Janine de Greef obituary

Belgian wartime courier who as a teenager helped allied servicemen escape from Paris to the Pyrenees

Janine de Greef and her family took key roles in the operation of the Comet escape line
Janine de Greef and her family took key roles in the operation of the Comet escape line
Janine de Greef and her family took key roles in the operation of the Comet escape line

Last modified on Fri 8 Jan 2021 12.11 EST

Janine de Greef, who has died aged 95, was a teenage courier for the Comet escape line that linked occupied Belgium to neutral Spain during the second world war. For three years she escorted allied servicemen from Paris to the south-west city of Bayonne by train, or from Bayonne to the foothills of the Pyrenees by tram or bicycle.

More than once she had to teach an aviator how to ride a bicycle before they could go ahead. Sergeant Bob Frost, an RAF gunner whom she guided from Paris to St Jean de Luz in 1942, remembered her as “a real heroine, that girl”. De Greef served as a crucial link in Comet’s rescue of 287 servicemen and 76 civilians from Nazi-occupied Europe.

The escape line was established in the summer of 1941, and De Greef and her family were a key element in the southern section, having fled to south-west France the previous year. Janine was born in Brussels, the daughter of Elvire (nee Berlémont), a journalist with the newspaper L’Indépendance Belge, and Fernand de Greef, a linguist and businessman.

When German forces invaded Belgium, the 14-year-old Janine escaped with her parents, her older brother, Freddie, and her grandmother, in a convoy of her mother’s colleagues, and the family settled in Anglet, outside Bayonne. Her father found a job at the town hall as an interpreter, and Elvire involved herself in the black market, with an eye to more than supplementing the family’s rations. Janine and Freddie went to school.

Janine de Greef visiting Lourdes in 1945
Janine de Greef visiting Lourdes in 1945

Meanwhile in Belgium, hundreds of stranded British servicemen were evading capture and finding shelter with Belgian families. These families risked both the reprisals of the German occupation authorities and bankruptcy from the cost of feeding men without ration cards. The men needed to get home, but the route required them to cross the Belgian border, traverse occupied France, walk over the Pyrenees, and then make their way through Franco’s Spain to Gibraltar. As fugitives, they would need a working knowledge of two foreign languages, cash in three currencies, and an array of false documents and passes for each occupation zone they crossed. Realising that the Belgian hosts and their British guests needed help, Andrée de Jongh, a 24-year-old nurse in Brussels, along with several friends, created an escape line between Belgium and Spain.

In June 1941 one of De Jongh’s colleagues travelled to Bayonne to find a way over the Pyrenees. He had the name of the De Greef family and a password that Elvire had left with an associate in Brussels over a year earlier. Elvire herself had built up connections among smugglers and shadier types that worked just as well for smuggling people over borders as smuggling goods. She also had enough information about German involvement in illegal trading to blackmail some of the local occupation authorities.

Elvire took responsibility for leading Comet in south-western France, eventually running several routes through the undulating Basque country of the western Pyrenees. Physically, the most challenging part of the route was crossing the Bidasoa river. Once in Spain, Comet’s guides handed their charges over to British diplomats.

The entire De Greef family worked for the line. Fernand used his position at the town hall to gather intelligence on German police movements and the official documents that fugitives would need in different occupation zones; Janine’s brother forged the papers and acted as a guide; and Janine worked as Comet’s youngest courier and guide.

The resistance networks depended on face-to-face communications. Couriers took messages from one agent to another along public streets, across bridges guarded by Germans, and through train stations controlled by police. The couriers were often young women, because they could be gone from their homes or jobs on short notice, were never required to prove why they were not in uniform, and were thought to be able to sweet talk their way out of trouble.

Freddie, Elvire and Janine de Greef cycling to Spain in 1944, after Elvire decided that there was a risk of the Gestapo returning to Bayonne. Once they reached the border, the children went on alone to Britain
Freddie, Elvire and Janine de Greef cycling to Spain in 1944, after Elvire decided that there was a risk of the Gestapo returning to Bayonne. Once they reached the border, the children went on alone to Britain

As a guide, Janine worked in tandem with other women and girls, escorting groups of servicemen on train journeys across France and accompanying evaders by tram and bicycle from Bayonne to the last safe house on the Spanish border. The airmen that Comet started helping in 1942 increased the risks because German military intelligence took a keen interest in the whereabouts of downed allied aviators. The Americans in particular sometimes unwittingly revealed themselves by small actions such as how they held their cigarettes.

Repeated infiltrations of the Comet line by German agents led to the arrests of hundreds of resisters and the aviators they were helping. In January 1943, De Jongh and several airmen were betrayed close to the Spanish border. Elvire managed to convince German interrogators that her family were black marketers rather than resisters. Fearing the Gestapo’s return, in June 1944 she escorted her children to Spain, from where they went on alone to Britain. Janine and Freddie rejoined their parents in Brussels after the war.

Janine received the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom, a British recognition of the contribution of foreign nationals, and the US Medal of Freedom as well as Belgian and French awards for her resistance work. After the war, she worked as a commercial attaché in the British embassy in Brussels. Throughout her life, she remained active in several associations concerned with the Comet line and escaping airmen.

Freddie died in 1969.

• Janine Lambertine Marie Angele de Greef, resistance agent, born 25 September 1925; died 7 November 2020

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