Escape Lines of World War II
There were many escape lines and networks (reseaux) formed in Europe during World War II, some large and many quite modest, some operating successfully for long periods and others cut tragically short. Most of the smaller reseaux joined the larger ones at some point and so attempting to name and categorise each one is both pointless and liable to do a disservice to the many brave individuals who took part in this dangerous work. I have included details here of just some of the better known Lines but intend to add much more - contributions from readers would also be appreciated.

This page updated 20 June 2023

The Pat O'Leary Line
The Pat O'Leary (or PAO) escape line is best known for bringing escaping and evading servicemen down from the north of France to Marseille and then over the Pyrenees to Spain - many hundreds of men were brought home in this way. The line began in late 1940 when groups of stranded soldiers from Dunkirk and St Valery were helped by French and Belgian civilians, firstly to evade capture, or more often recapture, by the occupying Germans, and then to travel to the relative safety of the southern zone non-occupée. Once in the ZNO most were interned by the French authorities in a series of camps before being transferred to Fort St Jean in Marseille in October 1940. In Marseille the servicemen formed their own organisation (with a lot of help from the many pro-British French) to get men across the mountains to Spain but by early 1941 these two groups (and many others) were working together, with regular guides and couriers being used to bring men south and across the Pyrenees to Spain in organised parties. Those failing to reach the safety of the British Consulate in Barcelona were arrested by the Spanish and held in various prisons, usually ending at the notorious concentration camp of Miranda del Ebro. Repatriation from Miranda could take months. The organisation also began to establish contact with the security services in London.
After the arrest of Ian Garrow in October 1941, the line was taken over by Pat O'Leary, the nom de guerre used by Belgian army doctor Albert-Marie Guerisse who had escaped to England in 1940, been trained by SIS and (accidently) returned to France in July 1941. By this time the original British organisors had left for England themselves and the line was mostly run by French nationals. Despite a wave of arrests in Paris and the north in December 1941 following the arrest of Harold Cole, one of its former couriers, the organisation expanded its activities in 1942 to include escapers who had made it to Switzerland being brought to join the organisation in Marseille. Leaving Mario Prassinos in charge during his absence, O'Leary used his own line to get to Gibraltar in February 1942 and meet with representatives from MI9. He was returned to France by HMS Tarana in April, along with the line's first radio operator. This particular man was soon replaced by former evader Alex Nitelet, flown in especially by Lysander that May. The summer of 1942 until early 1943 was the most active time for the Pat Line with mass escapes of internees from Fort de la Rivere organised in August and September, the rescue of Ian Garrow from Mauzac in December and the break-out of agents and evaders from Castres prison in February 1943. Nitelet's radio also enabled the organisation to arrange sea evacuations from southern French beaches to take men direct to Gibraltar. These evacuations ran from July until November 1942 when the German occupation southern France ended the line's naval operations.
In the winter of 1942/43, the Pat Line extended into Brittany but this coincided with the arrival of Gestapo agent Roger Leneveu. Leneveu infiltrated the group in Paris and directly was responsible for the arrest of Louis Nouveau, one of the line's founder members, at Tours in February along with Mme Suzanne Gerard and the evaders they were taking south. Further infiltration by enemy agents resulted in a series of arrests in Toulouse and Marseille in March (including O'Leary) that almost finished the line but Marie-Louise 'Françoise' Dissard continued to return evaders through Toulouse and across the Pyrenees until the end of the war.

For more details of the Pat O'Leary escape line, click here to connect to the Pat Line page on the Conscript Heroes site.

A Brief Story of the Comete Line (by Philippe Connart)
The Comete Line (so called in 1943) began with a small group of Belgian friends who were involved in clandestine activities. They formed a team called DDD after their names: De Bliqui, Deppé and De Jongh. In April 1941, Henri De Bliqui was arrested (and later shot in Berlin) together with others, following infiltration of their group by GFP agent Prosper Dezitter. Henri Bliqui's cousin Arnold Deppé had worked in Saint-Jean-de-Luz before the war and he established a route that would take evaders to the Spanish border (including the border crossings and accommodation in Paris and Bayonne). By June 1941, he had established the new route and contacted some smugglers who could help them get into Spain.
