Janine De Greef, who has died aged 95, was one of the few surviving heroines of the Comète escape line that helped more than 300 shot-down Allied airmen to evade capture by the Germans and escape across the Pyrenees into Spain.
Janine De Greef was born in Brussels on September 25 1925 and educated in the city. Her father, Fernand, was a linguist and businessman and her mother Elvire worked for the newspaper L’Indépendance Belge.
When the Germans invaded the Low Countries on May 10 1940, 14-year-old Janine escaped with her parents, her grandmother and her older brother Freddie in a convoy of cars, with other members of the newspaper who hoped to continue publishing it in a free zone.
The family’s plan was to sail from the south of France to the US, but instead they ended up in Biarritz renting a house, “Villa Voisin”, in the countryside outside the small town of Anglet.
Albert Johnson, an English friend of the De Greefs who had travelled in the convoy from Brussels, declined his ticket to England and stayed with the family throughout the war. In due course he became an important member of “le Réseau Comète”, the Comet Line, in the south west of France.
The Belgian-run escape line had become established in the late summer of 1941 and the De Greef family became the key elements of its southern sector. In October 1941, the first of over 300 evaders passed through the De Greef house, with arrangements made by Janine’s parents (code-named Tante Go and Oncle Dick) to smuggle them across the Pyrenees into Spain, where British agents of MI9 received them.
The organisation of that crucial southern end of the line became a family affair. The local authority employed Janine’s father as a translator with the German occupiers, and he was responsible for billeting soldiers and evacuees in the area.
This enabled him to obtain documentation for the evaders. He was also the official passport photographer. Freddie, her brother, was an excellent artist who forged the official stamps and often acted as a guide.
Janine’s mother, Tante Go, set up, with others, a network of “safe houses” in the region and arranged Basque mountain guides, among them some smugglers. Her contacts with smugglers led to her discovering the involvement of some German officers in the illicit business, which gave her useful blackmailing power over them.
As a young and pretty girl with an air of innocence, Janine could escort groups of evaders without raising suspicion, accompanying them on train journeys from Paris to Anglet via Bayonne.
Bob Frost, a rear gunner in Wellington bombers, told of one occasion in 1942 when she was the sole escort in a train compartment full of evaders, when an American stood up and, unthinkingly speaking English, offered his seat to a lady in the corridor . Janine handled the risky situation with skill and maturity, and the incident passed without trouble.
Her main work was in the region between Villa Voisin and the dangerous border zone. On some 30 occasions she took evaders from Bayonne to the “Last House”, a safe house close to the Spanish border, using a local train before walking or cycling the final miles.
She also made longer trips to the border to deliver evaders to a rendezvous with the Basque guides. The use of so many bicycles for the final phase caused a large build-up after the evaders had left for the mountains, and disposing of them became a serious problem.
After a number of significant betrayals, leading to executions, by which time 106 evaders had crossed the Pyrenees, the Comet Line was in danger of collapsing. But by the combined efforts of the De Greef family and Albert Johnson, it was able to recover and continue until the Allied landings in June 1944, when a further 200 airmen had successfully crossed into Spain.
At this time, the key members of the network were at risk of being arrested by the Germans, so MI9 instructed the De Greefs and others to escape to Spain. Tante Go refused to leave her mother, however, so remained in France.
Janine De Greef crossed the mountains with three other young female helpers and her brother, and they travelled to Madrid before being flown to England. Once the whole of France had been liberated, she returned, initially to Biarritz.
After the war, she again took up residence in the family apartment in Brussels, and worked for the British embassy as a commercial attache.
Tante Go was awarded the George Medal, but always insisted that it was an honour for the whole De Greef family. Janine was awarded the King’s medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom, the US Medal of Freedom, and the Belgian and French awards for gallantry.
A kind and charitable person, Janine loved travel and had a deep interest in all religions. She maintained a detailed archive of Second World War memorabilia, but deeply regretted the loss of the ‘little black books’, the family records of the Comete, which were stolen.
She made many visits to England to attend meetings of the RAF Escaping Society and its successor, the Escape Lines Memorial Society; at these she was reunited with many of the airmen she had helped.
Janine de Greef was unmarried.
Janine De Greef, born September 25 1925, died November 7 2020
See also the obituary in the Washington Post.