Wednesday, 21 July 2010

72. Villa Voisin

17th July 2010. I mentioned in an earlier post that I've become increasingly interested in the Comet Line since I found out that its operations in the South West of France were controlled from a house just a few minutes from here.
The Comet Line was a secret network established during WWII by Andrée de Jongh ("Dédée" or the Little Cyclone), a brave 24 year old Belgian woman, with the aim of helping shot-down Allied airmen to escape and evade from the Low countries down through France, over the Pyrenees to Spain and hence to return to Britain via Gibraltar or Lisbon. The activities of the Comet Line in the Pays Basque were co-ordinated by an indefatigable Belgian lady - Elvire de Greef - known as "Tante Go".
"Tante Go"
She and her husband Fernand lived in nearby Anglet in a house known as the Villa Voisin. In researching the Pays Basque end of the Comet Line, I finally managed to pinpoint the address of the Villa Voisin and I drove there today. By the way, my comments on the Comet Line are not intended as an exhaustive account of the activities in this area by any means. I'm aware that in naming names that there are many others who remain un-named. My admiration for all those who helped is unbounded and without reservation.
Villa Voisin

The Villa Voisin is located at the end of a discreet cul-de-sac in the centre of Anglet, set back from the lane. It's an anonymous, drab villa hiding behind closed shutters and and surrounded by a small garden. It appears to be unoccupied at present. Affixed to one of the gateposts is a simple marble plaque (left). It was with mixed emotions that I finally found myself outside it. Those immensely courageous people who'd operated the Line from it had known the highs and lows of a secret life on the run against a ruthless enemy - the need for eternal vigilance, the constant fear of the heavy tramp of boots outside that preceded a late night hammering at the door. Counter-balancing that however, they'd shared the adrenalin-fuelled comradeship, the knowledge that they were fighting for a better world and the satisfaction of knowing that they were both defying the invader and contributing to his defeat by helping hundreds of escaping airmen to evade capture and return home to fly again. In the three years it oper­ated from 1941 to 1944, the Comet Line saved hundreds of Allied airmen and soldiers to evade capture and return home. It's difficult for us today to imagine the kind of world that made the Comet Line necessary.

Looking at the house, I found myself wishing that I'd known Dédée and "Tante Go". Christened the Little Cyclone by her father, by all accounts Dédée was clearly someone very special indeed - possessed of an inner fire and an unquenchable determination to "make a difference". Knowing that hundreds and thousands of Allied airmen were going out over occupied Europe night after night in their bombers to destroy the Third Reich that had occupied her country, she'd felt compelled to join the fight and to take the same risk as them (many would say an even greater risk) in playing her part in ridding Europe of the scourge of tyranny. After having made 37 crossings of the Pyrenees with her precious cargo of airmen, she was captured in January 1943 as a result of a betrayal, interrogated by the Gestapo when, in a gallant bid to save her fellow Comet members, she admitted to her disbelieving questioners that she was indeed the central controller and organiser of the entire network. She was later deported to Ravensbrück and later the appalling Mauthausen where she somehow managed to survive for two years until the Liberation.

After the war, she was awarded the George Medal (scroll down the link) by King George VI following which she moved to the pre-independence Belgian Congo, then to Cameroon, next to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, working in leper hospitals and finally to Senegal. In failing health, she eventually retired to Brussels where she died on 13th October 2007 aged 90.
The Basque guide who led parties of airmen across the mountains for the Comet Line was the legendary Florentino Goicoechea (above). By profession he was a smuggler (alleged to have been wanted by the authorities on both sides of the border!) and, when awarded the King's Medal, he was described as being 'in the import and export business'! He looks like someone you'd want on your side in a tight corner. Here he is again in 1965:

I'm no great believer in medals, awards or citations, but if medals are to be awarded, I think we should make sure the right ones are given. Dédée and "Tante Go" (and others) received the George Medal (right). I would have said that the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for gallantry, would have been more appropriate, given their achievements and the risks they took. After all, they chose to involve themselves, to risk their lives. They could have just kept their heads down and carried on with life and no-one would have been any the wiser. Theirs was not a courage born of the heat of battle and over in a flash but rather it was a cold courage that was measured, a solitary courage, aware of all the terrible risks they were taking (no Geneva Convention or prisoner of war camps for them) and yet they continued the fight for years. I know the VC is intended for military personnel only but who would argue that they were not involved in a military undertaking. I would have made an exception in their case and I firmly believe that all three (and others) fully merited the VC. 

Another safe house was provided by Jean and Marthe Dassié, a family of activists in Bayonne. Their 16 year old daughter Lucienne ("Lulu") was also involved and, after being captured with her parents in 1943, she and her mother spent 2 years in Ravensbruck, a name that still sounds fearful today. Her father Jean survived the horrors of Buchenwald only to die aged 50 within days of being reunited with his family in May 1945. Here are a few lines by Kipling written after the Great War but they apply equally here.

They are too near to be great,
But our children shall understand.
When and how our fate was changed
And by whose hand.

The "Trois Couronnes"
I'm planning to participate in a 3 day "March over the Mountains", around the distinctive Trois Couronnes (above) and down into Spain, that will take place in September to commemorate the south western Comet Line. The route will re-trace exactly the path taken by Dédée and Florentino and the escapers from Urrugne in France to Renteria in Spain. Now in her eighties, "Lulu" telephoned a couple of days ago to provide some information about the event. It will be a great honour to meet her.

Here's Le Chant des Partisans - (the Partisans song) - which leaves listeners in no doubt as to the views of the occupied population:
21st July 2010. Let's enjoy a happier mood now with the Buena Vista Social Club playing Chan Chan live in Amsterdam:
To finish up with, here to take you home is Ry Cooder & The Moula Banda Rhythm Aces with Maria Elena:


the fly in the web said...

I arrived at your blog from Jo's France for better for worse and what a surprise!
The last owner of my house was in another resistance group extricating allied servicemen from occupied territory..she was in the and Felix the Cat group and I am not sure but I think that she was also with Comete du Nord.

Further, there was your item on St, Valery, whence my father escaped by boat before the surrender...and nearly got himself court martialed for disobedience on return to Britain!

Serendipity or what!

Pipérade said...

Thanks for those comments.. Amazing days your father lived through. I'm pleased to find that some of the key players are still with us - I'm looking forward to this jaunt in the mountains (mentioned in Post 72) with them in September..
Stop by again!

the fly in the web said...

With pleasure!