Janine de Greef, Belgian who helped smuggle downed Allied airmen to safety, dies at 95
By PHIL DAVISON | Special To The Washington Post | Published: December 15, 2020
Janine de Greef was a 14-year Belgian schoolgirl when the Nazis invaded her country in May 1940. With her youth proving an effective cover, she became at 16 a member of the Belgian resistance, helping smuggle hundreds of downed Allied airmen, mostly British but including 108 Americans, south through Nazi-occupied France to neutral Spain.
The de Greef family — her father, mother and elder brother — were credited with saving more than 320 of the 800 or so Allied airmen who survived being shot down over Belgium.
At every step, de Greef was in danger of capture, even execution by the Gestapo, a fate which befell many of her Belgian comrades, some 250 of whom died in Nazi concentration camps.
During her trips through France toward the Pyrenees mountains and Spain, she was often aided by local guerrillas of the French resistance. She was believed to be among the last surviving members of the "Comet Line," the clandestine Belgian resistance network founded in 1941 by 24-year-old Belgian nurse Andrée "Dédée" de Jongh, to spirit allied airmen through Nazi lines to safety in Spain and eventually to Britain.
De Greef, 95, died Nov. 7 at the Brussels care home where she had spent the last decade. The French-based Les Amis du Réseau Comète (Friends of the Comet Network, or Line) announced the death but did not provide a cause.
By the time she was 19, she had made more than 30 dangerous trips by train, tram, bicycle or on foot, from France to the Spanish border, with Allied airmen "under her wing." She often pretended to be their daughter or little sister.
Before they embarked on their life-or-death voyages, she would teach the airmen, all carrying false passports her father and brother had forged, basic answers in French or German if questioned. She told American airmen never to juggle change in their pockets, which Europeans rarely do, never to chew gum and always to avoid a swaggering walk and instead comport themselves like someone whose country has been militarily occupied.
Once she had escorted small groups of airmen to the last "safe house" in France, below the foothills of the Pyrenees that straddle the French-Spanish border, she often walked or cycled with them to meet Basque mountain guides who would take them on a grueling several-day walk over the mountains, evading first the occupying Nazis in France and later Spain's paramilitary police.
Although Spain's dictator at the time, Gen. Francisco Franco, had shrewdly declared himself neutral in the war for his self-preservation, he was an extreme right-winger who strongly admired Hitler. Many Allied servicemen, French resistance leaders or French leftists got thrown into prison camps if caught entering Spain.
Those airmen who were guided safely over the Pyrenees by Basque guides, who knew the terrain because they had long been engaged in contraband, were then picked up by agents of what was then Britain's MI19 wartime intelligence service, set up specifically to rescue the airmen. The agents then gave the servicemen diplomatic shelter in the British embassy in Madrid before taking them south to Gibraltar, a British colony, for flights back to Britain and, for Americans, on to the United States.
One of the British airmen de Greef saved was Sgt. Bob Frost, a rear-gunner whose Wellington bomber was shot down by antiaircraft fire in 1942 while on a raid aimed at the German industrial city of Essen.
Frost and his crew bailed out by parachute, and he landed in a field at Kapellen, Belgium, where a local farmer sheltered him and got a message to the local resistance to help him. An agent of the Comet Line smuggled him to Paris where, to his shock, he was passed on to de Greef.
She already had false papers for him, told him to keep quiet, just smile and let her do the talking if they were approached by Germans. She linked up with three other airmen and they set off by train from Paris to Saint-Jean-de-Luz in the Basque country of southwestern France.
Frost later made it across the Pyrenees, on to Gibraltar, and finally back to his squadron in England.
Janine Lambertine Marie Angele de Greef was born in Brussels on Sept. 25, 1925, to Fernand de Greef, a multilingual businessman, and his wife, the former Elvire Berlémont, a journalist with the newspaper L'Indépendance Belge.
When Hitler's forces rolled into Belgium, Janine, her elder brother Frederick (Freddie), her parents and grandmother fled in a convoy with friends and neighbors and settled in Anglet, a town on the Atlantic Ocean in the extreme southwestern point of France. It was also a largely French-Basque town and on the northern edge of the Pyrenees, both of which facts would prove crucial to the family over the next few years.
The family had initially planned to sail from the south of France to the United States but, once in Anglet, they opted to stay and resist the Nazis.
Janine's mother, known within the network only as Tante Go (Auntie Go), established a chain of "safe houses" around Anglet where Allied airmen could be hidden until agents of the Comet Line could hook them up with Basque mountain guides to make the long, rugged walk over the Pyrenees into Spain.
Albert Johnson, an English civilian who had worked with the de Greef family before the war, stayed with them in Anglet and became a key member of the Comet Line, known in French as le Réseau Comète and in the de Greefs' native Dutch and Flemish as De Komeetlijn.
When the Comet Line was being increasingly "burnt" — identified by the Gestapo — in 1944, Janine's parents got her and Freddie to England via Gibraltar while the parents themselves stayed on and survived, thanks to the Allied landings at Normandy that June and the gradual German retreat. When the war was over, Janine and Freddie returned to Brussels to be reunited with their parents.
De Greef received the British King's Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom, an award to non-British nationals, the U.S. Medal of Freedom as well as Belgian and French awards for her resistance work. Her citation for the King's Medal read: "In all her work for the Allied cause, Mademoiselle Janine de Greef proved herself to be a most courageous, loyal and patriotic helper."
She never married and had no immediate surviving family; Freddie died in 1969.
After the war, de Greef worked for the British embassy in Brussels and was often invited to Britain for resistance commemoration events.
As the British airman Frost recounted in 2015 to the International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive in Lincoln, England, an American escaping with him once offered his train seat to a young French woman standing in the corridor.
Realizing he had spoken English, a dangerous giveaway, all the escapers froze in silence for a few seconds. But de Greef created a distraction and defused the situation.
"She didn't bat an eyelid," Frost said. "A real heroine, that girl."