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The Comet Connection

The Comet Connection: Escape from Hitler's Europe

George Watt
Copyright Date: 1990
Pages: 184
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130jmgh
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  • Book Info
    The Comet Connection
    Book Description:

    In November 1943, George Watt, Flying Fortress gunner, parachuted out of his burning bomber and landed in a village in Nazi-occupied Belgium. The villagers risked their lives to hide him in the field, sneaking him past the German patrols, and bringing him safely to Brussels, where he connected with the Comet Line, the rescue arm of the Belgian resistance.

    While hiding in "sale houses" in Brussels, Watt had a ringside view of bold acts of defiance by Belgian patriots against the German occupation. From Brussels he traveled by rail past Gestapo control to Bordeaux, rode a bicycle through southern France, and was led by Basque guides along ancient smugglers' trails over the Pyrenees into Spain.

    Six years earlier. Watt had climbed those same Pyrenees to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War against General Franco. Watt's experience in that prelude to World War II adds insight and drama to the story of his escape from Fortress Luropa, his fears of capture heightened by his having been a Lincoln Brigader as well as a Jew.

    Forty years after the war Watt returned to Belgium to find that the "story of George Watt" had become a legend in the villages of Zele and Flamme, passed on to second and third generations. And in Brussels he heard with grief of the tragic fates of several of the underground comrades who had helped.

    Whether writing about the war in the skies or the "war within the war" (the resistance movement) or recalling the earlier fighting in Spain, Watt's style is uncompromising and direct. The writing is tilled with suspense and humor, illumined by love and appreciation for its participants. This gripping story of compassion and commitment can be enjoyed for its high adventure alone. For the young, and for students of history, it is also a valuable contribution to understanding the two great antifascist struggles of our century.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6484-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Maps and Figure
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. My Thanks
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Prologue
    (pp. 1-4)

    In 1984 my wife and I traveled to Belgium in an effort to tie up some loose ends in the story I was writing about my experience in Nazi-occupied Europe. My Belgian friends and I had been out of touch since the end of World War II, and it was a bittersweet reunion. As we came away my wife said, “This book has to be their story too! You owe it to them.”

    Four days later, in beautiful Nice, a thief broke into the trunk of our rented car and made off with my camera, my tape recorder, 200 shots...

  6. Part I. Walking Out

    • 1 Happy Birthday at Happy Valley
      (pp. 7-12)

      November 5, 1943, Knettishall, England.

      “Bramwell’s Crew! Grab your socks!”

      I was startled out of a deep sleep. My watch said six o’clock—but there’d been no alert the night before, and they usually woke us between one and two-thirty when we were scheduled to fly.

      Suddenly, I remembered that it was my thirtieth birthday—one day I did not want to fly.

      The night before, some of us had been sitting around the stove in our Quonset hut chewing the fat. “Tomorrow is my birthday,” I said. “I’ve always said if I live to thirty, I’ll live to a...

    • 2 Here Comes the Flak
      (pp. 13-20)

      It was one of those drab autumn days you find so often in England. The sky was gray. The 10/10ths layer of clouds above us had to be scaled before we could rendezvous with our group.

      When we finally came through the clouds, we saw hundreds of B-17s rattailing all over the sky. Gradually the formations began to take shape, but our own twenty-one-plane group was nowhere in sight. We were still chasing after the big “H” on the tail and looking for the signal flares identifying our 388th Bomb Group when we made a disturbing discovery. Our ball turret...

    • 3 No Regrets, No Regrets
      (pp. 21-23)

      It took me a few seconds to realize we were going down. So this was it! The dreaded moment for every flyer.

      I tried the interphone. It was dead. I turned around for my chest pack. It wasn’t there! When the ship nosed over, everything loose slid down to the waist.

      What a careless fool! Flying my usual position at the waist, I had always thought of every last detail in preparation for possible disaster. I wedged my chute in so it couldn’t shake loose. Next to my chute I had a pair of strong G.I. boots for “walking out.”...

    • 4 “Ici Belgique?”
      (pp. 24-30)

      I don’t think I can describe the feelings that raced over me as the prop wash whipped me through that free air. There was unbridled exhilaration, a wild joy at being alive. A moment earlier I’d been dead. Now I was born again. What a wonderful rebirth.

      I wondered why I was saved. How come my luck had held out through so many close calls? Suddenly my elation was replaced by concern for the rest of the crew. Where were the others? I looked for the ship. She was above me, still gliding down. I thought I had seen one...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • 5 The Ditch and the Outhouse
      (pp. 31-40)

      I lay down gasping for breath in a dry irrigation ditch surrounded by thick shrub. Thoroughly exhausted, I settled down to sweat things out till nightfall. And sweat I did, literally. It was only midaftemoon, and it felt like an unusually warm day for early November. I took off my heated suit, leaving only my summer coveralls over my long johns.

      The man with the cap, who had disappeared soon after showing me where to hide, returned. When he saw the electric suit lying beside me, he insisted on taking it off my hands and hiding it. He took the...

    • 6 Birthday Party in Hamme
      (pp. 41-48)

      As the door closed behind me, I felt at long last the relief of being inside a warm house. It seemed years since I had been indoors, and still longer since I had been in a home. Those four walls of that large Belgian kitchen were like the walls of a fortress, protecting me from the cold and the danger lurking outside.

      The young woman sat me down beside the huge Belgian stove that jutted out into the room. While I was thawing out, she was already dishing up potatoes and getting out beer for me. I could see now...

    • 7 The Policeman and the Parachute
      (pp. 49-55)

      We still had some three or four kilometers to go before arriving at Ducolumbeir’s house, but it didn’t matter. I was no longer cold. I was no longer afraid. Even my ankle didn’t bother me. We had left the cluster of houses in Sint-Anna, a hamlet in Hamme, where we had met the Germans. Now the road led across a long stretch of open fields. In the bright moonglow the countryside looked like a Renaissance landscape. It was beautiful. I was feeling great.

