Robert de La Rochefoucauld
|Robert de La Rochefoucald
Comte de La Rochefoucald
|Mayor of Ouzouer-sur-Trézée|
|Succeeded by||Unknown, eventually Muriel Swynghedauw|
|Born||Robert Jean Marie de La Rochefoucauld
September 16, 1923
|Died||May 8, 2012
|Spouse(s)||Bernadette de Marcieu de Gontaut-Biron|
Special Operations Executive
Comte Robert Jean Marie de La Rochefoucauld (September 16, 1923 - May 8, 2012) was a member of the French Resistance and Special Operations Executive during World War II, as well as the mayor of Ouzouer-sur-Trézée - a canal town in the Loire Valley, France - from 1966 to 1996. Robert de La Rochefocauld is remembered for his courageous exploits during the war as a heroic spy and saboteur, involving an eclectic and resourceful collection of tools in the service of sabotage and escape as well as the common accouterments of espionage, such as parachutes, explosives, and a submarine. In honor of his work as for France and as a secret agent for the British during the war, he was awarded the orders Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, Croix de Guerre, Médaille de la Résistance and the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Robert de La Rochefoucauld was born on September 16, 1923, in Paris, one of 10 children in a family living in a fashionable area near the Eiffel Tower. A son of Olivier de La Rochefoucauld, his family was part of the French nobility and Robert de La Rochefoucald used the aristocratic title of count in his later life. He studied at private schools in Switzerland and Austria, and, at age 15, he received a pat on the cheek from Adolf Hitler on a class visit to his Alpine retreat at Berchtesgaden.
World War II
Robert de La Rochefoucauld was age 16 during the German invasion of France in May 1940. Count de La Rochefoucauld's father was taken prisoner, and Count de La Rochefoucald became a Gaullist (a follower of Charles de Gaulle, who was assembling Free French Forces in England. One day, a postal worker tipped him off to a letter he had seen that denounced him to the Gestapo. Thus, he was sent by his parents into hiding in Paris, where he decided at age 18 to join General de Gaulle.
With the help of the French Resistance, Count de La Rochefoucald 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 (under Francisco Franco) interned the three men in the prison camp Miranda de Ebro, but Count de La Rochefoucald pretended to be English and was delivered to the British Embassy during an organized evacuation The British, having secured the men's freedom, were so impressed with Count de La Rochefoucald's boldness and ingenuity that they asked him to join the Special Operations Executive, the clandestine unit known as the S.O.E., which Prime Minister Winston Churchill created in 1940 to "set Europe ablaze," as he put it, by working with resistance groups on the German-occupied Continent. Received by Charles de Gaulle in which he expressed his dilemma (choosing between the S.O.E. or the Free French Forces), he was encouraged to choose the SOE if even to ally with the devil, "If it is for France, then go ahead".
Work for the S.O.E.
The British flew Count de La Rochefoucald to London, England, where they trained him to jump out of airplanes, set off explosives and kill a man quickly using his hands. They parachuted him into France in June 1943. In France, 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. He ended up outside a German headquarters, where he spotted a limousine flying a swastika flag, its driver nearby and the keys in the ignition. He drove off in the car and then caught a train to Paris, hiding in one of its bathrooms. The Daily Telegraph quoted him as saying, "When we arrived in Paris, I felt drunk with freedom." The S.O.E. later evacuated him to England by submarine, which was subject to an under depth charge attack.
In May 1944, Count de La Rochefoucald parachuted back into France. Dressed as a workman, he smuggled explosives into a huge German munitions plant in Saint-Médard[disambiguation needed] (near Bordeaux). Over the course of the four day mission, code named "Sun," smuggled 40 kilos of explosives, concealed in hollowed-out loaves of bread and specially designed shoes, into the factory. He set off the explosives on May 20 and, after scaling a wall, fled on a bicycle. After sending a message to London (the reply read simply: “Félicitations”) he enjoyed several bottles with the local Resistance leader, waking the next day with a hangover. However, Robert de La Rochefoucald was soon imprisoned by the Germans once more in Fort du Hâ. In his cell, Robert de la Rochefoucald feigned an epileptic seizure, and when a guard opened the door Count de La Rochefoucald 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. Desperate to avoid recapture, he 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.
With the D-Day imminent, Rochefoucald didn't extract back to London, choosing instead to stay in France to help the Resistance overthrow the Germans. He carried out dozens of sabotage and espionage missions throughout the Normandy campaign as the Allies pushed the Germans back to Berlin. During one mission, he was captured by the Schutzstaffel, brought out to a field to be executed by firing squad, but before the Nazis could complete the execution, Robert de La Rochecouald's fellows in the Resistance occupied the Nazis machine guns, buying Robert time to leave safely. His final behind-the-lines assault came in April 1945, when he led a night raid to knock out a casemate near Saint-Vivien-de-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. Shortly afterwards, his knee was injured in a mine explosion, forcing him to take a month's leave. Count de La Rochefoucald made the trip to Berlin after V-E Day and got kissed on the mouth by Soviet Red Army officer Georgy Zhukov, who was then commander of the Soviet zone of occupation.