In July 1941, Arnold Deppé took Andrée De Jongh down to show her the new route, along with ten Belgian volunteers who wanted to get to the UK.  Nine of them crossed the Somme at Hamelet (the tenth man used a permit to join them in Paris with an official German car). They regrouped at Anglet, near Bayonne, where Elvire De Greef and her family had offered their help. A new line was born: the DD Line (standing for Deppé-De Jongh). Two of the Belgians abandoned there and returned to Belgium. Another one only gave some intelligence reports to the British Embassy in San Sebastian before coming back to France, where he was caught by the German border patrols and interned for two months in Biarritz. The other seven all reached London and went through the Royal Victoria Patriotic School. Unusually, this route mostly went through the German occupied territories, where German control was less effective than the Vichy police.
On the next journey Arnold Deppé was arrested (19 August 1941 in Lille) with four evading Belgian officers and two women who were to complete the team of guides: Victoria Parmentier and her mother. Deppé and De Jongh had been infiltrated by a Belgian Gestapo agent, Victor Demets. Andrée De Jongh escaped the rafle by taking a route that avoided Lille. Now alone, she made the courageous decision to take the remaining three evaders to the British Consulate in Bilbao. It would be a few months before she would be regarded as a genuine guide but the line now connected occupied Belgium with the British secret services. Some other networks also used this connection to send their reports to London, which gave De Jongh her first nickname of Post Woman. The gender was later changed and line became known as Ligne André.
Until February 1942, the baron William Halot financially sponsored and fed the line with the first 19 British evaders that his escape organization (aka Donald Duck) had collected and sheltered before departure to Spain. 
On 20 February 1942, Victor Demets was positively identified as a Gestapo agent. Demets had been working with Andrée De Jongh and her father Frédéric for six months and the latter, definitely blown, fled to Paris where he stayed at the hotel du Luxembourg. Within three weeks, he was tracked down by the Abwehr, who sent their Belgian agent Prosper Dezitter to him on three occasions in June 1942. At the same time, the new organization in Brussels was infiltrated again and the Michelli group was arrested after sending just one airman. Three uncoordinated bodies were involved in these arrests: GFP, Abwehr and SiPo. In Paris, Frédéric De Jongh moved to an isolated villa in Saint-Maur-des-Fossés in the Val de Marne.
Jean Greindl rebuilt the Brussels base and the line resumed their regular journeys with the line now operating efficiently. In Paris, contact was established with the French resistance and a transit centre created there.  
At end of November 1942, two German GFP-Luft agents, posing as American aircrew, triggered a series of arrests in Brussels. A mission was then parachuted from London to build a link between the Netherlands and Belgium. Andrée De Jongh herself was arrested in Urrugne by 15 January 1943, the same day the two parachuted agents, Henri Decat and André Dave, arrived. After a month, this new line (Antoine) was blown and Greindl arrested at the Swedish Canteen in Rue Ducale. The infiltration by a priest (and Abwehr agent) caused the arrest of most of the helpers.
The survivors were determined to continue helping the war effort. Antoine d'Ursel accepted responsibility for starting a new line, working with Fernando Radelet, with both men financing the journeys. The latter brought some fifty airmen to Paris, mostly from the Limburg collection point of Lambert Spanoghe in Hasselt, until his arrest on 8 June 1943. The original Paris group had been arrested the day before. These arrests followed infiltration of the group by a French Gestapo agent named Jacques Désoubrie, using the pseudonym Jean Masson. In France, Jean-François Nothomb was ordered to keep a low profile following the Urrugne arrests (only taking five evaders after DD's arrest before returning to business on 1 May 1943) and then opened another rail route from Paris to Bordeaux. Most of the evaders brought in by Radelet left the Comete circuit in Paris and were taken over by other lines like Oaktree and Bourgogne.
With the arrival of Jacques le Grelle in Paris by late June, the Paris collection point reached peak efficiency: three lodging cells and a logistical group were created. Nothomb reorganized the southern system into two more routes run by Pierre Elhorga's relations and a single centralized lodging place: the restaurant Larre in Sutar. Unfortunately, after having been shadowed at end of October, le Grelle was presented with an assistant in Paris called Henri Crampon (actually SiPo-SD agent Maurice Grapin who was working directly for Hans Kieffer at Avenue Foch). In Belgium, Father Van Oostayen linked numerous clandestine groups and used an outstanding regional guide (Lilly Dumont) to collect some 150 evaders. These men were sheltered by organizations like EVA, a sub branch of the former Porte Mine intelligence network. Jules Dricot ran a very effective group of guides to France. These six months of activity were the busiest time ever for Comete.
