Belgian Resistance: Historic Overview

Historic overview of the Belgian Resistance escape services

Historic overview of the Belgian Resistance escape services

Second lieutenant Arthur J. Horning was a navigator aboard a B-17 (401 Squadron, 91st Bomb Group). His crew went down over Holland on October 10, 1943, on the raid to Munster, Germany. Horning crossed over into Spain on December 23, 1943.

His personal memoir, In the Footsteps of a Flying Boot, serves as a classic example of an Allied airman's successful evasion and escape from Holland, through Belgium, across France, over the Pyrenees to Spain, and back to England. His friend, Jacques De Vos, provided the following essay after the War, explaining the intricacies of the Belgian escape line system, as an appendix to Art's self-published memoir. The appendix is reprinted here with the kind permission of Art Horning's wife, Janet Horning.

APPENDIX – In the Footsteps of a Flying Boot

Mr. Jacques De Vos, corresponding member of the "Belgian Centre for the History of WWII," and a good friend, wrote the following general information which I have compiled explaining the behind the scene evolution and detail of the organization of the people making up what is commonly called the "Underground" in the Brussels area. Permission was granted to print this information which answers the many questions I had about the "Who, how, what and where" concerning my helpers in Brussels. This information I believe to be unique and not printed before or in this manner and if nothing else, it should be of interest to those “booters” who stopped for help in Brussels.

- Art Horning










German Flag

May 1940: German troops raise the Nazi swastika over the Palace of Justice in Brussels.

On 28 May 1940, the Belgian Army laid down arms after 18 days of fighting against a superior, well equipped and (more important) motivated enemy! That the Germans were motivated is not surprising, since 1933 they had been overwhelmed with a strong desire for revenge for Versailles. The fact that Chamberlain and Daladier had capitulated so readily at Munich and that England and France had only been able to stage a phony war when Poland was slain, confirmed the Nazi theories of a certain superiority. As for the French, they were divided by internal politics and the neutral states Holland and Belgium were not at all prepared for war a too long mobilization in extremely poor conditions had severely undermined the enthusiasm and the combativeness of the armies. Motivation was seldom to be found at that moment but would be restored again after the harsh truth of living under German occupation dawned. During these 18 days of war more than 12,000 Belgians had lost their lives (5,481 military and 6,552 civilians killed). Since May 26th, two days before the Belgian capitulation, the British Admiralty had given the signal to commence Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Forces, mainly via the port of Dunkirk and the Belgian beaches near La Panne. Though the majority of the BEF reached England safely, thousands of British soldiers were captured and long columns of prisoners of war (POW) marched in the direction of Germany guarded, for the most part, by a couple of old German ersatz soldiers on bikes, cycling along the column of weary footsloggers. After the Highland Division had made a last stand near the mouth of the Somme, a second wave of POW trekked through France and Belgium on the way to POW camps. Whereas the great majority of them continued the march, some of these men took the opportunity to jump behind a hedge or they hastily took cover in a field of wheat, went into hiding at remote farms or found help from the local population in France and Belgium. Months later, some of these evaders would try to get back to "Blighty" and became the first customers of the newly born lines specializing in escape work.


Brussels became the headquarters for German occupation troops in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Northern France.

It should be understood that, in the summer of 1940, the germs of resistance were only breeding in a very limited number of individuals. The majority of the population in the occupied countries was still stunned by the defeat of their larger Allies and the unbelievably fast advance of the German army. Further, whereas many Belgians and French still remembered the often barbaric and extremely brutal behavior of the terrifying Uhlans of 1914, this time the civilians were greatly surprised, discovering that the invaders seemed to be extremely polite, were readily and happily paying for luxuries and all sorts of good things they wanted to forward to their relatives in heavily rationed Germany. Indeed, these German visitors seemed to be full of respect for good order and discipline. In fact, at more than one place, the behavior of the French and even of our own Belgian soldiers, had been far more harsh. After this Blitz Campaign of May '40, and having seen the weakness of the Allied armies, the great majority (eighty percent!) of the French, Dutch and Belgian soldiers and civilians, were convinced that Germany had won a definite victory on the European continent.

La Libre Belgique

The Belgian Resistance resurrected "La Libre Belgique," first published during World War I.

