It was April 1945 and the German SS had just captured French agent Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld…
The Gallic saboteur was coming off another mission of derring-do when the hated German occupiers collared him.
Monsieur Rochefoucauld was a man used to seeing off long odds. But Lady Fortune turns a cold cheek to every man eventually.
At least he would die a proud man.
He had sold himself dearly — he left a path of lifeless Germans behind him — and covered his name in glory.
Nazi justice would be swift… and it would be severe.
German soldiers seized the condemned by the scruff and hauled him into a nearby field.
They fell in, line abreast… readied their weapons… and awaited the order…
A belch of machine gun fire tore the early spring air. Then silence.
But something was wrong. Cosmically wrong. The Frenchman was… alive. No, alive doesn’t describe it. He was unscratched.
What happened? How could they miss from point blank range?
The Frenchman was now living a moment of pure adrenaline, a moment beyond description. Then suddenly his disbelieving eyes solved the mystery.
The bullets weren’t for him.
Rochefoucauld’s French Resistance confreres saw the proceedings and opened up on the SS men just in time. The timing was a thing of Hollywood — only more so.
Survival trumps justice, so the Germans wheeled to their immediate source of anxiety. The Germans would deal with their prisoner later. Streams of molten 7.92 millimeter arced their way downrange.
That’s when Rochefoucauld seized his chance…
His heart pounding to ¾ time, the galloping frog dashed out of sight — unexecuted, unbroken and unbowed.
Rochefoucauld had cheated death… again…
Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld was born in 1923 to a family of Paris aristocrats. They could trace their roots to the time of Charlemagne. One of his ancestors, Francois de La Rochefoucauld, often drank with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin while they were in France.
Before the war Robert attended Europe’s most elite schools. High society was his natural habitat. The young Count knew this one and that one, went to all the parties — as one would expect from a young aristo. He had life by its tail.
And believe it or no, the young man actually met Herr Hitler in 1938. The German chancellor even pinched the young 15-year old’s cheek. But that was before Hitler was Hitler. And before the Germans invaded France two years later.
The Germans settled into the rough business of occupation after their lightning victory in June 1940.
Rochefoucauld’s father was dragged off. Other relatives weren’t as fortunate. But young Robert managed to slip through the dragnet.
He tried to piece a resistance group. But he soon learned that his efforts attracted the Gestapo’s worried interest. It was time to quit Paris. He’d take his chances in the French countryside…
Rochefoucauld shed his aristocratic title, assumed a false name and went as a commoner. It was life at the other end.
He soon fell in with two downed British pilots who needed out of occupied France. The hatchling guerilla volunteered his assistance. So the three struck out for Spain, the Germans hot behind them.
They somehow made it through the German patrols. But when the unlikely trio crossed into Spain, their luck drained. They were immediately arrested. Spain was technically neutral — but still fascist. And international law demanded neutral countries intern foreign combatants.
The war was over for the young aristocrat… before it even started.
Rochefoucauld spent two impossible months holed up in Spain’s notorious Miranda de Ebro prison. It was known during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s for its ghastly conditions. It was here, here in this pit, that the young Frenchman nursed his appetite for revenge.
What those Nazis did to his country… what they did to his family…
Then one happy day a fellow from the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) — also known by the sterlingly British “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” — showed up to spring the pilots. But when the airmen told the SOE officer about their comrade who saw them out of France, the Brit also worked a get-out-of-jail card for Rochefoucauld.
The Frenchman was off to England, where he’d soon acquire the black arts of ungentlemanly warfare…
Rochefoucauld was immediately assigned to SOE’s espionage section. The Count was schooled in skydiving, sabotage, safecracking, weapons tactics and self-defense. By June 1943 he was cutting wild capers in his native France… and visiting unshirted hell on its Nazi occupiers.
Rochefoucauld took up with the local Resistance and went straight to work. He cut his teeth dynamiting train tracks and an industrial power station.
But cruel fate moved against him…
A collaborator turned coat and delivered Rochefoucauld to the Nazis. He was badly used by the Gestapo, and sentenced to death as a spy… his days of sabotage over.
The inevitable day came. His captors bound his hands and packed him onto a truck. As the truck sped towards his personal Golgotha, Rochefoucauld considered his options.
Options? The fellow was flanked by guards with submachine guns. And his hands were bound.
An absurd idea suddenly jumped into consciousness. What if I…
He’d only have one chance at it.
The bound captive suddenly bolted to his feet and dashed for the stern of the speeding truck. The fall should have broken an ankle, a leg… or cracked his skull. But nothing. The guards weren’t about to let him go so easily, of course…
Bullets screeched by the former prisoner as he dashed for the tree line, his hands still bound. By some miracle he escaped through the hail.
If you’re starting to think this was a man with unique talents for luck, you might be right…
Rochefoucauld proceeded to skirt enemy patrols, and snaked his way back to the city. Darting through the streets he suddenly found himself in front of the local Gestapo headquarters — the same Gestapo that was trying to kill him.
Tugging on fate’s cape, this daredevil walked right up and stole a Nazi limousine parked in front. That’s correct. He stole it.
