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.
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.”...MUCH MOREAs they say, You can't make this stuff up.