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In the November 27 episode of the video series WW2 week-by-week I learned (around minute 18) that Admiral Jean de Laborde, Commander of the Vichy French fleet in Toulon, ordered it scuttled when he was faced with an SS Panzer Korps occupying Toulon. Apparently he wanted to prevent Nazi Germany from taking control of the ships.

I can't quite understand his reasoning. If he was abandoning the oaths to Vichy France and/or its agreements with Nazi Germany, why not simply take control of the fleet and head out for the Mediterranean, e.g. Algeria or Morocco? I assume that he had learned by then that those countries had been mostly liberated, and that the local Vichy French troups/governing agents were largely cooperating with the Allies. Why scuttle the large fleet of over 50 ships? With the ships at his command, that should have been a force to be reckoned with.

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  • I was also watching WW2 week by week with Indy Neidell and I had wondered about the same thing, so thank you for raising it. I wondered if by then the Gaullist Free French and Vichy French had become so bitterly divided that giving the Fleet up to the Allies/Free French would have felt almost as humiliating as giving it up to the Germans. However, that is pure speculation without evidence. I am happy for someone who knows more to prove me wrong
    – Timothy
    Nov 28, 2021 at 23:41

3 Answers 3

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Lack of ... everything

  • Lack of will . First we must understand that among many Vichy officials (in this case naval officers) but also among common people (in this case naval ratings), there was certain resentment against both Germans and Allies (especially British). French Republic has clearly failed under German blows in 1940, but who was to blame ? Beside Germans themselves, and corrupt (especially leftist) politicians, many blamed this on British treachery, i.e. leaving France in its time of need. Later British attacks on French fleet and possessions ( Mers-el-Kébir, attack on Dakar, invasion of Syria and Madagascar) spilled lot of French blood, although Vichy France tried to remain neutral in German-British war. Ancient anti-British animosity has increased, and de Gaulle and his subordinates were often viewed as traitors. Americans were viewed with greater sympathy, but even them were now invading French territory and killing French soldiers (Operation Torch). France was now between rock and a hard place, the only honourable thing to do was to scuttle ships so not to fall into enemy hands (either of the enemies).

  • Lack of fuel and other supplies. Even if we consider that parts of the fleet wanted to sail, it is questionable how much could they have gone. The fuel situation for the Axis was precarious throughout the war. Under the terms of armistice of 22 June 1940, the French Navy was disarmed, and the French Army was disbanded, but then some unites were retained to defend French colonial possessions. Consequently, most of the French fuels supplies were taken over by Germans and Italians, leaving very little for French navy, air force etc ... The same goes for ammunition, certain spare parts etc ... Germans in particular utilized everything they could get their hands on from engines to French tanks and trucks.

  • Lack of manpower . Initially, 1.5 million French soldiers remained in German captivity. This was later reduced to 1 million, but French were forced to go to Germany as workers. As mentioned, the French Army was almost entirely disbanded, forcing the Navy to use sailors as ground troops for security of the bases, to man anti-aircraft guns etc ... Since the Navy was formally disarmed and Germans did not allow conscription, there was a general lack of men, especially those with seafaring skills. Many ships had skeleton crews just to keep basic maintenance, and thus were unable to set sail across the Mediterranean.

  • Lack of maintenance Finally, as a compound effect of all of this above, in general the French fleet in Toulon was in poor shape. In fact, only few submarines and auxiliaries were at the sea at that time, and these were the vessels that defected to Allies. Although the French managed to scuttle the majority, Germans and Italians did capture quite a few damaged and undamaged ships. But even those vessels that were not damaged were in poor shape and Axis could not make much use out of them. Therefore, again, it is questionable how many of them were ready for a trip across the Mediterranean in wartime conditions.

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The problem was that he was not able to prepare the fleet to take the sea and join the Allies. Ships could have take the seas individually, but they would then had been under the threat of the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica: then, they would've certainly been sunk.

Also, you should count with the difficulty by that time for this sort of French officers to find what their behaviour should be. Even more in front of the situation: you said:

If we was abandoning the oaths to Vichy France and/or it's agreements with Nazi Germany,

But this was not true: the German had betrayed Vichy when invading because of suspicions (in fact, true) that Vichy had been "nice" with the Allied landings in North Africa. So the Admiral preferred to stay in the less problematic situation for his honor/court martial.

