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A storm of a girl

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Charles Keen reviews Little Cyclone by Airey Neave

Little Cyclone by Airey Neave

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With the Second World War sliding from memory into history, now is a good moment to remind ourselves of the heroism of those non-combatants who served the Allied cause in occupied Europe. This book, first published in 1954, was written by Airey Neave, himself a war hero, and the new edition has a preface by Comtesse Brigitte d’Outremont, whose father was one of the faithful participants. Although born after the war, she keeps alive the spirit and traditions of the ‘Comet Line’, as the group was called.

The Comet Line was part of the Resistance movement, picking up escaped prisoners of war or airmen who had been shot down, then conducting them from Brussels to Paris and from Paris to the Spanish border. They were led and inspired by a girl in her twenties, Andrée de Jongh, whose nickname was ‘Le Petit Cyclone’. On the way, they were helped by friendly locals or other team members, who ran a constant risk of treachery and capture. At the Pyrenees they were conducted by a sturdy Basque, Florentino, who spoke no language but his own. He guided them in darkness and fog along goat tracks and over the often swollen River Bidassoa to San Sebastian, and on to the British consulate in Bilbao.

Harrowing scenes are described. Some are farcical, like the fat lady pulled across the Somme on an inflated tyre, or the American airman who couldn't ride a bike and cannoned into a pair of gendarmes. The drama tacks back and forth, confusingly at times, between dates and places and the lives of the many gallant supporters. But the book is hard to put down, unless to brush away a tear.

The Cyclone, aged 24, pioneered the escape route, crossing the Pyrenees on foot 24 times, until her arrest in 1943. She survived, but 156 colleagues perished at the hands of the enemy, or as a result of conditions in prison camps. Eight hundred Allied escapers from the Germans were escorted to Spain.

The book is chiefly about her strength, stamina, indomitable spirit. But her heroic followers are also accorded their due, from her schoolmaster father, killed by firing squad, to her number two, Baron Greindl, killed in captivity by a bomb. There are young adventurers, Michou, Tante Go, Franco, who share with Cyclone what Neave sees as the reckless courage of youth. And there are countless others.

They were united in their detestation of the Nazis, but they were also inspired by the Cyclone. On one occasion, the stalwart Greindl, an older man, feels they are failing and asks to retire. She responds, with cyclonic force, that, by saving airmen who had been shot down and returning them to base, they are giving heart to the men who must fly the next sortie.

Neave allows himself the heartfelt observation: ‘If only [she] could have known the full truth of what she said...They had done more than anything else to remove the hopelessness out of the sceptical words “Missing” or “Missing believed killed”.’

Neave, of course, was himself an escapee, the first to escape successfully from Colditz. He had made it across France to Spain and Gibraltar, but via Singen, not Brussels, so was not a client of the Comet Line. He ended the war an officer of MI9. The Cyclone survived arrest and gross maltreatment in prison, and later made a career as a nurse in Africa.

Neave tells an inspiring story of the personal dedication and bravery of these patriots in France and Belgium. He himself went on to live dangerously (he was a strong supporter of Margaret Thatcher). In line to become Northern Ireland Secretary in her 1979 government, he was murdered by the INLA. They guessed, no doubt, that he might have been a success and even put them out of their business of butchery. He was a bit cyclonic himself, perhaps. Stout-hearted, he admired gallantry in others, and was obviously fascinated by this storm of a girl. This book is a fitting memorial to her.

This story was from March 2016 issue. Subscribe Now