As Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy on the morning of June 6, 1944, a courageous teenager in southern France set out on a journey that would end her own epic struggle against the Nazis.
Janine de Greef, a vibrant Belgian of 19, was one of the founding members of the Comet Line, a secret army operating in Brussels, Paris and Bayonne that enabled nearly 800 Allied airmen to evade German security forces and return to Britain after they were shot down over occupied Europe.
That morning, she headed for the Pyrenees with her mother, Elvire, her brother, Freddy, and Micheline Dumon, who was then head of the northern section of the Comet Line. Taking a route the De Greefs had traveled many times with Allied airmen, they were now on the run, their lives in danger, trying to reach neutral Spain.
Farther north, the Gestapo had arrested several of the escape line’s key helpers, and it was finally closing in on Comet Sud, the southern section, which had been run by the De Greef family for three years.
They were now on the run, their lives in danger, trying to reach neutral Spain.
After crossing the Bidasoa river and trekking through the Pyrenees, the party eventually reached the Basque city of San Sebastian. There, they were met by staff from the British embassy in Madrid and a secret agent known as Monday, who was from MI9, the intelligence agency responsible for escape and evasion. Janine de Greef was, at last, in safe hands, and would be in London within the week.
She had left her home in Brussels in May 1940 when the Germans invaded western Europe. She then joined a convoy of cars carrying the staff of the newspaper L’Indépendance Belge, for which her mother had worked, along with her father, Fernand, Freddy, her grandmother Bobonne, and an Englishman called Albert Johnson, who had been a chauffeur in Brussels. They hoped to catch a ship to the United States or to England.
Instead, they reached the seaside town of Biarritz on the southwestern coast of France, where they rented the Villa Voisin, a tidy, detached house with a garden at the end of a discreet cul-de-sac in the village of Anglet. Years after the war, a small marble plaque was placed on a gatepost acknowledging the building’s significance to the Comet Line.
The organization was started in 1941 when its most prominent members included Andrée de Jongh, and Elvire de Greef and her family. De Jongh, given the code name Dedee, was a nurse inspired by the exploits of Edith Cavell, who was executed during the First World War for helping Allied soldiers to escape from Belgium.
Working with her father, Frederic de Jongh, and others, Dedee helped to set up the Comet Line in Brussels and establish links with Paris. Elvire de Greef, known as Tante-Go, opened up escape routes over the Pyrenees, set up safe houses, recruited guides and forged links with British agents and officials in Spain. The two women often worked together, and their code names became the stuff of folklore. Indeed, women played prominent roles in most of the escape lines; they were usually young, charismatic and quite exceptional. According to the historian MRD Foot, who documented the work of MI9: “Evaders often found that they had to trust themselves entirely to women, and without the courage and devotion of its couriers and safe-house keepers, nearly all of them women, no escape line could keep going at all.”
He added: “There was a tremendous readiness to help the Allied cause in that originally small but uncommonly tough segment of the newly conquered populations which refused to accept the fact of defeat.”
Janine de Greef was a complex character. Discreet and unassuming, she was also often too generous for her own good. She was a serious and voracious reader who kept a diary written in a mixture of English, French and shorthand, which might have been difficult to explain had it ever been found by the Germans.
On Wednesday, October 15, 1941, she records details of her first assignment with Allied evaders. “I have a train at 12.24 … I am in splendid form, I feel the bones of my haunch, I have no belly, nervous legs. I did the way very quickly without tiredness.”
The next day she picks up the airmen, referred to as Bobby and Allan, who arrive at 10.45. Later, someone gives her a copy of Little Women, which she reads “alone on the bed with a glass of gin beside me”. The airmen leave for the Pyrenees the next day. “I hope I shall get stronger,” she writes.
At the same time RAF Bomber Command was increasing the number of sorties its aircraft were flying against enemy targets, but the German defences were also taking a heavy toll on the British bomber force. More and more downed airmen were trying to evade the German security forces.
One of these was Sergeant Bob Frost, a gunner serving with No 150 Squadron, flying Vickers Wellingtons from RAF Snaith in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Frost had baled out of his bomber over Belgium in 1942 after it was hit by anti-aircraft fire during a raid on Essen. He was given shelter by a farming family in the village of Kapellen bij Glabbeek and then passed on to the Comet Line in Brussels, where he was reunited with two other members of his crew before being taken to Paris.
In an interview in 2016, Frost recalled meeting Janine de Greef, who took him and five other airmen from Paris southwest to St Jean de Luz. “She made that journey from Paris twenty-odd times during the war,” he said. “A real heroine, that girl!”
When an older woman got on the train during the journey south, one of the airmen, an American, apparently offered her his seat, but did so in English. Frost said he was afraid and looked at De Greef. “She didn’t bat an eyelash,” he said.
“She made that journey from Paris twenty-odd times during the war. A real heroine, that girl!”
Like Janine, the rest of her family also appeared to have strong nerves. Her indomitable mother disguised her resistance activities through her involvement in the black market, which thrived on the Spanish frontier. She even counted a number of German officers among her customers. Fernand, code-named Oncle Dick, got a job as a translator with the German occupiers and was able to steal documents and ID cards, which Freddy helped to copy and forge.
Johnson, code-named Be, also remained with the family. Ostensibly a handyman, he guided many evaders across the Pyrenees.
Quite remarkably, the entire family survived the war without ever being arrested. Of the 3,000 civilians who helped the Comet Line, about 700 were taken by Nazi security forces during the course of the war, including Andrée de Jongh. She was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1943, but survived and was awarded the George Medal by the British. Others were not so lucky; more than 250 were executed or died in the camps.
Elvire de Greef was also awarded the George Medal. Janine received the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom. Her citation outlined the many occasions on which she had shepherded evaders to the Spanish frontier. “In all her work for the Allied Cause,” it said, “Mademoiselle Janine de Greef proved herself to be a most courageous, loyal and patriotic helper.”
Janine Lambertine Marie Angele de Greef was born in Brussels in 1925 into a middle-class family. Her father was a businessman. Aged 15, she was still at school in the Belgian capital when German forces invaded the country.
After the Nazi surrender, she was decorated by the Belgian government and the United States as well as the British. She returned to the family home at 424 Avenue de la Couronne in Brussels and was employed by the British embassy as a commercial attaché.
Described as a spiritual person, she developed a broad interest in all religions. She was regarded as kind and charitable and used to feed the stray cats in her neighborhood with the finest fillet steak. She loved to travel and built up a collection of photographs from around the world.
Discouraged by her mother, Janine never married or had children, but was secretive about her relationships. Her surviving family believe she had an affair with Johnson during the war, and that photographs point to a relationship with an RAF officer in 1945.
She moved into her mother’s downstairs flat after Elvire’s death in 1991, but the building was later damaged by fire and her medals were stolen. Undeterred, she continued to live in the derelict building — far worse things happened during the Second World War, she said — until it was refurbished.
In Brussels she often attended the annual reunion of the Comet Line and a Requiem Mass for those who died in its service. According to Helen Fry, author of a new book on MI9, Janine de Greef had been a key figure in an “indispensable civilian secret army”.
Sitting next to the former Wellington gunner Bob Frost at the 2010 reunion, she just shrugged when asked how she had managed to have such presence of mind at such a young age. “You had to live,” she said, “and not worry.”
Janine de Greef, Comet Line member, was born on September 25, 1925. She died on November 7, 2020, aged 95