Thursday, July 5, 2012

RIP: Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld, an Extraordinary Soldier

I heard of his story many years ago, and now I am reminded of him by his various obituaries.  Comte (Count) Robert Jean-Marie de La Rochefoucauld, aged 88, died last month at his home near Ouzouer-sur-Trézée in north central France, where he had been the mayor for some three decades in the late twentieth century.

He is to be remembered for his exploits as a member of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War II, and several extraordinary stories attach to his French aristocratic name.  

Comte Robert Jean-Marie de La Rochefoucauld (1923-2012). 
Few pictures seem to exist of him as a younger man, for good reason

Born into the famous French family, descended from the writer François de La Rochefoucauld (even bearing a slight resemblance) and with his mother the daughter of a duke, Robert was raised in the tony seventh arrondissement of Paris, in a house that stepped out to a view of the Eiffel Tower.  He was delicately treated as a member of the gilded youth of the time and educated in Switzerland and Austria, where as a youth of 15 he had the ironic distinction of encountering Adolf Hitler in 1938, during a bicycle outing of his classmates when they came across Hitler’s stopped motorcade near Berchtesgaden.  Hitler talked to all the youth and affectionately patted the cheek of La Rochefoucauld, an exhilarating experience to him, considering that Hitler was at the peak of his popularity throughout Europe as the statesman who had resurrected Germany and who was forging the ‘third way’ of the future.

La Rochefoucauld felt betrayed and enraged at the invasion and defeat of France by the Germans in the spring of 1940, and made little effort to conceal it.  His father had been made prisoner, and the family had to flee to an estate in the countryside east of Paris.  He was tipped off that a fellow countryman had denounced him to the Nazis (not at all unusual at the time, despite what popular history may portray) and by 1942, having made contact with trusted sources, he fled south, crossing the Pyrenees into Spain with two British airmen, where he was immediately interned.  He somehow convinced the Guardia Civil that he was English, and the British embassy in Madrid was able to spring him and transfer him to London.  His two airman friends convinced him to skip the Free French and work instead with the SOE, who were in need of agents whose French accents weren’t quite as “appalling” as the British operatives.  He was enthusiastic, but sought permission from Charles de Gaulle, who replied in typical Gaullist fashion, “Even allied with the Devil, it’s for La France.  Go ahead.”  He worked under Major Eric Piquet-Wicks in RF section (not in F section of Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, as has been written in some sources) and started training in the SOE pipeline of Arisaig, RAF Ringway, and Beaulieu, which included the various forms of tradecraft taught by experts, including convicted criminals sprung for that purpose.  Interestingly, this included parachute jumps from as low as 400 feet (current limits with modern parachute systems are no lower than 500 feet).  An additional interesting note: if an advanced student washed out of the course, they were transferred to Inverlair in Scotland, where they were housed quite nicely under gentle conditions of imprisonment for the purported remainder of the war, to safeguard secrets of the SOE.  (This later became the basis for the fictional late-1960s television series The Prisoner.  Inverlair was also known as Number 6 Special Workshop, for those who wish to make the connection.)

La Rochefoucauld did quite well in training, and was soon parachuted as part of a three-man team into France for his first missions, at the age of 19.  The team completed them successfully, but as he was waiting for an extract by the RAF, he was again denounced and arrested by the Gestapo.  He was quickly tried and sentenced to death, and transferred in the back of a truck to Auxerre for his execution, sitting on his coffin.  Once in the city, he seized an opportunity and leapt from the vehicle, dashing through a crowd with the German guards firing after him and in hot pursuit.  He soon rounded a corner and found himself in front of the local Wehrmacht HQ, and a German staff car, with Nazi flag attached, parked in front with a waiting driver strolling nearby.  He saw that the keys were in the ignition, so he jumped into the driver’s seat, started the car, and sped off through the town, driving past the prison where he was to be sent, and blowing through a roadblock in a hail of submachine gun fire.  He abandoned the vehicle down the road and went to ground, eventually working through the Resistance and returning to England by way of submarine.  Upon boarding, he was told that the sub was still on combat patrol, and he had to endure several more days at sea, including being depth-charged.  La Rochefoucauld later said of this naval experience that he was never so scared in his life.

He spent a scant three months enjoying life in England before being parachuted back into France in May 1944, with the mission of blowing up a huge German munitions factory near Bordeaux.  He hired on as a worker with the assistance of the maquis, and was able to smuggle explosives under his coveralls, in hollowed-out loaves of bread, and in his shoes over a period of several days.  On 20 May he linked and set the charges, climbed over a wall, and pedaled away.  The resulting explosion was catastrophic, and was heard over 20 miles away.

