Dutch and Belgian Heroism — WWII Escape Lines for Allied Fliers
Published in “Belgian Laces,” of The Belgian Researchers, Vol. 25 (2003), issues 95 and 96.
by Bruce Bolinger
My mother and her family were Belgian refugees in WWI. They fled Belgium in 1914, spent seven years in England, and emigrated to the U.S. in 1921. In 1975 I had my one and only opportunity to meet my great uncle, Arthur Schrynemakers, in Brussels. He was already in his 90’s and died a couple of years later. During our conversation he showed me a letter from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower thanking him for helping rescue Allied fliers. Four years ago I began research into his role during WWII, and learned that he had been a member of a Resistance group called Service EVA and had hidden nine people from the Nazis, including an American flier by the name of Tom Applewhite. The following article reflects some of the things I have learned.
It is 1943. Thousands of American and Royal Air Force planes have been bombing German targets, the Americans by day and the RAF by night. Imagine you are a member of the crew of one of these planes, returning from a mission over Münster, Bremen, Munich, or Berlin. Flak from German antiaircraft guns has damaged your bomber so badly that it has fallen out of formation, unable to maintain speed. This makes it vulnerable to predatory attacks by Luftwaffe fighter planes, which cripple it. The pilot calls for the crew to bail out. You jump, falling 10,000 or even 20,000 feet before opening your parachute, knowing that the sooner you get on the ground, the sooner you can get away from the vicinity, and the German soldiers who will be searching for you.
You hit the ground, get rid of your parachute and flying gear, and start running. You have an escape kit containing money, which may be of the wrong country, pictures for false ID, which will prove to be unsuitable, a silk map, Benzedrine, Horlicks concentrated food tablets, and a compass, among other things. You may not even know what country you are in—Germany, the Netherlands, or Belgium—and you can’t speak the language even if you did. Your orders are to avoid capture, but if captured, to escape. For most fliers, the goal is to reach Gibraltar. But you are going to need help. To whom can you turn for help? Whom can you trust? Your hope is to find someone in the Resistance.
Types of Resistance
Resistance organizations sprang up after the German invasion of Belgium in May 1940. Some of the older people involved had already gained experience in this activity, having opposed the Germans in WWI. Resistance groups tended to specialize in certain areas, e.g., gathering intelligence, sabotage, or publishing clandestine newspapers. Nearly 200 underground newspapers served to build Belgian morale and to demoralize the occupying forces. Probably the most spectacular example of a Resistance newspaper was the famous November 9, 1943 issue of the mass-circulation Brussels newspaper, Le Soir. Members of the Resistance composed and printed a substitute edition, looking just like a regular issue but consisting entirely of news stories, movie reviews, classified ads, etc. ridiculing the Germans. To get it into the hands of as many Belgians as possible, they hijacked Le Soir’s delivery trucks, dumped the pro-German edition, and delivered their own version to the newspaper stands.1 It was a sellout! Another organization, Service D, largely made up of Liege postal workers, concentrated on intercepting mail to the Nazis that contained denunciations of anti-Nazi patriots, then warning the intended victims.2 One of the major intelligence organizations was Luc-Marc, with approximately 5000 members organized in 20 geographical sectors. Each week sector reports were combined into a single report by a team of typists in Brussels, microfilmed, and sent to London.3
Most aircrews who were shot down were captured and endured prisoner of war camps. But thousands did escape. Some were hidden by the Dutch, Belgians, and French until the Allies liberated their towns. But most were passed on to Resistance organizations which relayed them to Gibraltar, Switzerland, or directly to England. At the outset, intelligence organizations used their existing networks to move the escaping fliers. But the sheer numbers of fliers being shot down soon made it apparent that specialized escape lines were required.
Comet Line and PAT Line
One of the best known of the escape lines was the Comet Line, organized by a young Belgian woman, Andrée De Jongh, known as Dédée, a 25-year-old art student.
She turned up at the British Consulate in Bilbao, Spain in August 1941, much to the astonishment of the British diplomats, with a Scottish soldier and two Belgians in tow, having guided them from Brussels, across France, over the Pyrenees (with the help of a Basque guide), and into Spain. Run by Belgians who were determined to maintain their independence, even from the British, the Comet Line was credited with rescuing 770 fliers and soldiers.4 Another escape line was the PAT Line, named after Pat O’Leary, the nom de guerre of a Belgian doctor, Albert Guérisse, who directed it.
