Robert de La Rochefoucauld, arguably France’s most daring WWII saboteur, escaped his own execution in the spring of 1944. He then agreed to a mission from Britain’s so-called Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare that would anger the Nazis even more than his escape…
Robert and his radioman headed north, to Bordeaux, joining a group called Charly, led by the theater director René Cominetti, who had been involved in the Resistance since 1941. Cominetti had formed Charly with the help of a lawyer and banker, and by the summer of 1944, it had nearly 950 fighters. They roamed the terrain, taking up the battles of their neighboring underground tribes as well. Charly shared some of its résistants with a parent group, Groupe Georges, also operating near Bordeaux. It was led by Alban Bordes, a twenty-five-year-old as vicious with the Nazis—he admitted to carrying out hits that “God himself cannot pardon”—as he was fearful of them. He respected SD agents’ intelligence and lived in secret, knowing the reprisals that awaited his capture.
In July, La Rochefoucauld met with someone who was likely, according to the historical record, a top Georges lieutenant and some of his staffers. This was in a group safe house, a cave outside Bordeaux, where the top man brought a bottle of wine and glasses and laid out his plan. He said three men from Georges had recently begun working at the Saint-Médard plant, scoping out its parameters and committing the layout to hand-drawn maps. La Rochefoucauld would meet these men when their shift at the factory ended. Because Robert knew how to lay plastic explosives, he would work at the plant alongside them. With the Allies moving inland from Normandy and the Germans fighting desperately to retain ground, there wasn’t time to train men to do the work that La Rochefoucauld could do himself—if he just got inside the plant.
Robert loved the idea. He had not parachuted into France so that he might supervise someone else’s job. Pleased with the response, the lieutenant left the men to their bottle of wine and open-ended afternoon. Soon thereafter, they themselves departed on bikes for a hideout closer to the factory, about ten miles west of Bordeaux.
The beauty of the vineyards in sun-dipped and fragrant July masked the danger of the Occupation. Robert and the rebels took a careful if not circuitous route, off the main roads where people looked friendly but might secretly work for the SD chief Dohse. A short while after they made it to the house, the three plant workers joined them, and they all decided to celebrate their mission. From the vague phrases La Rochefoucauld later wrote, it appears the résistants took him to Bordeaux’s finest brothels that night. “We were perfectly received,” said Robert.
The next day, Sunday, was not a day of rest. The Georges men and La Rochefoucauld gathered round a table at the safe house, maps spread before them, everyone hunching over. The munition works was massive: on the northern and eastern half of the compound sat the “old” factory, next to a railroad track that had shipped the works’ supplies for generations; the “new” one was on the grounds’ western and southern half, built in advance of World War I; and the so-called “pearl” factory, constructed at the start of this war by two thousand imprisoned Spanish Communists, bordered the two other factories. The compound was surrounded by twelve workers and officers’ camps where some Germans and many of the 5,500 laborers lived. In total, the grounds encompassed more than a square mile. From the aerial maps, the Saint-Médard factories and their surrounding barracks resembled less a place of labor than a city unto itself.
La Rochefoucauld’s job was not to blow it all up. The massive bombing campaign in April hadn’t even done that. Robert’s task instead would be to place pinpoint bombs at key positions throughout the compound, crippling it from within. As the British sabotage instructors had said: It’s better to target small but vital components of a factory. This is the mark of a true saboteur.
To get inside the grounds, La Rochefoucauld first had to replace one of the three factory workers. A man named Pierre, who unloaded trucks at the plant, looked the most like Robert: roughly his height, dark hair swept back off his forehead. Pierre’s best feature was his glasses: black-rimmed and big enough to obscure the shape of the face behind them. Did Robert look like Pierre when he put on the glasses? Not really. But he looked nothing like anyone else there. So Pierre handed over his plant ID card—reissued every two months for factory security—and La Rochefoucauld and the other résistants did the hard but also routine work of making a fake ID, of transferring La Rochefoucauld’s photo from his identification to Pierre’s factory card. At long last they had it. The ID looked authentic.
The men then began thinking how to traffic explosives past the German guards. No single idea had everyone’s support until, at last, someone said they should put the bombs in their food—specifically, in the round loaves of French bread that each man took with him for his midday meal.
The résistants set about kneading dough to see if it could work. When the loaves came out of the oven, the men slowly, delicately, carved open the top of each one, cutting out the moist middle and dropping in a couple pounds of plastic explosives. They then set the severed top back on the loaf and studied it. From the outside— voila!—it looked like lunch.
La Rochefoucauld arose early Monday morning and got dressed. Many factory workers favored denims and newsboy caps, and Pierre’s big-rimmed glasses further hid Robert’s features. As he put on his clothes, he couldn’t help but worry that the disguise was not enough. In fact, that’s what everyone worried about. The Georges men, as a precaution, had decided to arrive separately at the plant, lest all three résistants be implicated in a La Rochefoucauld arrest.
He steeled himself and set out on a bicycle for the munitions compound, carrying a bag with a loaf of bread in it. Robert arrived at the factory alone, around 7:45, fifteen minutes before the plant opened. He saw the two other Georges men standing together, but tried not to stare at them. Everyone formed into a line, which began moving at 8 a.m.
La Rochefoucauld shuffled along, in a “delicate” state, he wrote. He slung the bag that held his lunch—and so much more—over his shoulder, just as the rest of the men did. He tried to look bored. Shuffle left, shuffle right, stare absently. Shuffle left, shuffle right, ignore the rising panic.
Soon there was one man ahead of him, and then the German asked for La Rochefoucauld’s plant ID. He willed his hand steady and gave the guard the papers.
The Nazi glanced at them, then at La Rochefoucauld. The German looked sleepy, or maybe just disinterested. He handed the plant ID back to Robert, then motioned for the next man in line.
It was that easy. He crossed the factory’s threshold, trying very hard to hide his excitement.
From the book THE SABOTEUR: The Aristocrat Who Became France’s Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando by Paul Kix. Copyright © 2017 by Paul Kix. Available from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.