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    Many were not in good shape, with crews that had not done much for years. Trying to leave would have been a real mess.
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 28, 2021 at 1:09
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    Furthermore, the Germans had worked to prevent this since the Armistice. The fleet was prevented to have their fuel tanks filled and to be ready for combat. The ships that escaped could make it because of false fuel gauges and other tricks.
    – Pere
    Nov 28, 2021 at 10:37
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    @Pere seems like that could be an answer if you could find some sources for this.
    – fgysin
    Nov 29, 2021 at 7:13
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    @fgysin - Not enough for another answer, but it is in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Pere
    Nov 29, 2021 at 15:46
  • Moreover it takes at least a pair of days before a big ship can be ready to leave at that time, even being in "good shape". Nov 29, 2021 at 22:59
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The question gave me a bit of a chuckle: the admiral's name wasn't Labourde (which means "blunder" or "boner" in French) but Laborde.

Anyhow, rs.29's answer contains most of the key elements. I'll add a few more:

  • On the international scene, Vichy had adopted a neutral stance and didn't want to be dragged back in the war. France and Germany had signed an armistice treaty, which meant that they were officially still at war against one another, but hostilities were suspended provided both parties respected the conditions of the treaty. Sending the French fleet to rally the Allies meant violating the armistice, which in turn meant that the Germans would be perfectly justified to resume hostilities against France and impose far worse conditions than before.
  • The French admiralty and sailors had spent the last two years with a mindset that they should scuttle in case their ships were seized. Indeed, in article 8 of the 1940 armistice treaty, the Germans swore they had no intention to use the French fleet, but the French admiralty never believed for a moment that the Germans would keep their word. A permanent order was issued to the entire French fleet to make preparations to scuttle at a moment's notice in case there was an attempt from the Axis to seize ships. This order was repeated at various points and never rescinded. This would explain why Admiral de Laborde didn't waste much time in giving the order to scuttle, and why the French sailors didn't waste much time in executing it either. When the Vichy government wanted to avoid causing an incident and attempted to cancel Admiral de Laborde's order, it was too late.

Finally, the justifications given by the Vichy officials themselves might be worth having a look at, although they have to be taken with a grain of salt. I translated below an excerpt of the defence Marshal Pétain gave on this topic during his trial:

To answer the question about the scuttling of the Fleet at Toulon on the 27th of November 1942, we need to go back in time. The Armistice left out Fleet largely intact, but unarmed and under guard. She remained our property. In order to prevent a violation of the Armistice, either from the Germans or the English, and to satisfy the commitement we had with the later at Cangé(*), we gave orders to prepare to scuttle on the day of the Armistice, and we never recinded these orders. The agression at Mers-el-Kébir on the 3rd of July 1940 allowed us to obtain a concession from the Axis that we constitute a "High-Sea force". Our orders to prepare to scuttle were maintained. After the Anglo-Saxons disbarquement in Africa, on the 11th of November 1942 the Germans invaded the Free Zone. My governement managed to erect around the Fleet a last defensive wall by obtaining from the German high-command that French Navy managed the defense of the camp of Toulon. Also, in the terms of the secret treaty I negociated with Mr. Winston Churchill, it was stipulated that our fleet would scuttle rather than fall in German or Italian hands. On the 27th of November, when a German tanked division entered in Toulon's camp and tryed to capture our fleet, Admiral de Laborde gave the order to scuttle, as per the permenant orders that were given, as well as the comittement we had taken with the English, as well as maritime justice. The French Fleet didn't fall into Axis' hands. Why did I not give the fleet the order to rally Africa as early as the 11th of November? That order would not have been executable for technical reasons and our fleet would have been doomed to be destroyed, so letting the fleet depart would have had the same consequences than sctulling. Besides, such an order would have meant resuming hostilities with Germany and expose a disarmed France to terrible reprisals with no benefit whatsoever for the Allied cause. Between two evils, a politician must chose the lesser. To me, the Fleet scuttling as per our comittements was less serious than sending her to her doom and allow unprecedented violence being unleashed upon France, and see the 700,000 prisonners whose liberation I managed to negociate being sent back in captivity, and a "gauleiter" replacing the French governement. Therefore, I avoided the worst while helping our common victory, preventing Germany from increasing her war potentiel by capturing our fleet. Still, I consider this unavoidable scuttling as a sacrifice and a national mourning.

(*) Pétain is referring to the fact that in 1940 the French had sworn to the British that the French fleet wouldn't fall in German's hands.

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  • Thanks! I also fixed the admirals name. :)
    – fgysin
    Dec 2, 2021 at 6:46

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