These escape lines could not always move the fliers through their networks as fast as the fliers arrived. The men first had to be housed, pending their transfer to the Comet Line or one of the other escape networks, fed, interrogated (to make sure they weren’t German agents trying to infiltrate the line), provided with false ID and clothing appropriate to their new identities, and instructed what to do and what not to do. Some required medical attention, even surgery. This fell to organizations like Service EVA (for evasion), a Resistance organization in Brussels that specialized in these activities. The following is a brief account of this intriguing organization and some of the people in it.
Service EVA Appears on the Scene
Service EVA came into being thanks to key members of two other Resistance groups. One was the Front de l’independence (or FI) founded in 1941 and directed by a committee representing the traditional political parties of Belgium. The FI’s structure included armed units, Groupes d’Action FI, later known as Milices Patriotiques (MP). The Milices Patriotique de Schaarbeek (one of the communes, or municipalities, of Brussels) had 1200 men by 1944, drawing supporters from the Schaarbeek communal government and its police. Charles Hoste, a 29-year-old adjunct policeman in Schaarbeek and member of the Schaarbeek MP had been involved in gathering intelligence, which was passed on to one or the other of the two major intelligence organizations, Luc-Marc or Zero.
In the summer of 1943, with the bombing raids on Germany increasing in intensity, and aid to fliers who had been shot down becoming more of a necessity, Hoste approached two members of Zero, René Roovers, 41, chief clerk at the Schaarbeek Town Hall, and his assistant, Alphonse Escrinier, 35, about creating an escape service. Drawing upon their acquaintances, they added other key figures, including Prosper Spilliaert, 33, a fish merchant, and René Ponty, 42, a Polish-born manufacturing specialist. A “Comite de Direction” was formed which included three more, Paul Hellemans , 40, employee of the United Africa Co.; Gaston Matthys, 45, another Schaarbeek civil servant; and Jean Portzenheim, 46, a commercial traveler.
Division of Duties
The sheer volume of work, as well as security needs, dictated a division of responsibility. Roovers’ primary concern was administration and security. His home was HQs for Service EVA and a mail drop. But he also recruited new members and sheltered and convoyed fliers. Spilliaert’s fish market was the processing center for the arriving fliers where they were liable to be interrogated by Escrinier, to confirm that they were whom they claimed to be, photographed for false ID, and provided with suitable clothing. Hoste concentrated on finding families willing to house the fliers and guiding the fliers to the homes. Gaston Matthys became the welfare officer, making repeated visits to the homes to make sure that the hosts and guests were okay and had what they needed. When it became dangerous for a flier to remain at one location, Matthys would move him to a new safe house. Hellemans was a conveyer and interrogator. He joined the group at the end of 1943 and was a guide, welfare officer, photographer, and interrogator. Ponty also was a guide and provided photographs for false ID.5
Guiding fliers through Brussels occurred not only when they were being delivered to safe houses or turned over to the Comet Line. Often fliers who had been hidden in a safe house for a considerable time were going “stir crazy” and demanded to be taken for a walk. Trips through Brussels, whatever the purpose, entailed considerable risk. There was always the possibility of the guide and the fliers encountering control points where the Germans would demand identity papers. Fliers often didn’t look or act like Belgians and might unintentionally make a fatal blunder. If a flier was captured, he usually faced nothing worse than a POW camp, while the guide was liable to be shot. Jack Justice, pilot of a B-17, described his experiences crossing Brussels thusly,
“The young lady (with whom he had been staying) explained that it was too dangerous for me to stay there. She gave me instructions that I was to follow her down the street. She would stop and talk to someone and I was to follow that person onto a streetcar. Later, someone would get on the streetcar and speak to the man I was following. I was then to follow this new contact. During the streetcar car ride, my contact changed five times and when the last contact spoke to no one and got off the streetcar, I followed him.” 6
The National Archives contains the debriefing reports of the American fliers who reached Gibraltar, as well as the Allied Military Intelligence files of the people who aided them. The latter confirm Justice’s description. His guides that day were Hoste, Escrinier, Spilliaert, and two others, Charlotte Ambach and Ernest Van Moorleghem. (Part II will tell the stories of Ambach and Van Moorleghem.)
