Operation Comete…A Photo Story…
If you are over 40, OR are unfortunate to be at home during the day and have satelite TV, then you may be familiar with the TV programme “The Secret Army”.
This was the original programme that “‘allo ‘allo” went on to take the micky out of, but was based on the factual expliots of the Resistance to the German Occupation during World War 2. The notable feature of BOTH programmes were the downed airmen who’s aim was to evade from the Germans and escape back to Britain by being passed along a chain of helpers to get them out of Belgium and France and across the Pyrenees and into Spain.
(As an aside, I have spoken to ex-RAF aircrew about the programme ‘Allo ‘Allo…and they are not very complimentary of it. They didn’t like the idea of the Germans in it being portrayed as stupid and bumbling. In fact despite some 60 years passing there still was a great animosity towards the Germans – understandably I guess. But I think that if Harry Patch could forgive after 90 years…maybe…but then, who am I to judge? I have no idea what those guys in that war went through – I despite taking part in events to re-create several things from the war and talk to people involved originally – I cannot imaging what it must have been like to do those things for real.)
This was called the Comete Line and was originally set up by the fantastic Dedee de Jongh, and was successful in some 4000 aircrew making their escape from the Germans.
This is a bit of an un-known part of RAF history and so to raise a bit of awareness as part of our Leadership and Personal Development training a party of some 30 of us from RAF Cosford undertook the task of recreating the route of the escape line – From Brussels through to Hernani in Spain.
The first part was cycling across France, where we biked for about 9 hours a day in shifts with people always biking and the others resting in the support van. Ours was Team Pasty…Don’t ask why, but maybe by the look of some of the bellies in the picture above you may be able to guess…Some of the cycling was fairly easy through picturesque fields of France, although it got harder as we got closer to the Pyrenees. Not exactly Tour de France stuff, but it certainly tested our fitness…
After a week of this we transfered to foot where we were to spend two days walking across the Pyrenees from France into Spain. This was a fairly difficult route that was exactly the same as they had done in the 1940’s. That house in the background was the last staging post in France. It was also the place that Dedee was arrested by the German Gestapo. It was, er, quite wet for the walk, which given the heat, made things to be a bit uncomfortable.
It involved a river crossing, which marked the border between France and Spain. It was remarkably smelly and remarkably cold! In fact my trainers for that have never been the same since. The evaders back in the war made exactly the same crossing as we did, wearing a pair of cork plimsole type shoes. The original guide was a Basque smuggler who by all accounts was a bit of a man-mountain. His name was Florentino Goicoechea and it was his grave where we laid a wreath (see below).
Once into Spain we met up with a modern day local guide – a moutain runner who was using our event as part of his training for the next mountain marathon he was to take part in and who decided to take us up some difficult and fairly big hills. In fact thinking back, he guided us across the mountains, through woods, and across country…but I don’t remember him actually having a map.
As you can see I am carrying a Union Flag. This was a great honour for myself, as this flag was the property of an ex-RAF Prisoner of War, and it was the only such flag to have been inside Colditz Castle Prison during the war. It was pretty amazing to be able to hold something with so much history behind it, with so much memory attached to it, with such importance.
It was an honour to take part in that event and to do so with two ex-RAF aircrew who actually did it for real in 1943, Bob Frost and Gordon Mellor, who were an absolute inspiration to us.
For more details on the Evaders Story have a look at The ELMS web-page
As a Post Script to this I met up with Bob and Gordon a year later when I was fortunate to be the RAF Cosford representative at Dedee’s funeral in Brussels. You can check out her amazing story at this wiki page.
I thought it was a fairly important event, but I didn’t realise JUST how important it was until I actually arrived in Brussels airport. I was asked why was I visiting Belguim and I told the police woman that I was there to attend a funeral. “What funeral?” I was asked.
“Oh, errr, Andree de…”
I was interrupted as she said “The Comtess de Jongh? Mouisour, please go through. She was a national hero for us. Thank you for visiting to attend her funeral and for paying respect on behalf of your country.” I was taken aback. It was a HUGE deal in Belguim, with the funeral being attended by Belgian Royal Family. And me.