Battle of Madagascar
The Battle of Madagascar was the British campaign to capture the Vichy French-controlled island Madagascar during World War II. The seizure of the island by the British was to deny Madagascar's ports to the Imperial Japanese Navy and to prevent the loss or impairment of the Allied shipping routes to India, Australia and Southeast Asia. It began with Operation Ironclad, the seizure of the port of Diego-Suarez (now Antsiranana) near the northern tip of the island, on 5 May 1942.
A subsequent campaign to secure the entire island, Operation Stream Line Jane, was opened on 10 September. The Allies broke into the interior linking up with forces on the coast and secured the island by the end of October. Fighting ceased and an armistice was granted on 6 November. This was the first large-scale operation by the Allies of World War II combining sea, land and air forces. Historian John Grehan has claimed that the British seizure of Madagascar before it could fall into Japanese hands was so crucial in the context of the war that it lead to Japan's eventual downfall and defeat.
Diego-Suarez is a large bay with a fine harbour near the northern tip of the island of Madagascar and has an opening to the east through a narrow channel called Oronjia Pass. The naval base of Diego-Suarez lies on a peninsula between two of the four small bays enclosed within Diego-Suarez Bay. Diego-Suarez Bay cuts deeply into the northern tip of Madagascar (Cape Amber), almost severing it from the rest of the island.:133 In the 1880s, the bay was coveted by France, which claimed it as a coaling station for steamships travelling to French possessions farther east. The colonization was formalized after the first Franco-Hova War when Queen Ranavalona III signed a treaty on 17 December 1885 giving France a protectorate over the bay and surrounding territory, as well as the islands of Nosy Be and St. Marie de Madagascar. The colony's administration was subsumed into that of French Madagascar in 1897.
Following the Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia east of Burma by the end of February 1942, submarines of the Imperial Japanese Navy were moving freely throughout the north and eastern expanses of the Indian Ocean. In March 1942, Japanese aircraft carriers conducted the Indian Ocean raid upon shipping in the Bay of Bengal and bases in Colombo and Trincomalee in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). This raid drove the British Eastern Fleet out of the area and they were forced to relocate to a new base at Kilindini, near Mombasa, in Kenya.
The move made the British fleet more vulnerable to attack. The possibility of Japanese naval forces using forward bases in Madagascar had to be addressed. The potential use of these facilities particularly threatened Allied merchant shipping, the supply route to the British Eighth Army and also the Eastern Fleet.
Japanese submarines had the longest range of any Axis forces' subs at the time – more than 10,000 miles (16,000 km) in some cases, but being challenged by the United States Navy's then-relatively new Gato-class fleet submarines' 11,000 nautical miles (20,000 km) top range figures. If the Imperial Japanese Navy's submarines were able to utilise bases on Madagascar, Allied lines of communication would be affected across a region stretching from the Pacific and Australia, to the Middle East and as far as the South Atlantic.
On 17 December 1941, Vice Admiral Fricke, Chief of Staff of Germany's Maritime Warfare Command (Seekriegsleitung), met Vice Admiral Naokuni Nomura, the Japanese Naval Attaché, in Berlin to discuss the delimitation of respective operational areas between the German Kriegsmarine and Imperial Japanese Navy forces. At another meeting on 27 March 1942, Fricke stressed the importance of the Indian Ocean to the Axis powers and expressed the desire that the Japanese begin operations against the northern Indian Ocean sea routes. Fricke further emphasized that Ceylon, the Seychelles, and Madagascar should have a higher priority for the Axis navies than operations against Australia.:116 By 8 April, the Japanese announced to Fricke that they intended to commit four or five submarines and two auxiliary cruisers for operations in the western Indian Ocean between Aden and the Cape of Good Hope, but they refused to disclose their plans for operations against Madagascar and Ceylon, only reiterating their commitment to operations in the area.:117
The Allies had heard the rumours of Japanese plans for the Indian Ocean and on 27 November 1941, the British Chiefs of Staff discussed the possibility that the Vichy government might cede the whole of Madagascar to Japan, or alternatively permit the Japanese Navy to establish bases on the island. British naval advisors urged the occupation of the island as a precautionary measure.:131 On 16 December, General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French in London, sent a letter to the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in which he also urged a Free French operation against Madagascar.:223 Churchill recognised the risk of a Japanese-controlled Madagascar to Indian Ocean shipping, particularly to the important sea route to India and Ceylon, and considered the port of Diego-Suarez as the strategic key to Japanese influence in the Indian Ocean. However, he also made it clear to planners that he did not feel Britain had the resources to mount such an operation and, following experience in the Battle of Dakar in September 1940, did not want a joint operation launched by British and Free French forces to secure the island.:223