Arrests of members of the Resistance often would be attributed to the Gestapo. Certainly if you were being arrested by men in civilian clothes waving guns you wouldn’t stop to ask for their identification. But more likely than the Gestapo they would be from the GFP, or Geheim Feldpolizei, literally secret field police [or in The Netherlands, from the SD]. Formed in 1939 by Gen. Wilhelm Keitel, from 1941 on, their responsibilities included investigations of Allied espionage and sabotage against military installations, plus apprehension of Allied aviators and Belgian patriots attempting to join the Allies in London. Their methods “in dealing with suspected opponents of the regime were not necessarily any gentler than those of Himmler’s police, and beatings and torture were well within their repertoire.”7
The problem of German agents trying to infiltrate the escape lines was ongoing. One who had been parachuted into the Netherlands in September 1943 claiming to be a French-Canadian of German emigrant parents was picked up by the Dutch escape line of Karst Smit. The man’s story seemed improbable to Smit. Without the suspect’s knowledge, a native speaker from Quebec was brought to the home where the man was being hidden. From behind a sliding door she listened to a conversation between the flier and his host. Afterwards she said she had never heard such an accent in Quebec. Smit then used a questionnaire devised for RAF fliers. The flier couldn’t or wouldn’t answer the questions. Still giving him the benefit of the doubt, Smit brought in a Belgian police official, who was associated with their escape line, to grill the man. The flier then changed his story, claiming to be an anti-Nazi German, trying to use the escape lines as a way to join the Allies. This they found unbelievable. Because the man had lied to them repeatedly and by then knew too many people in the escape organization, Smit decided that he had to have him eliminated. In 1944, after Smit was himself arrested by the Germans, he learned that the “Canadian” was a German agent by the name of “ Captain Kopp”.8
Tom Applewhite, from Memphis, Tennessee, a bombardier on a B-17, spent two days at the fishmarket of Prosper Spilliaert and Yvonne DeRudder where he became friendly with Spilliaert’s 17-year-old stepson, René Warny. Warny took him to the room used for photographing the fliers for their false ID. Pointing out some holes in the wall, Warny explained that a couple of weeks before there had been two men claiming to be American fliers.
But Warny overheard them speaking German to each other and alerted his stepfather. Spilliaert told the two men it was time for them to be photographed. While the photographer pretended to be setting up his equipment, Spilliaert shot them. The holes in the walls were bullet holes.9
Applewhite himself came under suspicion. The second safe house where he stayed in Brussels was the apartment of Yvonne Bienfait, a nurse at the Schaarbeek hospital. She noticed that he was using a German-made razor and that he had what appeared to be a German watch. What she didn’t know was that the razor was a going away gift from his previous host, Arthur Schrynemakers, and that the watch was Swiss-made, which he had purchased in England. She immediately notified Hoste and Matthys. The two men, on arriving, pretended that they needed to check the physical condition of Applewhite and another flier who was staying there. This supposedly was to see if they were up to the rigors of crossing the Pyrenees into Spain.
As part of the “physical” they examined the two men’s teeth. What Applewhite didn’t know was that they were making note of the pattern of his fillings, which they then radioed to London. Fortunately for Applewhite, London replied that, yes, the dental pattern fitted Applewhite! It wasn’t until he reached Gibraltar that he learned how close he had come to being executed.10
Some of the questions used in interrogations of RAF fliers have survived. Examples are, “What do you write on the back of the leave-form?” “Are the Houses of Parliament blacked out?” “Are officers in the RAF allowed to have WAAF’s for houseservant?” “What railway station is nearest Grosvenor Hotel, London?” “Did you ever see ‘Waltzing Mathilda’?” “If you know your way in London, where is Swan and Edgar?” Most questions, however, involved technical terms.11
Service EVA members often employed aliases in their dealings with fliers and others. If someone with whom they came in contact were to be arrested by the German police, it would do the Germans little good to extract a name from their prisoner, which could not be traced to the Resistance member. Among the Service EVA leaders, some of the aliases were “Jacques” or “Morin” (Hoste), “Carmen” or “Christian” (Matthys), and “Philippe” (Hellemans). Escrinier was known as “18”, “UH”, “UZH”, by five different male first names, and even by the female name “Rosita”.12
Delivery of Fliers to Service EVA
