Why Did Britain Invade French Madagascar in World War II?

January 7, 2021 Topic: History Region: Africa Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIBritainJapanMilitary HistoryMadagascar

Why Did Britain Invade French Madagascar in World War II?

British forces were compelled to invade the island off the coast of East Africa amid fears of a Japanese invasion.

Here's What You Need to Know: Churchill called the campaign for Madagascar “our first large-scale amphibious operation since the Dardanelles.”

“The first I saw of Madagascar and the last after adventurous months ashore was the eerie color of the soil,” a British novelist turned security sergeant would write a decade later. 

“It gave to the sky, the vegetation, and the people a strangeness, even a deathliness which still shadows my recollections of the island. For the soil and the dust which rose from it to cake our skins and clothes, our eyelids and nostrils was not brick-colored or terra cotta but the color of dried blood.”

Lying 240 miles off the southeast coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, at 226,658 square miles Madagascar ranks just behind Greenland, New Guinea, and Borneo in size among the world’s islands. But with a population in 1942 of just 3.4 million, it had one of the world’s smallest densities, five persons per square mile. Only 25,000 were French, the rest a mixture of African with ancient arrivals from Malaya and Polynesia dizzyingly divided into 18 sub-ethnic groups such as the Antandroy, the “people of the bush brambles,” and the Tsmimihety, the “people who do not cut their hair.”

Though discovered by Europeans in 1506, its French rulers did not bother to take possession until 1897. Under the rule of Vichy collaborators, the island was ignored and isolated for most of the war; however, events in the Pacific brought it briefly into the action.

When he heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor in his London headquarters, the leader of the Free French, General Charles de Gaulle, asked an aide what he thought the consequences would be for France.

“The Indian Ocean becomes a major theater of operations, and Madagascar suddenly takes on strategic importance. The Japanese will try to seize it,” the aide astutely answered.

In Japanese hands, the magnificent harbor of Diego Suarez at the northeast tip of the island and the naval base a mile to the south at Antisare could choke off Allied supply lines to India and Egypt. De Gaulle appealed to the Allies to take Madagascar, but British Prime Minister Winston Churchill vetoed the idea. “Our hands are too full,” he cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and told his chief of staff, “Madagascar must still have low priority.”

But then the Japanese captured Singapore and Burma. They landed on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal. With Ceylon threatened, the British war cabinet decided on July 12, 1942, to seize only Diego Suarez rather than all of Madagascar.

“The rest of the enormous island was of less strategic importance,” Churchill later explained. “With the memories of Dakar in our mind, we could not complicate the operation by admitting the Free French. The decision was taken for a purely British expedition.”

Churchill called the campaign for Madagascar “our first large-scale amphibious operation since the Dardanelles.” Operation Ironclad got underway just 12 nights later, winter clothing seen loaded amid rumors of a commando operation against occupied Norway. Rear Admiral Neville Syfret commanded the aircraft carriers Illustriousand Indomitable,the battleship Ramillies,a pair of cruisers, nine destroyers, six corvettes, and an equal number of minesweepers. Maj. Gen. Robert Sturges commanded 13,000 troops.

“It was the nearest I would come to realizing a conception of ‘adventure,’” Sergeant Rupert Croft-Cooke later wrote. He had already had his share of extraordinary experiences, working in a circus, traveling with a horse-drawn gypsy caravan, and wandering Europe in an old bus. The writer was now heading for the strangest of all.

The convoy rounded the Cape of Good Hope, spent five days docked in Durban, South Africa, to load supplies, then headed north into the Mozambique Channel separating Madagascar from the African mainland.

Facing the British would be 8,000 unenthusiastic local conscripts along with Foreign Legionnaires and tough Senegalese soldiers from West Africa. “We were told in a whisper that we had agents ashore keeping us informed of every defensive measure of the enemy,” Croft-Cooke wrote. The top British agent on Madagascar since November 1940 was Percy Mayer, a businessman whose work took him all over the island, while his wife, much admired in what passed for society with her looks and piano playing, tapped out his messages to Durban in their bathroom.

“But,” Croft-Cooke recalled, “when the last night came and we realized that in the small hours, the landing would start, the prospect, viewed in the tropical sunlight, suddenly seemed forlorn, uncertain of success, exceedingly dangerous.”

