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Monique Hanotte, Savior of Allied Airmen, Dies at 101

todayMarch 4, 2022 5

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Monique Hanotte, who greeted border guards as friends as she smuggled about 140 Allied airmen out of German-occupied Belgium during World War II, died on Feb. 19 in Nivelles, Belgium. She was 101.

The death, at a hospital, was announced by the government of Nivelles, where Ms. Hanotte lived.

Ms. Hanotte was a particularly effective member of the Comet line, a Belgian Resistance operation during the war that gathered, sheltered, fed, disguised and liberated hundreds of Allied airmen who crashed in Belgium during missions to attack German forces.

Comet agents directed the airmen on a path that led to France, then across the country to the Pyrenees, beyond the mountain range into Spain, across Spain and finally to the British territory of Gibraltar, from which they were flown to England.

Ms. Hanotte was one of the last surviving Comet agents.

Her career in the civilian Resistance began in May 1940, the same month Germany invaded Belgium. Two British soldiers who had been sent to that theater of war arrived at the Hanotte family home begging for help in getting across the French border.

The men were in luck. Ms. Hanotte’s father, Clovis, was a patriotic World War I veteran who, with the help of his wife, Georgette, ran a customs agency as well as a hotel and restaurant facing the railway station in Rumes, a Belgian town bordering the northwest French town of Bachy. The family dressed the officers as coal merchants and escorted them into France on foot.

Soon thereafter, they had another visitor: an officer from MI9, the British war office charged with helping prisoners of war and downed airmen. Over coffee, he asked Ms. Hanotte’s parents if they would lend their daughter, then just 19, to the war effort.

He picked well. Ms. Hanotte had recently graduated from high school in Bachy, crossing the border daily for her commute. She knew the border guards personally, some as friends, and she knew the hidden paths that cut through the border’s hedgerows.

She became part of a group of women, most prominently Andrée de Jongh, who smuggled people and goods as part of the Belgian Resistance. Ms. Hanotte had been born Henriette, but now she had a code name: Monique. She would go by that name for the rest of her life.

Her family sheltered one or two soldiers at a time in their hotel. Monique’s cousins worked on forging official signatures on fake identification cards. Her mother cooked for the soldiers; provided them with props, like French or German magazine clippings; and ordered them to repeat their French aliases until their pronunciation was convincing.

Monique’s job was to escort the airmen, code-named “parcels.” Sometimes she simply handed them off to another agent across the border. Other missions called for her to guide them around Belgium, bicycling by the cover of night after curfew, which was tantamount to risking death. She learned how to lead her wards more than 100 miles, all the way to Paris.

By late 1942, “we were bursting at the seams,” Ms. Hanotte was quoted as saying in her obituary in The Times of London. “We didn’t know where to put them any more, and my mother said to me, ‘Hurry up.’ There were two of them who were leaving and two who were arriving.”

Border guards apprised Ms. Hanotte of the movements of German soldiers, and if she ran into any while trying to cross into France, she passed off her companions as new boyfriends.

Evading capture on French trains and buses proved more difficult.

Ms. Hanotte bought tickets for herself and the airmen at separate counters to avoid being associated with them. The airmen, at a distance, followed her movements — trailing her while walking and presenting their identity cards when she did so. She carried a loaf of bread to give her a cover story about shopping in the country.

On one occasion, a German soldier on their train tried to strike up a conversation with two disguised airmen. Ms. Hanotte, concealing her fear, repeatedly interjected and answered the soldier’s questions herself.

One day, in 1944, she arrived in Paris only to find that the people at her intended safe house were gone. She would later learn that a Belgian collaborator had denounced her group. Ms. Hanotte’s British handlers decided that it was time for her to escape, and she fled to Gibraltar, following the same route her many airmen had.

Martin Conway, a professor at the University of Oxford and an expert in wartime Belgian history, said in a phone interview that the Comet network was penetrated by double agents and Gestapo operatives, leading to mass arrests.

“She was unusual in getting lucky — being able to carry on working — and then being able to get out herself,” Professor Conway said.

Henriette Lucie Hanotte was born in Sépeaux, in north central France, on Aug. 10, 1920, and moved with her family to Rumes as a baby. Her mother, Georgette (Lauret) Hanotte, was half French.

Shortly after the war, Monique married Jules Thomé, a Belgian policeman who had been her fiancé since its outset.

After the war, she worked at a Belgian hotel owned by the son of a former Comet line comrade. She is survived by two children, Bernadette Thomé-Renard and Bernard Thomé; six grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren.

After she handed off her airmen to the next agent of the Comet line, Ms. Hanotte often never heard from them again.

That was the case with H.C. Johnson of Tennessee, a technical sergeant whose B-17 was destroyed on Nov. 5, 1943, by German fighter planes, depositing him and his silk parachute in a field of sugar beets around the Belgian city of Lokeren.

In the course of his 54 days on the run, Sergeant Johnson relied on Ms. Hanotte to guide him through the woods across the French border. They parted ways, and he reached Gibraltar safely.

After the war, Mr. Johnson managed movie theaters in Tennessee and had two children and three grandchildren. He died in 1984.

More than 70 years after Ms. Hanotte served as his guide, in 2015, Mr. Johnson’s sister, Sue Roark, and a niece, Anita Roark, traveled to Belgium for a celebration of Ms. Hanotte’s career in the Resistance.

Upon meeting, Ms. Hanotte and Sue Roark hugged. Then, while still close to this American stranger, Ms. Hanotte turned toward her to make eye contact. Ms. Hanotte’s smile vanished.

She had a question to ask: “Did he make it home?”

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