The Saboteur: The Aristocrat Who Became France's Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando

The Saboteur: The Aristocrat Who Became France's Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando

In the tradition of Agent Zigzag comes this breathtaking biography, as fast-paced and emotionally intuitive as the very best spy thrillers, which illuminates an unsung hero of the French Resistance during World War II—Robert de La Rochefoucald, an aristocrat turned anti-Nazi saboteur—and his daring exploits as a résistant trained by Britain’s Special Operations ExecutiveA...

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Title:The Saboteur: The Aristocrat Who Became France's Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando
Author:Paul Kix
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The Saboteur: The Aristocrat Who Became France's Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando Reviews

  • Steven Z.

    It is very rare when a work of non-fiction approaches a work of fiction. For a book to tell a story that is true, but keeps you riveted as if it were a spy novel, is special. Such is the case with Paul Kix’s first book, THE SABOTEUR: THE ARISTOCRAT WHO BECAME FRANCE’S MOST DARING ANTI-NAZI COMMANDO which tells the story and exploits of Robert de Rochefoucauld, the scion of a rich French family who at the age of sixteen escaped to England, to be educated as a soldier, spy, and safe cracker in the

    It is very rare when a work of non-fiction approaches a work of fiction. For a book to tell a story that is true, but keeps you riveted as if it were a spy novel, is special. Such is the case with Paul Kix’s first book, THE SABOTEUR: THE ARISTOCRAT WHO BECAME FRANCE’S MOST DARING ANTI-NAZI COMMANDO which tells the story and exploits of Robert de Rochefoucauld, the scion of a rich French family who at the age of sixteen escaped to England, to be educated as a soldier, spy, and safe cracker in the service of British intelligence during World War II. He would return to France to organize Resistance cells to harass, bomb, and kill Germans, and at the same time save as many of his countrymen that was possible.

    Rochefoucauld, henceforth Robert’s life lends itself to an amazing biography of a man who joined the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) at the age of seventeen, underwent extensive training, and worked with the French Resistance from 1943 to the end of the war. He was part of a group that parachuted behind German lines to assist the allied landing at Normandy by sabotaging German railroads, munitions dumps, and the harassment of German soldiers. For those who question the role of the SOE and the Resistance, General Dwight D. Eisenhower summarized their effectiveness as he later estimated that “after D-Day it was the equivalent of fifteen extra divisions, or up to 375,000 soldiers.”

    The shame and humiliation felt by the La Rochefoucauld family after the French capitulation to the Germans in June, 1940 became a burden as the family had to escape south to their grandmother’s Maille estate, at the same time as their father, Olivier was taken to a German POW camp. Kix provides the reader with just enough of the historical material to place Robert and his compatriot’s actions in their historical context, particularly stressing the motivations for their decision making. Robert’s first major decision was to leave the family and try and make his way to London after listening for months to radio broadcasts by General Charles de Gaulle. Robert felt that family honor rested upon his shoulders and grew angrier by the day when faced with the capitulation of his countrymen. By the time he turned nineteen he was anonymously denounced as a supporter of de Gaulle and against collaboration. He left his family immediately from their estate in Saissons taking with him a false identity to try and get to Paris and on to London to join the Free French. Kix will describe in detail Robert’s harrowing journey across the Pyrenes assisted by the fact that he had a French-Canadian passport as he traveled through Vichy France.

    If there is a theme to Kix’s biography apart from Robert’s bravery in the face of capture and torture, it would be how he led a charmed existence throughout the war. Whether it was the assistance of British officials, French farmers, Resistance members, local merchants, and others or just plain luck, Robert was able to usually be successful in his operations. Upon arriving in London and meeting with de Gaulle who suggested his decision was correct in joining the SOE, Robert’s career as a saboteur begins. Kix takes the reader through the vigorous and often dangerous training that included how to deal with torture, safe cracking, parachuting, killing with one’s hands, explosives, as well as physical preparation. Perhaps one of Kix’s best chapters is his description of how the British developed asymmetrical warfare, a strategy that was implemented by Neville Chamberlain right before he was replaced by Winston Churchill as Prime Minister. Churchill’s own life story as a guerilla fighter and observer of asymmetrical strategy played into his increasing support and equipping the SOE with weapons, planes, and money despite opposition from the British air force. This would be the first time the British engaged in subversion and sabotage against the enemy overseas, and Winston “loved it.”

    Kix describes in detail many of Robert’s important missions. During his first mission he parachuted into central France behind German lines as a nineteen year old and set up a training cell for the French Resistance who were surprised by his age and ability to equip them. Soon his bravery and tenacity would gain their respect. Kix details of these experiences are so exact, much of which is based on Robert’s memoirs and interviews with family members that the reader can feel as if they are alongside of him during his experiences. The success of the Resistance prods the Germans to bring in the SD/Gestapo and the Abwehr resulting in numerous arrests and executions in the winter of 1943 (over 500 by the war’s end). Robert will be captured and sentenced to death on March 20, 1944 after months of torture by Dr. Karl Haas in the notorious Auxerre prison. Robert’s application of his training as explained by Kix reflects his resolve and ability to escape. Kix provides an effective approach in highlighting what it was like to be a Resistance fighter during the war, in fact over 75,000 were killed by 1945.