But regardless of how unexpected the disaster might have been, some Belgians at least understood almost immediately that the struggle for freedom was on once again. They were the surviving patriots who, some 25 years earlier, had fought against the same aggressor either in the Belgian front line or as a civilian in occupied Belgium, by means of espionage or by distributing forbidden anti-German newspapers and tracts. Thus from the lst July of 1940 on, the famous newspaper La Libre Belgique was brought into circulation again, thanks to one of the veterans of Libre Belgique from the first war.

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Whereas this initial Underground activity was the work of solitary individuals, very soon small groups of patriotic friends came into existence and linked-up with the precursors. For example Zero was born, a Belgian network that would grow more and more from 1942 on, becoming in 1944 a gigantic organization with many contacts in France and Holland as well.

It is obvious that during the early period of the occupation, organizations specialized or specializing in escape did not yet exist. At that time, the Belgian Underground was rather busy with activities having to do with psychological warfare (tracts and Underground press) and intelligence (espionage).

Clandestine Printing Press

Clandestine newspapers and tracts fueled the spirit of Resistance across German-occupied Belgium.

Originally Zero had set as its main task the gathering of information of economic and political character. Military intelligence was being sought very soon as well. Further, in the spring of 1941, members of this movement became responsible for the direction and publication of La Libre Belgique. Of major importance was the fact that Zero had established its own line of couriers traveling across the French Belgian border and the ligne de marcation–between Occupied France and Vichy France–in order to deliver the harvest of information into good hands at Lyons and Montpellier. Patriots and evaders sometimes accompanied the couriers, hoping to reach Great Britain via Spain and Portugal.

Evaders and people on the run were also helped away by that other great espionage organization which was Luc, founded in November 1940 by the Belgian Georges Leclercq (in memory and as a sort of revenge for his son Lucien, who fell on the field of honor in May '40.)

In addition to the large organizations whose intelligence activities covered nearly the whole of Belgium and parts of France as well, a number of minor, local groups were playing a role.

Many more of these minor espionage réseaux (lines or networks) would come into existence from 1941-42 on, once agents, working under orders of the British or of the Belgian Government in Exile, were dropped by parachute on the continent and found well meaning patriots all over Belgium.

As these little groups generally didn't have wireless contact with London nor could they possibly organize their own courier/liaison, sooner or later they sought help from or became a subdivision of one of the larger organizations.

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At least 15 major organizations were involved in this sort of Underground activity in occupied Belgium. This fact might be a cause of surprise to the foreigner ignorant of the extreme sense of individualism which was and is still so typical amongst the Belgians. Foreign observers living in Belgium noticed with amazement how nearly every Belgian has at least one membership card in his pocket and it is often said with a laugh, that whenever two Belgians meet in the pub at the corner of the street -- an association and a new committee may be founded.

However, the fact that so many different Underground organizations came into being was mainly due to their different origins. Some of them were founded separately by academic intellectuals whereas another organization grouped all of the Belgian sympathizers of King Leopold into the Mouvement National Royaliste.

And while the Armée Sécréte was mainly composed of former officers and NCO's of the Belgian Armed Forces, other resistance organizations went back to the political parties existing in prewar Belgium. This was the case for the so called Front de l'Indépendance an organization which is of great interest -- one of its local branches having had a major role in the escape of many airmen.

The Front de l'Indépendance (or in short FL) was founded on 15 March, 1941, At the top of the FL was a Comité National composed of members of the traditional political parties. From the beginning, the FL united resistors of all tendencies, though the Communist element which however never became the majority-obtained more and more influence within the FL. The program of national unity against the occupier was the main reason why many individual patriots and also some existing minor Underground organizations -- joined the Front de l'Indépendance. Such was, for example, the case for Solidarité, an Underground organization which specialized in the material assistance to several ten thousands of illegals who lived in hiding amongst the population either because they were Jewish or had refused to sign a contract for work in the German Reich. Also escaped prisoners of war or Allied airmen on the run received clothing and food collected by Solidarité. In 1943, Solidarité became the very quartermaster of the entire Front de l'Indépendance, delivering (faked or real) ration tickets, falsified identity papers, clothing and medical aid for all friends in need.


He who passes will be shot!