By 12 March 1942, Churchill had been convinced of the importance of such an operation and the decision was reached that the planning of the invasion of Madagascar would begin in earnest. It was agreed that the Free French would be explicitly excluded from the operation. As a preliminary battle outline, Churchill gave the following guidelines to the planners:225 and the operation was designated Operation Bonus::225
- Force H, the ships guarding the Western Mediterranean, should move south from Gibraltar and should be replaced by an American Task Force
- The 4,000 men and ships proposed by Lord Mountbatten for the operation, should be retained as the nucleus around which the plan should be built
- The operation should commence around 30 April 1942
- In the event of success, the commandos recommended by Mountbatten should be replaced by garrison troops as soon as possible:225
On 14 March, Force 121 was constituted under the command of Major-General Robert Sturges of the Royal Marines with Rear-Admiral Edward Syfret being placed in command of naval Force H and the supporting sea force.:132
Force 121 left the Clyde in Scotland on 23 March and joined with South African-born Syfret's ships at Freetown in Sierra Leone, proceeding from there in two convoys to their assembly point at Durban on the South African east coast. Here they were joined by the 13th Brigade Group of the 5th Division – General Sturges' force consisting of three infantry brigades, while Syfret's squadron consisted of the flag battleship HMS Ramillies, the aircraft carriers HMS Illustrious and HMS Indomitable, the cruisers HMS Hermione and HMS Devonshire, eleven destroyers, six minesweepers, six corvettes and auxiliaries. It was a formidable force to bring against the 8,000 men (mostly Malagasy) at Diego-Suarez, but the chiefs of staff were adamant that the operation was to succeed, preferably without any fighting.:132
During the assembly in Durban, Field-Marshal Jan Smuts pointed out that the mere seizure of Diego-Suarez would be no guarantee against continuing Japanese aggression and urged that the ports of Majunga and Tamatave be occupied as well. This was evaluated by the chiefs of staff, but it was decided to retain Diego-Suarez as the only objective due to the lack of manpower.:132 Churchill remarked that the only way to permanently secure Madagascar was by means of a strong fleet and adequate air support operating from Ceylon and sent General Archibald Wavell (India Command) a note stating that as soon as the initial objectives had been met, all responsibility for safeguarding Madagascar would be passed on to Wavell. He added that when the commandos were withdrawn, garrison duties would be performed by two African brigades and one brigade from the Belgian Congo or west coast of Africa.:231
In March and April, the South African Air Force (SAAF) had conducted reconnaissance flights over Diego-Suarez and No. 32, 36 and 37 Coastal Flights were withdrawn from maritime patrol operations and sent to Lindi on the Indian Ocean coast of Tanganyika, with an additional eleven Bristol Beauforts and six Martin Marylands to provide close air support during the planned operations.:133
Allied commanders decided to launch an amphibious assault on Madagascar. The task was Operation Ironclad and executed by Force 121. It would include Allied naval, land and air forces and be commanded by Major-General Robert Sturges of the Royal Marines. The British Army landing force included the 29th Independent Infantry Brigade Group, No 5 (Army) Commando, and two brigades of the 5th Infantry Division, the latter en route to India with the remainder of their division. The Allied naval contingent consisted of over 50 vessels, drawn from Force H, the British Home Fleet and the British Eastern Fleet, commanded by Syfret. The fleet included the aircraft carrier Illustrious, her sister ship Indomitable and the ageing battleship Ramillies to cover the landings.
Landings (Operation Ironclad)
Following many reconnaissance missions by the SAAF, the first wave of the British 29th Infantry Brigade and No. 5 Commando landed in assault craft on 5 May 1942. Follow-up waves were by two brigades of the 5th Infantry Division and Royal Marines. All were carried ashore by landing craft to Courrier Bay and Ambararata Bay, just west of the major port of Diego-Suarez, at the northern tip of Madagascar. A diversionary attack was staged to the east. Air cover was provided mainly by Fairey Albacore and Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers which attacked Vichy shipping. They were supported by Grumman Martlets fighters from the Fleet Air Arm. A small number of SAAF planes assisted.
