La Rochefoucauld was born in September 1923, and was 16 when France surrendered in June 1940. From the beginning he hated the Germans with a deep passion, and he was determined to fight them. Unlike many in France who collaborated with Germans and accepted the collaborationist Vichy government, La Rochefoucauld fled to Spain, taking the dangerous journey to London so he could meet Charles de Gaulle in person. In Spain, he was recruited as a member of the British Special Operations Executive, the S.O.E., Britain’s army of saboteurs, and sent back to France to, in Churchill’s words, “set Europe ablaze.”
This La Rochefoucauld did, winning a Croix de Guerre, made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and awarded other medals. After parachuting into France, he joined a Resistance network and trained résistants in the use of explosives to blow up power plants and railroads, then sabotaged the factory the Germans used to repair them. While guiding two British pilots toward freedom, La Rochefoucauld was arrested by Spanish police agents and sent to a prison camp. In time, he was flown back to London, where he was trained in sabotage and silent killing, and was given arduous physical training. Eventually, he was parachuted back into France and, in 1943, arrested, and sent to Auxerre prison.
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. There are hundreds of books about the French Resistance, some fictional, some based on actual experience. Again and again, one meets heroic people who will not give in to the forces of evil. These works are morality plays about courage and determination. Kix puts it this way: “The boys talked about how France had lost her honor. ‘I didn’t have much good sense,’ Robert said, ‘but honor — that’s all my friends and I could talk about.’”
These many narratives, about holding dear to one’s honor in the face of persecution by a powerful enemy, will never go out of style. The reason they remain popular and widely read today is this implicit question: What would you have done? Hard to answer, but it’s a question that, given the political circumstances of the world we live in, sadly needs to be asked. Reading “The Saboteur,” one understands how a certain person at a certain time answered it. La Rochefoucauld faced torture and death, yet he carried on. There is inspiration in his example, and that makes “The Saboteur” well worth reading.