Cover image for The freedom line : the brave men and women who rescued Allied airmen from the Nazis during World War II
The freedom line : the brave men and women who rescued Allied airmen from the Nazis during World War II
Eisner, Peter.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : William Morrow, [2004]

Physical Description:
x, 340 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
D802.F8 E48 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



The romance of Casablanca ... the gripping narrative of Eye of the Needle ... both come together in this enthralling true story of World War II resistance fighters and the airmen they saved.

As war raged against Hitler's Germany, an increasing number of Allied fliers were shot down onmissions against Nazi targets in occupied Europe. Many fliers parachuted safely behind enemy lines only to find themselves stranded and hunted down by the Gestapo.

The Freedom Line traces the thrilling and true story of Robert Grimes, a twenty-year-old American B-17 pilot whose plane was shot down over Belgium on October 20, 1943. Wounded, disoriented and scared, he was rescued by operatives of the Comet Line, a group of tenacious young women and men from Belgium, France and Spain who joined forces to recover Allied aircrews and take them to safety. Brought back to health with their help, Grimes was pursued by bloodhounds, the Luftwaffe security police and the Gestapo. And on Christmas Eve 1943, he and a group of fellow Americans faced unexpected danger and tragedy on the border between France and Spain.

The road to safety was a treacherous journey by train, by bicycle and on foot that stretched hundreds of miles across occupied France to the Pyrenees Mountains at the Spanish border. Armed with guile and spirit, the selfless civilian fighters of the Comet Line had risked their lives to create this underground railroad, and by this time in the war, they had saved hundreds of Americans, British, Australians and other Allied airmen.

Led by an elegant young Belgian woman, D#65533;d#65533;e de Jongh, the group included Jean-Fran#65533;ois Nothomb, an army veteran who became the group's leader after D#65533;d#65533;e was captured; Micheline Dumont, code-named Lily, who wore bobby sox to appear as a teenage girl; and Florentino, the tough Basque guide who, when necessary, carried exhausted refugees on his back over the mountains to save them from the Nazis. All the while, the Gestapo and Luftwaffe police were on their trail. If caught, the airmen faced imprisonment, but their helpers would be tortured and killed.

Based on interviews with the survivors and in-depth archival research, The Freedom Line is the story of a group of friends who chose to act on their own out of a deep respect for liberty and human dignity. Theirs was a courage that presumed to take on a fearfully powerful foe with few defenses.