Work after the war
The S.O.E. was disbanded in 1946. As an officer in the postwar French military, Count Robert de La Rochefoucald trained French troops and conducted raids on the Viet Minh during the First Indochina War, as well as participating in the Suez Crisis, in which the French joined Britain and Israel against Egypt over control of the Suez Canal. He later pursued international business ventures, including running a banana company in Venezuela and living in Cameroon.
Mayor of Ouzouer-sur-Trézée
Count de La Rochefoucald was the mayor of Ouzouer-sur-Trézée for 30 years (from 1966 to 1996). His memoir, "La Liberté, C'est Mon Plaisir, 1940-1946" was published in 2002.
Maurice Papon trial
In 1997, Robert de La Rochefoucald testified on behalf of Maurice Papon, who was being tried on charges of deporting 1600 French Jews to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps while Mr. Papon was an official with Franch's wartime collaborationist Vichy government. Robert de La Rochefoucald told the court that Mr. Papon had risked his life to help the Resistance and the Allies. Mr. 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 Rochefoucald. One of Mr. Papon's lawyers said later that Count de La Rochefoucald had given his passport to Mr. Papon. Papon was returned to France and served less than three years of his sentence before being released. He died in 2007.
The news of Robert de La Rochefoucald's death in Ouzouer-sur-Trézée emerged on May 8, 2012, first announced by his family in the French newspaper Le Figaro and then reported late in June in the British press. He was 88 years old. At his death Robert de La Rochefoucald was believed to have been one of the last living Frenchman of Churchill's S.O.E.
Discrepancies in La Rochefoucauld's account
Neither Robert de la Rochefoucauld nor his missions to France appear in the official history SOE in France, first published in 1966. Considering the extraordinary nature of his wartime career, it’s equally surprising that other reputable SOE histories and memoirs of former SOE agents also fail to mention him; and his name has yet to be traced in the SOE archives, held at the The National Archives (United Kingdom). Moreover, a number of incidents described in La Rochefoucauld’s autobiography are contradicted by other evidence. For example, although he claims to have sabotaged the explosives works at St-Médard-en-Jalles in May 1944, this target had already been successfully attacked by RAF Bomber Command three weeks earlier, on the night of 29/30 April. A report in The Times on 1 May described the raid’s "unusually spectacular results", and how "colossal" explosions were heard half an hour after the bombing attack had finished. Evaluating the results shortly afterwards, an RAF photo-reconnaissance report confirmed that the target had been "heavily damaged": six large warehouse buildings had been wiped out; at least half of the smaller buildings were damaged or destroyed; the railway line into the plant had been "severed by direct hits at many points"; and three 90-foot craters were visible from the air. La Rochefoucauld also claims he was exfiltrated by submarine off the coast of Berck near Calais at the end of February 1944, yet according to official sources SOE conducted no sea operations east of Brittany during this period. On the subject of his recruitment, La Rochefoucauld mentions that Eric Piquet-Wicks - deputy for SOE’s RF Section at the time - had spotted his potential in Spain in late 1942, but Piquet-Wicks did not arrive in Spain until the spring of 1944, when he took up a more junior role in Madrid after recovering from tuberculosis. A file on La Rochefoucauld held at the Service historique de la défense archives at Vincennes raises a further question mark: in an application to the French Forces of the Interior for recognition of his resistance activity, his record of service indicates that he did not travel to Spain or England or join SOE or any other secret service.
Robert de La Rouchefoucald belonged to one of the oldest families of the French nobility, whose members included François de La Rochefoucald, the author of a classic 17th-century book of maxims. De La Rochefoucauld married Bernadette de Marcieu de Gontaut-Biron; they had one son named Jean, and three daughters (Astrid, Constance, and Hortense).
- Robert de La Rochefoucauld (2002). La Liberté, C'est Mon Plaisir, 1940-1946 (Freedom is my pleasure). Perrin. ISBN 9782262019846.
- "Robert de La Rochefoucauld, 88 - French aristocrat fought against Nazis as saboteur in World War II". The Boston Globe. July 11, 2012.
- "Rollicking tale of French blue-blood agent". The Age. July 7, 2012.
- "Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld". The Daily Telegraph (London: Telegraph Media Group). June 29, 2012. ISSN 0307-1235. OCLC 49632006. Retrieved July 4, 2012.
- Hubert de Beaufort (2001). "Robert de La Rochefoucauld: agent du SOE et Résistant parachuté à Bordeaux (agent of SOE and Resistance parachute to Bordeaux)". Le Libre blanc, Histoire de l'occupation de Bordeaux (History of the occupation of Bordeaux. Paris.
- Foot, M.R.D.,SOE in France, HMSO, 1966. Revised editions were released by HMSO in 1968, and Routledge in 2004.
- RAF History - Bomber Command 60th Anniversary: Campaign Diary, April 1944
- 'R.A.F. Night Assault',The Times, London, 1 May 1944, p.4.
- 'Interpretation Report K.2100', AIR 51/218, National Archives, Kew
- Robert de La Rochefoucauld,La Liberté, C'est mon plaisir, Perrin, 2002, pp.70-71.
- Richards, Brooks, Secret Flotillas: Vol. I: Clandestine Sea Operations to Brittany, Appendix A, Routledge, 2004. ISBN 0714653160.
- Eric Piquet-Wicks Personal File, HS 9/1587/6, National Archives, Kew.
- File ref. SHD GR 16 P 168168, Service historique de la défense, Vincennes, France.