    Kix describes the progression of Resistance successes through 1944 and another wonderful chapter narrating how Robert organized another SOE cell and with his men were dropped behind enemy lines on June 7, 1944. The cell coordinated its rebellious acts with the Resistance and inflicted tremendous damage against the Nazis. Unfortunately, Robert was captured again, but was rescued in a hail of bullets. Perhaps Robert’s greatest escape took place when he was recaptured and sent to the notorious prison at Ft. Du Ha with its reputation for torture under the aegis of Frederick Dohse a member of SD-IV that cleared the Resistance from southwest France. After contemplating suicide he devised a plan that resulted in walking right out of the prison’s front gate!

    Robert’s last mission perhaps was his most dangerous. After Paris was liberated the haughty de Gaulle refused to give the Resistance fighters credit for their effort. He demanded they be dispersed, and if they wanted to continue to fight they had to join the Free French Army, which 200,000 did, including Robert. His final operation was to blow up a German artillery casement on a beach in southern France. His superiors reluctantly approved his plan which in the end was successful. Robert’s war came to an end when he stepped on a mine and injured his knee which resulted in a slight limp for the remainder of his life.

    Kix explores the contentiousness in French society in the decades that followed the war. In fact, only 2% of Frenchmen actually fought, and about 20% were collaborationist. These figures reflect the fissures in French society as postwar trials and some executions resulted. Though Kix has not written a long narrative, it covers a great deal of material and presented with an eye for what is most historically important. If you want to gain a sense of what it was like to resist the Germans during the war and its impact on family and the larger French society it is worth consulting.

  • Cheryl

    Author Paul Kix’s extensive research into the life and times of French aristocrat Robert de La Rochefoucauld provides a close up look at the activities of the members of the French resistance during World War II.

    When the Nazis invaded France, Rochefoucauld was eighteen years old. He had lived a privileged and comfortable life. But when his father was arrested and imprisoned, he decided that it was time to take action against the invaders. He made his way to England where he was trained alongside

    Author Paul Kix’s extensive research into the life and times of French aristocrat Robert de La Rochefoucauld provides a close up look at the activities of the members of the French resistance during World War II.

    When the Nazis invaded France, Rochefoucauld was eighteen years old. He had lived a privileged and comfortable life. But when his father was arrested and imprisoned, he decided that it was time to take action against the invaders. He made his way to England where he was trained alongside other resistance fighters. After parachuting back in to France his activities earned him the respect and admiration of his fellow commandos as well as the wrath of the Germans. After being arrested and imprisoned twice, he was sentenced to death. Determined to continue the fight to free his beloved country, he plotted escapes that were nothing short of miraculous!

    This fascinating story is hard to put down. It is yet another of the unknown stories of heroism during the Second World War that are finally coming to light. After the war he was awarded the War Cross, the Medal of Resistance, a medal for escaping German imprisonment, four commendations, and France’s highest military award, the Legion of Honor. As with many of history’s heroes, Robert de La Rochefoucauld remained humble throughout his life and never sought recognition. This is a story about determination, bravery, courage, and love of country that is well worth reading.

  • Johnstonrw

    ATTENTION: there are spoilers below that will not ruin reading the book.

    This is a book that deserved to be written, but by a better writer and scholar, with better editing and proofreading. Let's start with the last first: "chateaux" on the dust jacket is used as the singular, whereas the correct form is "chateau" or properly "château." Perpignan is a city in southwest France, not southeast. The famous French composer is "Gounod," not "Guonod." But enough of these minor quibbles.

    With the endnote

    ATTENTION: there are spoilers below that will not ruin reading the book.

    This is a book that deserved to be written, but by a better writer and scholar, with better editing and proofreading. Let's start with the last first: "chateaux" on the dust jacket is used as the singular, whereas the correct form is "chateau" or properly "château." Perpignan is a city in southwest France, not southeast. The famous French composer is "Gounod," not "Guonod." But enough of these minor quibbles.

    With the endnotes the author admits to not being fluent in French and having had to rely on translators. Even not knowing this fact until after reading the main text I had the impression some of the conclusions were second-hand. I grew weary of many non-standard expressions like "He could not help but..." that reveal a certain subjectivity you don't usually see in a book based on solid research. The repeated references to La Rochefoucauld's state of mind seemed like overextending and speculation. Even reliance on his diary would not really support these assertions. The writer is struggling to make a simple story more dramatic. We have to believe his own account of the meeting with DeGaulle. The author seems to have struggled to make an essay into a book, and still managed only 222 pages.

    Robert's experience is exciting and having made two miraculous escapes is noteworthy, meriting perhaps the subtitle "... France's most daring anti-Nazi commando." There were plenty of others just as brave, a few of whom survived, some of whom were more effective but perhaps less daring; and they got in the fray much earlier. Robert joined it more then two years on, when there was better support. I'm not sure I can believe he could not get to London for all that time. The author notes with some chagrin that there is no confirmation in England of his having been trained there at all, and has to resort to rationalizations and secondary evidence. Is that story all cocked up?