The defending Vichy forces, led by Governor General Armand Léon Annet, included about 8,000 troops, of whom about 6,000 were Malagasy tirailleurs (colonial infantry). A large proportion of the rest were Senegalese. Between 1,500 and 3,000 Vichy troops were concentrated around Diego-Suarez. However, naval and air defences were relatively light and/or obsolete: eight coastal batteries, two armed merchant cruisers, two sloops, five submarines, 17 Morane-Saulnier 406 fighters and 10 Potez 63 bombers.
The beach landings met with virtually no resistance and these troops seized Vichy coastal batteries and barracks. The Courier Bay force, the 17th Infantry Brigade, after toiling through mangrove swamp and thick bush took the town of Diego-Suarez taking a hundred prisoners. The Ambararata Bay force, the 29th Independent Brigade, headed towards the French naval base of Antisarane. With assistance from six Valentines and six Tetrarch light tanks of B Special Service Squadron they advanced 21 miles overcoming light resistance with bayonet charges. Antisarane itself was heavily defended with trenches, two redoubts, pillboxes, and flanked on both sides by impenetrable swamps. Arrachart airfield was attacked, with five of the Morane fighters being destroyed and another two damaged, while two Potez-63s were also damaged. This attack effectively resulted in the Vichy air strength on the island being reduced by 25 per cent. Two Morane fighters did briefly appear and strafe beaches at Courier Bay, but two more Vichy aircraft would be lost on the first day.
On the morning of 6 May 1942 a frontal assault on the defences failed with the loss of three Valentines and two Tetrarchs. Three Vichy Potez 63s attempted to attack the beach landing points but were intercepted by British Martlets and two were shot down. Another assault by the South Lancashires worked their way around the Vichy defences but the swamps and bad terrain meant they were broken up into groups. Nevertheless, they swung behind the Vichy line and caused chaos. Fire was poured on the Vichy defences from behind and the radio station and a barracks were seized. In all 200 prisoners were taken, but the South Lancs had to withdraw as communication with the main force was nonexistent after the radio set failed. With the French defence highly effective, the deadlock was broken when the old destroyer HMS Anthony dashed straight past the harbour defences of Antisarane and landed fifty Royal Marines from Ramillies amidst the Vichy rear area. The marines created "disturbance in the town out of all proportion to their numbers" taking the French artillery command post along with its barracks and the naval depot. At the same time the troops of the 17th Infantry Brigade had broken through the defences and were soon marching in the town. The Vichy defence was broken and Antisarane surrendered that evening, although substantial Vichy forces withdrew to the south. On 7 June, British Martlets encountered three Morane French fighters, with one Martlet being shot down. All three of the French fighters were then shot down, meaning that by the third day of the attack, twelve Moranes and five Potez 63s had been destroyed out of a total of 35 Vichy aircraft on the entire island. A further three Potez bombers were destroyed on the ground during a raid on Majunga on 15 May.
The Japanese submarines I-10, I-16, and I-20 arrived three weeks later on 29 May 1942. I-10's reconnaissance plane spotted HMS Ramillies at anchor in Diego-Suarez harbour, but the plane was spotted and Ramillies changed her berth. I-20 and I-16 launched two midget submarines, one of which managed to enter the harbour and fired two torpedoes while under depth charge attack from two corvettes. One torpedo seriously damaged Ramillies, while the second sank the 6,993-ton oil tanker British Loyalty (later refloated). Ramillies was later repaired in Durban and Plymouth.
The crew of one of the midget submarines, Lieutenant Saburo Akieda and Petty Officer Masami Takemoto, beached their craft (M-20b) at Nosy Antalikely and moved inland towards their pick-up point near Cape Amber. They were betrayed when they bought food at the village of Anijabe and both were killed in a firefight with Royal Marines three days later. One marine was killed in the action as well. The second midget submarine was lost at sea and the body of a crewman was found washed ashore a day later.
Ground campaign (Operation Stream Line Jane)
Hostilities continued at a low level for several months. After 19 May 1942 two brigades of the 5th Infantry Division were transferred to India. On 8 June 1942, the 22nd (East Africa) Brigade Group arrived on Madagascar The 7th South African Motorized Brigade arrived on 24 June 1942. The 27th (North Rhodesia) Infantry Brigade (including forces from East Africa) landed on 8 August. The Vichy governor of Madagascar Annet attempted to obtain reinforcements from the central Vichy government, particularly in terms of aircraft, but was unable to do so. By August, Vichy air strength on the island consisted of only four Morane fighters and three Potez-63s.
