He was born in Verrières-le-Buisson, in the Essonne department. Educated in a conservative Catholic family, he was a remote cousin of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and of Louise de Vilmorin, later companion of André Malraux. Estienne d'Orves spent the First World War as a high school student at the prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, and entered the École Polytechnique in 1921. He joined the École Navale, (French Naval Academy), two years later, becoming an enseigne de vaisseau de 2e classe in October 1923 and joining the school ship Jeanne d'Arc. He was then an officer on the battleship Provence, and several other vessels. In 1929, he married Éliane de Lorgeril, with whom he had five children.
In 1930, he was promoted to lieutenant de vaisseau, and was made a chevalier de la Légion d'honneur in 1935. In December 1936, he joined the Naval War School for one year. When World War II broke out in 1939, he was serving aboard the Jaguar, as under-chief of the Headquarter of the 2nd flotilla of torpedo boats in Mediterranean Sea. In December 1939, he was an aid to Admiral Godfroy in the Headquarters of the "Force X" aboard cruiser Duquesne
On 25 June 1940, the day the Armistice was signed, he was in Alexandria, Egypt. Politically, d'Estienne d'Orves belonged to the right-wing, and had sympathies for Charles Maurras and Catholic monarchism; nonetheless, while many far-right wing theoricists welcomed the arrival of Marshal Philippe Pétain, the strongly patriotic d'Estienne d'Orves was unwilling to accept France's defeat. He attempted to join General Paul Legentilhomme, commander of French troops on the coast of French Somaliland, who had announced his intention to refuse the armistice, but the colony had chosen to rally itself to the Vichy régime. D'Estienne d'Orves then gathered a group of volunteer sailors and officers, took the nom de guerre "Châteauvieux" (name of one of his ancestors) and came into relations with the Free France authorities. He set sail on a cargo ship from Aden to London, sailing around Africa for two months, and rejoined General de Gaulle in London on 27 September 1940.
He met with Admiral Émile Muselier, but was unable to obtain a command at sea. Promoted to Capitaine de corvette (lieutenant commander) on 1 October 1940, he joined the Second Office of the Free French Naval Forces and requested to be sent to occupied France. After having convinced General de Gaulle, he received the mission to organise an intelligence network in western France, codenamed Nemrod, which had been created in September 1940 by Maurice Barlier and Jan Doornik, but lacked coordination and development. He was officially assigned to this task on 15 December 1940.
Role in Occupied France
D'Estienne d'Orves was codenamed "Jean-Pierre Girard". On 21 December 1940, he set sail from Newlyn to Plogoff in Brittany on a fishing boat, the Marie-Louise, along with his 20-year-old radio operator Alfred Gaessler, a German-speaking Alsatian, codenamed Georges Marty. They arrived at the Pointe du Raz the following day.
He set his quarters in Chantenay-sur-Loire, near Nantes, at the house of M. and Mme Clément, and made several trips to Paris and in Brittany, with the notable assistance of Maurice Barlier. He set up the basic organisation of the spying web, and was able to transmit significant information about German forces (coastal defences, submarines, aerodromes and refueling point near Nantes).
From 6 January to 19 January 1941, he was in Paris to set up a second network, meeting with Max André, Jan Doornik and numerous other members of the French Resistance. Back in Nantes on 20 January, he came back to the Cléments who reported to him suspicious activities by the radio operator Gaessler, seen hanging around in bars and talking with German soldiers. When interrogated, Gaessler said that this was a good way to gather information. D'Estienne d'Orves decided to lay down Marty at the next trip to London but, two days later, the Gestapo stormed the house and arrested him. After a brief resistance, a wounded and handcuffed d'Estienne d'Orves was brought to Angers, along with his companions.
Marty's treason allowed the Nazis to also arrest Barlier, Doornik and most of the network, totaling 26 persons. The small intelligence network created by Max André, however, was untouched, and continued its operations until the Liberation of Paris in August 1944. For several weeks, Gaessler sent false information to London and allowed the Nazis to arrest several other agents. He was evacuated by the Nazis to Austria, and disappeared in 1945.
Trial and death
On 24 January, the prisoners were sent to Berlin, then brought back to Paris, to the Cherche-Midi Prison. D'Estienne d'Orves was put under a particularly harsh treatment, yet managed to cheer up his fellow prisoners; the moral strength which he would find in his faith would later be testified to by German chaplain Franz Stock.
His trial began on 13 May. D'Estienne d'Orves claimed full responsibility of the network, defending his fellow prisoners. On the 23rd, a German court martial sentenced him to death, along with eight of his companions, and transferred them to the Fresnes Prison.
Acknowledging their patriotism, the court martial filed a request for grace immediately, and German legal advisor Keyser took it upon himself to make the trip to Berlin and request a grace for the prisoners from Hitler himself. But the invasion of USSR by the Third Reich, on 22 June 1941, forced the French Communists to join the Resistance and greatly increased the attacks against German forces, inducing a harshening of the repression. Hence, on 28 August, the execution order was given for d'Estienne d'Orves, Barlier and Doornik. The three were granted to spend their last night together, and to be shot standing and without a blindfold. They were blessed by Chaplain Franz Stock.
D'Estienne d'Orves had an interview with president Keyser, the German military judge who had sentenced him to death, where he said: "Sir, you are a German officer. I am a French officer. We both served our duty. Please allow me to hug you".
The execution took place on 29 August 1941, at dawn, at the Fort du Mont Valérien. Honoré d'Estienne d'Orves was buried in Verrières-le-Buisson.
A German poster advertised their death. A number of people joined the Resistance as a consequence of this execution.
Honours and awards
- Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur
- Compagnon de la Libération by decree of 30 October 1944
- Officer of Ouissam Alaouite
- Officer of the Romanian Pour la couronne order
- Officer of the Bulgarian Military Merit
- Knight of the Chinese order of the Golden Ear
- Two ships of the French Navy have been named in his honour:
- A square in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, Place d’Estienne d'Orves, is named after him, which in turn gives his name to a station of the Paris Métro Line 12,: Trinité-d'Estienne d'Orves
- A high-school in Nice is named after him: Lycée Honoré d'Estienne d'Orves as well as an adjacent 15 hectare park.
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