Despite the darkness of life in Occupied Europe, the flame of resistance to Nazi tyranny burned throughout the war years as patriots took up the cause of defiance and liberation. For each individual, the form of resistance was often determined by their own unique skills and resources.
In some cases, this meant actively sabotaging the German war effort through violence. Others resisted by quietly helping those were fighting against the common enemy of fascism. One of the best examples of the latter are the escape lines, which were used to rescue and return to duty those allied airmen who were shot down while flying missions over Germany, Holland, Belgium, and France.
The Escape Lines: An Introduction
There were several escape lines operating in western Europe during the war. The three most prominent were the Comet Line, the Pat O’ Leary Line, and – in the late days of the war – the Shelburne Route. Though each line operated somewhat differently, all of them depended on ordinary people to shelter, guide, and protect downed allied airmen as they made their way through occupied Europe and, hopefully, back home. The risks for all involved, of course, were immeasurable.
The Germans were aware of the existence of such escape lines and did their best to crush them through a complex network of spies, collaborators, and agents. The airmen who were caught by the security services were usually interned in a POW camp. The civilians who helped them were routinely tortured, imprisoned, and executed for aiding the enemy. Throughout the war, dozens of escape line helpers were shipped off to concentration camps in Germany and were never heard from again.
Despite these risks, the escape lines often collapsed, but were never completely wiped out. Even though the odds of being caught by the Gestapo were grimly high, the people involved in the escape lines were determined, energetic, and entirely devoted to their cause.
The Comet Line
The Comet Line is the focus of my current design efforts. It was a major escape line throughout the war and it is estimated to have guided over 750 allied airmen back home throughout the war years. Its helpers are estimated at over 3,000 ordinary Belgian, French, and Spanish civilians who fed, clothed, and sheltered the airmen as they traveled the 1,200 kilometer distance from Brussels to Spain in hopes of returning home and continuing the war against Germany.
The Comet Line originated in Brussels and was organized and led by a 24 year old Belgian woman named Andrée de Jongh, whose codename was “Dédée”. On countless exhausting journeys, she guided airmen from Brussels to Bayonne and then over the Pyrenees to Spain where they were repatriated through the efforts of MI9, a British intelligence organization that was responsible for escape and evasion throughout the war.
In order to avoid patrols and checkpoints, guides brought the airmen across raging rivers, over the mountains, and through the steep hilly terrain of the Basques countryside on the French-Spanish border. Injuries were not uncommon. People died.
The threat of capture was ever present. Even the smallest of mistakes was enough to give the game away. Commonwealth airmen rarely spoke French and it took only an innocent question to ferret out the truth. Silence in public and on the trains was required at all times. German agents were trained to approach suspected evaders in public and ask for the time in English in hopes of a slip-up.
Americans had to be taught never to switch fork and knife hands while eating nor to put their hands in their pockets while walking. Eating one’s own chocolate rations at a train station was enough to arouse attention and suspicion – almost no one in occupied Europe could find chocolate after the war began. Americans tended to be taller than Europeans, so merely being seen in public was a risk.
Helping an airman return back home was a costly endeavor. Money had to spent on feeding and housing them. Passports and travel documents needed to be forged. Food was always scarce. Station attendants would need to be bribed. The threat of betrayal was always present. Paranoia was a necessary safe guard.
English-speaking interrogators would need to ask a list of exhaustive questions to determine whether the downed airmen were genuine or if they were German agents posing as airmen in order to infiltrate the organization. The former were absorbed into the machinery of the escape line and moved through a maze of helpers until they reached home. The latter were taken for “a walk in the garden” and shot summarily by the Resistance.
I chose to do a game on The Comet Line because I genuinely admire the people who were involved with it. I also believe that there has not been enough public attention about their efforts. In the past fifteen years, most of the major figures of the Comet Line have passed on. This game is meant to help preserve their memory. It is also meant to give reassurance and inspiration to those who face dark situations now or in the future. As I read more on the subject, I take heart in the knowledge that no matter the bleakness of the odds and the risks, there will always be people who are willing to resist tyranny.
Comet is a solitaire card-driven game that focuses on the escape line organization and its major figures. The goal of the game is to get as many allied airmen home as possible from 1941 through to early 1944. Each turn, a certain number of allied airmen arrive on the map. The player must use resource points to purchase safehouses and expand their network of operations in Brussels, Paris, and Bayonne. Each area requires a controller who is responsible for their area of operations. Guides are needed to move airmen across the map. Success is determined by a chit pull from the resolution cup.
Each decision to grow the network brings in more people and more chances of infiltration by German security forces. Over time, infiltration chits are slowly added to the resolution cup. Drawing these chits can result in the elimination of guides or the police monitoring of operations in a certain area. Controllers may be arrested and safehouses eliminated through crackdowns. Traitors and collaborators may decimate resistance in a given area and the escape line may temporarily collapse as a result. MI9 may offer material support and assistance, which increases the capacity of the line as well as alter the success rate of getting allied airmen safely back home.
Major events also pose a challenge to the player. The German occupation of Vichy France in late 1942 makes moving around even harder. Allied bombing of rail transport can also hamper movement through certain areas. As the war drags on and life gets harder for people in occupied Europe, the challenges scale and the player must take bigger risks to get the airmen back home.
A Look Ahead
I’m hoping to finish the initial design work on COMET soon. At this point, I have more or less finished the rules and I am now working out the cards and their effects on the game. At this point, I’m not looking for playtesters just yet. The game appears to be around one hour and is of simple to moderate complexity. The rulebook is about 12 pages long with examples included.
So far, I’ve found the following books extremely helpful in shaping the game.
- Clutton-Brock, Oliver. RAF Evaders: The Comprehensive Story of Thousands of Escapers and Their Escape Lines, Western Europe, 1940-1945. Grub Street Publishing. 2009.
An exhaustive account of RAF evaders who managed to make it back home after avoiding capture by the the Germans.
- Eisner, Peter. The Freedom Line: The Brave Men and Women Who Rescued Allied Airmen from the Nazis during WW II. Perennial. 2004.
A well-told story of the major figures of the Comet Line and how it worked along with the story of Robert Grimes, a B-17 pilot shot down in 1943. With the aid of the Comet Line, Grimes escaped occupied Europe and returned to active duty.
- Neave, Airey. Saturday at MI9: A History of Underground Escape Lines in N.W.Europe in 1940-45. Coronet Books. 1985.
An excellent first-hand account of various escape lines throughout the war by Airey Neave. As a member of MI9 (code name “Saturday”), Neave had a unique perspective on escape and evasion after breaking out of Colditz POW camp in 1941 and returning to England.
- Neave, Airey. Little Cyclone. Biteback Publishing. 2012.
A more focused account on the early days of the Comet Line and an admiring look at Andree de Jongh, whom Neave had dubbed “Little Cyclone” for her relentless energy.