Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Robert de La Rochefoucauld, Wartime Hero and Spy, Dies at 88

Via Northern Blogger

Robert de La Rochefoucauld belonged to one of the oldest families of the French nobility, whose members included François de La Rochefoucauld, the author of a classic 17th-century book of maxims. For 30 years he was the mayor of Ouzouer-sur-Trézée, 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 accouterments 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-Trézée, 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.

Robert Jean-Marie de La Rochefoucauld (pronounced ROASH-foo-coe) 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 in 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 Count de La Rochefoucauld’s father was taken prisoner. Count 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 that denounced him to the Gestapo.

With the help of the French resistance, Count de La Rochefoucauld 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 Count de La Rochefoucauld’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.

Count 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.”

More @ The New York Times


  1. “The courage and skill of British agents is without equal. It is just that their French accents are appalling.”