Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Laborde, Jean Joseph (Comte de) (1878–1977)

French navy admiral and one of the architects of naval aviation in France. Born on 29 November 1878 at Chantilly, Oise, France, Jean Laborde graduated from the École Navale in 1895. He first served on a cruiser in the Mediterranean before beginning a long period aboard cruisers in the Far East, which lasted until 1901. He then served in torpedo boats and cruisers in the North Atlantic and in the Mediterranean. Assigned to the Far East again, he became interested in aviation and learned to fly while in Saigon. He served on a cruiser in the Atlantic in 1912 and earned his pilot's license in April 1914. During World War I, he commanded bomber squadrons and was charged with creating the French naval aviation center at Dunkerque. He was promoted to commander in January 1917.

Following the war, he commanded the naval aviation center at Saint-Rapha‘l in 1919 and presided over a commission charged with developing French carrier aviation. In 1922, he took charge of the aerial defense of southern France. He was promoted to captain in January 1923. Named head of French naval aviation in November 1924, Laborde oversaw construction of France's first aircraft carrier, the Béarn, completed in 1926, which he then commanded. He went on to develop French navy air doctrine and strategy.

Although Laborde lacked a certain political suppleness, he was clearly destined for high rank. He was promoted to rear admiral in August 1928 and commanded 2nd Squadron in 1930. He became a vice admiral in October 1932 and was appointed maritime prefect of Bizerte. Made a full admiral in 1938, he took command of the French fleet in the Atlantic in April 1939. An admitted Anglophile, he conducted joint maneuvers with the British navy and was well respected by British naval officers.

At the beginning of World War II, Laborde oversaw the French navy's antisubmarine efforts against German U-boats and planned French naval efforts in the Norwegian Campaign. When France and Germany signed an armistice in June 1940, he initially ordered his ships to take refuge in British ports, until Premier Henri Philippe Pétain and French navy commander Admiral Jean Darlan prevailed on him to honor the naval paragraphs of the armistice agreement. In September, Laborde was named commander of the Vichy French high seas fleet at Toulon.

After U.S. and British forces invaded French North Africa in November 1942 (reaching an accommodation with the Vichyite Darlan) and after the Germans occupied southern France, both sides sought to win the Toulon fleet. Darlan "invited" Laborde to bring the ships to North Africa to join the Allies, but Laborde detested Darlan, and he flatly refused, stating that he would defend his Toulon base against all threats. Incredibly naive, he believed that Adolf Hitler would honor his pledge not to take the French fleet; thus, he did nothing to prepare Toulon's land defenses, which enabled the Germans to launch a successful surprise attack on the morning of 27 November 1942. Laborde had, however, made plans for scuttling the fleet, and he now ordered them carried out. The operation was abetted by German incompetence, and the French successfully sent to the bottom 77 ships, including 3 battleships, 8 cruisers, and 32 destroyers. Although Laborde's critics argued that he should have braved German retribution and fought his way out, German air assaults would have wreaked havoc on his ships.

When the war ended, Laborde was first denied his pension and then, in 1947, condemned to death, a sentence later reduced to 15 years of imprisonment. Freed in 1951, he was pardoned eight years later. He died in Castillon-la-Batille, Gironde, France, on 30 July 1977.

Priscilla Roberts and Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Auphan, Paul, and Jacques Mordal. The French Navy in World War II. Trans. A. C. J. Short. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1959.; de Gaulle, Charles. War Memoirs: Unity, 1942–1944. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959.; Paxton, Robert O. Parades and Politics at Vichy: The French Officer Corps under Marshal Pétain. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.; Raphaël-Leygues, Jacques Jean Georges, and François Flohic. Darlan, Laborde: L'inimitié de deux amiraux. Brest, France: Éditions de la Cité, 1990.; Verrier, Anthony. Assassination in Algiers. New York: Norton, 1990.
 

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