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Jean de Laborde
|Birth name||Jean Joseph Jules Noël de Laborde|
29 November 1878|
|Died||30 July 1977
|Allegiance|| French Third Republic
|Years of service||1897-1943|
|Spouse(s)||Rose Marie Saldo|
Jean de Laborde (29 November 1878 - 30 July 1977) was a French naval officer who had a long and illustrious career starting at the end of the 19th century and extending to World War II where he served as admiral. A pioneer of naval aviation in France, he captained the first French aircraft carrier, earned many awards, and held many top posts. He is most well known for his final military act, the scuttling of the French fleet in Toulon during the German occupation of Vichy France in World War II, which left his prestige in ruins and led to his arrest and conviction for treason.
After graduating, de Laborde was posted to the Far East in 1897 where he served first as Ensign in 1900 and took part in the Chinese campaign following the Boxer Rebellion. Upon returning to France, he was commissioned a Lieutenant in 1908. After a couple of years in Moroccan waters, he was sent back to the Far East on board the armored cruiser Dupleix. While there, he learned to fly and overflew Saigon, earning his pilot's license in 1914. As a pilot during World War I he led a flight unit and later directed the maritime aviation center at Dunkirk.
A pioneer of naval aviation in France, he was named head of naval aviation in 1925 and took command of the Béarn, the first French aircraft carrier. In 1928 at the age of 50, he earned the rank of contre-amiral, (equivalent to rear admiral), and became commander of the maritime sector of Toulon, and in 1930, commander-in-chief of the 2nd Squadron. He was elevated to Vice-Amiral (vice admiral) in 1932 and commander-in-chief and Maritime Prefect of the 4th maritime region (Bizerte) covering the Mediterranean. In 1936 de Laborde again took charge of the 2nd Squadron and later that year became commander-in-chief of the Atlantic Squadron.
From 1937-1940 he was a member of the Supreme Naval Council (Conseil supérieur de la Marine). In 1938 he earned his five star, becoming Full Admiral. From 1938-39 he served as inspector general of naval forces, and was involved in various naval consultative commissions under the French Third Republic.
In 1939 and 1940 he served as commander-in-chief of naval forces of the West, and was known as "Admiral West". By this time, he had earned numerous medals, including the highly prestigious Legion of Honor.
Nazi Germany invaded France in May 1940, and an armistice was signed in June dividing France into two sectors, an occupied zone in the north and west, and a free zone in the southeast, with a French government administered by Marshal Philippe Pétain based in Vichy. De Laborde had reached retirement age by September 1940, but after the armistice was reactivated and named leader of the Forces de Haute mer (FHM) a newly created unit, for two years.
As a vice-admiral, Laborde was chief of the First Squadron, organised around the battleship Strasbourg. After the Fall of France and the rise of Vichy France, Laborde supported the regime, and was made chief of the High sea fleet by Philippe Pétain, who counted on using Laborde's dislike of Darlan to make the Fleet easier to manage. The High Seas Fleet was composed of 38 modern units and amounting to a quarter of the total French fleet.
Very antagonistic to the British and to Charles de Gaulle, Laborde promoted a project to re-take Chad. When the Allies invaded the French colonies of North Africa in Operation Torch, he suggested that the French fleet should sail and attack the Allies in retaliation ; this proposal was sharply turned down by Gabriel Auphan.
Amidst intrigue, attempted deals and changing loyalties, following invasion of North Africa by the Allies on 7 November 1942, Darlan made a deal with the Allies, ordering French troops to join the allies, which they did. Pétain stripped Darlan of his office and ordered resistance in North Africa, but was ignored. In response, Nazi troops occupied the free zone, but paused outside Toulon, the base where most of the remaining French ships were moored.
On 27 November 1942 Laborde ordered the scuttling of the French fleet in Toulon to prevent his ships from falling in German, Italian or British hands. By the time the Germans tried to seize the ships, they had all been scuttled or had escaped.
After Liberation, during the Épuration légale, Laborde was sentenced to death by the Haute Cour de Justice (France)[fr] for treason and for failing to save the fleet by allowing it to defect to the Allies. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he was pardoned on 9 June 1947.