French spy and World War II hero dies aged 88
Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld was an aristocratic daredevil who led daring SOE sabotage missions behind Nazi lines in Occupied France. Now, his obituary has gone viral.
Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld, aristocrat, soldier and wartime saboteur, died earlier this year at the age of 88. His obituary in the Telegraph has now gone viral. Readers of the piece all agree: it is a miracle he lived even half so long.
In 1938, Rochefoucauld was taken on a school trip to meet Adolf Hitler. The German Fuhrer even patted the fifteen-year-old Robert on the cheek, in friendly greeting. He was not to know that, by the time of Rochefoucauld’s 21st birthday, six years later, the tame-looking teenager would have escaped a firing squad, killed dozens of Nazis and become one of the deadliest undercover agents in the whole of Occupied France.
Nazi Germany invaded France in May 1940. Rochefoucauld found himself an unhappy subject of the Nazi regime.
His loud protests soon attracted the attention of the Gestapo – the dreaded Nazi secret police. In 1942 Rochefoucauld fled to Britain, where he immediately joined up with the newly formed Special Operations Executive: the SOE.
In 1943, trained in parachuting and explosives, the young Rochefoucauld was dropped back into France on a sabotage mission. But things went bad. Captured by Nazis, he was tortured and condemned to death. As he was being driven to face the firing squad, he leapt from a moving truck, dodged bullets, stole a gestapo limousine, smashed through a roadblock and escaped, at last, in a British submarine.
On his next mission in 1944, Rochefoucauld blew up a huge weapons factory to cripple Nazi defences ahead of the D-Day landings. Captured for a second time, he considered suicide but instead faked an epileptic fit and killed the guard who came to check on him with his bare hands. Wearing the guard’s uniform, he shot his way out of prison and escaped to a safe house. He later left town dressed as a nun.
Rochefoucauld’s adventures were not over. As the Allies advanced in 1944, he destroyed German defences, fought alongside the resistance, was captured one more time, rescued, wounded by a mine, narrowly escaped being shot by a surprised Nazi, and ended up working for a French general after the fall of Berlin.
A life less ordinary
How are we to feel about such a life? On the one hand, it must have been full of hardship, loss, fear and pain. Rochefoucauld was tortured by Nazis. He faced death again and again. He saw his country ravaged by war.
And yet, even after Hitler was defeated, Rochefoucauld was not reluctant to keep on fighting. He served with the French special forces in two more wars even after Hitler had fallen, leading commando raids. His life was filled with adventure, daring, acts of heroism. There will be some, in today’s more peaceful world, who envy him.
- Would you swap lives with Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld?
- If your country was occupied by an evil empire, what would you do?
- Write a short philosophical definition of the word ‘hero’. Compare your definition with others in the class.
- Try to find and interview someone who still remembers the years during or immediately after the Second World War.
Some People Say...
“No one should ever kill if they can avoid it.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- This all happened a long time ago. Why is it coming up now?
- The last of the Second World War’s many heroes are dying. Rochefoucauld was one of only three surviving French SOE agents. Before too long, no one with such a record – with such memories – will remain.
- So – no one should miss the opportunity to talk to those people who do still remember those extraordinary years when the fate of the world hung in the balance. After all, the might have some lessons for today.
- Wars are still going on all over the world. A young man returning from the Second World War will have faced some of the same problems that haunt young people returning from places like Afghanistan today.
- Gone viral
- The obituary has spread like a virus through social media networks online. One typical comment: ‘pretty good for a Frenchie.’
- Fled to Britain
- Getting to Britain from Nazi-occupied France was not easy. Rochefoucauld travelled with two British airmen who had been shot down, crossing the Pyrenees into Spain and spending three months in a Spanish jail before finally reaching London.
- The SOE
- The Special Operations Executive was set up by Winston Churchill to ‘set Europe ablaze’. SOE agents, including several women, coordinated resistance groups, gathered intelligence and sabotaged German defences, to devastating effect.
- D-Day landings
- The Allied landings on Nazi occupied beaches in Normandy opened up a Western front against Hitler’s armies (already being driven back in Italy and Russia). D-Day remains the largest amphibious assault ever launched.
- Considered suicide
- Like most SOE agents, Rochefoucauld was carrying a lethal cyanide capsule concealed in the heel of his shoe.
- Shot by a surprised Nazi
- Rochefoucauld recalled how he and a German soldier walked into the same room in a deserted building at the same time. Both fired off several shots but, by a miracle, neither was hit and both lived to fight another day.