    I suspect the family resorted to this writer to tell their hero's story because no one in France would handle it. La Rochefoucauls should have had his Légion d'Honneur revoked for lending Maurice Papon, the convicted war criminal, his passport to escape briefly to Switzerland, and that the Swiss extradited him swiftly confirms that conviction. Robert seems to have had a contrary streak all along. Perhaps the subtitle would more accurately have read "... France's most eccentric anti-Nazi commando."

    I do not want to gainsay Kix's diligence and commitment. He did do a lot of work researching and interviewing, and the story is compelling by fits and starts, so it's worth reading. It is episodic perhaps by the very nature of its subject but the story could flow better. The end comes quickly as Bordeaux is liberated in August 1944 after the signature St. Médard operation. The book lacks the index most self-respecting works of this nature would typically contain.

  • Nigel

    This is the story of Robert de La Rochefoucauld. It opens with an introduction to Robert and states that it is a work of "narrative non fiction". When the war starts Robert, a teenager, escapes to the UK via the Pyrenees and Spain and in the company of some UK pilots for a time. There he is recruited by SOE and trained in killing and sabotage. He is parachuted back into France in 1943.

    The book covers the period of Robert's war in the main. The author has done a great deal of research on his subj

    This is the story of Robert de La Rochefoucauld. It opens with an introduction to Robert and states that it is a work of "narrative non fiction". When the war starts Robert, a teenager, escapes to the UK via the Pyrenees and Spain and in the company of some UK pilots for a time. There he is recruited by SOE and trained in killing and sabotage. He is parachuted back into France in 1943.

    The book covers the period of Robert's war in the main. The author has done a great deal of research on his subject and the book contains numerous footnotes on sources etc. It is one of those stories of "daring do" in the war (the second world war) and I've read a number of them over the years. There are highs and lows and some parts are far more interesting than others. Some of the narrative on Robert's time in the Resistance felt brief. The story of SOE, de Gaulle and Churchill in London felt far more drawn out for instance.

    I found the writing style here rather strange. It felt rather padded out to me and some good editorial work might have made for a sharper offering perhaps. There are some factual mistakes here too which is a pity. A relatively modern court case starts this book and is referred to again at the end. Robert chose to actively support a Nazi sympathiser and one wonders whether the motivation for this book was to try and balance the less good publicity.

    Robert definitely comes over as a character. He was certainly active in the Resistance and carried out acts of sabotage which make for interesting reading. However, objectively, he was arrested quite often and spent time as a prisoner of both the Spanish and the Germans (and was held by the English in a sense for a while). I would imagine there are many other stories that remain untold of people who did more. This is not a bad book however I cannot really recommend it.

    Note - I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review

  • Peter Tillman

    A remarkable story, although not quite as good as I had hoped. Still, worth reading, especially for French Resistance and WW2 history buffs. 3.4 stars

    Robert de La Rochefoucauld was an impulsive youth, and got into the Resistance almost by accident, at age 18. He turned out to be very good at escape, evasion, and sabotage, especially after his SOE training in Britain, and had some remarkable adventures, detailed in the NYT review cited below.

    In later life, he was a stylish and well-preserved man

    A remarkable story, although not quite as good as I had hoped. Still, worth reading, especially for French Resistance and WW2 history buffs. 3.4 stars

    Robert de La Rochefoucauld was an impulsive youth, and got into the Resistance almost by accident, at age 18. He turned out to be very good at escape, evasion, and sabotage, especially after his SOE training in Britain, and had some remarkable adventures, detailed in the NYT review cited below.

    In later life, he was a stylish and well-preserved man, who came forward to defend a Vichy official accused of shipping Jews off to their deaths. The prosecution evidence was weak, the former police prefect was convicted, but later released on appeal. Robert de La Rochefoucauld was vilified for his defense of the man, who he had never met.

    Like his father before him, he spoke but seldom about his wartime experiences, but opened up some to his children near the end of his life. He died in 2012, at age 88.

    New York Times review:

    "A warning: This section of “The Saboteur” is very explicit in its description of the tortures — beatings and water boardings among them — endured by prisoners at Auxerre. In time, he was sentenced to death, but La Rochefoucauld was not prepared to die, and decided to take his chances and escape, jumping off a truck on his way to an execution site, but then he realized he was about to run past Gestapo headquarters: “La Rochefoucauld decided to continue down the street, despite his heart’s drumming in his rib cage. He walked as casually as a man trying to escape his execution could walk. As he approached the building, he saw a Citroën sedan with swastika pennants on the fender, parked nearby. He stole a glance inside the car — keys in the ignition. He looked around and saw a driver, maybe 30 feet away, pacing back and forth, waiting for someone to emerge from the building. Just then La Rochefoucauld heard distant shouting, The truck! Now — he had to decide now. He moved closer to the car, swung the door wide and threw himself in.”

    This is first-class adventure writing, which, coupled with a true-life narrative of danger and intrigue, adds up to all-night reading. ..."

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