The Germans were toweringly unamused.
They got his scent right away and Rochefoucauld led the Nazis on a high-speed chase through town. At one point he crashed through an SS roadblock. His New York taxicab driving bought him time before he ultimately ditched the car. He then took to his heels, losing his pursuers in a minotaur’s maze of city streets.
Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld defied death yet again.
Rochefoucauld eventually made it to the French coast. He then boarded a fishing boat that rendezvoused with a British submarine in the English Channel.
But the gods weren’t through testing his mettle…
Shortly after Rochefoucauld boarded the sub, it was sniffed out by a German destroyer. The “swish-swish” of the destroyer’s engines attained a fiendish pitch as the hunter closed in. What followed Rochefoucauld described as his worst experience of the war. “I’d never been so scared in my life,” he would later say.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
Place a garbage can over your head and invite a lunatic to proceed against you with a sledgehammer. That may give a faint suggestion of the experience (we highly recommend the German submarine movie Das Boot).
But the sub survived the attack. After three impossible days at sea Rochefoucauld was back in England. And glad of it. “We were invited to the best houses,” he’d later say. “Girls fell into our arms.”
No doubt they did.
Rochefoucauld’s next mission took place in May 1944 — a month before D-Day. And this one was one for the books. His job was to destroy the largest ammunition factory in France, near Bordeaux. All by his lonesome.
The place was a fortress, airtight with security and strewn with guards. And he’d somehow have to smuggle 90 pounds of explosives past it all.
But how? Then the Count had another sunburst of inspiration…
He might blend in as a factory worker. But how would he get 90 pounds of dynamite in through security? Then it came to him…
He’d hide it inside hollowed-out loaves of bread. The French and their bread, after all. Who’d suspect?
It took him four days to smuggle it all in… loaf by loaf.
Undetected, he placed the dynamite around the factory’s structural supports and set the timers. Then he sauntered out, scaled a wall and made off on a bicycle…
The explosion could be heard ten miles away. Rochefoucauld didn’t even bother looking back. He just single-handedly destroyed the Germans’ largest ammunition in factory in France. And in time for D-Day.
But his satisfaction was short-lived…
He was off to Bordeaux to meet a contact who’d get him back to England. But he chanced upon a German roadblock. The winsome young man told them he was heading for a romantic assignation. They didn’t believe him.
The French aristocrat was taken prisoner again.
Torture is an insufficient description for what the Gestapo would work once they discovered he was responsible for the factory bombing. So Rochefoucauld nearly resorted to the final solution — downing the cyanide pill he kept hidden in his shoe.
He’d escaped from German captivity once before. But this was a Fort Knox. And he was locked in a dungeon.
This seemed the end of the tether for Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld.
At one point a guard entered his cell, only to find the French saboteur writhing on the ground in an epileptic seizure. When he approached the flailing prisoner, Rochefoucauld whipped out a table leg he’d broken off, and clouted the guard over the head with all the energy at his command.
The guard staggered, stunned, then the trained killer snapped his neck like a twig. “Thank Goodness for that pitilessly efficient training,” Rochefoucauld later noted.
But now what? He was still trapped inside this fort, Germans everywhere.
Another inspiration came to him…
Rochefoucauld donned the guard’s uniform and walked out of the cell. He proceeded to the guardroom. And shot dead two additional guards.
Then he walked right out the front door.
He’d escaped from German hands — for the second time.
Rochefoucauld joined a local contact as he figured his next move. By now the Nazis were out for blood, and swarmed the area. He was trapped. And there would be no escape next time.
Then someone else had an idea this time…
His host’s sister was a nun. Nuns wear funny clothing. So Rochefoucauld slipped into a nun’s habit and started out of town. Sure enough, he made his way past the German patrols and to eventual safety… disguised as a woman of God.
Finally, in April 1945 Rochefoucauld was captured in his final mission, which led to the dramatic escape with which we opened this story. That would be the third time the Germans captured him. And the third time he escaped.
As the Count would later say, “I had what I needed more than anything else. Luck.”
Better to be lucky than good. But best to be both.
But what a war! He carried out many successful missions — including one that had him singlehandedly dynamiting the largest ammo factory in France.
The Nazis captured him three times… and he escaped certain death each time. He also survived a savage depth charge attack while trapped in a submarine.
The James Bond of film couldn’t hold aces and spades to this royal gent.
After the war Rochefoucauld was recruited by the French secret services. He led commando raids against the Viet Minh during France’s 1950’s war in Vietnam.
His retirement into peaceful civilian life left him bored. So he pursued his thirst for risk by running a banana company in Venezuela. He tried his chances in Cameroon.
Count Rochefoucauld ultimately returned to service in time for the Suez Campaign of 1956, during which he parachuted into the Sinai. But fighting concluded before he could see action.
In 1966 the seasoned aristocrat became mayor of a small French town. It was an office he would hold for 30 years.
Time accomplished what the Nazis couldn’t. Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld died on May 8, 2012, aged 88 years.
Life is lived not in years, but in moments. And this man packed more moments into 88 years than most could fit into a thousand.
Well and truly, a remarkable life.