Author Notes

Peter Eisner is a deputy foreign editor at the Washington Post. He served as a foreign editor at Newsday from 1985 through 1989 and as the paper's Latin America correspondent from 1989 through 1994. He was also a reporter, editor and bureau chief with the Associated Press. Eisner won the InterAmerican Press Association Award in 1991 for his investigations of drug trafficking in the Americas. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Escape from the Nazis, a well-worked theme in film and fiction, has a new tale to surrender from real history. Washington Post editor Eisner found an intrepid and heroic one about a Belgian escape-and-evasion organization called the Comet Line. Many of its operatives were caught, but a few escaped; now in their eighties, they shared their reminiscences with Eisner, who dramatizes them in a present-tense account. The Comet Line rescued Allied pilots shot down over Belgium and smuggled them across France to Spain. An American B-17 pilot whom Eisner interviewed, Robert Grimes, supplies the example of how the Comet Line clandestinely spirited its charges past the Gestapo to the Pyrenees. After recounting the work's ensuing dramatic climax, Grimes' crossing of the mountains guided by local Basques, in which a fellow airman and a Comet Line operative died, Eisner ends his history with the exposure of, and justice meted to, a nefarious initiate of the Comet Line who was a Gestapo double agent. An inspiring World War II story filled with courage and steely nerves. --Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Chronicling a group of young resistance fighters from Spain, France and Belgium, Washington Post deputy foreign editor Eisner brings to life "the Comet Line" they formed to lead Allied troops caught in the Basque region of Spain to safety. Eisner, whose wife is Basque, has spent a great deal of time in the area, and that familiarity permeates this taut account of trust and bravery among civilians and military men. (On sale Apr. 6) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This is a highly readable, gripping, and inspirational account of a little-known aspect of resistance history: the story of a band of Basque, Belgian, and French freedom fighters who conducted a secret rescue operation to lead downed Allied airmen to safety along the French-Spanish border during the height of the war years. Award-winning investigative journalist Eisner, deputy foreign editor for the Washington Post, was first drawn to the dramatic narrative because of his own family ties to the Basque region. He has used both archival sources and personal interviews with survivors and operatives to re-create the heroism and courage of those involved in the so-called Comet Line. Using a complex network of personal contacts, safe houses, and support services and without counterinsurgency training, these young men and women rescued approximately 800 American, Canadian, and British airmen and took them to safety across the Pyrenees. Focusing the narrative on the experiences of 20-year-old American Lt. Robert Grimes, shot down over Belgium in October 1943, Eisner's tale is noteworthy for two reasons: it reveals the role played by women in these operations and yields insights into Basque tradition. In the words of one survivor, "It was a beautiful timeit was the proper fight." Highly recommended. Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The Freedom Line The Brave Men and Women Who Rescued Allied Airmen from the Nazis During World War II Chapter One Stopped at the Border Dédée. Urrugne, France. January 14, 1943. Freezing rain crackled on the tile roof of the farmhouse in the French-Basque village, just a few miles from the Spanish border. There were six of them: three disoriented British airmen; Dédée, the Belgian woman who led the Comet escape line; Florentino, their Basque guide; and Frantxia, who owned the little whitewashed homestead some yards from the dirt road. They had been waiting all afternoon for the weather to improve, but night descended; and the rain kept coming down. The wind rattled the windowpanes, and the gray fog was dissolving into night. Dédée had led the airmen on the express train down from Paris to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a Basque fishing village. They'd walked two hours to Frantxia's house in a heavy rainstorm. It had not stopped raining. The airmen were depending on Dédée as their lifeline to get back to England. She was small and slender, and very attractive. She marched with a determined gait as she coaxed them along the sodden paths, and she was also the only one of their guides who spoke English. Dédée looked at them with a penetrating, piercing gaze. You must be ready to move quickly at any time, without question. We will tell you when it is safe to go. Almost always, the escape plan was to follow the hilly goat trails that led through the mountains to the Bidassoa River, the dividing line between France and Spain, not four miles away. These were the old byways known only to the Basque shepherds and the smugglers who packed all forms of contraband over the Pyrenees back and forth across the border. The men coming across told them the Bidassoa River was a flooded torrent. It was too dangerous to cross the river, which meant that the only way to Spain involved a five-hour detour and a risky crossing on a low suspension bridge. That road would be illuminated and was watched by German and Spanish patrols. Dédée tried to hide her distress, but her furrowed brow was bathed in the flickering light. She'd decided to leave her father at another safe house back along the seacoast and now she feared for his life. The plan had been to bring him here and then cross over to Spain. But he was fifty-eight years old and she didn't think he'd be able to manage under these conditions. She'd kissed him good-bye, promising to come back and fetch him when the weather opened up. Dédée had misgivings and was feeling more responsibilities than ever. She had finally convinced her father that he could no longer stay in Paris, because the Nazis were on his trail; it was time for him to escape to England. There had been two close calls in the last year, and many of their friends were arrested. It was only a matter of time before the Gestapo would track him down. Reluctantly, he'd agreed to go with her on the next mission south to Spain, as they smuggled another group of airmen to safety. Florentino, a huge, chisel-faced sort from the mountains, glowered and said nothing, pacing the length of the floor. He knew the mountains; he warned Dédée against chancing the trip when it was raining and the river was high. When the relentless winter rain muddied the dirt paths, the passage was perilous even for him. They would have to crawl in the muck over rocks and boulders, hugging the paths that wound up the hills with barely enough room for a man to avoid sliding off the edge of a cliff. There might even be ice in the higher elevations. The rocks were slippery enough even without ice; legs would be broken, and he was the one who would end up carrying out the injured person on his back. Last year, one of the women guides did break her leg when she slipped and fell in weather not even as bad as this. Florentino carried her for a while, and then fetched a mule and took her to a safe house,where a doctor set the fracture. They were lucky that night to have been on the Spanish side: the Gestapo didn't cross the border on patrol, although the Spanish guards were almost as dangerous. There were sudden gusts and the raindrops slashed at the windows. The wind had blown the door open a while earlier and gave them a fright. Now, one of the dogs was barking. Donato is here , said one of Frantxia's three little boys, running in from the storm. Donato was a farmhand who once worked at this house and was now with a neighbor down the road. He came to the door, peering inside at Florentino and the pilots. Several months ago, Donato had come along with them as a guide over the mountains, but Dédée hadn't trusted him and never asked him along after that. Donato was speaking with Frantxia, in Euskera, the Basque language. Dédée didn't understand a word, but she saw greed in his smile and betrayal in his darting eyes. Perhaps he held a grudge because she'd chosen Florentino and not him as their guide. Donato left and the dog quieted down. In the dark, everything was uncertain. It was too risky to move the pilots back to town. They could speak neither French nor Euskera nor Spanish. Even disguised in local dress, they would be found out. They were trapped. I will stay here with them , she told Florentino. You can wait for us at Kattalin's house . Kattalin, the widow, lived in the village by the sea where Dédée and her group hid Allied airmen after guiding them south. She had a little house on a cobblestone street that dipped down toward the bay. It was just off the main highway, a few miles north of Spain ... The Freedom Line The Brave Men and Women Who Rescued Allied Airmen from the Nazis During World War II . Copyright © by Peter Eisner. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from The Freedom Line: The Brave Men and Women Who Rescued Allied Airmen from the Nazis During World War II by Peter Eisner All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Part 1 January 1943
1 Stopped at the Borderp. 3
2 Restoring the Linep. 28
Part 2 October 1943
3 The Americanp. 53
4 Crossing the Borderp. 82
5 Gaining Strengthp. 100
6 Intrigue and Mistp. 128
7 The Autonomy of the Linep. 140
Part 3 December 1943
8 By Train Across Francep. 155
9 The Life of a Traitorp. 173
10 Death and Survivalp. 190
11 Uncertainty in Spainp. 224
Part 4 January 1944
12 The Gestapo's Trapp. 247
13 Lily's Defiancep. 258
14 Tracking Jean Massonp. 269
15 A Matter of Timep. 278
16 Justice Restoredp. 292
Part 5 1945
17 Liberationp. 299
Epiloguep. 305
Sourcesp. 321
Notesp. 323
Bibliographyp. 333
Author's Notep. 337