      In Hamme proper, tightly packed rows of attached houses lined both sides of the street. Again, the...

    • 8 On the Tram
      (pp. 56-66)

      I felt very strange in that early morning tram. Belgian trams were nothing like American streetcars. The seats were arranged in compartments, so you sat facing other passengers all the time. That’s what made me so uncomfortable. These were workingmen on their way to work. They carried their lunches in bags and boxes. In that dim pre-dawn light I imagined that some of them were staring at me with too much curiosity. What would it be like when the sun came up?

      Raymond was sitting in a compartment on the other side facing me. I could see the barely perceptible...

    • 9 The War within the War
      (pp. 67-75)

      From here on my escape was no longer a stab in the dark, a hitor-miss proposition. I no longer had any decisions to make. Everything was planned for me. The spontaneity was gone but not the hazards. The underground was well organized, but it was up against a well-oiled and ruthless machine. The greatest danger to me and my protectors came not from the Gestapo but from the homegrown Fascists known as the Black Brigades, who drew their cadres from the Vlaams Nationaal Verbond and the Walloon Rexists (monarchists) led by the Fascist Léon De Grelle. They were the eyes...

    • 10 All That Glitters
      (pp. 76-81)

      A man about forty years old, of medium height and with reddish hair, met me at the door of his second-floor apartment and asked me to remove my shoes. He handed me a pair of house slippers and walked me to the kitchen, where he put my shoes in a compartment of the huge Belgian stove. This was my introduction to the Thibaut family.

      Raoul Thibaut was an electrical engineer. His wife stayed home with their infant daughter. They had a keen interest in everything that was going on. They asked informed questions about America and about the lives of...

    • 11 I Meet the French Resistance
      (pp. 82-91)

      It was dark when the other escapee and I followed Madame De Bruyn aboard the train. The ride from Brussels to the French border took about an hour. We got off at Rumes and followed our guide to the end of the station platform. We stepped into a shadow behind a large structure. She told us to wait there while she disappeared into the blackness. She returned shortly with several men and women.

      I could hear muffled voices but could not see faces. Suddenly, through the whispers, I caught a high-pitched southern drawl.

      “Johnson!” I was about to yell but...

    • 12 The Gestapo Looks Me Over
      (pp. 92-99)

      The train was already crowded when we boarded, and there were no seats left. So the four of us and our guide took up positions in the corridors of two adjoining cars, making sure to keep at least one other companion within view.

      It was an overnight ride to Bordeaux, and I didn’t relish the prospect of standing up all the way, but that was the least of my worries. In Paris we had been told by our courier that the train would stop at a checkpoint just before we arrived in Bordeaux. There, Gestapo officers would board the train...

    • 13 Spain Again
      (pp. 100-108)

      Safe at last? Franco’s Fascist Spain could never be neutral for me—I was still in enemy territory.

      The embassy car drove through San Sebastian and headed south toward Madrid. I had not been in this part of Spain before, but every terraced mountain, every olive grove, every hairpin turn brought back memories. We climbed a long mountain road. A vast breathtaking panorama opened before us. My eyes followed the wide valley to a distant village nestling against the far slope, and suddenly I remembered a strikingly similar scene in that earlier Spain of 1938.

      It is dawn. Doran, Merriman,...

    • 14 Over and Out
      (pp. 109-114)

      Such memories stirred strong feelings in me, and my excitement mounted as the embassy car approached Madrid. Madrid had been the heart and soul of the Spanish Civil War. It was here that La Passionaria rallied the embattled Madrileños with the cry “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” It was here that the battle cry “¡No Pasaran!They Shall Not Pass!” was first shouted and became, for our generation, the “shot heard round the world.” Here was where the first international volunteers joined Spanish youth holding back the Franco Fascists with pistols and pre–World...

  7. Part II. Going Back

    • 15 Reunion in Hamme
      (pp. 117-129)

      May 1984—Belgium.

      “Did you know I carried a gun and was prepared to shoot you after we left Dr. Proost’s house?”

      “No.” I was startled.

      “I thought you might be a German spy.” Henri Malfait laughed, enjoying my astonished look.

      This was a shocker to me. I thought that when he had radioed the answers on the questionnaire back to London, my identity had been confirmed, else why would he have taken me to his parents’ home? Now Malfait told me he had not received a reply from London that evening and had to get me out of Dr....

    • 16 Homage to the Comet Line
      (pp. 130-143)

      In 1985 Margie and I returned to Belgium. This time we spent four weeks instead of four days and were able to tie up important loose ends.

      Finding the Thibauts, the couple with the baby, at whose house I had stayed for eight days, was one piece of unfinished business. In 1984 I had seen their pictures in Malfait’s copy of Colonel Remy’s bookRéseau Comète—Raoul and Marie holding baby Inès—but my joy had immediately turned to grief when Malfait told me that the symbol next to Raoul’s name meant he had died in a concentration camp. Then,...

  8. Epilogue. Debriefing
    (pp. 144-154)

    Lexington, Kentucky, October 1988.

    “The purpose of this roundtable is unfinished business. When we returned from missions like Münster and Schweinfurt, we were debriefed completely and in depth. Of course we got a tumbler of bourbon to loosen us up a little so we could talk about everything that happened on the plane—malfunctions, flak spottings, planes shot down, the number of parachutes that came out. But on our last mission we were not debriefed. In fact we were spread to the winds.”

    Dr. C. Leland Smith’s southern drawl was more pronounced than I remembered from forty-five years earlier, when...

  9. Index
    (pp. 155-158)