After a disastrous crossing of the Bidassoa at Endarlaza in December 1943 when Antoine d'Ursel and evader Jim Burch were drowned, Jacques Désoubrie again infiltrated the Comete route from Brussels to Paris, this time using the pseudonym of Pierre Poulain or Boulain. A new wave of arrests occurred in the New Year when the Gestapo and KdS launched simultaneous campaigns in Paris and Brussels. A few attempts were made to reunite the Belgian and French sectors but they faced intense German pressure. Desoubrie (who was working for Herman Genzel at the Rue de Saussaies) arrested Nothomb, le Grelle and his designated successor Henri Crampon in Paris, not realising that Crampon was an SD agent. Grapin then joined Desoubrie to make further arrests in Brussels.
In April 1944, Jean de Blommaert and Albert Ancia were parachuted in to help reopen Comete but then the decision was taken to abandon the route to Spain due to the planned destruction of the French railway network before D-Day. The agents were ordered by London to create holding camps in remote areas and collect rescued airmen until they could be liberated by the advancing Allied armies. Evaders were to be assembled in camps in the Belgian Ardennes and around Châteaudun in France. The idea was really a political decision to try and prevent the slaughter of helpers and lodgers, and even avoid Brussels and Paris where so many infiltrations had already occurred. Comete agents were later brought under the umbrella of the new Marathon network.
At liberation, the Comete network was disbanded and although the slaughter among the ranks of helpers was revealed, it has remained a well preserved secret for decades. Some 60% of those deported never returned from the concentration camps. The many successful German infiltrations were minimized and replaced by a widely accepted wave of rewards and epic post-war narrations of the work done. Unlike in 1929, the names of the agents won't be published anywhere. Another war was feared (the Cold War) and there was no opportunity to publish the lessons learned from this conflict, in case these networks might have to be used again.
The Comete history is the one of thousands of helpers. Certainly some individuals were leading the way and others were following but all their roles were vital to the efficient functioning of the whole network. Like a house of cards, no card is more important than any other, all have their role in the global system they form together. Even more astonishing is the fact that participants and their next of kin, still reunite to commemorate that epic adventure after more than sixty years.
For more information about Comete, click here to connect to the excellent Le Réseau Comète website.
The Bourgogne Escape Line
Georges Broussine was returned to France in February 1943 to establish the Bourgogne (or Burgundy) escape line. The organisation was based in Paris but had connections with other groups throughout the country. The first routes that Bourgogne used to take men across the Pyrenees to Spain were via Andorra but the extreme bad weather in the winter of 1943-44 forced a change to the lower mountains south of Perpignan. When that more obvious route became too dangerous in December 43, men were sent out through Pau. Broussine was also involved in other ventures, including sea evacuations from Brittany by fishing vessels.
Some of the first evaders helped by Bourgogne were men stranded by break up of the Pat Line by Roger Leneveu in March 1943, the demise of the MI9 Oaktree mission following the capture of Val Williams on 4 June 1943, the disruption to Comete following the arrests in Paris of Robert Ayle and Frederick De Jongh on 7 June, and the destruction of groupe Vaneau following the arrest of Elisabeth Barbier on 18 June 1943.
Bourgogne operated from early 1943 until the end of the war, and was one of the most successful of all the escape lines through France, with remarkably few losses of either helpers or evaders, but little had been been written about it - until now.
Click here for details of my 2017 book "They came from Burgundy" about the Bourgogne escape line.
MI9 Mission Oaktree, and the Francois-Shelburn Organisation
The Shelburn escape line of 1944 followed on from the Oaktree line of the previous year. The original plan for Oaktree was to organise evacuations by sea from northern Brittany beaches using RN Motor Gun Boats (MGB) from Dartmouth. The beach at Anse Cochat near Plouha had already been selected by the Navy and in March 1943, following an aborted landing attempt by Lysander, Val Williams (previously a Pat Line organiser of the Fort de la Rivere prison break and himself brought out by Seawolf on Operation Titania in September 1942) and French Canadian radio operator Ray Labrosse finally parachuted into France from a 161 Special Duties Halifax, landing near Rambouillet, south-west of Paris. While Labrosse tried to establish radio contact with London, Williams went to Brittany where he found dozens of evading airmen hidden by la Comtesse Roberta de Mauduit, wife of le comte Henry, in their 18th century Chateau du Bourblanc at Plourivo near Paimpol, and many others nearby. By the time Labrosse finally got through to London on a borrowed radio, and a replacement for his own was delivered to Bordeaux by Jean-Françoise Nothomb of Comete, the situation in Brittany was so desperate (several helpers, including the Scottish born American Betty de Mauduit, had been arrested) that Williams decided to send the evaders south to Spain. It was on one of these trips that Williams himself was arrested near Pau on 4 June. On hearing the news, Ray Labrosse joined a group of evaders organised by Georges Broussine (reseau Bourgogne) and escaped to Spain, Gibraltar and back to England.