Though not an armed resistance movement in essence, the Front de l'Indopendance had its Groupes d'Action FL who were active in light (un armed) sabotage, prepared and distributed tracts in German language in order to demoralize members of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) and printed and circulated Underground news bulletins and messages for the Belgian public. To give an idea of the importance of the FL ... its membership bulletin Front had in 1943 a circulation of about 50,000 copies per issue, which is no mean feat when one considers that paper had become very scarce and all distribution and printing had to be done in great secret, in spite of the presence of a strong and extremely dangerous German police force!

The FL would, however, have a very important number of armed fighters after the Armée Belge des Patriots (or the Partisan Armies) joined the Front de l'Indépendance. Small units of these Partisans (PA) had already come into existence in the summer of 1940, recovering weapons abandoned by the retreating armies. The nucleus was composed of former Communist volunteers of the war in Spain and the Partisans started with direct action well before the beginning of the German campaign against Soviet-Russia in June 1941 at the time when the Soviets and the Nazis were still great friends! It was obvious that the Partisans Armies had become important as a force of well trained and fanatical fighters against Fascism. They agreed to follow the general directives of the FL, guarding, however, their autonomy. But it must be said, though the command and the key-positions were in the hands of Communists, quite a number of subalterns and men-in-the-ranks of the Partisans were not at all members of the Communist party but had joined the PA (Partisans) just because they wanted to attack the aggressor with weapons and explosives.

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In 1943, the former Groupes d'Action FL had grown into a serious force of fighting men, well organized and fully active, hence, the Comète National of the FL decided that the time had come to give this branch a certain autonomy. From February 1944 on, the Groupes d'Action would be known under another name. They would become the Milices Patriotiques (MP). Thus the leaders of the Front de Front de l'Indépendance who belonged, as said, to the traditional political parties in Belgium now had at their disposal two big formations of armed fighters-the MP on the one hand and on the other, the Partisans under the leadership of Communists.

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For the foreign tourist visiting the Belgian capital, it is almost impossible to know whether he is walking on the territory of Brussels proper or is standing in a street of one of the border towns. In this densely populated and over-built area no difference between territories is to be seen. Only a patrolling police car bearing either the inscription POLICE DE BRUXELLES or POLICE DE SCHAARBEEK might give a clue. In fact, it was amongst the communal personnel and the corps of the Schaarbeek Police, that the best organized Underground fighting group of Belgium found its origins.

From the end of 1942 on, the Milices Patriotique de Schaarbeek became more and more important. In 1943 a first form of military organization was introduced by means of a subdivision into eight groups amongst which were three groupes de combat of 30 men each. In February 1943 the structure became that of a regiment, with a headquarters and eight battalions.

The strength of the Milices Patriotique de Schaarbeek was some 1,200 on 6 June 1944: by simple comparison with the total number of the whole Milices Patriotique in Belgium-22,000-one will understand immediately the relative importance of the Schaarbeek unit.

One of the most important men of the Schaarbeek MP was Charles Hoste, a born leader with a talent for organization.

Charles Hoste

Charles Hoste-a.k.a. Jacques-recruited safe house keepers and delivered airmen to their first safe harbor with service EVA.

Charles Hoste had been called up for the Army and participated in the Campaign of May '40. After 28 May he took care not to become a prisoner and returned home.

Within the Schaarbeek MP, a sort of 2nd Bureau composed of 12 members had come into existence at the initiative of Charles Hoste. This special staff had a major role in intelligence work, it would pass on all information of interest to the Allies to the Underground workers of Zero or to Luc-Marc as these réseaux employed wireless contact or couriers in order to forward messages to LONDON.

For the communication of information to Zero, the link was made via Portemine, a sub section of Zero under the command of Rene Roovers (chief clerk at the Schaerbeek town hall). Portemine had been founded at Schaarbeek for a special task-espionage and the gathering of intelligence-but as Portemine had no direct means to get in touch with london, Roovers had contacted big brother Zero thus becoming one of its sub services.

Prosper Spilliaert

Prosper Spilliaert's fish market served as the processing center in Brussels for Allied airmen entering into service EVA.