The operation code-named "Stream Line Jane" (sometimes given as "Streamline Jane") consisted of three separate sub-operations code-named Stream, Line and Jane. Stream and Jane were, respectively, the amphibious landings at Majunga on 10 September and Tamatave on 18 September, while Line was the advance from Majunga to the French capital, Tannanarive, which fell on 23 September.
On 10 September 1942 the 29th Brigade and 22nd Brigade Group made an amphibious landing at Majunga, another port on the west coast of the island. No. 5 Commando spearheaded the landing and faced machine gun fire but despite this they stormed the quayside, took control of the local post office, stormed the governor's residence and raised the Union Jack. Having severed communications with Tannanarive, the Allies intended to re-launch the offensive ahead of the rainy season. Progress was slow for the Allied forces. In addition to occasional small-scale clashes with Vichy forces, they also encountered scores of obstacles erected on the main roads by Vichy soldiers. The Allies eventually captured the capital, Tananarive, without much opposition, and then the town of Ambalavao, but the devoutly Vichy Governor Annet escaped.
Eight days later a British force set out to seize Tamatave. Heavy surf interfered with the operation. As HMS Birmingham's launch was heading to shore it was fired at by French shore batteries and promptly turned around. Birmingham then opened her guns up on the shores batteries and within three minutes the French hauled up the white flag. Tamatave fell into British hands. From there the South Lancashires and the Royal Welch Fusiliers set out to the south to link up with forces there. After they reached Tananarive they pressed on towards Moramanga and on 25 September 1942 they linked up with the King's African Rifles having secured the British lines of communication around the island. At the same time the East African infantry and South African armoured cars set out to find the elusive Governor Annet. The same day, a bombing raid was launched by South African Marylands on a Vichy-held fort in Fianarantsoa, the only major centre of population that was still in French hands and where the remainder of the Vichy aircraft were now based. On 6 October, a Morane fighter strafed British poitions near Antinchi, and on 8 October a British bombing raid on Ihosy airfield destroyed 4 Vichy aircraft.
The last major action took place on 18 October, at Andramanalina, a U-shaped valley with the meandering Mangarahara River where an ambush was planned for British forces by Vichy troops. The King's African Rifles split into two columns and marched around the 'U' of the valley and met Vichy troops in the rear and then ambushed them. The Vichy troops suffered heavy losses which resulted in 800 of them surrendering. A single Morane fighter was operational until 21 September, and even strafed South African troops, but by 21 September the only serviceable aircraft the Vichy forces had was a Salmson Phrygane transport aircraft. On 25 October the King's African Rifles entered Fianarantsoa but found Annet gone, this time near Ihosy 100 miles south. The Africans swiftly moved after him, but they received an envoy from Annet asking for terms of surrender. He had had enough and couldn't escape further. An armistice was signed in Ambalavao on 6 November 1942, and Annet surrendered two days later.
The Allies suffered about 500 casualties in the landing at Diego-Suarez, and 30 more killed and 90 wounded in the operations which followed on 10 September 1942.
Julian Jackson, in his biography of de Gaulle, observed that the French had held out longer against the Allies in Madagascar in 1942 than they had against the Germans in France in 1940.
With Madagascar in Allied hands, they established military and naval installations across the island. The island was crucial for the rest of the war. Its deep water ports were vital to control the passageway to India and the Persian corridor, and this was now beyond the grasp of the Axis. This was the first large-scale operation of World War II by the Allies combining sea, land, and air forces. In the makeshift Allied planning of the war's early years, the invasion of Madagascar held a prominent strategic place.
Free French General Paul Legentilhomme was appointed High Commissioner for Madagascar. Like many colonies, Madagascar sought its independence following the war. In 1947, the island experienced the Malagasy Uprising, a costly revolution that was crushed in 1948. It was not until 26 June 1960, about twelve years later, that the Malagasy Republic successfully proclaimed its independence from France.
