Obituary: Count Robert de la Rochefoucauld

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.

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 — via redwolf.newsvine.com

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