A very important branch of the Milices Patriotique de Schaarbeek was the sèrvice de faux–the team of honorable citizens, who became specialist-forgers producing almost perfect fakes of identity-cards, working cards, German permits, membership cards of Nazi organizations etc., etc. Most of these official documents being issued on special sorts of paper, it was no mean feat to obtain the ideal material or to process the paper in order to obtain the shade and the "feel" of the real stuff and a great number of German and communal seals had to be reproduced exactly as the originals. But a big asset were the members of the Underground at the administrative offices of the Schaarbeek town hall and their befriended colleagues in many other Belgian villages, who temporarily loaned the communal seal necessary in order to officialize Belgian identity cards. The forging-team was completed by two printers, a professional engraver and several photographers such as Prosper Spilliaert known under his code name "Maurice".

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As already explained, Underground organizations specializing in escape did not exist at the beginning but Zero or Luc, made up of a network of couriers to France, occasionally smuggled some (French) prisoner of war evader or an Allied escaper across the border.

Comète, originally known by the British as Postman, came into existence in the spring of 1941, when that magnificent and courageous young girl Dédée de Jongh opened the way to the British Consulate at Bilbao in Spain.

1st Lt Bill Grosvenor's forged identity card.

1st Lt Bill Grosvenor's forged identity card, above - provided by service EVA.

In June 1942, an agent working for Rene Roovers and the espionage group Portemine happened to find a bailed out British airman near his country-seat and brought the fellow to Brussels, passing him on to Comète for the long trek to freedom. Some months later, in 1943, two more airmen of the R.A.F. were picked up by members of Portemine. These first arrivals of escaping aircrew were the reason why the leaders of Portemine decided to lay the foundations of a lodging centre for escapers.

Alphonse Escrinier

Alphonse Escrinier-a.k.a. UZH 86

That summer of 1943, Charles Hoste offered the help of the Schaerbeek FL Groupe to Rene Roovers and his assistant, Alphonse Escrinier. Roovers, Escrinier and Hoste decided that the moment had come to call into existence a sub organization that would be called Eva (abbreviation of Evasion). The three founders called on the aid of about a dozen of their Underground friends, each of them being given a special task. Thus, for example, the home of Prosper Spilliaert would become the reception house for the arriving airmen-there they would be identified (i.e., interrogated in order to check if they were genuine Allied aircrew) and civilian clothing would eventually be distributed. Another resister, Rene Ponty, would be responsible for the later final transfer to members of the clandestine traveling organization which was Comète. As for the founders, for themselves they reserved the tasks as follows: Roovers would assume the role of big boss and his home would be the administrative seat of EVA; Escrinier would search for escaped airmen and pick them up; and Hoste would try to find safe-houses amongst the Schaerbeek patriots and would take care of security.

Rene Ponty

Rene Ponty -a.k.a. Bertrand-passed airmen from EVA to the evacuation line, Comète.

Thus at the end of July 1943, Eva was ready for the reception of Allied airmen on the run, just in time for the start of the big air offensive over Europe.

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The reader may wonder why the great majority of escapers helped by Eva were men whose aircraft had come down in Holland. The background of this is interesting from Holland, a Dutch réseau, originally known as Luctor et Emergo, the motto of the Dutch province of Zeeland, which, as so many parts of Western Holland and Flanders, is a country lying below sea level and only by men's struggle and by building dikes is the country kept "above water".

It later became Fiat Libertas (Latin: Freedom may come) and this line brought Allied airmen to Brussels in Belgium. This line was under the command of one Jan Vanhee and his main convoyeur to Brussels was a man called Karst Smit.

Karst Smit according to a report written by a Dutch resister after the war, Karst Smit had already brought into Belgium some 150 Dutch Jews, before he was posted as a member of the Maréchaussee (Constabulary) at Baarle Nassau, in March 1943. From that time on and until November '43, he brought to Brussels about thirty Dutch patriots and 43 allied airmen. Karst Smit states that he delivered the escapers to Madame Chabot and to Ernest Van Moorleghem at the address rue Jules Lejeune, 4, Ixelles (Brussels).

Karst Smit

Karst Smit paid for his service to the Allied cause with deportation to a concentration camp in Germany.

Ernest Van Moorleghem

Ernest Van Moorleghem

Amongst the names of his Dutch helpers in his report, he also cites the name of a Belgian girl living at Weelde, Overheide 10 (i.e. seen from Baarle Nassau, it was just the next village across the border). He says that she received all letters coming from Belgium and brought them across the border to Karst Smit at Baarle Nassau. Her name is Jeanne Willems.

