During World War II, around 7000 Allied pilots and soldiers stranded behind enemy lines were smuggled back to the United Kingdom via a secret network of escape routes. [2 of 2]
Last week I wrote about Diogenes the Cynic and the solvitur ambulando – solving by walking. Online that phrase is often attributed to Saint Augustine, but I cannot find any proof of that in Augustine’s writing so I think it’s just one of those Internet misattributions. The phrase does have a connection to a point far away in time and space from ancient Greece: the Western Front of World War II.
In 1940, hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers left continental Europe in the Dunkirk evacuation. Thousands of soldiers didn’t make it out of enemy territory in time. Starting about a year later – whenever Allied planes were shot down over France, Belgium, or other occupied countries – a steady stream of airmen were likewise stranded. But, between 1940 and 1944, around seven thousand of these people made it back to friendly territory. And they did it through a network of escape lines.
A network of resistance fighters and other helpers ran the escape lines. They saw it as their patriotic duty to aid the fight, and they did so by smuggling Allied fighters south by train or by foot as far as the Pyrenees. Once they walked over the mountains, a British or American was officially in neutral Spain, so they could safely travel to Gibraltar and then back to Britain.
Helping the allies was exceptionally dangerous: the local helpers faced arrest and execution. The original founder of the famous Pat O’Leary Line was captured in 1941. His successor was betrayed by another helper in 1943 (he ended up in Dachau concentration camp but survived the war). The escape route was then resurrected by a lady in her sixties – and her cat, apparently – and renamed the Françoise Line. That woman, Marie-Louise Dissard, would go on to rescue 250 Allied personnel… and was awarded a (French) Legion of Honour, a (British) OBE, and a (US) Medal of Freedom for her efforts.
In fact, a majority of the crew running the lines were woman – often in their teens or twenties, I suppose because they were less likely to arouse suspicion. The Comet Line was co-founded by a 24-year-old Belgian named Andrée de Jongh and she personally escorted more than a hundred people out of occupied Europe. Upon meeting her, one person remarked
our lives are going to depend on a schoolgirlAndrée de Jongh
De Jongh was captured in 1943 but also survived the war; she too received a Legion of Honour award and a Medal of Freedom for her work on the Comet Line.
After the war, a charity called the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society provided support and funds to the surviving helpers (and the families of the many helpers who did not survive). Its motto? Solvitur ambulando.