Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld, who has died aged 88, escaped from Occupied France to join the Special Operations Executive (SOE); parachuted back on sabotage missions, he twice faced execution, only to escape on both occasions, once dressed as a Nazi guard.
Other disguises also came in useful. On the run in occupied Bordeaux he dressed as a nun. In later life he helped Maurice Papon to flee to Switzerland.
Robert Jean-Marie de La Rochefoucauld was born in Paris on September 16 1923, one of 10 children of an aristocratic family which lived in old-fashioned splendour on Avenue de la Bourdonnais, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. An ancestor was François de La Rochefoucauld, famous for his maxims. Robert’s mother (née Wendel) was daughter of the Duke of Maillé. His father’s family retained a private carriage which was hitched on to trains during rail journeys.
Considered a sickly child, Robert was sent to a succession of private schools for the jeunesse dorée in Switzerland and Austria where, in 1938, he was taken on a school trip to Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s Alpine retreat. When Hitler’s convoy drew up, the Fuhrer approached and patted Robert on the cheek affectionately. It was, La Rochefoucauld later recalled, a dream come true for his 15 year-old self. Hitler was then the great statesman of Europe; young Robert and his schoolmates had attached swastikas to their bicycles in admiration.
La Rochefoucauld was back in France when the Nazis invaded. His father was taken prisoner; the rest of the family took refuge in the Chateau de Villeneuve, east of Paris. Furious at the Occupation, La Rochefoucauld protested long and loud until he was warned to keep quiet by a friendly postman, who had intercepted a letter denouncing the young man to the Nazis.
La Rochefoucauld made contact with the Resistance in the spring of 1942, keen to find a route to join Free French forces in England. He took the pseudonym René Lallier and travelled, via Vichy and Perpignan, to the Pyrenees, where he accompanied two British airmen over the Col de Perthuis into Spain. Immediately arrested, the three spent two months in jail before Major Eric Piquet-Wicks, head of recruiting French nationals for SOE, arrived from the British embassy in Madrid and arranged for the three to be released.
It was at the embassy that La Rochefoucauld was invited to join SOE. “The courage and skill of British agents is without equal,” he recalled the ambassador noting. “It is just that their French accents are appalling.”
After meeting de Gaulle to ask his permission to join British forces (“Do it,” came the reply. “Even allied to the Devil, it’s for La France.”) La Rochefoucauld began his training early in 1943 at RAF Ringway, near Manchester, where he learned to parachute and use small arms and explosives, as well as how to kill a man with the flat of his hand. Experienced safe-crackers were brought out of jail to show the recruits the art of breaking and entering. In June he was considered ready for his first mission.
Dropped into the Morvan with two British agents, including one radio operator, La Rochefoucauld teamed up with a Maquis group near Avallon led by a man who called himself The Pope. After destroying the electrical substation at Avallon, and blowing up railway tracks, La Rochefoucauld was awaiting exfiltration by the RAF when he was denounced and arrested. After a series of interrogations, he was condemned to death.
En route to his execution in Auxerre, La Rochefoucauld made a break, leaping from the back of the truck carrying him to his doom, and dodging the bullets fired by his two guards. Sprinting through the empty streets, he found himself in front of the Gestapo’s headquarters, where a chauffeur was pacing near a limousine bearing the swastika flag. Spotting the key in the ignition, La Rochefoucauld jumped in and roared off, following the Route Nationale past the prison he had left an hour earlier.
He smashed through a roadblock before dumping the car and circling back towards Auxerre on foot under cover of night. He sheltered with an epicier. From Auxerre, friends in the Resistance helped him on to a train for Paris, where he evaded German soldiers hunting him by curling up underneath the sink in the lavatory. “When we arrived in Paris I felt drunk with freedom,” he recalled.
Taking refuge with an aunt and uncle, both of whom had assumed he was dead, La Rochefoucauld spent a month rebuilding his strength before, in February 1944, recontacting SOE, which ordered him to the Calais coast, then on high alert for the expected Allied invasion, to be extracted by submarine. After a successful rendezvous off Berck, La Rochefoucauld enjoyed a convivial evening with the crew, only to find himself obliged to stay on-board for three days while the sub completed a patrol. Those days of confinement, he wrote, were among his “worst of the war”. When the vessel came under depth charge attack, La Rochefoucauld noted later, he had “never been so scared in my life”.
Back in London, however, he found a city celebrating a victory that many assumed was just around the corner. “We were invited to the best houses,” he recalled. “Girls fell into our arms.” By May he was ready to be parachuted back into France, charged with blowing up the vast munitions factory at Saint-Médard near Bordeaux ahead of D-Day.