Further he declares that it all came to an end after one of his main Dutch contacts had been arrested at Turnhout on 15 November 1943. This was the origin of a great series of arrests by the Geheime Feld Polizei (secret field police) of Abwehrstelle Antwerpen (counter intelligence service of Antwerp). Karst Smit lived under cover at the Hague from November 1943 to January 1944.

Prior to these arrests, an agreement for the taking over of the escapers had been concluded between Fiat Liberta and Erdry (leader, the Belgian Ernest Van Moorleghem), a sub section of the Belgian espionage organization Bravery. Bravery had been founded by Edouard Cleeren and a Belgian agent parachutist from England, Albert Stainier, arrested on March 10, 1942 and already shot by the firing squad April 2, 1942.

 Elise Chabot

Elise Chabot and daughter Elise "Lotty" Ambach passed Allied airmen from deep within Holland to EVA agents in Belgium.

 Elise Ambach

Elise "Lotty" Ambach, daughter of Elise Chabot

On arrival at Brussels, the escapers would be brought to the home of Mrs. Elise Chabot (of Dutch nationality) and her daughter Elise Ambach (of German nationality), both ferocious anti Nazis.

At the end of August 1943 however, it became certain that the German police in Belgium had found means to infiltrate the organization to whom Erdry originally passed his visiting travelers and the line was cut. Just then, however, Eva was ready for operations and got in touch with Karst Smit. From now on, Karst Smit would lead his charges to the ladies Chabot Ambach, via Van Moorleghem who would take them over for Eva. During the last days of August 1943, ten airmen were brought in via this route.

On 21 August 1943, Rene Roovers contacted Gaston Matthys who would regularly visit the "guest houses" to check whether anything was needed and if all was well. Furthermore, it would be Matthys who from now on would deliver the airmen to Ponty when the moment had come to deliver the parcels or the children to Cométe for the trip to Spain.

Between 22 September and 15 October 1943, seven airmen arrived, five of whom came from Fiat Libertas via Van Moorleghem. Between 16 October and 10 November, 15 new arrivals appeared, of whom 13 came via Fiat Libertas (amongst the last number on 4 November 1943 a party of three: Mellor Kevil Horning). Four further parcels would be handled.. . until there was a heavy blow on 15 November. Ernest Van Moorleghem, Elise Chabot and daughter Elise Ambach and Jeanne Willems were arrested by the Germans, and would be condemned and put on transport to Germany.

But the contact with Fiat Libertas was not lost. What is more, there was not direct liaison with the leaders of Cométe. The chief of Cométe at that moment Yvon Michiels alias "John Serment”–also foresaw an increasing number of escapers and Eva was asked to prepare for the future.

Gaston Matthys

Gaston Matthys-a.k.a. Guy, Roland, Carmen-attended to the ongoing welfare of house Allied airmen.

Consequently, Charles Hoste alias "Jacques" had to look for more safe houses and Gaston Matthys alone would not be able to visit all these lodgings. The Brussels safe houses were divided into sectors and Welfare Officers Gaston Matthys and Jean Portzenheim (member of Portemine) would each take a sector for their part with strict orders never to visit houses in other sectors.

Jean Portzenheim

Jean Portzenheim-a.ka. Hubert

Escrinier would be responsible for the picking up and the guiding of new arrivals, their identification, the making of photographs and preparing of fake identity cards. Hoste would take over the escapers from Escrinier and conduct them to a safe-house, the address of which Hoste will give only to either Matthys or Portzenheim, as the Welfare Officer will have to check if the hosts or their guests need extra ration cards or clothing or money and whether all goes well. Hoste is the ONLY PERSON who knows all the addresses where escapers are in hiding. As for the hosts, they have usually seen Hoste only once when he came to visit them in order to ask if they would and could lodge escapers and maybe a second time, when he delivered the parcels. But the hosts were well warned in advance, should they ever get the feeling that the task is too dangerous, or should difficulties arise, then they should tell the Welfare Officer that they would like to see Jacques once again and then Hoste will return eventually for a last visit in order to pick up the escapers and lead them elsewhere and indeed, this happened several times.