Fliers might reach Belgian Resistance groups after being relayed from one organization to another. Sometimes they practically fell into their laps. In June 1942, René Ponty, who later became one of the leaders of Service EVA, was staying at his country cottage in Gottechain near Grez-Doiceau southeast of Brussels when an RAF four-engine Halifax bomber crashed about two kilometers away. Ponty sent six neighbors whom he could trust in search of surviving crew members. They soon found Sgt. William Norfolk, who was at a farmhouse seeking help for his injured ankle. Notified of the situation, Ponty arrived with his medical kit while his friends shooed away the villagers who had come rushing up to the farm. The farmer wanted the flier out of there. So, at 4 a.m., Ponty and the others made up a stealthy procession heading for Ponty’s home, each person 50 meters from the next, with Norfolk being carried under the his arms by the last two. Repeatedly they had to dive into the fields to hide in the shadows to avoid German patrols on motorcycles. One member went ahead as scout to make sure that the motorcyclists had not mounted guards at the crossroads. Reaching Ponty’s cottage, they had barely gotten Norfolk up to the second floor when Germans arrived in the courtyard. One of the women in the group, showing “admirable presence of mind,” pointed in the direction of a heap of chemical manure, white in color, in the fields. The Germans, assuming that it was a parachute, rushed off in that direction. As she was misdirecting the soldiers, Ponty managed to lift Norfolk into a hiding place. After spending a month with Ponty at the cottage, Norfolk successfully returned to England.13
The Karst Smit Line14
An important source of fliers for Service EVA was the Dutch escape line of Karst Smit. After serving in the Dutch Army during the German invasion, Smit then joined the Maréchaussées, a Dutch mounted police that was responsible for patrolling the country’s borders. In January 1942, the 24-year-old Dutchman was assigned to the Maréchaussée HQ in Hilvarenbeek, a village in North Brabant a short distance from the Dutch-Belgian border. The region south of Hilvarenbeek, through which the border passed, was heavily forested, making it a handy crossing point for smugglers, political refugees, and others. While on patrol in April 1942 Smit and another policeman encountered two escaped French prisoners of war. The Frenchmen had crossed into the Netherlands from Germany at a point on the German-Dutch border near Twente and had made their way on foot across the country, trying to reach France by way of Belgium. Smit volunteered to guide them across the border. Wanting to be of greater assistance to future French escapees, Smit set up the beginnings of his network. Friends would patrol the Dutch-German border looking for escaped Frenchmen, provide them with clothing, and accompany them to the station at Tilburg. Smit would be covertly notified in advance so that he could pick them up at Tilburg and take them to Hilvarenbeek.
In Hilvarenbeek, Smit made the acquaintance of Eugene van der Heijden, the son of Josephus Cornelis van der Heijden, a tobacco wholesaler, and his Belgian wife Elisabeth Peeters. They were a family that used its “kindness and humanity to help any fugitive in need.”
The first person helped was “an innocent 18-year-old German farmer’s son who had marched for miles on the first day of the occupation of the Netherlands,” whose bleeding feet were bandaged by Elisabeth. Within a few days their oldest son, Marcel, brought home two escaped Frenchmen he had found hiding in the forests. Next came British POWs, Dutch students evading the German labor draft, and, by 1942, Dutch Jews.15 On at least one occasion, Marcel went all the way to Amsterdam to pick up Jews in need of help. The other sons, Eugene, Staf, Willi, and Jef, were equally involved. Smit asked for the family’s assistance. The van der Heijden home, well outside of Hilvarenbeek and surrounded by open fields, but only a five minute walk from the police barracks, was ideal for what Smit needed. Soon the van der Heijdens were helping escaping Allied fliers as well.
Smit knew that just guiding the vluchtelingen, the escapees, across the border into Belgium was not enough. He needed additional helpers to manage the workload and a Brussels destination for the fliers, political refugees, and Jews. In Hilvarenbeek, Jacques Naaijkens, editor and publisher of the village’s weekly newspaper, with the help of his sons, used the printing press in his home to produce false ID for escapers. The Putters brothers, old-fashioned tailors who worked just inside the front window of their shop where they could see everyone entering the village, would call Smit and warn him of approaching Germans. Mr. Hendriks, the village baker at his store on Diesenseweg, made bread for the fliers. Five other maréchaussées at the Hilvarenbeek police barracks helped Smit guide the fliers through the forest. Sometimes, when moving a flier within the Netherlands, a maréchaussée would have him wear the upper half of one of their uniforms including the high hat, and transport him in a motorcycle sidecar.
Smit needed to be able send mail to his contacts in Brussels, but such mail could not be sent from the Netherlands because of the risk of it being examined by the Germans. In Goirle, on the Dutch side of the border, lived Constant Heeren, a shipping agent, and his Belgian-born wife. Her sister, Octavie, still lived in Poppel on the Belgian side, and crossed over regularly to help with the Heeren housework. Mail from Smit for contacts in Brussels henceforth would be carried across the border into Belgium in Octavie’s undergarments and mailed by her in Poppel.
In Weelde, a small town on the Belgian side of the border, Marie Segers-Ooms opened the Segers Café to the fliers, where they were often fed before continuing on to Brussels. Marie also donated money to help with their expenses.
To raise money for his enterprises, Smit would smuggle chewing tobacco from Belgium and his sister would sell it in government offices in The Hague. Before he found a way to produce false ID, he and the other maréchaussées would confiscate Belgian identity papers from smugglers they caught operating on the border!
Smit familiarized himself with the departure locations and schedules of the steam trams and charcoal gas burner-powered buses that ran between Weelde and Turnhout, the electric trams that took passengers from Turnhout to Antwerp, and the trains that traveled from Antwerp to Brussels so that he could brief guides and fliers on what to expect.
