When the Nazis invaded France—and imprisoned his father—the aristocrat Robert de La Rochefoucauld escaped to England, where he was trained in the ways of espionage and sabotage by English spies. Returning to France, he organized Resistance cells, directed and executed sabotage on the Germans, and was captured and sentenced to death not once but twice. Following is a description of one of his escapes, excerpted from Paul Kix’s The Saboteur.
Just before 8 a.m., two guards escorted La Rochefoucauld out of the B wing and to the bed of a waiting truck. They told him to sit on a coffin lying there. Robert saw another coffin next to him, and here came a second prisoner pushed along by guards, onto the box that he, too, would soon fill. Robert did not know this man, and as the guards hopped in the back, high-powered rifles in their arms, he didn’t see the point in introductions. The truck belched into low gear, and the red doors that had closed behind La Rochefoucauld four months earlier parted to let him out.
The truck stopped before Route Nationale, the city’s major thoroughfare just beyond the prison, whose northbound lane directed one to Paris. The truck, however, turned right, south, toward the Yonne’s rural countryside. They were headed for a series of dirt paths off Route Nationale, each narrower and bumpier than the last, the terrain moving from uninterrupted wheat fields to groves of trees to a fork in the road, where the rightward path drove one ever deeper into woods, until a clearing came into view, where the road ended. There, against three trees pockmarked with bullet holes, La Rochefoucauld would be told to stand, and he would look out on the distant brush and listen to the birdsong, while the Nazi guards took their aim. Forty-three people would be executed here during the war.
As the truck started out on this path, passing the brown-stone chapel on the grounds of the psychiatric hospital, La Rochefoucauld had a thought. Why give in to the Nazis now? He had spent the last four months ignoring the basest screams of his body because he could not fathom giving the Germans anything they wanted. Now they wanted him dead. But he did not wish to die. He looked at the road beneath him, rushing past—and noticed the Nazis’ one mistake. The Germans had never learned much about him, which meant they never understood the extent to which he’d been trained to maim and kill. Robert kept his eyes on his wrists. There were no handcuffs on them.
He glanced at the guards and saw their guns resting on their laps. If he couldn’t succeed, he thought, he wanted to die as he’d lived: fighting. He looked at the other inmate, who sensed Robert calculating something. “Even if it means being shot,” Robert said to the other Frenchman, “I’d rather be shot right away. I’m getting out!”
The prisoner stared at him, astounded. Traffic was light and the truck moved at a brisk pace. The guards didn’t speak French, or at least didn’t hear La Rochefoucauld over the wind in the open-air bed. Neither Nazi stirred himself to attention.
The other inmate said: “You’re crazy. It won’t work!”
In a moment, La Rochefoucauld sprang himself on the nearer guard, plowing into him and then jumping from the truck, rolling and somersaulting just as he had been trained in England. When his momentum stopped he shot to his feet and broke into a sprint. He heard angry shouts behind him, and then the even louder reports of rifles. The first bullets missed and he looked behind his shoulder to see the truck’s driver, startled by the firing, slam on the brakes. The sudden stop threw the guards headfirst over the truck’s hood.
Robert sprinted down one street, then turned onto a second, then onto a third. He did not know Auxerre; he had spent the last four months in his B-wing cell. So he just ran, mindlessly, and as fast as he could. He ran until his weakened legs burned and he gulped at the air, and then kept running. He ran onto one street, Avenue Victor Hugo, and came upon a guarded villa of sorts, bedecked in swastika flags and banners: the SD’s headquarters.
La Rochefoucauld stopped cold. Should he turn and run the other way? If he did, would that be more suspicious than just trying to walk past the enemy HQ? Had someone inside the building already seen him? And where was the truck?
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 thirty 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 and swung the door wide and threw himself in. He started the engine and peeled out before the chauffeur realized what was happening. La Rochefoucauld looked quickly in the rearview mirror and saw the man draw a pistol from his coat pocket and fire twice, but it was too late: Robert had escaped, the Nazi pennants whipping in the wind.
Back through the streets of Auxerre now, down one street, then another, looking for something to direct him out of here ... and then—there!—a sign: Paris, this way. The road was none other than Route Nationale, and in a moment he saw the Auxerre prison itself—and sped right past it.
The open highway, with the pedal to the floor, and seconds becoming minutes and still no one trailing him. He might actually make it! He had never felt so alive! More time passed and Robert even began to relax behind the wheel.
But soon he noticed traffic ahead of him slow and saw in the distance a roadblock, a wooden beam stretching across the highway. The Germans must have put all neighboring jurisdictions on high alert, and now they planned to stop each vehicle that passed until they had their man.
Robert edged closer and saw two heavily armed soldiers manning the blockade, asking every driver for identification. Robert was in the garb he’d worn for the last four months. He stank. He had a full beard and cuts and bruises across his face and body. There was little hope of him fooling the soldiers, even in his Nazi sedan, maybe especially in his Nazi sedan, if word of the vehicle being commandeered had spread.
He couldn’t turn around; turning around would draw too much attention. So he inched closer, shifting the car down into second, the soldiers’ faces visible now, seemingly inquisitive, asking him to stop.
That’s when he gunned the engine, smashing into the blockade and one of the soldiers, who flipped over the hood. The second opened fire and La Rochefoucauld ducked, the bullets ripping into the car’s frame; Robert kept his head low and his foot on the pedal. The rat-a-tat-tat of more angry shots followed the initial volley, but the car sped ahead. When Robert at last sat up, the car was not smoking, was still on the road—and, just as important, was beyond the reach of the Germans’ guns.
He checked himself. Somehow, he was unharmed. For the third time that morning he had avoided German fire at something close to point-blank range.
He saw a gravel road ahead and took the turn as fast as he could, plumes of dirt kicking up behind him. He had to put distance between himself and the Nazis. The road soon rose and fell beneath him and La Rochefoucauld hummed over it. He noticed smoke billowing from the hood, but he kept on until the smoke grew coarser and blacker and he had no choice but to slow the car. He saw a quarry up ahead, a mineral excavation site, just off the road. He stopped before it and got out. He listened. Nothing. Yet. The best thing to do was to crash the Citroën in such a way that the Germans might overlook it as they drove past. So he put the car in neutral, got behind it, and pushed it into the quarry.
The car fell, falling into one of the deepest voids and crashing in blooms of dust and smoke. When it cleared, he saw the outline of a crumpled, charred mess. They’ll never get this one, he thought. He ran off into a nearby line of woods, his new plan to hide and await a nightfall that could not come fast enough.
He spent the next hours in anxious solitude, and when stars at last filled the sky he made his way again, a strong moon guiding him but once more aimless. He did not know where he was. He walked under branches and through thickets and among groves of trees; he walked for what seemed like hours, with the idea that he might find a résistant in a small town or a sympathetic family in the countryside or even another abandoned barn. Something that would serve as a temporary base where he could get a few hours’ sleep and perhaps a meal before sneaking his way—by who knew what means—out of the Yonne.
At last, in the distance, he saw lights. They multiplied as he walked toward them and became the nighttime view of a city. Maybe he knew someone here, he thought. La Rochefoucauld approached with caution and saw a sign at the town’s edge:
He was back where he started.
From the book The Saboteur: The Aristocrat Who Became France's Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando by Paul Kix. Copyright © 2017 by Paul Kix. Published on Dec. 5, 2017 by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.