When Labrosse reported to MI9 in London he convinced them that the idea of sea evacuations should not be abandoned, and volunteered to go back and try again. This time the organiser would be Lucien Dumais - himself an escaper from Dieppe, brought out via the Pat Line by Seawolf on Operation Rosalind in October 1942. The original Oaktree idea was maintained, the 15th Flotilla MGB would still take evaders from Anse Cochat but this time the line would be known as Shelburn and the beach (and the individual operations) were christened Bonaparte. Dumais and Labrosse were landed by Lysander near Selens, north-east of Paris and not far from Chauny, the night of 16-17 November. Labrosse set up his radio in Paris while Dumais went to Brittany to see the beach for himself and to meet Francois Le Cornec and the other local organisers.
The idea this time was for most of the evaders to be sheltered in Paris with the network of logeurs organised by Paul Campinchi (Francois) until just a few days before their planned evacuation. The date for the first Bonaparte operation was set for the night of 29/30 January 1944 and the BBC radio message of "Bonjour tout le monde à la maison d'Alphonse" was confirmation to those in France that Mike Marshall's MGB 503 would be leaving Dartmouth that night. The evacuation was a complete success with sixteen aircrew evaders being taken off. The second Bonaparte operation took place the night of 26-27 February taking seventeen aircrew.
Subsequent Bonaparte operations took place the nights of 16-17 March and 19-20 March, with the final Bonaparte 5 the night of 23-24 March. Shelburn evacuations were then suspended until the Crozier operations in July because of the build-up for the D-Day invasion but more than a hundred evaders, mostly American aircrew, were taken out on these operations. Apart from the first two airmen, arrested at Saint Brieuc station because they didn't have the newly required residence permits, once they were clear of Paris, not a single evader was lost.
Click here for an article about the Oaktree escape line.
Click here for an article about Shelburn based on the work of French historian Roger Huguen.
Click here for an article about Francois-Shelburn.
Click here for details of my 2019 book "Express Delivery" about the Francois-Shelburn line.
The Chauny Line
Click here for an article about Etienne Dromas and the Chauny escape line in Picardy.
Click here for an article about René Guittard and the Bordeaux-Loupiac organisation in the Pas-de-Calais.
Click here for an article about Jean-Claude Camors and the Suzanne-Renée.
Joe Balfe
Click here for an article about Joe Balfe and the organisation at Hornoy-le-Bourg (Somme) and Amiens.
The Marie-Claire escape line
Click here for an article about the men helped by the Marie-Claire organisation.
The SOE (DF) VAR Line
The SOE VAR Line was different from other escape lines in that it was intended to take agents in both directions, to and from the north Brittany coast by Royal Navy gunboats from Dartmouth in Devon, home of the 15 MGB Flotilla. It is included here because in addition to agents, several evading airmen were also brought back.
Click here for VAR Part 1 - October to December 1943 - the beach at Saint-Cast-le-Guildo.
Click here for VAR Part 2 - January to April 1944 - the beach at Beg an Fry.
Escape Routes from Denmark
Click here to go to the authorative Danish website 'Airwar over Denmark' which has details of 98 allied aircrew who were helped to evade from Denmark to Sweden. The first was 7 Sqn Stirling crewman Sgt Donald Smith (1196) shot down in April 1943 and the last two, Mosquito pilot P/O Raymond Harrington (3085) and his navigator F/Sgt Albert Winwood (3080) in May 1945. More downed aircrew were still sheltered in Denmark when the country was finally liberated later that month, including the crews from two Special Duties aircraft which crashed on 27 April.
Other aircrew were taken direct to England, as in the case of two USAAF aircraft which ditched off Denmark on 25 July 1943. The B-17 42-30206 Happy Daze came down 75 miles off Borkum. One man was lost with the aircraft but the nine surviving crewmen were picked up by the Danish fishing boat FN41 'Betty' and taken to Yarmouth. All ten men from B-17 42-5883 Wearie Willie were picked up from their dinghies by Martin Sorenson's boat FN73 'Ternen' which then headed towards England. Communication was established with an inquisitive Halifax which arranged for a launch to come out and collect the downed crew before Sorenson returned to Denmark.
In 1944 the crews of B-17s 42-37807 Roger's Raiders (ditched in May) and 42-97060 Calamity Jane II (ditched in August) also had Danish fishermen to thank for bringing them safely back to England.