The mission, code-named “Sun”, saw La Rochefoucauld infiltrate the factory dressed as one of the workers there. Over four days he smuggled in 40 kilos of explosives, concealed in hollowed-out loaves of bread and specially designed shoes. On Thursday May 20, La Rochefoucauld linked the charges and set timers before scaling a wall and pedalling to safety on a bicycle. The blast was heard for miles. After sending a message to London (the reply read simply: “Félicitations”) he enjoyed several good bottles with the local Resistance leader, waking the next day with a hangover.
Cycling to Bordeaux to meet a contact who was to arrange his return to England, however, he ran into a roadblock, taken prisoner, and imprisoned at the 16th-century Fort du Hâ. His explanations that he had been out after dark on a romantic assignation were not believed and, in his cell, La Rochefoucauld considered swallowing the cyanide pill concealed in the heel of his shoe.
Instead he faked an epileptic fit and, when the guard opened the door to his cell, hit him over the head with a table leg before breaking his neck. (“Thank Goodness for that pitilessly efficient training,” he noted). After putting on the German’s uniform, La Rochefoucauld walked into the guardroom and shot the two other German jailers. He then simply walked out of the fort, through the deserted town, and to the address of an underground contact.
Once there, however, he found that joining the rest of his escape line was impossible, as checks and patrols had been stepped up. Then the man harbouring him, whose sister was a nun, suggested that La Rochefoucauld slip into her habit. Thus dressed, he slowly walked through the city, eventually knocking on the door of Roger Landes, code-named Aristide, a bilingual Briton whom he hoped would take care of his return to England. In fact, Aristide’s orders were to hide La Rochefoucauld. D-Day was days away, and he was, by his own admission, “the last of their worries in London”.
He was consigned instead to a woodcutter in the Landes but, bored with the work, joined a local Resistance group. Arrested once more, he was taken to a guardpost only to find himself in a storm of machine-gun fire. It turned out to be coming from fellow resistants, who had launched an immediate operation to free him. He emerged unscathed. “I had what I needed more than anything else,” he said later. “Luck.”
By August 1944 the Germans had abandoned Bordeaux. In the city La Rochefoucauld found men in glorious French uniform in every café; on the streets, others wore holsters. “It seemed the heroes were two a penny, now that the danger had passed,” he noted. “The ostentation made me feel sick.”
He joined the Charly group of the Resistance, harassing the German lines. One night he opened the door of an apparently deserted building, only for a German soldier to open a door opposite at exactly the same moment. In the gloom, each man fired four or fire shots at the other, missed, and simply retreated through the doors they had come through. For La Rochefoucauld, the incident illustrated the sometimes farcical nature of war.
His final behind-the-lines assault came in April 1945, when he led an night raid to knock out a casemate near St-Vivien-du Médoc, on France’s western coast at the mouth of the Gironde. Paddling up the river, he approached the casemate, killed a guard there, and blew it up, forcing the Germans to pull back to their final defensive position on the sea at Verdon.
La Rochefoucauld was unable to witness the final victory. On April 19 1945 he was wounded in the knee after a mine explosion. In August, recovered, he travelled to Villeneuve to rejoin his family.
After a month’s leave, La Rochefoucauld turned occupier himself, as ADC to General Roger Noiret. In Berlin Marshal Zhukov, then commander of the Soviet zone of occupation, invited Noiret and La Rochefoucauld to a party. After mishearing La Rochefoucauld’s name as La Rochezhukov, the Soviet hero, known for his fondness for vodka, kissed La Rochefoucauld, Soviet style, full on the lips.
La Rochefoucauld was demobilised in 1946 in the rank of captain but immediately recruited into the French secret services. After training near Orleans, he volunteered for a tour of duty in Indo-China, leading commando raids against the Viet Minh. But his methods, which included launching ambushes dressed as a Viet, were frowned upon by senior officers, and after five months he returned to France. Life there bored him, and he travelled: first to Cameroon, for three years, then to Venezuela for two. He returned to rejoin French special forces in time for Suez. Parachuted into Sinai, the fighting ended before he became involved.
His awards included Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, Croix de Guerre, Médaille de la Résistance and the DCM. His memoirs were entitled La Liberté, c’est mon plaisir (2002).
From 1966 he served for three decades as mayor of Ouzouer-sur-Trézée in north-central France. In February 1997 he returned to Bordeaux for the trial of Maurice Papon, the former Vichy official accused of deporting 1,600 Jews from the city. In his defence, Papon claimed that he had been a Resistance go-between in 1944, a claim which La Rochefoucauld backed. “He [Papon] was one of those brave men who risked their lives to help the Resistance and the Allies,” he said.
Despite this, Papon was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years. Freed while his lawyers appealed, Papon fled to Switzerland, where he was found under an assumed name: Robert de La Rochefoucauld. The former special forces soldier had provided Papon with his passport. When detectives arrived to question La Rochefoucauld, his wife told them: “Don’t try to lock him up. He escapes, you know.”
Robert de La Rochefoucauld married Bernadette (née de Marcieu de Gontaut-Biron). She survives him, with three daughters. Their son Jean inherits the title.