Belgium, to find herself awarded the highest distinctions – among them the George Medal, the highest British award to a civilian, presented to her at Buckingham Palace, and the American Medal of Freedom. Then too the members of Comète founded an association to unite all those who had survived. In England, America, Canada and Australia; other associations were created by the escapees in order to remember with gratitude their Helpers and if necessary, to be able to help the Helpers. In this way warm contacts were made and solid friendships established. Annual reunions continue to this day in various countries through which friendly links are formed in order to remember and honour those who have died.
Meanwhile, Andrée disappeared from view. She finished her nursing studies, and travelled, working for the colonial administration, first to the Congo, to care for leprosy patients, then to a jungle leprosarium in Cameroun, on to Addis Ababa, and finally to Senegal. At the Gate Clinic in Addis Ababa she worked together with Miss Thérèse de Wael, who watched over Andrée’s health, which had been severely affected by her time in the prison camps. There the two women helped care for the 4 000 and more leprosy patients who wandered the city and attended the Clinic to be treated, and to have their wounds and sores bandaged.
Few who met Andrée during her years of service to leprosy patients in Africa knew of her extraordinary and heroic war-time exploits. But when she returned to Belgium, she was given the title of Countess by King Baudouin for her dedicated contributions to the Resistance and to the care of leprosy patients.
She lives in Brussels, now elderly and frail but as strong in spirit as ever.