In early 1943, much to Smit’s surprise, the maréchaussée district commander, who was a drinking pal of the Germans, called Smit in and explained that his fraternization with the enemy was really a cover, that he knew what Smit was doing, and that he wanted to help. Smit replied that he wanted certain maréchaussées, who were working with him, transferred to two other border villages, Goirle and Baarle Nassau, so that he could use those locations as crossing points for his organization as well as Hilvarenbeek. The commandant agreed. Not entirely trusting the man, Smit warned him that if he betrayed them, they would kill him.
On one occasion, while patrolling in the forest south of Hilvarenbeek, Smit noticed footprints. Following them, he came across five Dutch students from the Agricultural University at Wageningan who had refused to sign a German oath of loyalty and gone into hiding. They had created two shelters in the woods where they lived, relying on the local farmers for donations of food. Smit enlisted them in his escape organization. Henceforth, fliers taken across the border by way of Hilvarenbeek would spend one or more nights there in the woods.
On another border patrol, this one near Baarle-Nassau, Smit encountered Willem Schmidt, a theology student from Utrecht, who had gone into hiding from the Germans. Willem was carrying false ID and Underground literature. Smit needed more guides, so he recruited the enthusiastic young man. Willem proved to be a valuable addition, who took many people to Brussels.
#4 Rue Jules Lejeune, Brussels
The first Brussels contact Smit used had to be abandoned when she began demanding money to help the fliers. Smit’s policy had been that the Dutch helpers paid the fliers’ expenses in the Netherlands and the Belgian helpers did likewise in Belgium. He was offended by her demand and looked for an alternative. By August 1942, he made the acquaintance of Elise Chabot and her daughter Charlotte Ambach.
From then on escapees were guided to the Chabot-Ambach apartment at #4 Rue Jules Lejeune in the Brussels canton of Ixelles. Located in a seven-story apartment building overlooking the Place Charles Graux, this was the reception point for arriving fliers. From there they would be taken on to Prosper Spilliaert’s fishmarket.
Chabot was Dutch but had acquired German nationality because of her marriage to a German. Ambach, although born in the Netherlands, also had German citizenship because of her father. But both women were fiercely anti-Nazi. They and Charlotte’s sister, Madelon Frisque, moved to Brussels in 1934-35 because of the worsening political situation in Germany, the Chabots divorcing amicably. In 1939, during a visit to Germany, they fled back to Belgium when the Gestapo began to take too much interest in what the outspoken Mme. Chabot had been saying.
Author’s note: To read Part II of this story, click here. It will include the love story of Charlotte Ambach and Ernest Van Moorleghem, the German arrests, the bombing of the fishmarket, the False Escape Line, the Phantom Train carrying 1500 Belgian political prisoners to Germany, and the fate of the people whose stories have been described. Also included will be footnotes and recommended reading.
1 Goris, Jan-Albert, Belgium Under Occupation, New York: The Moretus Press, 1947, p. 130. Gérard, Hervé, La Résistance Belge, Braine-l’Alleud, Belgium: J.-M. Collet, 1995, p. 70.
2 Files of SOMA-CEGES (Guerre et Sociétes contemporaines, Centre d’Etudes et de Documentation), Brussels.
3 Verhoeyen, Etienne, La Belgique Occupée, de l’an 40 à la Liberation, Brussels: De Boeck Université, 1994, pp. 361-364.
4 Neave, Airey, Little Cyclone, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1954.
5 de Vos, Jacques, “The Brussels Connection,” in Horning, Art, In the Footsteps of a Flying Boot, New York: Hearthstone Book, 1994. Files in the National Archives on the persons named.
6Justice, John K., “The Raid on Munster, Germany, Oct. 10, 1943 and my Escape from German Occupied Europe,” unpublished manuscript.
7 Warmbrunn, Werner, The German Occupation of Belgium, 1940-1945, New York: Peter Lang, 1993, p. 117.
8 Author’s interviews with Karst Smit, July 6,8, 2002. Smit, Karst, “Hilvarenbeek en de Pilotenlijn,” Die tijrannij verdrijven, Nieuwsbrief Nummer 38, Jaargang 13, 27 Oktober 1994, Hilvarenbeek, The Netherlands.
9 Author’s interviews with Tom Applewhite, 2000-2003.
11 Cited in German trial record of Willem Schmidt and others, March 28, 1944.
12 National Archives files of Hoste, Hellemans, and Escrinier.
13 National Archives file of René Ponty.
14 See footnote 8.
15 File on van der Heijden family, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.