Sometimes minor difficulties arose, for example, when an airman made a big fuss about having to smoke only strong Belgian tobacco obviously some chaps thought that the Underground and their helpers were swamped with dollars, that finer brands of cigarettes could easily be bought ... that the Underground just was trying to keep all the funds for their own use. Then Jacques came to clear the situation, explaining that everything was done for the good cause and with very little financial help! But there were serious and dangerous situations as well. Thus, an emergency arose when an American airman of German origin was put in a safe house, very soon he declared that he had joined the US Air Force for the war against Japan, that now he had to bomb the Heimat (native country) of his family and that, therefore, he wanted to give himself up to the nearest German police post. Jacques was informed at once, visited the two highest ranking Allied Officers he knew to be hiding in Brussels. Both gentlemen declared they could not make a decision. A wireless message was sent to England, asking what to do. The answer came, "Immediately put the fellow upon the line to Spain, accompanied by an armed guide, who had orders to shoot him if, while underway, he ever dared approach a German soldier or policeman. There was a big sigh of relief when the guide returned home safely from Spain after having delivered his dangerous charge!

Rene Roovers

Rene Roovers-a.k.a. Monique-leader of Portemine and, with Alphonse Escrinier, founder of EVA.

From January 1944 on, Eva was in full swing and the number of arrivals increased considerably. But the danger also increased as the Geheime Feld Polizei (secret field police) and other German police services surely got wind of what was going on and from time to time several members of the Front de l'Indépendance as well as helpers of Eva or Cométe were tracked, or came under suspicion. Thus on 25 January, Roovers and Hoste were arrested. Rene Roovers is sent to the concentration camps in Germany (from which he'll however return after the end of the hostilities). Charles Hoste is released the same day for lack of evidence. As for Escrinier, after three years of tremendous Underground activity, staying in Belgium became very dangerous for him, on 15 April he got away, accompanying two airmen to Gibraltar. That same month, the escape organization registered a heavy setback.

In January 1944 Karst Smit came out from cover at The Hague. Cométe was in temporary difficulty because of the great number of arrests in 1943. Escapers were passed on to Antwerp and the new line which was started there under the control of Karst Smit. The line was to smuggle escapers via Brussels and Paris through Spain. Karst Smit was to assure their transport deep in the south. The line appeared to be safe as a message from lkndon stating that the first batch of five airmen had arrived safely. However, one of the leaders of the Antwerp group was in fact the ill famed traitor named Christiaan Lindeman, alias "King Kong" who was on the payroll of the local German Abwehrstelle (counter intelligence service). He delivered all of his escapers to the Germans and took note of the names of helpers and guides.

In March, 1944 Karst Smith and his comrades fell into the hands of the Sicherheitsdienst (security police) and were put into jail at the notorious prison of Fresnes (Paris). Karst Smith spent five months there before being evacuated as the Allies approached Paris. Buchenwald, Ellrich, and Dora Nordhausen and finally Ravensbruck became part of the concentration camp Calvary of Karst Smit. On May 5, 1945 he was liberated by the Russian troops in Mecklenburg.

About the middle of July 1944, the game was up and the mask was dropped as the Germans proceeded to make a great number of arrests.

In the meantime, Yvon Michiels, then leader of Cométe, was in great danger and escaped to Spain in May 1944. Matthys then became the new chief of Cométe Belgium.

After the invasion in Normandy, no more escapers were sent across the border to France. The directives were that secret camps had to be prepared in the thickly wooded parts of the Belgian Ardennes and the airmen should wait there for the arrival of the liberating armies.

Instructions were sent by Eva to all contacts in the country asking them not to forward any more escapers to Brussels but to direct the Allied airmen to the hiding places in the woods. About the middle of August, Matthys himself left the Belgian capital for the Ardennes. Only a fortnight later, Allied tanks drove into Belgium. But for the courageous men and women in Nazi concentration camps and prisons in the Reich, many days of further suffering would pass before they also would enjoy again the glory of freedom and peace.

Final count, according to the book keeping of Eva, 140 downed airmen had been assisted, as well as 10 escaped prisoners of war–of whom nine were French and one was Polish–plus one Dutch secret agent on the run from the Gestapo.

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