Andree de Jongh, a Belgian resistance fighter who established the most successful escape route in Europe for downed Allied airmen during World War II, died Oct. 13 in Brussels. She was 90.
De Jongh began her resistance work in May 1940 after the Nazi advance into Brussels. At the time, she was a 24-year-old commercial artist and Belgian Red Cross volunteer.
The British authorities, whom she sought out for logistical and financial support, and Germans, who eventually sent her to concentration camps, found her an improbable heroine despite her determined bearing.
At first, neither side believed her when she described herself as the ringleader of the escape route dubbed the "Comet Line," a daunting 1,000-mile trek across occupied France, over the Pyrenees into Spain and down to the British colony of Gibraltar.
The idea began after the British retreat at Dunkirk in 1940. German patrols were increasingly monitoring the English Channel, and De Jongh helped bring many of the remaining Englishmen overland, through France and into neutral Spain. This evolved into a plan to try to rescue American and British aviators who were shot down over Europe.
With the help of her father in Paris, she created a route of safe houses throughout France. At the Spanish border, she arranged for Basque guides to ferry the Allied airmen over the goat trails used by smugglers in the Pyrenees.
The Germans made attempts to capture De Jongh, but she managed to stay free for 18 months -- until Jan. 15, 1943, when a farmhand in the French-Basque village of Urrugne betrayed her, along with the three aviators she was helping to escape.
The Comet Line was credited with rescuing more than 700 airmen, of which De Jongh was said to have led 118 to safety. It continued operating through the Normandy invasion of June 1944, by which time hundreds of Comet Line operatives had been captured and sent to concentrations camps or executed.
Peter Eisner, whose book "The Freedom Line" (2004) examined the escape network's pivotal figures, said the Comet Line was the "greatest of escape lines in Europe in numbers of rescues as well as the most sophisticated, longest-operating and most successful."
"The value of what she was doing went beyond the individuals she was saving," said Eisner, a former Washington Post editor. "She gave hope to air crews in England before they took off that there was this angel of mercy working in occupied territory that had a complete system working to find them. It was a great psychological boost."
De Jongh was born Nov. 30, 1916, in Schaerbeek, in German-occupied Belgium, during World War I. She trained as a nurse but found work as a commercial artist before her father, a schoolteacher, deepened her involvement in the resistance.
She crossed the Pyrenees 24 times before the German authorities arrested her near the Spanish border.
The Gestapo sent her to a series of prisons and concentration camps, and she ended the war at the Ravensbruck camp, near Berlin.
Her father had been executed by firing squad in Paris in 1944. De Jongh said she survived the war because the Germans might have been hoping to use her in a prisoner exchange.
After the war, she was feted at Buckingham Palace in London and received the George Medal, a top British civilian award for bravery. She was made a Belgian countess several decades later, after her career had taken her to Africa, first the Belgian Congo and then Ethiopia to work in a leper hospital in Addis Ababa.
She retired to Brussels after her eyesight faded and other medical ailments persisted. She periodically attracted media coverage as aging veterans whom she had helped made their way to Belgium to thank her for rescuing them.