The campaign for Madagascar opened at 4:40 amon May 5, 1942, with the attack at Diego Suarez.

Fairey Swordfish and Albacore aircraft from the carriers bombed shipping at anchor in the harbor and destroyed most of Vichy’s 30 aircraft on the ground, while the fleet shelled the town and paratroopers descended. 

Caught in town, Percy Mayer rushed from his hotel room into the street. Unluckily for him, he ran right into a Vichy patrol. When he was searched, secret messages were located on him. He quickly found himself in a cell at Antisare’s naval base, told he would be summarily executed, and was at least offered a priest.

Only the air strikes had been real. The naval bombardment had been star shells and signal rockets, light instead of heat, the “paratroopers” merely dummies. The real attack was taking place on the island’s western side, at Courier Bay and Ambarata.

“Firing at night is not to be contemplated, the entrance to the bay being considered impossible,” a French staff report confidently concluded. Royal Navy minesweepers were nonetheless able to skillfully navigate the shoals, reefs, and mines and then drop buoys for the troopships to follow.

Commandos and East Lancashire regulars proceeded to scale the 50-foot cliff overlooking Courier Bay. “We moved up to a gun position which we could see clearly in the moonlight,” a Royal Artillery captain serving as a forward observer related. “Strangely enough, all was quiet and deserted, no sentries were posted, and no sign of life of at all. As dawn broke, we saw some buildings and went in to investigate. There we found the gunners all in bed.”

There was little initial opposition. “In sweltering heat, loaded like pack mules with ammo and grenades, we marched against a hot wind across the 8-mile isthmus to Diego Suarez,” one Commando remembered. When the Commandos and the Lancashire troops reached Diego Suarez at 4:30 pmthey finally met bitter resistance.

 Sergeant Rupert Croft-Cooke and the 29th Independent Brigade, in the meantime, had come ashore at Ambarate. He dragged his motorcycle to shore, kicked it to life, then joined the advance up the single, dusty road 21 miles east toward Antisare. “There was no sound of firing, no glimpse of the enemy,” he wrote. “Ten miles or more distance were covered before we saw anything but red earth and florid vegetation.”

 “Soon after noon, the battle started,” he continued. He had been traveling 20 yards behind the Bren carrier that the 29th’s commander, Brigadier Fredrick Festing, was riding in. Known as Frontline Frankie, he was, as usual, hundreds of yards ahead of the column when firing suddenly broke out. The British rushed to cover behind the roadside trees and bushes. After five minutes, one of a half-dozen supporting Valentine tanks clanked up. As he walked toward it, Festing saw Croft-Cooke and yelled, “Been fired on much, sergeant?”

“No sir, not at all.”

“I’ve got to speak to that tank,” Festing said and started whacking the turret with his walking stick. More irritated than impressed, Croft-Cooke rode back down the road to rejoin his security section.

Festing drove the Vichy defenders back with armor, then a bayonet charge. Hours later, descending a hill and coming to a bridge across a stream, the British vanguard came upon a dilapidated corrugated iron building with a sign that said “Robinson’s Hotel.”

It was actually a store. “In every village of Madagascar, we afterward learned, there was a Chinaman’s store, usually a tin shanty,” Croft-Cooke recalled. It was quickly taken over as field headquarters for Festing and Sturges, with Croft-Cooke in charge of the guard detail. All the while, the ancient Chinese proprietor served tea, chattering in his unique brand of French.

Three miles from Antisare, the surprised British ran into a network of pillboxes and trenches the Vichy soldiers called the Joffre Line. Percy Mayer, still sweating out his appointment with the firing squad, had reported on it, but the information had never reached Sturges.

“The firing was now intense and from all sides,” Croft-Cooke related. “Our own artillery and the French 75s were audible in the universal racket of mortars, machine-gun and rifle fire.” Festing threw in his armor, only to have it stopped by a 2,000-yard-long antitank ditch. The last four of the Valentines and two of the six light Tetrarch tanks making up the rest of the operation’s armor were knocked out by artillery fire. Their crews leaped out and fought Senegalese soldiers hand to hand to reach safety. Festing recommended Captain Peter Palmer, killed trying to save his wounded driver, for what would have produced the campaign’s only Victoria Cross, but he was instead awarded the Military Cross.