Robert de La Rochefoucauld belonged to one of the oldest families of the French nobility. He was a descendant of Francois de La Rochefoucauld, the author of a classic 17th-century book of maxims. For 30 years he was the mayor of Ouzouer-sur-Trezee, an idyllic canal town in the Loire Valley, and he used the aristocratic title of count.
But he is best remembered as a courageous and celebrated saboteur who fought for the honor of France in World War II as a secret agent with the British.
His exploits were legend, involving an eclectic and decidedly resourceful collection of tools in the service of sabotage and escape, including loaves of bread, a stolen limousine, the leg of a table, a bicycle and a nun’s habit, not to mention the more established accoutrements of espionage like parachutes, explosives and a submarine.
And perhaps befitting a man whose wartime adventures were accomplished out of the public eye, the news of his death, on May 8, in Ouzouer-sur-Trezee, emerged slowly, first announced by his family in the French newspaper Le Figaro and then reported late in June in the British press. He was 88.
Father taken prisoner
Robert Jean-Marie de La Rochefoucauld was born on Sept. 16, 1923, in Paris, one of 10 children in a family living in a fashionable area near the Eiffel Tower. He attended private schools in Switzerland and Austria, and, at age 15, he received a pat on the cheek from Hitler on a class visit to his Alpine retreat at Berchtesgaden, according to the British newspaper The Telegraph.
Two years later, Hitler’s army invaded France and de La Rochefoucauld’s father was taken prisoner. De La Rochefoucauld became a follower of Charles de Gaulle, who was assembling Free French forces in England, and one day a postal worker tipped him off to a letter he had seen denouncing him to the Gestapo.
With the help of the French resistance, he took a pseudonym and fled to Spain in 1942 with two downed British airmen who were also being sheltered by the underground. He hoped to go on to England and link up with de Gaulle’s movement.
The Spanish authorities interned the three men, but the British secured their freedom and were so impressed with de La Rochefoucauld’s resourcefulness that they asked him to join the Special Operations Executive, the clandestine unit known as the SOE, which Prime Minister Winston Churchill created in 1940 to, in his words, “set Europe ablaze” by working with resistance groups on the German-occupied Continent.
‘Accents are appalling’
De La Rochefoucauld was an asset to the British in another way. As their ambassador in Spain told him, according to The Telegraph: “The courage and skill of British agents is without equal. It is just that their French accents are appalling.”
The British flew de La Rochefoucauld to England to train him to jump out of airplanes, set off explosives and kill a man quickly using only his hands. They parachuted him into France in June 1943. There, he destroyed an electric substation and blew up railroad tracks at Avallon but was captured and condemned to death by the Nazis.
While being taken for execution, he jumped from the back of his captors’ truck, dodged bullets, then ran through nearby streets, winding up outside a German headquarters, where he spotted a limousine flying a swastika flag, its driver nearby, the keys in the ignition. He drove off in the car and then caught a train to Paris, hiding in one of its bathrooms.
“When we arrived in Paris, I felt drunk with freedom,” The Telegraph quoted him as saying.
The SOE later evacuated him to England by submarine, but in May 1944 he parachuted back into France. Dressed as a workman, he smuggled explosives into a huge German munitions plant near Bordeaux, hiding them in hollowed-out loaves of bread. He set the explosives off on May 20 and fled by bicycle, but was caught by the Germans once more.
In his cell he feigned an epileptic seizure, and when a guard opened the door de La Rochefoucauld hit him over the head with a table leg and then broke his neck. He took the guard’s uniform and pistol, shot two other guards, and escaped and contacted a French underground worker whose sister was a nun. He donned her habit and walked unobtrusively to the home of a more senior agent, who hid him.
The SOE was disbanded in 1946. As an officer in the postwar French military, de La Rochefoucauld trained French troops in the Indochina war and the Suez campaign, in which the French joined Britain and Israel against Egypt over control of the Suez Canal. He later pursued international business ventures.
De La Rochefoucauld was the mayor of Ouzouer-sur-Trezee from 1966 to 1996. His memoir, “La Liberte, C’est Mon Plaisir, 1940-1946,” was published in 2002.
In 1997 he testified on behalf of Maurice Papon, a former official with France’s wartime collaborationist Vichy government, who was being tried on charges of deporting French Jews who were sent to Nazi death camps. De La Rochefoucauld told the court that Papon had risked his life to help the resistance and the Allies.
Papon was convicted of complicity in Nazi crimes against humanity but fled to Switzerland while appealing. He was arrested at a Gstaad hotel, where he had registered as Robert Rochefoucauld. One of Papon’s lawyers said later that de La Rochefoucauld had given his passport to Papon.
Papon was returned to France and served less than three years of his sentence before being released. He died in 2007.
De La Rochefoucauld was a knight in the French Legion of Honor and a recipient of France’s Medal of Resistance, and he was decorated for bravery by the British. At his death he was believed to have been one of the last living Frenchmen of Churchill’s SOE.