Count Robert de Rochefoucauld - SOE - Independent Obituary

Discussion in 'SOE & OSS' started by Jedburgh22, Jun 21, 2012.

  1. Jedburgh22

    Jedburgh22 Very Senior Member

    Count Robert de la Rochefoucauld: Veteran of the SOE

    THURSDAY 21 JUNE 2012

    Descended from an ancient French noble family, Count Robert de la Rochefoucauld was one of the last surviving French agents of Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE), the secret organisation set up by Winston Churchill to aid anti-Nazi resistance fighters. There are now believed to be only two surviving French agents of the SOE, which Churchill ordered to "set Europe ablaze" through sabotage.
    While General Charles de Gaulle organised his Free French Forces (FFL) from his London base, some Frenchmen were hand-picked and trained by the SOE before being sent back to their occupied country to provide money, equipment and training to the local maquis. De la Rochefoucauld was recruited by Captain Eric Piquet-Wicks, who was in charge of the SOE's RF Section of French nationals based at 1 Dorset Square, London. They worked in parallel with, though not always in agreement with, the more famous F Section run by the legendary spymaster Maurice Buckmaster. The SOE would later be dubbed "the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare".
    De la Rochefoucauld received parachute, sabotage and commando training at secret locations in England and Scotland, including "silent killing" techniques taught by the renowned duo Fairbairn and Sykes – designers of the famous commando knife – at Arisaig, Inverness-shire, before being parachuted back into his homeland.
    Dropped into France twice by the RAF, captured twice by the Nazis and once sentenced to death by firing squad, he survived by using the unarmed combat skills taught to him in the Scottish Highlands. He killed one German guard by strangling him, donned his uniform and shot two more guards to escape. He attacked an electric power plant at Avallon in the Morvan mountain massif of Burgundy, but perhaps his greatest feat, in the spring of 1944, was blowing up France's biggest munitions factory, at Saint-Médard near Bordeaux, occupied by the Nazis and crucial to their war effort.
    Count Robert Jean-Marie de la Rochefoucauld was born in Paris in 1923 into one of France's oldest aristocratic families with records dating back to the 10th century. The family controlled most of what is now the Charente department, based in the magnificent Château de la Rochefoucauld on the river Tardoire, where a branch of the family still lives. On his maternal side, Robert was descended from the old de Wendel family. He was 16 when the Nazis stormed into France in May 1940.
    Young Robert was living underground in Paris when he was tipped off by a sympathetic post office worker that someone had denounced him to the Gestapo as a "dangerous terrorist". Deciding to join de Gaulle in London, he hooked up with the Resistance, who helped him cross the border into Spain in late 1942 along with two British RAF pilots shot down over France.
    The three were apprehended by Franco's police and interned for two months in the infamous Miranda de Ebro camp for foreign prisoners which had been used by Franco's forces as a concentration camp for Republicans during the Civil War. De la Rochefoucauld was lucky to have been with the British airmen: Britain's ambassador to Spain sprang all three of them and arranged an RAF flight to London.
    Once there, de la Rochefaucould met de Gaulle at the latter's headquarters in Carlton Gardens but, partly thanks to his two airmen friends, found himself recruited by the SOE. Churchill had asked his Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton, to set up the clandestine SOE, partly to resist any German invasion of Britain and partly to support resistance groups in Europe. When de la Rochefoucauld told de Gaulle that the British SOE wanted to recruit him, the latter reportedly replied: "Even allied with the devil, it's for France. Allez-y."
    Kept in the dark as to what his missions would be, De la Rochefoucauld was trained in unarmed combat at Arisaig, and later at RAF Ringway near Manchester (parachute training, including jumps from as low as 400 feet) and finally at the SOE's "finishing school" on Lord Montagu's estate around Beaulieu in the New Forest. Those who didn't quite cut it were sent to the "cooler," Inverlair Lodge in Scotland, where they were quarantined, albeit in comfort, so that they couldn't reveal SOE missions. (Inverlair later became the inspiration for the backdrop to the 1960s television series The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan.)
    After first parachuting into the Morvan region and destroying the Avallon plant, de la Rochefoucauld was caught by the Nazis and condemned to death, but escaped. He reached Calais, where a pro-Resistance fishing boat got him to a British submarine and back to England. After parachuting back again to the Bordeaux region, he led local maquis fighters in blowing up the sprawling Saint-Médard munitions plant 12 miles outside Bordeaux. The noise, at 7.30pm on 20 May 1944, was heard for tens of miles around and gave a major boost to the Resistance with D-Day in the air.
    De la Rochefoucauld then linked up with the famous résistant known as Aristide – real name Roger Landes, a bilingual British citizen (Independent obituary, 12 August 2008) – but was again arrested by the Gestapo and thrown into the Fort du Hâ in Bordeaux, a fortress built by Charles VII in the 16th century. He considered two options, one of them to take the cyanide"L-Tablet" hidden in the heel of his shoe, which would kill him within 15 seconds. But he took the second option, faked an epileptic fit, strangled his guard and shot dead two others before fleeing.
    After the war, de la Rochefoucauld trained French commandos in Indochina and for their assault on the Suez Canal in 1956. On retirement from the military, he set up a transport business in Senegal and ran a plantation in Venezuela to import bananas to Europe. He also served from 1966-96 as the popular mayor of Ouzouer-sur-Trézée in north-central France, where he died.
    Robert de la Rochefoucauld published his memoirs in 2002, titled La Liberté c'est mon plaisir. His awards included Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur, Croix de Guerre, Médaille de la Résistance and Britain's Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
    Count Robert de la Rochefoucauld is survived by his wife Bernadette (née de Marcieu de Gontaut-Biron), his son Count Jean de la Rochefoucauld and three daughters, Astrid, Constance and Hortense.
    Phil Davison
    Count Robert de la Rochefoucauld, wartime SOE agent: born Paris 16 September 1923; married Bernadette de Marcieu de Gontaut-Biron (one son, three daughters); died Ouzouer-sur-Trézée, France 8 May 2012

    Count Robert de la Rochefoucauld: Veteran of the SOE - Obituaries - News - The Independent
  2. Recce_Mitch

    Recce_Mitch Very Senior Member

    :poppy: Count Robert de Rochefoucauld. RIP :poppy:

  3. Smudger Jnr

    Smudger Jnr Our Man in Berlin

    :poppy: Count Robert de Rochefoucauld. R.I.P. :poppy:

  4. JJHH

    JJHH Member

    Hell of a man!

  5. Ron Goldstein

    Ron Goldstein WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    :poppy: Count Robert de Rochefoucauld. RIP :poppy:

    Proving, once again, that truth can be stranger than fiction.

    A life that truly deserves to be honoured !

  6. Garmoran

    Garmoran Junior Member

    Does anyone know when de Rochefoucauld was trained at Arisaig? I am trying to identify a group of about 9 French operatives who were trained at STS 23a at the end of March 1943. So far I only have one name: François Vallée. They were referred to in P/F assessment reports as being part of "Group X". Vallée was X7.

  7. Jedburgh22

    Jedburgh22 Very Senior Member

    Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld
    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.

    Count Robert de la Rochefoucauld
    5:48PM BST 29 Jun 2012
    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.
    Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld, born September 16 1923, died May 8 2012

    Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld - Telegraph

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