Order of battle
- HMS Ramillies
- Aircraft Carriers
- HMS Illustrious
- HMS Indomitable
- HMS Birmingham
- HMS Dauntless
- HMS Gambia
- HMS Hermione
- HMS Devonshire
- HNLMS Jacob van Heemskerck
- HMS Manxman
- HMS Erebus
- Seaplane Carrier
- HMS Albatross
- HMS Active
- HMS Anthony
- HMS Arrow
- HMS Blackmore
- HMS Duncan
- HMS Fortune
- HMS Foxhound
- HMS Inconstant
- HMS Hotspur
- HMS Javelin
- HMS Laforey
- HMS Lightning
- HMS Lookout
- HMAS Napier
- HMAS Nepal
- HMAS Nizam
- HMAS Norman
- HMS Pakenham
- HMS Paladin
- HMS Panther
- HNLMS Van Galen
- HNLMS Tjerk Hiddes
- HMS Freesia
- HMS Auricula
- HMS Nigella
- HMS Fritillary
- HMS Genista
- HMS Cyclamen
- HMS Thyme
- HMS Jasmine
- HMS Cromer
- HMS Poole
- HMS Romney
- HMS Cromarty
- Assault transports
- HMS Winchester Castle
- HMS Royal Ulsterman
- HMS Keren
- HMS Karanja
- MS Sobieski (Polish)
- Special ships
- HMS Derwentdale (LCA)
- HMS Bachaquero (LST)
- Troop ships
- SS Oronsay
- RMS Duchess of Atholl
- RMS Franconia
- Stores and MT ships
- SS Empire Kingsley
- M/S Thalatta
- SS Mahout
- SS City of Hong Kong
- SS Mairnbank
- SS Martand II
- 29th Infantry Brigade (independent) arrived via amphibious landing near Diego-Suarez on 5 May 1942
- 2nd South Lancashire Regiment
- 2nd East Lancashire Regiment
- 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers
- 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers
- 455th Light Battery (Royal Artillery)
- MG company
- 'B' Special Service Squadron with 6 Valentine and 6 Tetrarch tanks
- Commandos arrived via amphibious landing near Diego-Suarez on 5 May 1942
- No. 5 Commando
- British 17th Infantry Brigade Group (of 5th Division) landed near Diego-Suarez as second wave on 5 May 1942
- 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers
- 2nd Northamptonshire Regiment
- 6th Seaforth Highlanders
- 9th Field Regiment (Royal Artillery)
- British 13th Infantry Brigade (of 5th Division) landed near Diego-Suarez as third wave on 6 May 1942. Departed 19 May 1942 for India
- 2nd Cameronians
- 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
- 2nd Wiltshire Regiment
- East African Brigade Group arrived 22 June to replace 13 and 17 Brigades
- South African 7th Motorised Brigade
- Rhodesian 27th Infantry Brigade arrived 8 August 1942; departed 29 June 1944
- 2nd Northern Rhodesia Regiment
- 3rd Northern Rhodesia Regiment
- 4th Northern Rhodesia Regiment
- 55th (Tanganyika) Light Battery
- 57th (East African) Field Battery
Fleet Air Arm
- Aboard HMS Illustrious
- 881 Squadron - 12 Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat (Martlet Mk.II)
- 882 Squadron - 8 Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat (Martlet Mk.II) 1 Fairey Fulmar
- 810 Squadron - 10 Fairey Swordfish
- 829 Squadron - 10 Fairey Swordfish
- Aboard HMS Indomitable
- 800 Squadron - 8 Fairey Fulmar
- 806 Squadron - 4 Fairey Fulmar
- 880 Squadron - 6 Hawker Sea Hurricane Mk IA
- 827 Squadron - 12 Fairey Albacore
- 831 Squadron - 12 Fairey Albacore
The following order of battle represents the Malagasy and Vichy French forces on the island directly after the initial Ironclad landings.
- West coast
- Two platoons of reservists and volunteers at Nossi-Bé
- Two companies of the Régiment mixte malgache (RMM – Mixed Madagascar Regiment) at Ambanja
- One battalion of the 1er RMM at Majunga
- East coast
- One battalion of the 1er RMM at Tamatave
- One artillery section (65mm) at Tamatave
- One company of the 1er RMM at Brickaville
- Centre of the island
- Three battalions of the 1er RMM at Tananarive
- One motorised reconnaissance detachment at Tananarive
- Emyrne battery at Tananarive
- One artillery section (65mm) at Tananarive
- One engineer company at Tananarive
- One company of the 1er RMM at Mevatanana
- One company of the Bataillon de tirailleurs malgaches (BTM - Malagasy Tirailleurs Battalion) at Fianarantsoa
- South of the island
- One company of the BTM at Fort Dauphin
- One company of the BTM at Tuléar
- Submarines I-10 (with reconnaissance aircraft), I-16, I-18 (damaged by heavy seas and arrived late), I-20
- Midget submarines M-16b, M-20b
- Rigge pp 103-04
- Wessels 1996.
- Stapleton, Timothy J. A Military History of Africa p. 225
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