Nearly 60 years after it was first published, Airey Neave's fascinating book about a young Belgian woman who helped secure the safe passage of downed Allied airmen through Europe and back to wartime Britain, has been re-released, writes Matthew Price
Book review: Airey Neave's story of Belgian heroine still awe-inspiring
Little Cyclone: The Girl Who Started the Comet Line
The Second World War produced many unlikely heroes. German armies swept all before them as they conquered Europe, but resistance groups and clandestine forces, led by civilians from all walks of life, sprang up in many occupied countries. One of the most fascinating was the Comet Line. Spearheaded by a gallant young Belgian woman named Andrée de Jongh, known to her compatriots as "Dedee", the Comet Line shepherded hundreds of downed Allied airmen from Belgium, through France, across the Pyrenees, into Spain and onto Gibraltar, from where they sought passage back to Britain.
The morale boost to the Allies from returned airmen was invaluable, but it was an incredibly risky venture - some 156 members of Comet Line lost their lives, among them de Jongh's father; others were captured by the Gestapo and sent to concentration camps, including de Jongh herself. Despite all this, the group persevered against great odds and despite many setbacks.
Airey Neave's Little Cyclone: The Girl Who Started the Comet Line is the classic account of the network's exploits. First published in 1954, the book has just been reissued by the excellent Biteback Publishing, which specialises in political non-fiction and espionage titles, both newly commissioned works and reprints.
Neave's life, full of pluck and political intrigue, is itself a story worthy of a Biteback book. An artillery officer during the war, Neave was captured by the Germans at Calais, imprisoned, escaped and then captured once again and confined to the infamous prisoner of war camp at Colditz Castle. Neave again escaped, making it back to Britain, where he became an operative for MI9, the branch of British intelligence that directed efforts to rescue Allied soldiers trapped behind German lines.
After the war, Neave was elected a Tory MP, and later made his name in politics as one of the rebels who helped Margaret Thatcher rise to power. He was serving as shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland when his car was blown up as he drove away from Westminster in March 1979. An IRA splinter group claimed responsibility, but conspiracy theories have swirled around Neave's death ever since. Some have alleged MI6 was behind it - the reform-minded Neave, this speculative line of argument goes, was seen as a threat to the security services. One politician even stated that the United States was involved in the killing. (None of these charges have ever been proven.)
The author of several books, Neave was long associated with the world of secret intelligence. As an operative of MI9, he liaised with members of the Comet Line. Indeed, Little Cyclone has all the hallmarks of an inside account. (There are no footnotes or sources, and much of the book is based on Neave's talks with de Jongh.)
Neave views de Jongh and her associates - code-named "Nemo", and "Tante Go", to name a few of the more colourful ones - in the most heroic terms possible. "No one served the cause with any thought of rank," he writes. "There was a camaraderie, a loyalty unto death. In the four years of the Line, there were thousands, many poor and humble in backstreets and little farms, who risked their lives to hide the airmen … their organisation was the realisation of a dream for which all worked without favour or thought of the future. For those who were to face the levelled rifles of the SS, this faith lasted to the end."
There are times when Little Cyclone approaches the level of a fairy tale, while some of the dialogue seems right out of an old B-Movie. ("At last, Nemo, we've got you.") Still, Neave's narrative is entertaining from start to finish, and conveys the intense bonds that could only be borne of war and occupation.
Dubbed "Little Cyclone" by her father for her impetuous ways, de Jongh was 25 when she showed up at the British Consulate in Bilbao in 1941. She told the consul she had journeyed from Brussels with a Scottish soldier, and that she knew of many survivors from Dunkirk trapped in Belgium, looking for a way back to Britain. The incredulous attaché asked her to return with more men. De Jongh was not one to back down from a challenge, and here were the beginnings of the Comet Line (as it was dubbed by MI9). Neave observes worshipfully of de Jongh that "she possessed an indifference to fear, an eagerness to do battle which marked her wonderful career. She scoffed at indecision, and she was imbued with an ideal of service to others. She did not fear men nor the pain which they could inflict on her."
Fearlessness was a necessary quality, since it was never an easy journey across occupied France. The Gestapo prowled French trains; being stopped could put any operative in mortal peril. Yet for all the danger faced by the Comet Line, Neave's brisk, almost cheerful, tone imparts a sense of robust adventure.
There are characters galore here. One indispensable member of the Comet Line was Florentino, a rough and ready Basque who led 25 crossings of the Pyrenees. In utter darkness, he could spot a tree where he had hidden a bottle of cognac months before. Equipped with powerful legs, Florentino "lived by signs. He knew the feel of the path. He could find each goat-track in the darkness. He could recognise some obscure landmark momentarily revealed by a parting in the mist." Neave's passages on the mountain crossings are exciting and poignant in equal measure. Sometimes, the airmen could not keep up the pace, but Florentino and de Jongh, whose stamina was astounding, took good care of their charges.
Yet danger was ever present, and the Comet Line was nearly shattered by several disastrous incidents. The fear of traitors and double agents was a constant. Though an exacting system was put in place to guard against such threats, fakes slipped through, sometimes posing as airmen. One such episode led to the arrest of 100 people. De Jongh was arrested in France's Basque country in 1943, but the Line struggled on. Others stepped in to fill vital places lost to arrest or death. There was talk of pressing Britain to negotiate for de Jongh's release in exchange for a captured German agent. (Such schemes did not come to anything.)
De Jongh survived the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Neave's admiration for "Little Cyclone" is merited. A beloved figure to her comrades, "Dedee", and those she worked with, are among the myriad of figures in the Second World War who risked all, whatever the cost.
Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.