Several days later, while travelling on his extended exfiltration to return to England, he was again captured at a roadblock and transferred to the sixteenth-century Fort du Hâ, where the authorities weren’t buying his story of a missed romantic assignation.  Locked in his cell, he contemplated suicide with a cyanide tablet hidden in his shoe, but decided instead to go out (if that was to be) with a bang.  He faked an epileptic seizure, and when the guard entered his cell to check, he stunned him by hitting him in the head with a table leg, then he broke his neck as he had been trained: “Thank God for that pitilessly efficient training.”

He quickly changed into the German uniform and nonchalantly walked down the corridor to the German guard house.  He timed his entry so that he had time to walk through the room and pick up a pistol before the two guards began to suspect that he wasn’t one of them and react.  He shot the two guards, then walked out of the prison, through the abandoned town, and later linked up with an underground contact. 

The area was locked down by German patrols looking for him, but he slipped through dressed in the habit of a nun, provided by the sister of one of the maquis.  Stuck in the area because by then D-Day was occupying the attention of higher authorities, he joined a local band of fighters but was yet again captured.  Secured in a guardpost, he somehow managed, through sheer luck, to survive the place being shot to smithereens by his rescue party.

A telling comment from him was his observation of Bordeaux in early August 1944, after the allied landing.  Suddenly everybody was claiming to be part of the Resistance, dressed in old uniforms and some wearing holsters.  “It seemed the heroes were two a penny, now that the danger had passed.  The ostentation made me sick.”

His last action of the war was to paddle up the Gironde River at night near the Biscay coast, and beach near a German bunker.  He then walked up to the guard in the same manner as his earlier escape from the fortress.  Once he was close enough, he killed the guard and tossed a satchel charge into the bunker.  The loss of the bunker compromised the entire German line of defense, and they had to fall back to secondary positions.

Released from duty by the British after the war with the rank of Captain, he joined the French secret services and fought in French Indochina against the Viet Minh.  His methods were considered too unconventional, so he returned to France to dabble in business, taking him to Cameroon, Senegal and Venezuela.  He returned to duty in time for the Suez Crisis of 1956, training up a team and parachuting into the Sinai, but too late to see action.

La Rochefoucauld was later involved during the controversial trial in 1997 of Maurice Papon, a former member of the Vichy government in France during the war, who was involved in the deportation of some 1600 Jews from Bordeaux.  Papon testified that, in addition to being a cog in that process, he was also a member of the Resistance, supplying information and being a news courier.  La Rochefoucauld confirmed the claim of Papon, but Papon was nevertheless convicted and sentenced to ten years.  During his appeal, Papon fled the country to Switzerland, but was later found there, in possession of the item that allowed him to escape: La Rochefoucauld’s passport, given him by his unrepentant friend and former collaborator in the Resistance.  When police arrived to question him, his wife told them, “Don’t try to lock him up.  He escapes, you know.”

Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld was awarded the French Légion d’honneur (Chevalier), the Croix de Guerre, the Médaille de la Résistance, and the British Distinguished Service Order (DSO), second only to the Victoria Cross.  He wrote his memoirs in La Liberté, c’est mon plaisir.

Desperate times such as those of World War II, when fighting in a country occupied by a ruthless enemy, are unknown but to a few Americans today.  I have heard many supposedly worldly pontificators hold forth on what constitutes justifiable decisions and moral actions when in combat, but so many speak out of turn.  We are moral animals, to be sure, and as Mark Twain says, “Man is the only animal that can blush … or needs to.”  But our real understanding of the right comes not just from books or sermons, but from the examples of those who fight through the malignancy of evil times, against the odds of a powerful enemy and the people who succumb to a numbed complacency that believes nothing is worth fighting for.  Those pathetic creatures who so willingly surrender their liberty for a servile security will never really know, or care to know, the audacious lengths and risks undertaken by people such the Count, who often must fight on the terms of the enemy and beat them at their own game.  It is well to have right on our side, as a wise man has said, but it is useless unless we have might as well, together with the will to follow through to the necessary end. 

Robert de La Rochefoucauld led a full life and he is laid to his eternal rest, and we are all in debt to men such as he.

"It is better by noble boldness to run the risk of being subject to half the evils we anticipate than to remain in cowardly listlessness for fear of what might happen." --Herodotus

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