Churchill’s ‘secret agent’ recounts WW II exploits
Robert Maloubier likes to tell people he is a retired accountant. That he studied finance in college, that he had a quiet life, that he stopped working at 66.
He can barely get the last words out without a chuckle that pulls up the ends of his bushy white mustache so it curls around his cheekbones.
“Oh, I love doing that,” he says with a satisfied sigh. “Nobody knows about me here.”
The truth is Maloubier, 88, never went to college. It’s also hard to say whether he ever really retired, though he admits that when he turned 80 he had to stop rollerblading and flying his plane.
As far as a quiet life goes, he hasn’t had one and he hopes it stays that way.
There are a few other things people in this quiet suburb west of Paris don’t know about him: He is trained in close combat, sabotage, guerrilla tactics, parachuting and underwater warfare.
Maloubier is one of the few surviving French agents from Winston Churchill’s “secret army,” the Special Operations Executive created in 1940 with orders to “put Europe ablaze” and defeat Nazi forces behind enemy lines.
The British army awarded him the rank of captain and the Distinguished Service Order for his derring-do after he parachuted into his occupied homeland in 1943 and again in 1944. Maloubier’s wartime feats include leading a band of French resistance fighters who blew up seven bridges in 24 hours to stall the advancing German army.
Nearly 70 years later, most French still don’t know much about the role the British played in the resistance in their country. Most believe the wartime narrative forged by Gen. Charles de Gaulle, that the resistance was an entirely French endeavor.
Until recently, there had been no major French translation of the numerous English-language books and autobiographies dealing with the Special Operations Executive. In the last few years, that has changed, and this year a French-language memoir, “Churchill’s Secret Agent,” by Maloubier, hit bookstores. It is perhaps the only one of its kind by a Frenchman.
Maloubier writes with the fast-paced, colloquial tone of someone speaking out loud, and with a sense of humor that shrugs at death. He tells of parachuting into occupied France, of bombing a German naval vessel, of stockpiling weapons in preparation for D-Day. He writes of escaping the Nazis’ clutches by pretending to be dimwittedly eager to follow instructions, a trick he learned at spy school. (As soon as the trusting SS guard gave an opening, Maloubier knocked him down, hurled a motorcycle at him and made a run for it.)
After the war, Maloubier helped train the French secret service, create the French version of the Navy SEALs and design the now-classic archetypal diving watch, the Fifty Fathoms. Swashbuckling through Africa, the Middle East and East Asia, he was a bush pilot in Gabon and worked as deputy director of an oil company.
His small house in Houilles sports abundant flowers at the front door. He enjoys reminiscing but also relishes discussion of contemporary problems. The war in Libya, he says, is “romantic,” with rebels shooting wasted bullets into the sky. “We would never have been able to do that!” he says, laughing.
He worries about young people who spend their lives “lying down” in front of video screens. But he still has the optimism of the teenager who set off to fight the Nazis, and he remembers every detail as if it were yesterday.
These days, he has difficulty walking and is slowed by a weak lung — damaged by an SS bullet — but he nevertheless exudes an undimmed zest for adventure.
“Modern life is about having to foresee everything: take zero risks, and live from your cradle to your grave,” says Maloubier, who generally goes by Bob. “But there’s nothing worse than that.
“Even though man wants to absolutely know what tomorrow will be made of, the excitement of life is from not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Tomorrow is another day. That’s all … something different. Something will happen, must happen. Otherwise, it’s going to be dull. Life can only be made of unpredictable things.”
The Special Operations Executive is best-known in Britain for fostering resistance in Axis-occupied areas. In France, its agents and underground French fighters held off Nazi troops and destroyed key parts of enemy infrastructure, especially in advance of the D-Day invasion. Its members also trained De Gaulle’s secret service and contributed decisively to the liberation of several regions in France.
But in the minds of most French, two major groups were behind the resistance: De Gaulle’s Free French Forces and French paramilitary units led by communist patriots, said historian Jean-Louis Cremieux-Brilhac, who was a member of De Gaulle’s London-based provisional government.
“But in reality, there was a third driving motor: the British,” Cremieux-Brilhac says. “It’s an idea that hasn’t completely penetrated French opinion.”
The knowledge gap is no coincidence.
“Gen. De Gaulle insisted on affirming that France was liberated by the French themselves, with the help of the Allies, and he didn’t want to highlight the important role of the SOE,” which sent about 400 agents of various nationalities to France, Cremieux-Brilhac said.
Maloubier, born in a Paris suburb and raised by French parents, would appear an unlikely Special Operations Executive candidate. When the war broke out, he was still in high school and dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot for De Gaulle. But his parents were multilingual, Anglo-Saxon-loving professors who had spent years in New York and England, and shared with their children their admiration for Churchill.
After the French surrendered to the Nazis, Maloubier’s parents encouraged him to join the resistance. But he couldn’t make it to London, where the resistance leadership was based, so he fled to Algeria to join Allied forces. There, he encountered an SOE agent who recruited him to join the force.
“Every Frenchman who went to fight for another army was of course completely contrary to [De Gaulle’s] politics, and he was absolutely right,” Maloubier says. “But at our age, we had no political clue.”
After parachuting into occupied France, he trained, organized and armed French bush fighters known as “Maquis.” On orders from London, they bombed a German submarine tender and an aviation gear factory, as well as numerous bridges. His men had “to be prepared for everything,” he says, and played a crucial role in stockpiling British weapons dropped into France via parachute in anticipation of D-Day.
Maloubier says the underground fighters included some “nobles” but were mostly workers who had less to lose.
“I was around people who were untrained, and badly trained, but they wanted to fight,” he says.
Their eagerness to take on the Germans wasn’t enough to wash away a certain bitterness he felt after flying to London between missions.
There, “everyone wanted to fight. There was a wartime climate. The atmosphere was completely different,” he says. People lived in subway stations because so many homes were bombed. “But it was also very gay. People would go to nightclubs and tan in Hyde Park.... And still, there wasn’t a single family that hadn’t lost someone.”
He met “extraordinary” people there, including SOE spies such as Violette Szabo, a beautiful and skilled agent who was captured during a mission and died in a Nazi concentration camp.
Maloubier says he is driven to keep writing in order to tell their stories, collected over the years like the antiques that fill his home. Weapons from the Middle East and Asia hang on the wall of his living room, which is lighted with lamps made of 100-year-old samovars once used to brew Russian tea on the Orient Express.
“I always say that in life there is never a dull moment, and that there’s always something, that.…" He takes a deep breath and continues. “That makes you live again.”
Lauter is a special correspondent.
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