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.
From : The National