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A Tribute to a
Belgian War Heroine
Marthe E. Janssen-Leyder

"After the War"

At some time following the liberation of Belgium, Marthe posed for a group photograph with her surviving colleagues in the 59th "Geheim Leger" - Flemish for "Secret Army". This was the local branch of the Independance Front, one of several Resistance Groups active in Belgium during World War Two. The original photograph was sent to Major C.V. Biddlecombe and his family by Marthe's husband, René Janssen, shortly after her death. I am extremely grateful to his daughters for providing me with a copy of this picture, a small version of which is reproduced below.

59th Group Geheim Leger, Eisden
A Group Photograph showing Marthe with her colleagues in the Secret Army.  N.B. Copyright for the original picture belongs to the late Major Biddlecombe's daughters
Click photo for larger picture, description and names

Several people in this group photograph have now been identified (please click on the photo for more information). However, if you recognise anybody in the group or if you know anything at all about the activities of any one of these brave people, I would be most interested to hear from you. Please send me an E-Mail or contact me via the Feedback Form on my Home Page. Incidentally, it is rather interesting to note that the gentleman standing on the extreme left of the photograph with his hand on his belt, [named as Giebert Dirkx], also appears in the photograph of the Commemorative Plaque on the day of its inauguration. [View this photo - there is a return link to this paragraph].

Jeanne, my Father and Marthe
Photo of my Dad with his sisters. Jeanne had come over from Columbus, Ohio, where she lived

In November 1946, Marthe came to England to visit her brother Marcel Leyder and his family. Her youngest sister, Jeanne, who lived in the United States of America, was also visiting. Marthe was particularly looking forward to a special reunion meeting with some of the men she had helped to save. This meeting was being organised by Major Biddlecombe, who had met my aunt while he was serving as Staff Officer of Passive Air Defence in Antwerp. Sadly, before this reunion could take place, Marthe was taken ill and collapsed whilst visiting his home in South Croydon on 10th November 1946 (Remembrance Sunday). She died on the way to hospital. The strain she had undergone during the war had taken its toll and was without doubt a contributing factor to her premature death at the age of forty-six.

Marthe a week before her death
Tante Marthe outside our old house at 73 Etchingham Park Road, Finchley

Marthe's funeral was held on Saturday, 16th November 1946, at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, Wellesley Road, Croydon. I was considered too young to go but it must have been an impressive affair as it was attended by representatives of the War Office, the Royal Air Force Association, the British Legion*, the Women's Voluntary Service*, the Belgian Air Force, the Belgian Army and the Belgian Embassy, as well as family and friends. The Mayor and Mayoress of Croydon were also present. On the coffin, draped with the Union Jack and the Belgian Flag, was a wreath of Flanders poppies from the Air Ministry together with a wreath of chrysanthemums from the War Office. [View full list of Floral Tributes - return link provided]
* Please note that Her Majesty the Queen awarded the honour of adding "Royal" to the title of the Women's Voluntary Service in 1966 and to the title of the British Legion in 1971.

The following week, an article appeared in the "Croydon Times" for the week ending 23rd November 1946 (see small picture below). This mentions that Marthe belonged to the "White Brigade". I believe that this resistance organisation operated mainly in the Antwerp area and, as Marthe's daughter and son-in-law lived in Antwerp at this time (and were also members' of the Resistance), it is most likely that she was also involved with the "Brigade Blanche", possibly acting as a liaison officer. Certainly, the White Brigade and the Secret Army were both actively involved in the decision to commemorate her memory with a plaque on the wall of her house in Eisden.

The "Croydon Times" of 23rd November 1946
[click picture to view large readable version]
Article published in the Croydon Times of 23rd November 1946

The newspaper article also reports that, after the war ended, Marthe, (together with many other resistance workers who had helped bomber crews escape or evade throughout Western Europe), was presented with certificates signed by Lord Tedder and by General Eisenhower as an acknowledgement of her services. She also received letters of thanks from the Soviet Government and from the Russian underground movement. Unfortunately, I do not have copies of these documents and my cousin, Yvonne, did not remember what had happened to them. I hope that they will be found one day.

N.B. The Author, Alan W. Cooper, states in the Epilogue to his book, "Free to Fight Again: RAF Escapes and Evasions 1940-1945" (William Kimber, London 1988) that: "On 24 July 1946 at the Palais des Sports, Brussels, some 14,000 citizens were presented with the Tedder and Eisenhower Certificates for helping British and United States escapers and evaders."

At this time, I was nearly five years old. I knew this lady as "Tante Marthe". Because our families had been separated by the war, I met her only this once. I remember a very warm loving person, full of life and so happy to see us. I looked forward to seeing Tante Marthe again but she never came... and everyone was so sad.


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Sunflower image at top of page courtesy of The Santalady
Links to Some of My Pages
Floral Tributes at Marthe's Funeral   |   Commemorative Plaque in her Honour
The "Croydon Times" Article of 23rd November 1946

Marthe's True Stories
How I Met Billie Boxton   |   The Escape of Four Russian Officers   |   A Traitor Amongst Us

We cherish, too, the Poppy Red, That grows on fields where valor led. A Belgian Newspaper Article of 31st October 1950

One of the Airmen Helped by Marthe
Douglas Jennings' Story

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We cherish, too, the Poppy Red, That grows on fields where valor led.

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