Prince Michel of Bourbon-Parma, a scion of one of Europe’s oldest royal families who trained as an Allied paratrooper during World War II and helped liberate Nazi-occupied France — and later suffered 10 months of torture by the Viet Minh during a postwar assignment in French Indochina, died July 7 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris. He was 92.
His stepson Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia, a jeweler with a global reputation, announced the death but did not disclose the cause.
Prince Michel, who received decorations from France, Britain and the United States for his military valor, was a businessman who, for a time, worked for Zodiac Nautic, the company that created the Zodiac Rigid Inflatable Boat, initially meant for military use but now a favorite of rescue workers and sailing buffs worldwide. He also was a liaison between French companies seeking government contracts in Iran until the Western-backed shah was overthrown during the Islamic revolution of 1979.
He was born in Paris and was an adolescent when he arrived with his family in New York City in 1940, just ahead of the Nazi occupation of France. His mother worked in a millinery on 57th Street to make ends meet. Kicked out of a Jesuit school for disobedience — defending a younger brother from a priest who was beating him — the restless Prince Michel persuaded his father to let him join the U.S. Army at 17. “I told my father I had to kick Hitler out of France,” he once said.
He was sent to officer candidate school at Fort Benning, Ga., and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
“After the ceremony, a man approached and asked if I’d like to join the OSS,” he later told the Palm Beach Daily News in Palm Beach, Fla., referring to the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime precursor of the CIA. “He said I’d do a lot of traveling and probably see action soon. I asked about the pay, and he told me it was double what I was making then. I said ‘I’m in.’ ”
The man was William Casey, who headed the OSS’s European Secret Intelligence Branch and was seeking people with language skills. (Casey later became CIA director.)
Prince Michel received training in covert operations — “guns, knives and everything else,” he told the Palm Beach paper. “For a 17-year-old boy it was a game. I was enjoying myself and I was good at it.” He became known to his comrades as Michel Bourbon or sometimes simply Bourbon, a name they all liked to say.
He was then shipped to England and was assigned to Operation Jedburgh, a clandestine action in which the OSS and British special forces combined to parachute agents behind Nazi lines in occupied France. They became know as “the Jeds,” and their missions were hazardous. As the prince later put it, 80 percent of them “just disappeared.”
On June 8, 1944, two days after the Allied invasion of Normandy, the prince was part of a three-man sabotage team code-named Quinine, alongside the now-legendary Scottish commando Tommy (later Sir Thomas) Macpherson — the enemy later dubbed him “the kilted killer” — and British army radio operator Sgt. O. Arthur Brown.
Under his parachute-jumping smock, Macpherson was wearing the Cameron tartan kilt of his original regiment, the Cameron Highlanders. Their initial mission was to prevent German armored divisions from getting to Normandy to stem the tide of the Allied attack.
Linking up with French resistance fighters, the three blew up train tracks and electrical towers. Prince Michel gained expertise in planting bombs in cow dung on roads on which the Nazis would drive. He also developed a miniature bomb that would go off in toilets, triggered by the flushing handle.
Prince Michel, Macpherson and Brown were told that a 23,000-strong column of German troops was moving toward the Allies’ Normandy beachhead and had to be stopped by whatever means necessary.
“I remember blowing up a bridge just as the first tanks were coming across and watching them all drop into the deep river,” the prince told the Palm Beach newspaper.
The three “Jeds” stole a Jeep-like German army vehicle and drove toward the German front-line headquarters, where they were confronted by German Maj. Gen. Botho Henning Elster. Of the three, Macpherson was the only one “armed” — but only with his regimental sgian-dubh, the traditional Scottish dagger, in his right sock.
He told Elster that the Allies had 20,000 crack troops nearby and that U.S. and Royal Air Force bombers were ready to bombard the Germans into surrender. It was a total bluff, but Elster surrendered on Sept. 16, 1944, on the Loire bridge at Beaugency, handing himself and 19,500 of his men over to U.S. Maj. Gen. Robert C. Macon and the 83rd Infantry Division — and to the French Resistance — an event recorded on U.S. Army film.
Elster’s surrender without consulting Hitler was a turning point in the war, according to historians, allowing the Allies to push through to the Rhine and Berlin.
Prince Michel was subsequently sent by the French authorities to what was then French Indochina, from which the Japanese were retreating as the nationalists of Ho Chi Minh were on the rise. On Aug. 28, 1945, an American B-24 Liberator bomber dropped him into the rice paddies of Hue, Vietnam. It was broad daylight, and he was immediately captured by Viet Minh fighters who imprisoned him until June 16 the following year, giving him a bowl of rice with boiled leaves twice a day.
He and his fellow captives were once put before a firing squad, which fired a volley. The bullets were blanks, and the firing squad and local villagers burst into laughter. Those villagers were encouraged to stone the prisoners or beat them with sticks. Prince Michel recalled that one of his comrades who tried to escape was eaten by a tiger. He was eventually released after the French government reached a temporary cease-fire with Ho Chi Minh.
Michel Marie Xavier Valdemar Georges Robert Karl Aymard of Bourbon-Parma was born in Paris on March 4, 1926. He traced his lineage through the House of Bourbon, which was founded in the 10th century.
His mother, Princess Margrethe, was a granddaughter of Denmark’s King Christian IX. His father was a propane gas manufacturer and a descendant of the Danish, Austrian and Romanian royal families. Prince Michel’s second cousin was Prince Philip Mountbatten of Greece and Denmark, who would marry Britain’s Princess — later Queen — Elizabeth II. Prince Michel attended their wedding in London’s Westminster Abbey in 1947, after being freed from Indochina.
After embarking on a postwar business career, he divided his time between a home in Palm Beach and one in France — first in Versailles and later in Neuilly-sur-Seine — and took up auto racing. In 1964, driving a Ferrari 250 GTO, he finished second in the (now defunct) Tour de France automobile race. He also raced twice in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, once in a Ferrari.
As a spectator at a Formula 1 race in Monaco in 1967, Prince Michel ran to the burning wreckage after a crash on the track and helped pull the injured Italian driver Lorenzo Bandini from his car. Bandini died three days later. The prince then helped lead efforts to improve safety at racetracks.
Prince Michel’s first marriage, to Princess Yolande de Broglie-Revel, ended in divorce. In 2003, he married Princess Maria Pia of Savoy, a daughter of King Umberto II of Italy and the ex-wife of Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia. They were known for the lavish parties they threw in France and at their luxury home in Palm Beach.
Prince Michel had five children with his first wife, two of whom died before him, and a daughter from another relationship. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.
He recounted his wartime experiences in a 2010 memoir, “Un Prince dans la Tourmente” (best translated as “A Prince in the Storm”).
In his memoir, “Behind Enemy Lines,” Macpherson would later describe the prince as “a man of great courage and determination, whose unbreakable good humour and genial calm can transform into epic spates of Gallic volatility at any moment, even if most of those occasions are chosen for effect.”