fbpx Escape Lines | HEROES OF THE RESISTANCE Skip to main content

Escape Lines

During WWII, tens of thousands of Allied personnel were shot down over occupied Europe. Those lucky enough to survive the landing were forced to confront a new peril. In all likelihood, they would find themselves in either a POW camp or a grave if no one came to their aid.

 

Back

However, resistance groups in occupied Europe, particularly France, Belgium and the Netherlands, established escape lines of astonishing ingenuity that spanned hundreds of miles. Resistance groups provided medical care, civilian clothing, convincing backstories and fake identification to these fugitives. They guided them through networks of safe houses, bluffed and bribed their way through checkpoints, and escorted escapees on trains policed by Nazis and collaborators, and on foot through treacherous terrain under the cover of darkness.  

Involvement in escape activities was highly risky

Involvement in such activities was, of course, highly risky, and success required resourcefulness, composure and a great deal of good fortune. The routes were so complex they could require hundreds of participants, all of whom could expect torture and death if caught. Many were indeed captured, but when one line was compromised, another would emerge in its place. 

Resistance groups assisted as many as 5,000 Allied aviators, soldiers and other personnel to escape to the UK.

Every successful escape was not only a life saved, but a morale boost for the public, and also often a means of relaying intelligence to the Allies. 

THE PAT O'LEARY LINE

Perhaps the most famed escape line was headed by Albert-Marie Guérisse (AKA Pat O’Leary). Guérisse, a Belgian military doctor, was recruited into a British Navy special operations group after Belgium’s occupation, and adopted the O’Leary pseudonym during missions in the Mediterranean. 

After being arrested by the Nazis, he escaped and travelled to his home country, where he became involved in an escape network headed by the Scottish soldier Ian Garrow. After Garrow’s imprisonment in October 1941, Guérisse took the reins of the operation. The routes were various, but many fugitives were transported from northern France to Marseille, traversing the Pyrenees Mountains, and then on to the British territory of Gibraltar. Funded by British intelligence, and staffed by hundreds of volunteers - including the British agent Nancy Wake - the line would aid roughly 600 back to the UK between 1941 and 1943.

The line was, unfortunately, compromised by infiltration, and Guérisse was again arrested in 1943, enduring a spell in Dachau.

Following Guérisse's arrest, the remnants of the operation were revived in his absence, overseen by Marie-Louise Dissard, coming to be known as the Françoise Line after her alias.

THE COMET LINE

Also renowned was the Comet Line, so named due to the speed at which it spirited those stranded in Belgium to safety. The 1,000 mile line was masterminded by Andrée de Jongh (AKA Dédée), a former volunteer with the Belgian Red Cross. The Comet Line stretched from Belgium through France, and into neutral Spain via a smuggler’s route over the Pyrenees, and into the hands of British officials. De Jongh personally chaperoned 118 people to Spain, earning the nickname “The Postman” from British intelligence. Hundreds of others would also escape via this route. 

Many of de Jongh’s colleagues would perish due to their exploits, including her own father. De Johgh was herself captured in 1943. After 20 interrogations, she revealed no names, but did confess to spearheading the line; however, being a young woman, she was disbelieved by her interrogators. Surviving the war, she would spend 28 years as a nurse for leprosy sufferers in the Congo and Ethiopia.

THE SHELBURNE LINE

The Shelburne Line, also known as Mission Bonaparte, was short lived, lasting from between December 1943 and August 1944. In those eight short months, it helped roughly 130 people escape from occupied Brittany, France, across the channel to the UK. It also aided another 50 through Spain.